Cigars & Whisky

Cigars and Whisky

Fermentation is not just a whisky thing
By Christopher Coates
Readers of this magazine will certainly be familiar with the process of fermentation, which is vital for creating flavours that will characterise a distillery's new-make spirit. But what many may not realise is that fermentation is also a key stage in tobacco processing. However, before fermentation can take place mature tobacco leaves must first be cured. To do this, the freshly harvested leaves are sewn onto wooden beams using cotton thread and these beams are hung throughout structures known as curing barns. Depending on the producer, the leaves may simply be air-dried or the process can be aided by the heat from small controlled fires.

During this curing process the temperature and humidity in the barn is regularly checked as the leaves' moisture levels drop, natural sugars are released, and their colour shifts from green to yellow and eventually brown. Wrapper tobacco is usually cured in sealed barns to protect this most valuable component from the elements, whereas leaves destined to be filler or binder are often cured in sheds with slats or open doors that promote airflow. After around 30 days of curing, the tobacco is ready for fermentation.

The leaves are then bunched and tied together by the stem into small 'gavillos' or 'manos' (hands), which allow them to be easily handled without damage. These bunches are then piled into large bulks or 'pilones', which will vary in height, width and length depending on the producer, but can be many feet high. Just like in a compost heap, over time the temperature at the core of these bulks begins to rise and a 'cooking' process takes place. Enzymes inside the leaves kick off chemical changes that lead to the 'sweating out' of unwanted elements such as ammonia. Indeed, unlike with alcohol production, fermentation of tobacco is as much about purifying the leaves to remove unwanted flavours as it is about helping desired qualities to emerge.

The bulks are regularly broken down and rebuilt to avoid overheating in a turning process that sees bunches from the core placed on the outside (and vice versa) in order to ensure an even fermentation of all leaves in the bulk. The length of time and the number of turns will vary depending on the type of tobacco being fermented, but the process can take up to 90 days. It is important that leaves are not 'over cooked' as this can cause them to lose all desirable qualities. When fermentation is complete, the tobacco will be sorted by colour, texture, and type of leaf, and tied into bales ready for storage. Many quality producers will allow these tobacco bales to age (sometimes for many years) before transporting them to the rolling factories.

Christopher recommends

The 'Four Kings' Pairing

Partagas Corona Gorda Añejados with Royal Brackla 16 Years Old

This cigar provides an excellent volume of smoke and a straight burn that will last 90 minutes - perfect for accompanying a game of cards. Opening with medium strength, its age confers a very smooth and pleasant profile with a great balance of aromas and flavours: earth, leather, salt, black pepper, oak char, and some grassy notes. There is a hint of milk chocolate on the retrohale. At about the halfway point, some of the softer flavours fall away in favour of liquorice and clove spice, while strength also builds. Just as these cigars waited patiently before being shipped (all cigars in the Añejados range have been aged in Cuba after rolling), the Corona Gorda benefits from unrushed smoking to preserve the full breadth of flavours. This combination was chosen to highlight how pairing isn't all about contrast and that similar flavours can work well together too. Royal Brackla shares the Corona Gorda's spicy profile and its distinctive sweet toffee, cherry, and dried fruit notes help bring balance to the experience, while almonds and black tea on the finish keep the combined palate from becoming too dessert-like. For what it's worth, Brackla is known as the 'King's own whisky' so maybe it will bring some luck on the draw!

Alison Logan recommends

The 'Well, Well, My Dear' Pairing Vegueros Entretiempos with Isle of Jura Superstition

In its earliest form the Vegueros marque was produced only for Cuban domestic consumption, blended to suit the particular tastes of the local population. This status as a 'cigar of the people' led to it being colloquially named after those who tend the tobacco fields, the 'vegueros'. After developing a good reputation with visitors to the country, in 1997 Habanos SA began to export the brand. Initially the Entretiempos gives grassy aromas and a distinct herbaceous flavour that's accompanied by Chantilly cream. An earthy character is also present and intensifies in the latter part of the first third, with hints of spice and pepper leading into a distinctly cocoa-esque profile. The cigar sits between earthy and chocolatey, in time developing an intense aroma of orange peel and Brazil nuts. The second third is even richer and has more roasted coffee flavours, a smooth woodiness and a character akin to pain d'épices. This rich profile pairs particularly well with the Jura Superstition. Aged in ex-Bourbon casks it brings spice, honey, pine and light peat, with salt, rich coffee and roasted chestnuts emerging. The flavour profile of both cigar and malt are so close that they're like old friends meeting again and remarking, 'well, well, my dear'.