I have been smoking cigars without thinking how they would pair for much longer than I have been pairing. It was in 2017 when I happened on a pairing that opened my eyes to the world of pairing cigars. I was sitting at my local cigar lounge, which happened to have a bar, sipping on a Lagavulin and smoking a Nicaraguan boutique cigar. While I don’t remember the details of the pairing, I do recall that they both compliment each other in body and profile. I remember talking to the bar manager, who was also the humidor manager, about how well the two went together, and she mentioned that the pairing was one of her favorites.
Much like pairing wine with food, pairing cigars with your drink or food has the opportunity to enhance the experience. The marrying of flavors through contrast, complementary, or balance pairings, can take your experience of that pairing to the next level. However, before we approach that level, we must first understand the base level of pairings.
In the Beginning
Pairing cigars begins with matching up a cigar’s boldness or intensity level to that of the drink. Now when you are talking to a tobacconist or reading a review, you won’t see those terms used; however, what you will see is the term strength or body. For the rest of this article, we will use the term body, and the discussion of terms will be for another day.
When pairing a wine with a steak, you will generally choose a full-bodied red wine, so the steak doesn’t overpower the wine. This applies to pairing cigars with your drink, where you will want to select a full-bodied cigar to pair with your smokey Scotch. You want them to match each other in the overall body where one does not overpower the other. Generally, you will not want to pair a Rye whiskey with a light to medium-bodied cigar. Otherwise, you would lose the cigar’s flavors to the whiskey.
Another way to begin your pairings would be to pair a cigar’s general flavor profile to your drink’s. If you are unaware of a cigar’s flavor profile, you can always read a review or talk to your tobacconist. For example, a cigar from the Dominican Republic will generally have more earthy, grassy-type notes. These cigars pair nicely with your IPAs, Highland or Speyside Scotches, or white wines such as a Sauvignon Blanc.
You can also consider pairing your cigar with a drink specific to that region; keep in mind, however, that this can lead to some unpleasant pairings, but in general, it can be a good starting point.
Below are a few pairings to get you started.
Bourbon: Medium-Full to Full bodied cigars, focus on cigars from Nicaragua, Honduras, and Mexico
Scotch: For Highlands and Speyside, these regions of Scotches go great with medium-bodied cigars from Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic, whereas Islay Scotches stick with full-bodied cigars from Nicaragua.
Full-bodied Red: Look for full-bodied cigars from any region but most specifically the United States, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Brazil.
Light to medium-bodied Red: These wines go best with medium-bodied cigars from Honduras, Brazil, Ecuador, the United States, and the Jalapa region of Nicaragua.
White: Look for light to medium-bodied cigars from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and the United States.
Rum goes great with most cigars; when pairing with Rum, I look for one from the same region where the cigar tobacco is from.
To the Next Level
Before we step into the next level, I feel I must warn you. This will be a journey for those who want the ultimate cigar pairing experience and require patience, practice, and endurance. Why endurance? Well, that is because you will be trying many different pairings, what we like to describe as #explorethepairings in Leaf N Grain Society. Endurance will be required because there will be times when your palate will be worn out, and you will need to take a break so that your palate can have time to recover. You will need patience while your palate matures; you will likely get frustrated along this journey as your palate grows. You will need to practice, which is the most challenging because the practice requires you to try a lot of cigars, whiskeys, wines, and their combinations. Again, as we say, explore the pairings.
Still with me? Well, let the journey begin. You will need thirty different cigars, a tasting notes wheel, a journal, water, and a minimum of one to two hours each day of uninterrupted time. Over the next thirty days, you will smoke a cigar and take notes on what you are tasting throughout the smoke. Please do not rush through it; take your time, and let your mind travel through memories of events, foods, and sensations. Each time a memory comes to you, look down at the tasting note wheel and see what major grouping you are drawn to. Is it the memory of a time when you were camping with friends or family? Maybe you are tasting earthy notes. Or perhaps your memory is of a desert your grandmother made when you were a child? You could be tasting a type of fruit. Whatever the memory is, write them down in your journal. Ensure that your journal also has the name and manufacturer of the cigar, region, blend, and date of the journal entry. When you are done smoking the cigar, note whether you enjoyed it or not and the associated reasons. When you are done with the thirty-day journey, take a moment and look back through your journal, note which cigars you enjoyed and which you didn’t. Were there standard notes for each? Choose five cigars that you enjoyed because we are about to take a step into phase two of this journey.
Have your five cigars chosen? Good, you will need five of each of those cigars and an assortment of drinks. Try to select a couple of different whiskeys, beer, wine, and coffee styles. Over the next twenty-five days, repeat the same process as before, except this time, choose a drink to pair with it. Pay attention to how the drink changes the notes of the cigar and how the cigar will impact the notes of the drink. Journal these changes along with the notes that you are getting from each. You may find that the cigar is no longer enjoyable when paired with a specific drink. If you do, take note of that, and try to smoke the cigar through that third to see if it improves. If so, take note of how it has changed and which third of the cigar you were in, and finish the pairing. If it doesn’t, you can change drinks or just finish the cigar, but be sure to cleanse your palate with water before continuing.
When you have completed this phase of your journey, know that you have just started. Start building your inventory of cigars and trying different cigars each time you sit down to grow your palate and explore your pairings. This is where the practice and patience for yourself in your journey come into play. For some, it will take time to start noticing specific notes. Others will begin picking up on notes from different blends from the same region, while others again, may be able to start picking up on some of the nuance notes that regions may be known for. If you are persistent in your practice, you will begin noticing notes from your cigar specific to a region and a type of leaf in the wrapper from that region. You will know that you have achieved the next level of cigar pairing when you are able to choose a pairing that marries the flavors from a cigar blend to a specific type of drink.
If you’ve made it this far with me on this journey, I welcome you. There are plenty of pairings to explore, blends of cigars to enjoy, whiskeys to sip, and wines to drink. The combinations are endless, so I encourage you always to explore the pairings because there is something for everyone.