The Fine Art of Matching Cigars and Whisky
Looking for that Dram good match with your favorite stogie? Here are a few tips to guide you in your pursuit of the perfect pairing.
Begin with the wrapper, a cigar's most visible characteristic
A cigar is constructed of several types of tobacco leaves, filler tobacco held together with binder tobacco, and covered with wrapper leaf. And though the experience of smoking a cigar is truly created by the sum of all of its parts, it is commonly regarded that the wrapper imparts 50-60% or more of the cigar's flavor.
In terms of flavor, the binder tobacco presents the least amount, as these tobaccos are selected for their elasticity and their ability to hold together the bunches of fillers, and not for their taste.
It is obvious when looking at a cigar, that besides the wrapper, the other major component is the filler. Fillers of various strengths are usually blended to produce desired cigar flavors. Many cigar manufacturers pride themselves in constructing the perfect blend that will give the smoker the most enjoyment. Fatter cigars of larger gauge hold more filler, with greater potential to provide a full body and complex flavor. However, this effect can be diminished because of the generally poorer burn characteristics of thicker cigars, and the fact that these cigars burn cooler. This can prevent the full spectrum of flavors from being easily detected. It is also difficult to identify the types of tobacco used for filler, as the only visible area is the small amount that is exposed at the foot of the cigar.
Therefore, in order to select a cigar for pairing, it is easier to begin based upon the most visible characteristic, and that is the wrapper. In the cigar world, there are over 100 wrapper shades identified by manufacturers, but the most common classifications are as follows, from lightest to darkest. We also include some specific tobacco types in the color classifications for their well known flavor characteristics.
Claro Claro / Double Claro or American Market Standard Wrappers (AMS)
A Double Claro is the lightest cigar wrapper color. It has a slightly greenish tint, a fresh leafy aroma and may be fire-cured. The light green color comes from the tobacco being picked early, before maturity, then being dried quickly. This ensures that the chlorophyll content of the leaves is retained, giving the wrapper its color. This wrapper has a mild quality and the taste of the binder and filler are discernible. Tastes associated with these wrappers typically include grass, cedar, and pepper with a little bit of sweetness. Once popular in the United States, they are out of favor with today's tastes due to their off-color and tendency to have a sour characteristic. They are also sometimes referred to as Candela or Jade.
Claro or English Market Standard Wrappers (EMS)
The English Market Standard has roots that go back to the 19th century and is the benchmark for most cigar wrappers manufactured today. The term English Market Selection refers to the designated quality for the UK market. It includes the wrapper colors Claro, Colorado and Natural (in ascending order from lighter to darker). Wrappers in this group are grown in Cuba, Cameroon and Connecticut.
Claro cigars are light tan or brown, and may have a yellowish or greenish tint. The color is achieved by growing the tobacco plants in a shaded location to full maturity. Claro wrappers have a smooth, noticeable taste of their own, are silky in texture, but do not disguise the flavor of the binder and filler tobaccos. Many fine Cuban cigars use this type of wrapper.
- Connecticut wrappers fall within this type. They are usually shade-grown from Connecticut seed either in the US, Honduras or Ecuador. Shade-grown refers to the process of being grown under giant sheets of cheesecloth, which keeps the leaves from being exposed to too much sunlight; this ensures that they have a milder flavor. Depending on how long they are aged, their tasting notes can include grass, cream, butter, black or white pepper, coffee, cedar, and many others. Many Connecticut wrappers give a cigar a spicy, ammoniac aroma, and this is due to the fact that tobacco leaves naturally contain a lot of ammonia. The aging process removes some of this ammonia, though lighter wrappers generally tend to be a bit peppery. Connecticut wrappers tend to have a bit more of a “dry” taste than darker wrappers, as they usually don’t have very high sugar content.
- Colorado Claro wrappers are darker than a Claro and typically have a reddish hue to them. Stronger than the Claro or Natural wrappers, they have similar flavor notes and sometimes a nutty, spiciness.
- A Colorado wrapper may also be called Rosado or Corojo, and has a reddish-brown color. The tobacco leaf is very aromatic and has an oily texture. The flavors from this wrapper range from earthy to coffee to vanilla, sweet and spicy flavor.
- Slightly confusing is that there is also a tobacco called Corojo, but in terms of wrapper color it would be considered a Colorado. Corojo tobacco was originally grown in the Vuelta Abajo region of Cuba, but many tobacco farmers took seed during their mass-exodus. Now Corojo tobacco is principally grown in the Jamastran region of Honduras. Corojo wrappers have a spicy robust taste with flavors of earth, leather, cocoa, cedar and black pepper. The wrapper leaves are very oily and reddish-brown, but can be dark enough to be mistaken for Maduro.
- Criollo tobacco also fits into this color range. Slightly milder than Corojo wrappers, flavors associated with Criollo wrappers are cocoa, bread, nuts, cedar and a bit of sweetness. They may also present a bit of pepper in the flavor profile. Criollo tobacco's use in cigars may date back as far as the late 1400's, but most leaves used at present are hybrid strains developed to be disease-resistant.
- Technically also a Colorado wrapper, a Rosado has a distinct reddish coloring. Rosado means “rosy” or “reddish” in Spanish. Extremely difficult to grow outside of Cuba, only a handful of companies produce this leaf, making Rosado cigars rare and highly sought after. Typically, these cigars are very spicy with notes of cedar, coffee, earth, and pepper.
The darkest of the EMS classification, the Natural wrapper is a light brown color, the natural color of tobacco grown in the full sun. Natural wrappers are typically a bit darker than Connecticut wrappers due to the fact that they are more mature when picked, and are sometimes not shade grown. These tend to be just a bit sweeter with a fuller spice profile and some additional notes of cedar, coffee, bread, and sometimes earth.Within this classification are also Sumatran, Cameroon and Habano tobacco wrappers.
- Sumatran wrappers originally were grown on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and typically carry a milder, more neutral flavor. They are dark brown and include cinnamon, earth, floral notes and a sweet aftertaste and aroma. Sumatran seed is also being grown in Honduras and Ecuador.
- Cameroon wrappers originated in Cameroon, Africa and are darker brown. Their leaves are recognizable by their grain or toothiness. Delicate and not very oily, these wrappers are rich tasting and very smooth with flavors of butter, toast, leather and pepper.
- Habano wrappers are seeing a recent rise in popularity. These leaves tend to be the darkest of the range bit, and are by far the spiciest. Habano refers not only to the fact that it’s generally grown from Cuban seed, but also to the fact that its spice level is comparable to that of a Cuban cigar. They can be grown in several countries, though a popular choice is Nicaragua, as the soil content there is conducive to producing some very strong leaves. Flavors include bread, intense spice, leather, cocoa, espresso, and cedar.
The Spanish word for “ripe”, Maduro is a very apt description for the darkest of the wrapper colors. Tobacco for these wrappers are typically sun-grown in Connecticut, Honduras, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Brazil. Though the wrapper is thick and veiny, a well crafted one will have a texture like velvet. Wrappers are also typically oily, exhibit an earthy scent and are very dark with rich, sweet flavors and aromas.There are several sub-categories of Maduro, as shown below:
- The Colorado Maduro wrapper is a dark brown wrapper still exhibiting a hint of red in it. The darker color comes from sun ripening. Like the regular Colorado this wrapper also has a full bodied flavor that offer up a tasty blend of flavors. This wrapper color is sometimes called Dark English Market Selection.
- The Maduro wrapper is very dark brown and is from time to time referred to as a Spanish Market Selection. The dark color comes from extra sun ripening and higher temperature fermentation. Due to this lengthy process Maduro cigars are somewhat rarer. The Maduro wrapper imparts a full bodied, rich and spicy, flavor. Tasting notes typically include dark chocolate, coffee, espresso, brown sugar, caramel, molasses, black pepper, dried fruit, and black cherry.
- The Oscuro wrapper is an oily black. It is processed much like the Maduro but carried out even further. In fact, it’s sometimes called a Double Maduro or Maduro Maduro. Flavors of Oscuro-wrapped cigars include many of the same ones as Maduro-wrapped, with a bit of added strength and sweetness.
Body is as critical as flavor when trying to determine a successful smoke and sip match.
Rich, full bodied cigars typically require a bold and mature spirit to ensure a good marriage. It is vital not to overwhelm the spirit with the cigar or vice versa. Look to medium bodied cigars as great partners for subtle more elegant drams. Mild and creamy brands tend to be more compatible with lighter, sweeter spirits.
Flavor matching is more serendipitous than scientific.
Just as each scotch expression unveils different notes from first sip to finish, a fine cigar goes through successive stages of flavor development from cold draw to final third. Spend a little time upfront with tasting notes to avoid a discouraging first experience. Then just experiment. While matching takes some patience, it becomes easier over time with a truly decadent experience as your ultimate reward.
Here are a couple of tips we can share from our experience.
- Bourbon and rum cask matured drams are the easiest to pair with cigars. Vanilla, oak and spices notes tend to find matching flavors with smokes of medium and dark wrapper varieties. A light whisky like the Bunnahabhain 12 year old goes well with a Davidoff Millenium Blend, but also can stand up to a Camacho Select 19th Anniversary. The Balvenie 17 year old Rum Cask is fabulous with a Casa Magna Colorado cigar perfectly defining the vanilla, caramel and spices in both cigar and whisky.
- Medium and dark wrapper cigars also complement Port, Madeira and Bordeaux cask finished single malts, working well with those rich deep dried fruit flavors. The Balvenie 21 year old Portwood and the Ashton VSG are a luxurious combination of earthy, spicy, chocolately flavors. While the Bruichladdich Chateaux Haut-Brion dazzles with a La Aurora Serie 107 Anniversario.
- Sherried drams are often difficult to pair due to the wide variety of flavors and propensity to be very fruity. Look for the darker sherried malts to pair well with dark wrapper cigars. Generally the darker malts go with dark wrapper cigars such as a Glenfarclas 17 year old with a Joya de Nicaragua Antono 1970. A whisky like Auchentoshan 21 year old can easily match the complex flavors of a Partagas Benji Menendez cigar. A lighter whisky like a Glenmorangie Nectar d'Or does well with a lighter cigar like a Rocky Patel Vintage 1999.
- Peaty drams require a strong cigar, such as a maduro to stand up to the power of these whiskies. Maduros typically pull forward more of the creamy, vanilla, chocolate and coffee flavors present in the malt plus the smoke is denser due to the oilier wrapping leaves. Try the classic Ardbeg Uigeadail with a cigar like the Joya de Nicaragua Antano 1970 or an Alec Bradley Prensado to see how this works.
- Briny, medicinal spirits are the hardest to flavor match based on wrapper alone. A peppery cigar often proves to be a good alternate choice. Talisker 10 year old is easily matched with an Ashton San Cristobal or CAO Brazilia Lambada. But in contrast, Lagavulin 16 year old is an amazing partner with a Padron 1964 Anniversary Maduro.
It all comes down to personal preference and palate. A basic understanding of the flavors associated with cigars and single malts will go a long way to making your experimentation more successful. Use this guide but don't be afraid to try something new.
Most of all enjoy the journey!
Illustration 1: Cigar Wrapper Color Chart by RMR Cigar
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