Whisky & Culture

Up in smoke

Marcin Miller and friends light up and savour a dozen whiskies and half a dozen cigars
By Marcin Miller
As we are painfully aware, the perception of malt whisky is all too often as the preferred tipple in the fustian world of the gentleman’s club. That was also once true of the cigar. Yet with the rise (and decline) of the cigar as status and sex symbol, particularly in the US, distillers want to promote innovative ways of enjoying (i.e. drinking) more whisky. Whisky is attempting to encroach on other drinks’ territory. For example, the dining experience has long been associated with wine: biblical testimonials are hard to beat (now, if Jesus had turned water into whisky...). Hence the laudable efforts of the Classic Malts, among others, in matching food and whisky. Cigar smoking has traditionally been allied to the consumption of cognac and, occasionally, armagnac. Perhaps it is symbolic of the decline in the fortunes of cognac that whisky has been cast in the role of usurper.But which cigar? With a dram in your hand, your host offers you the humidor. Do you take the biggest one? Ask his advice and appear a novice in a man’s world? As with malt whisky, great cigars vary in style. The objective was to arrive at some recommended combinations of malts and cigars. This is more complex than it sounds: in the same way that a malt whisky will develop in the glass, a lit cigar will develop from beginning to end. Whisky reacts with the atmosphere to the extent that if you return to a sample ten minutes after having intially tasted it you’ll find different qualities or the same qualities balanced differently. The taste of a freshly lit cigar is different in terms of weight and nuance than that of the same cigar half-smoked. It is different again an inch from the band. Due to the manner of construction, the flavour of a good cigar builds to a crescendo. The variables in matching a cigar with a whisky are numerous to say the least.As with combining flavours in any sphere, there are two options. One is to find flavours that are compatible and mirror each other (sweet cigar with sweet whisky) and the second is to attempt to match flavours that contrast (sweet tobacco with peaty whisky). However, cigar smoke does mask many of the flavours one expects in a whisky and, as a result, subtlety gives way to weight and complexity. Fruity and floral notes associated with certain whiskies are absent when wreathed in cigar smoke.The approach taken for this tasting was that we would divide six cigars into three pairs (light, medium and heavy) and divide a dozen malts into three flights (light – Lowlands plus one Speyside; medium – Speyside, Highlands and an Island, and heavy – Islands). The two light cigars were tasted with each of the four light whiskies. The medium cigars were tasted with each of the mid-weight malts. The heavy cigars were tasted with the biggest whiskies. The whiskies were chosen to be largely typical for the categories they were to represent. Simon Chase of Hunters & Frankau provided a selection of fine cigars to accompany the whisky. Each pairing of cigar and whisky was scored out of ten by each taster. The results on the following pages show the panel’s preferred whisky to accompany the six cigars we tasted. They are listed in descending order of average score.This exercise was only the beginning. Time and palate fatigue did not allow us to effectively cross-taste light whiskies with heavy cigars, or vice versa. However, the conclusions suggest that those combinations would yield few recommendations. What would be most instructive would be heavy cigars with medium weight whiskies and vice versa. One to attempt in the comfort of your own home, perhaps. Thanks to Ranald Macdonald for making this tasting possible and to Simon Chase for
supplying the excellent cigars