“We all enjoy pairing good food with good drinks, so why not brown spirits and cigars?” asks Demian Enders, co-owner of the Cigar and Lounge in Boston.
Whiskey and cigars have a long, rich history. Enders believes the iconic pairing originated when Great Britain and Spain teamed up to fight France during the Anglo-Spanish War (1779–1783).
“One rumor is that the pairing was created when the British supplied whiskey from Scotland and the Spaniards brought their beloved Cuban cigars,” says Enders. “Creating a global trend that moved from traditional pipe tobacco to the combined practice of smoking a cigar while enjoying a glass of whiskey.”
Cigars and brown spirits also developed in tandem in the Americas. Famed mogul Oscar Hammerstein invented and patented the first cigar-rolling machine in 1885 New York City, while whiskey and rum production evolved in the continental U.S. and Caribbean throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
So, why do so many like to pair the two today? Whiskey and cigars require artistry and aging and can reflect local traditions and terroirs. Both are meant to be enjoyed slowly, too, forcing the imbiber to exhale and relax.
Some cigar aficionados enjoy pairing their smokes with brown spirits because they have shared flavors.
“Cigars can have hints of spice, chocolate, nuts, leather and even impart vegetal traits,” says Lee Ringelheim, owner of Soho Cigar Bar in Manhattan. “Whiskey produces slightly similar notes including, spice, black pepper, clove, tobacco, along with sweet vanilla, caramel, chocolate, floral, rose and honey.”
Like wine and food pairings, however, the key is balance. You don’t want either one to overpower the other.
If you’re not a hardcore stogie or whiskey connoisseur, creating a flavorful pairing experience can seem daunting. That’s why we asked two cigar experts to weigh in with tips to create a perfect whiskey and cigar pairing.
Bold Smoke, Stiff Drink
The intensity of a cigar’s taste comes from its wrappers and fillings, which can be strong, medium or light. Most of the world’s strong and light tobacco, known as filler, is grown in Cuba, Nicaragua and Dominican Republic.
“Wrappers, or tobacco leaves, makeup to 60% of the cigars flavor,” says Ringelheim. “They’re classified by body and range from Maduro (strong) to Natural (light).”
Full-bodied cigars tend to pair best with full-bodied whiskeys in part because they share common flavors of leather, nuts, rye and baking spices. Plus, Enders says it’s important to match the body of the smoke with the body of the drink.
“If you’re smoking a strong, spicy Cuban cigar, pair it with a strong whiskey from the Scottish Highlands region, like Clynelish 14 single malt Scotch,” says Enders.
Bourbon is a classic cigar pairing because the smoke doesn’t overpower the lush, barrel-aged spirit.
“Bourbons are typically sweeter than rye because they have 51% higher corn content,” says Ringelheim. “Its flavor notes of honey, caramel, nuts, maple syrup and charred wood practically guarantee you’ll find a complementary flavor in a cigar.”
The smooth texture of bourbon can bring out sweetness plus notes of leather and toast in mild-strength cigars as well.
Light and Sweet
Light cigars with rum or brandy is another traditional pairing. Rum and cigars have symbiotic terroirs as both are produced in Cuba, while brandy’s floral and fruit notes counterbalance the savory and earthy notes of cigars.
“Barrel aging is something that more and more people are becoming aware of,” he says. “The oak and vanilla notes from Port or Sherry barrels create a smooth smoking experience when paired with aged libations.”