Smoke On The Water

Smoke On The Water

Whatever happened to the whisky & cigar pairing?

Whisky & Culture | 27 Jan 2017 | Issue 141 | By Christopher Coates

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It's safe to say that whisky pairing is in vogue. These days, it seems there's nothing that can't be served alongside a nip. Beer, cheese, shellfish, chocolate, coffee, the humble bacon roll, and even music are now devoted groupies of the illustrious dram. But in our haste to pursue ever more elaborate pairings with which to scintillate the senses, are we leaving one of the most iconic combinations out in the cold?

In theory, a quality cigar has all the hallmarks of a product that will entice the passionate whisky drinker. Cigars have an elaborate production process and the very best carry the designation 'totalmente a mano' (completely handmade) to differentiate from those that are 'hand finished' or produced entirely by mechanical means. It's a level of transparency that is sure to appeal to (and often eludes) those who appreciate 'craft' and one that I wager will be particularly appreciated by whisky fans entering the world of cigars.

Whisky and cigars also share a status as simple, natural and nuanced products. There are a great number of tobacco plant varieties, each with their own distinct characteristics, that are influenced by such factors as seasonal climate, soil type, and whether they are grown in the shade (usually for the cigar's outer layer, known as the wrapper) or exposed to the full force of the sun (usually for filler, the bit in the middle, and binder, the bit that holds it all together).

Another similarity is that cigar manufacturers also have their own master blenders who, after decades in the industry, are able to mix different batches of tobacco to recreate a consistent flavour profile. Finally, there's the two industries' shared respect for the importance of time and patience. The very best cigars are made with leaves that have been aged before rolling and, if stored in the correct conditions, a cigar will continue to mature for many years.

If this wasn't enough to pique the interest of the passionate whisky drinker then surely the great variety of flavour profiles that can be found across the different cigar styles and brands will seal the deal. Remember, these flavours will continue to evolve during the smoking as the cigar's internal temperature rises and its aromas 'open up' - so even the tasting process is familiar territory.

In reality, however, the extent of the crossover between whisky and cigars is slim at best. Following a straw poll of international brand ambassadors, bartenders and whisky writers, it seems that only around 10 per cent of consumers who enjoy a dram would entertain the idea of trying a cigar, while less than 1 per cent of whisky consumers enjoy the pairing with any regularity. The prevailing opinion is that 'cigar smokers like whisky', but 'whisky drinkers don't smoke cigars' - a distinct break with pre-2000s trends.

I suppose the elephant in the room here is the little matter of the public's perception of smoking generally. It's undeniable that a large section of society simply doesn't associate smoking with the appreciation of great flavour - when did you last hear someone wax lyrical about the flavour profile of their Marlboro Light? For those outside of cigar (and pipe) circles, smoking is associated not with relaxation, camaraderie, great taste and after-dinner indulgence, but health warnings, bad smells, and (since the introduction of widespread public smoking bans) huddling in cold doorways to escape from the rain.

There's also the stereotypical cigar smoker's image to consider. For many, the very thought of this pairing conjures up a Mad Men-esque scene - or perhaps Tony Montana - and maybe this stereotype is exactly why whisky and cigars are becoming estranged. After all, it's an image from which elements of the whisky industry, at least in certain markets, have been slowly distancing themselves for some time now in a bid to recruit those amorphous and lucrative millennials.

While these arguments seem at first to pass the common sense test, there's something that doesn't quite ring true in the case of whisky drinkers specifically. Let's start with the big one: health. Just as it would be a real stretch to argue that attending a whisky tasting will lead to a lifetime of irresponsible drinking, it feels lazy to argue that health concerns keep whisky fans from participating in cigar pairing. After all, eating processed meat was equated with smoking in a recent report by the World Health Organisation and none are more familiar with the 'less, but better' mantra than aficionados of quality, high-ABV drinks.

So if not for health, is it for public image that whisky drinkers shy away? Again, I think not. After all, we live in a world where the niche and the nostalgic are now mainstream; un-cool is, in many ways, the new cool. What's more, the image of the stereotypical cigar smoker is largely indistinguishable from that of 'Old Man Whisky' and he didn't put us off trying our first dram.

So what exactly is dissuading the aspiring flavour junkie from choosing a cigar as the other half of their next whisky pairing? Is it simply that cigars are falling out of favour? James Myerthall of Edinburgh's 'Little Havana' Pipe Shop certainly doesn't think so.

"In my experience, more people than you'd suspect are open to the idea. Especially once they understand the kind of complex flavours a quality cigar can bring to the table," he begins. "Unfortunately, after jumping that hurdle a lot of them feel a little intimidated the first time they step into a humidor. Many people have this idea that to appreciate a cigar they need to have an extensive knowledge of the brands and tasting notes." It's a story that, to the whisky evangelist, will seem rather familiar.

He continues, "Despite this, we're increasingly seeing younger people - especially those with a passion for food and drink - coming in and asking for advice about cigars and pipes. Many of them aren't at all interested in smoking cigarettes and, instead, are looking for something with real flavour to enjoy as a more occasional indulgence."

So what does he think is putting off the whisky crowd? "First of all, occasion is really important when it comes to the enjoyment of a cigar - you don't just 'pop out' for one! Especially in a country like Scotland, where sitting outside isn't always an option, finding a place to smoke can be a real challenge if you want a traditional setting like a whisky bar, restaurant or pub."

Richard Paterson, perhaps the Scotch whisky industry's most well-known cigar advocate, agrees. "I love to have a cigar when the time is right," he begins. "But the ambiance has to be there." In his view, the cigar and whisky pairing is at its best following a meal. "Some of my best memories of cigar smoking are from my visits to a restaurant in Jerez de la Frontera. After the meal it was always the same: the sherry would follow, and the coffee, and the Lepanto brandy — then out came the cigars," he reminisces. "Sadly, the new rules put a stop to it." Nevertheless, Richard does think a cigar and a whisky can be enjoyed outside - "There's nothing like a Cohiba Behike and a Jura Superstition while on top of the Mountain of Gold!" - but it must be by choice. Being kicked out onto a drab, lonely terrace after dinner doesn't cut it.

The importance of a great venue for cigar smoking is a sentiment that was recently echoed by Ranald Macdonald, founder of the Boisdale group of restaurants. Boisdale's venues are world-renowned not only for their cigar lounges and smoking events, but also their food, live Jazz music and impressive whisky selection. In his opinion, it's the scarcity of suitable venues that's one of the biggest factors contributing to the rarity of the modern cigar smoker: "In the 21st century, the beleaguered cigar smoker is now a near-endangered species that is not so dissimilar from the panda bear. Our habitat, like that of the panda, is increasingly being diminished." In Ranald's London venues, at least, havens still exist for those seeking out a traditional setting in which to enjoy whisky and cigars.

Back in Edinburgh, James - whose family-owned tobacconist will celebrate its 60th year in 2017 - is nevertheless optimistic that the complete loss of indoor venues north of the border won't bring about the end of cigar smoking, or the cigar and whisky pairing. "The key is in thinking a little laterally when picking your 'venue' and then pairing the right cigar to that occasion." Whether you're taking a relaxing walk on the beach with a friend; throwing a record on and kicking back for a lazy Sunday afternoon at home with your partner; or catching up with family for dinner and drinks after a long week; James feels that there's a cigar, and a whisky, to fit the occasion.

"The last and perhaps most important factor is the company," he concludes. "Much like whisky, cigars are best enjoyed alongside others who share a passion for flavour!"

So that's what happened to the cigar and whisky pairing. Having lost much of its traditional habitat in bars and restaurants, it must go off in search of new territory. In this spirit, the next time my friends and I walk the Speyside Way we might just take a cigar, as well as a dram, for the finish line.

Suggested Cigar Pairings

Partagas Salomones

The Dalmore 15 Years Old

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No 2

The Balvenie 14 Years Old Caribbean Cask

Warped Cigars 'La Colmena' Amado No 44

Kilkerran 12 Years Old

Montecristo No 5

Wemyss Blended Malt Kiln Embers

Bolivar Royal Corona

Ardbeg Uigeadail

Contact Information

The Pipe Shop

92 Leith Walk, Edinburgh, EH6 5HB

+44 (0) 131 553 3561

Boisdale of Canary Wharf

Cabot Place, Canary Wharf, London, E14 4QT

+44 (0) 2077 155 818

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