There are some dogmatic beliefs about the subject of pairing whiskey and cigars that need to be challenged in order to find an enjoyable combination. Several years ago, I found myself stuck trying to figure out the solution to this exact puzzle. I had heard it said by many authoritative folks that if you want to smoke a full-bodied cigar, you should choose a full-bodied whiskey, and if you want to smoke a light-bodied cigar, you should pick a light-bodied whiskey.
To me, it seemed that if you are going to enjoy a full-bodied whiskey with a full-bodied cigar, then they would be too competitive, and, on the flip side, light-bodied whiskeys and cigars would be terribly boring. It wasn’t until very recently that I discovered what I believe to be the source of that common bit of cigar and whiskey dogma. In interviewing Chai Dobbins of the Red Phone Booth speakeasy in Atlanta, she mentioned that helping customers discover cigars they liked was often linked with asking them what kinds of food and beverages they liked. If you like coffee, you might like a cigar with coffee notes, for example. It’s easy to see how this bit of logic was erroneously transposed onto finding enjoyable whiskey and cigar pairings.
When I began to approach pairing whiskey and cigars, I did so with the goal of finding an enjoyable combination, which can be difficult if you don’t know what you are looking for. I devised a method for finding the right flavour family for a given cigar, which starts with choosing a flight of whiskeys with different profiles. A common flight that I will use, especially for beginner classes, is a wheated bourbon, such as Maker’s Mark or Larceny; a standard Kentucky highcorn bourbon recipe, like Jim Beam Black, Old Forester, or Buffalo Trace; and a high-rye Bourbon, such as Four Roses standard (formerly known as Yellow Label).
What’s most interesting is that in every class, folks gravitate to different whiskeys as the most enjoyable pairing for them. That is to say, instead of teaching people which whiskeys go best with which cigars, I am teaching them a method by which to find the pairing that’s most enjoyable to them.
If you are new to pairing whiskey and cigars, it’s important to take a few notes as you go. One reason is that you are unlikely to remember which whiskey you liked with a given cigar after even a few months have passed. Another reason is that, over time, you will begin to notice patterns. The latter point is particularly important if you want to be able to eventually make an educated guess about which whiskey you would like best with a given cigar. This method can be used with multiple whiskey types, as well. You can set up a flight of American whiskeys that include a bourbon, a rye, and an American single malt whiskey.
You can set up a flight of American single malts with different sub-styles, such as one with no smoke in the malted barley, like Westward; one with fruitwood smoke, like Copper Fox Peach Wood Smoked; and one with peat, like Westland. Likewise, you could set up a flight of world single malt whiskies, with one from the USA, one from Scotland, and one from India or Japan.
The possibilities are really endless once you learn the method, and as long as you keep in mind that the goal is to find something enjoyable to you, not the correct answer on a pop quiz, then the process can be quite enjoyable.
A couple of points to note as you build your flights. 1) Proof matters! The 80-100 proof range is best, and definitely don’t go much over 110 proof or you won’t taste much of anything anyway. 2) Don’t try to force yourself to like something just because someone else likes it. Start with flavours you like and work onward from there. 3) Don’t be discouraged if it takes you several tries to get it right. This is for enjoyment and is not an exact science. It’s also important to choose cigars that you like and not because of a label or other status symbol.
My favourite cigars right now are being made in Nicaragua, and I have also traditionally enjoyed Dominican cigars, too. Get to know your local tobacconist and ask for recommendations. Don’t just buy a cigar because it’s made in Cuba or has a fancy label and/or a well-known name. Most importantly, have fun!