Countless hours and words have been dedicated to pairing wine with food, as chefs, sommeliers and enthusiasts explore the synergies created between dish and drink. But pairings go beyond this popular duo, with thoughtful combinations of food and beer, spirits or cocktails working in harmony to unlock flavors beyond what can be experienced on their own. That practice can also be applied to cigars and spirits, which — when enjoyed together — produce a whole beyond the sum of their parts, bringing out the best of each and providing the open-minded smoker with a trove of new flavors and textures.
Pairing cigars with spirits is nothing new. People have been enjoying a stiff drink with their stogies for centuries, but often the combination is an afterthought, as many smokers reach for their favorite scotch or bourbon and call it a day. There’s nothing wrong with that. By all means, drink what you like, and certain spirits — including scotch, bourbon, brandy and rum — are preternaturally suited to complement a good cigar. But there are still a few best practices to keep in mind in order to get the most out of both.
Consider Body, Color and Strength
Spirits and cigars are both prized for not only their flavors, but also their textures and vigor. A full-bodied cigar tends to pair well with a richer whiskey or a dark rum, while a milder cigar is often better suited to a lighter spirit, like an Irish whiskey or calvados. An easy tip is to pair darker cigars with heavier spirits. While not always a perfect indicator of robustness, darker cigars (think Maduros and Oscuros) tend to be heavier, similar to how darker beers and inkier wines have more heft and depth.
Much of a cigar’s character comes from the wrapper. Claro, or shade-grown cigars such as those with Connecticut Shade or Ecuadoran Sumatra wrappers have a lighter color and typically milder flavor. Maduro and Oscuro cigars are wrapped in aged tobacco leaves that have gone through high-heat, high humidity fermentation. This deepens the color of the wrapper, while bringing out sweeter and richer notes, which might include hints of caramel, coffee, chocolate and spice.
Pair Complementary Flavors, or Opt for Contrasting Styles
Red wine with steak is a classic for a reason, but it’s not the only pairing that works. Lighter reds, bolder whites and even champagne can help to cut through a steak’s richness. The same principle applies to cigars. Because while peaty scotch and an earthy cigar are compatible pairs, and lively brandies are a fine choice when smoking a Maduro cigar with sweeter or “fruitier,” raisin-y notes, sometimes it’s the contrast that creates the most interesting pairings. So, if you’re up for an experiment, try pairing a spicy, earthy cigar with a sweet spirit or even a fortified wine, like port or Madeira. The interplay between contrasting nuances and textures might surprise you.
When in doubt, smoke what you like, drink what you like, and aim for balance. As long as one doesn’t dramatically overpower the other, you’re well positioned to enjoy your cigar and your drink on their own while appreciating how they work together.