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Malt Whisky & Cigar Pairing: The ‘How and Why’

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Have you discovered how much better your favorite cigar tastes when you smoke it while sipping a good single malt whisky?  While brandy, port, wine and beer complement a cigar, I’ve found that none of them approach malt whisky as the ideal partner.

While I would like to suggest an approach for determining the appropriate pairing of malt whisky with your favorite stogie, the purpose of this article is not to tell you which type of whisky complement which type of cigar or vice versa.  Why?  It would make no difference to you what the prevailing wisdom is as to the perfect cigar pairing (should it be an earthy stogie or a sweet Maduro stick?) for a smoky Islay whisky.  Everyone has his or her own taste preferences and will therefore have unique pairing preferences.  There are no wrongs here: if it is pleasing to an individual, it is right.  My objective is to give you a logic but fun method for self discovery.

Recently I have enjoyed several Camacho Corojo cigars and have chosen the Toro size for this pairing (although this system will work with any cigar of your choice).  Regardless of the specific cigar that you select, a scientific approach to malt whisky pairings is recommended.  I eventually found that ‘neat’ (no ice or water) is the preferable style to sip the whiskies selected for this study (and for the general consumption of single malt whisky). [1]

STEP ONE

1.      Light Profile Single Malt:  Some folks prefer lighter but tasty whisky.  I would suggest a Lowland Region scotch such as Glenkinchie 12 year and Auchentoshan Classic or a lighter Speyside or Highland whisky such as AnCnoc, Allt-A-Bhainne, Imperial, Aberfeldy or Cardhu (amongst others too numerous to list).  This whisky is the perfect aperitif or a first whisky of the day as it gently wakes up your taste buds and prepares them for more robust flavors.  I never call my taste buds to ‘battle stations!’ by starting off with a cask strength heavily peated Islay whisky![2]

2.      Medium Profile ‘Standard’ Single Malt:  By the term ‘standard’, I’m referring to whisky aged in former Bourbon whisky oak casks (rather than former Sherry butts or Port puncheons).  By the term ‘medium profile’, I’m referring to those whiskies that taste heavier or of a fuller body than the aforementioned Lowland or light profile whiskies.  There are a lot of malts in this category including Glenmorangie Original, Benromach 10, Old Pulteney 12, Glen Garioch 12, Balblair 1997, Arran Bourbon Cask, Tomintoul 16, Glenrothes Select Reserve, Cragganmore 12 and Springbank 10, to name just a few of the basics.  When checking out the ‘eye’ of this type of whisky, you will notice that its viscosity is heavier than light profile whisky in that it is thicker (less watery) and it has ‘legs’ (in that it coats the sides of your Glencairn tasting glass (the proper whisky tasting glass) and then, yielding to gravity, slowly runs down).

3.      Sherry Cask Single Malt:  Some distilleries (e.g., The Macallan, Glenfarclas and Aberlour, Glendronach and Highland Park) often age their whisky exclusively in former Sherry casks (500 litre butts) whereas in recent years many whiskies are ‘finished’ in former Sherry casks.  Finishing refers to a second maturation period in which whisky is removed from a former whisky (almost always Bourbon) oak cask (200 litre American Standard Barrel or 250 litre Hogshead) and aged for an additional period in a former Sherry cask.  ‘Finished’ whisky has been widely received by consumers and, as a result, many distillers are finishing their standard profile malts in former Sherry, Port, Rum and various Wine casks.  Typically, the finishing period is from 4 to 6 months, but there is a wide range.  I have found that finishing can make a 12 year old whisky taste like a 15 or 18 year old whisky.  A whisky aged exclusively in a Sherry Butt (or cask) typically is more sweet and ‘powerful’ with cherry, bubblegum and chocolate notes.  Again, there are a lot of whiskies in both fully matured sherry and finished categories including Balvenie 12 Doublewood, Glenmorangie finished range, Glenfiddich 15, Glengoyne 17 or 21, Macallan 18, Glendronach 15, Aberlour A’Bunadh, Glenfarclas 105, Highland Park 15 and Tomatin 12.

4. Full Body and/or Full Flavor Single Malt – Non-Peated or Lightly Peated:  There are 2 types of full body and/or full flavor single malt: those that are peaty or smoky and those that derive their power without the use of peat or smoke.

In Category #4, I will discuss the non-peated or lightly peated whiskies such as Clynelish, Springbank and Talisker that I find to have a fuller body.  By full body, I mean that these whiskies will be of a thicker viscosity and bolder, much more robust flavor profiles than the previously listed categories.  That being said, there is some full flavor (read: powerful as I’m avoiding the word ‘strong’ here) malt whisky that is thin and watery.  Thus I equivocate: this category consists of the powerful and/or fuller body non-peated and non-smoky single malts.  I should mention that this category includes several Japanese malts.

5. Full Body and/or Full Flavor Single Malt – Peated Islay:   Category #5 includes the more heavily peated Islay whiskies such Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Kilchoman, Port Charlotte and some of Caol Ila’s products.  Such Islay malt is packed with flavors and of sufficient power to excite even the weariest taste buds.

Did I just mention ‘peat’ here?  Any discussion about cigar and malt whisky pairing must closely examine the synergies between the stogy and peated whisky.  But first things first, are you wondering, “What is peat?”  Peat refers to a rudimentary charcoal which is formed by the accumulation of partially decayed vegetation matter and is found in wetland bogs, moors and swamps around the world.  I trust that the wetland bogs and moors caused thoughts of Scotland to pop up in your mind as there is an abundance of both as well as huge peat reserves.  (If cars were powered by peat, Scotland would be the new Saudi Arab of the world.)  Peat is found from the Highlands to the Lowlands and the Islands.  Furthermore, the flavors imparted by Highland peat, Lowland peat and Island peat are quite different.  The Scots have long cut it out of their land and used it for fuel.  Today, many distilleries and commercial maltsters use peat to ‘smoke’ their green barley during the kiln drying phase when damp, partially germinated barley is slowly kiln dried for approximately 40 hours.  During the first half of this process, the smoke from a smoldering peat fire is ducted into the kiln and where it imparts phenols into the moist and receptive barley seed.  Later, such peated malted barley will pass on its smoky, peatiness flavors to the whisky.

Why am I telling you all this:  because peated whisky is especially good with stogies!  The rule of thumb is:  The more powerful the cigar, the more likely that Category #5 will prove to be the sweet spot.[3] And, of course, the exception is that a mild cigar can be given a nice boast by an appropriate peated Islay whisky.  I recommend that you make the transition to peated whisky with Bowmore or one of Caol Ila’s milder offerings as they will afford you with a nice transition whereas jumping into an Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Kilchoman, Port Charlotte or Laphroaig malt may prove too much for a peat novice.

I recommend acquiring a bottle of malt whisky from each category described above and get prepared to light up your favorite cigar.  After you have ‘labeled’ each bottle (A, B, C, D and E) and the glass (A, B, C, D and E) so as to positively identify each whisky, you are ready to embark on this most enjoyable experiment.  Pour about ½ of a shot of each malt into 5 glasses (all of the same style as different glasses will change how each malt is experienced).

Beginning with Category #1 (i.e., from the lightest to the heaviest profile), take a sip of whisky and draw it into the back of your mouth and then swirl it all around a bit prior to swallowing.  After taking a moment to enjoy the finish of that malt, puff on your cigar.  How does it taste?  Does it make your cigar taste better?  Does it hit the sweet spot for you?  Make some notes about the pairing of this malt with this cigar. 3

Now you are ready for Category #2.  With the same cigar, move through the same process in the same manner so as to give each whisky a fair trial.  It is important to refresh your palate by sipping room temperature spring water (Brita treated water is my choice) between each malt category.  In my own experiment, I found that the Camacho Corojo Toro was best paired with the Glendronach 15 Revival that I had selected as the Category #3 whisky.

 

STEP TWO

 

Once you have determined the best category of single malt whisky for the cigar in question, the question is:  Is Glendronach 15 the best Category #3 whisky for my Camacho Corojo or is there a better pairing within that category?  After examining my inventory, I determined that I have 9 bottles of Category #3 whisky.  I selected 3 of them for a run-off tasting comparison against Glendronach 15.  Thus my second tasting was:  (1) Glendronach 15 year; (2) Balvenie 12; (3) Glenfiddich 15; and (4) Glengoyne 21.  I went through the entire process with each whisky and my ever shortening Camacho Corojo cigar over the next 20 minutes.  The results?  While I found the Glengoyne 21 and Glendronach 15 to be the best and second best malts for pairing with my Camacho Corojo, I realized that I have 6 more Category #3 whiskies that I should bring into the competition, but, atlas, that will be on another day as my ‘nose’ and ‘palate’ are reading ‘tilt’. [4]

CLOSING THOUGHTS

 

Notwithstanding my previous remarks, one of the beautiful things about malt whisky is the variety of tastes and the consistent high quality throughout the regions and districts within those regions.  Getting stuck in the rut of drinking only Islay whisky, for example, should be a felony.  Americans are not restricted by a visa requirement or gated borders between the regions of Scotland:  we can roam about freely.  Why not start with a sip of Lowland malt, move on to a nip of Speyside, take a short dip in a Highland and place your lip on an Islay?  (Sorry for that one.)

I recognize and respect that everyone has their own taste preferences and opinions as to whether scotch is better than the other liquors.  There are some fine handcrafted (batch-made aka small batch) Bourbon and Rye (which is my preference between the two) alternatives.   Admittedly, I’m biased towards pairing malt whisky with my beloved stogies.  Again due to my bias for malted whisky, I have approached at this issue based on the assumption that it is the whisky that makes the cigar taste better.  I recognize that a person with a personal preference for cigars would identify the cigar as the dynamic here and assert that it’s the cigar making the whisky better.  No worries here; the single malt lover and the cigar lover ultimately reach the same conclusion.  And, with this concluding comment and finally providing the answer to “Why” promised in this article’s title), here is the raison d’être for even considering this matter:  A proper cigar/Scotch whisky pairing makes both the whisky and the cigar more enjoyable.

Jack W. Smith Jr., President
Metro Atlanta Scotch Club
eMail: jaxsmithjr@juno.com

Credits: A special thank you to Dave Wankel and Andy Smith for reviewing this article and making numerous suggestions (corrections).  All of the miss-statements are those of the author.

 

About the Author: JWS, a rank amateur, had the privilege of being affiliated with Los Angeles Scotch Club for 3 years.  During that period, malt experts Andy Smith (Club President), Dave Wankel (US rep, Malt Maniacs) and numerous industry executives (Michael Urquhart, Dave Mair, Andrew Weir, Simon Brooking, George Grant, Chuck Crouse and Chris Uhde) made significant contributions toward JWS’ whisky education.  In 2011, the author made his first trip to Scotland where he toured 14 distilleries and greatly furthered his malt education.  Incredibly, JWS was recently interviewed by Cigar Dave (Dave Zeplowitz aka “The General”) on his nationally syndicated radio show.  The author continues to share his admittedly limited knowledge with others in Scotch tasting venues throughout the Metro Atlanta area.


[1] Although this is likely a subject for a different article, Single Malt Scotch whisky is intended to be served at room temperature.  Ice and copious amounts of water or soda will diminish the flavor punch that single malt is intended to deliver.  While each person’s enjoyment of whisky is a personal preference, when pairing with cigars, ice and water will certainly diminish this experience.  Blended Scotch whisky is a better (and much cheaper) libation for enjoyment with ice and/or water.
[2] Actually I tried that once (once is the key operative word here) at a Laphroaig Tasting Event.  Now I love Laphroaig as my favorite Islay whisky, but only after a bit of other whisky first.  Incidentally, that was the only drink that I had that evening as my taste buds had sounded retreat and I give the other tasting drams to my companions.
[3] Proper ‘Tasting Technique’ should be practiced.  As the alcohol receptors are in the front of the mouth, it is a wise practice to promptly move your small sips of whisky to the back of your mouth.  When it comes to rolling whisky around your mouth before swallowing bit, something short of gargling is preferred.  The longer the after-taste (finish) lingers on your palate, the better the malt.  NOTE:  It probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to drink expensive malt out of a highball glass.  Why not buy a Glencairn or, albeit second rate, Riedel whisky glass designed to keep and focus the malt aromas within the glass so as to afford you with an excellent nosing opportunity?  As the angels have already received their share, keep the fumes for yourself.
[4] Everyone has a physical limit as to how many whiskies he/she can properly examine in a sitting.  For new Scotch drinkers, they may find that they lose their ability to nose after nosing and tasting 2 or 3 whiskies.  When one loses his/her nose, he/she is no longer able to differentiate between different whiskies:  they all seem to have the same scent.  At this point, it is counterproductive to attempt to review whisky.  Just pick up where you left off on another day.  Remember to keep your mouth slightly open so help fend off alcohol fumes. Hint: try nosing your empty glass.

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