CIGARS AND SPIRITS, MORE THAN A SYMBOL: A true ALLIANCE.
I have been interested in cigars for almost as long as in spirits. If the consumption of any spirits may go unnoticed, on the other hand that of a cigar never leaves those around you indifferent.
To be honest, I don’t know of any other product that fuels so many fantasies and misconceptions. Coupled with stereotypes like that of the unscrupulous businessman or the well-off, the reality of the cigar aficionado is quite different, however.
This article does not pretend to give you the “perfect match”, but simply to share my experience with you, and to provide the curious with some tips to learn about.
From Christopher Columbus to Maria-Pia Selva
Tobacco has been consumed on the American continent for centuries, the natives have found through the “cohaba”, this ancestor of the cigar, a way of communing with the Gods. The encounter with Europe came with the discovery of the continent by Christopher Columbus. Quite quickly tobacco was brought back to Spain, where its consumption and taste conquered the whole of Europe. The Spanish crown imposes its production on Cuba, where the plant does particularly well, and provides an excellent quality product. This can be acclimatized almost everywhere, both in the south of France (in Navarre) and in the major American tobacco-producing states such as Connecticut or Virginia. But nothing equals the Caribbean lands: Cuba, Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua.
The “Puro” as we know it is invented in Seville at the end of the 18th century, the famous Cuban brands appear around 1810, and will perfect it, the “Havana” is born, the darling of all the Universal Exhibitions of the time.
The Cuban political situation will put an end on this dizzying growth: the Cuban Revolution first in 1959, led by Castro and Guevara, then its consequences, Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuban missiles crisis and finally the American embargo…
In spite of this deleterious climate, the cigar finds its way, carried by ambassadors of choice, like Castro himself, then certain merchants like the malicious Zino Davidoff, but also the first “influencers” of the time, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles …
Many brands have disappeared, but many have survived these historical ups and downs, and others have recently emerged such as “Flor de Selva”. Arriving on the market in 1995, Maria-Pia Selva demonstrated not only that the Honduran terroir had a lot to offer, but above all that a woman was quite able to carry this kind of project, the ultimate snub of a universe that we would like to enclose in a cliché.
Composition and Culture of a cigar
The cigar is made up of three parts: the filler, the binder and the wrapper. As their name suggests, the filler and the binder (which maintains the filler) are the aromatic heart of the cigar; they come from tobacco plants of the “criollo” type which grow freely in the sun (“tabaco de sol”). The outer part, the wrapper, must be perfect in appearance, but requires qualities of flexibility and elasticity specific to its use. These “corojo” type tobacco plants are grown out of direct sunlight (“tabaco tapado”).
Once the tobacco has been harvested, it is classified from the base to the top: the “volado” for combustion, the “seco” for the filler and the aromatic binder, and finally the “ligero” made up of the top leaves (or “corona”), which gives all the character and power to the cigar.
Culture of tobacco
Leaves are then dried in the “casa de tabacos”, then undergo two successive fermentations. The first, which will last between 30 and 50 days, will rid the tobacco of its unpleasant resins and lead to tailing. The second, which will last between 45 and 90 days, further improves the quality of the leaves and leads to a final selection.
Dried tobacco leafs
Then there is the long aging phase, a period that can last between 9 and 24 months (could be ten or twenty years in some houses!), The leaves complete their maturation, soften and gain in aromas.
The “jefe de ligada”, or master assembler, intervenes to select and define the style of the cigar. Like his wine counterpart, he must ensure the consistency and regularity of the brand and the module.
Finally, at the end of the chain is the “torcedor”, the roller, he will give life to the cigar, guaranteeing, through the choice of leaves and their good arrangement, aromatic homogeneity and good combustion of the module. The cigar then undergoes several quality controls, receives its ring and is packaged in a box.
In truth the cigar can be made “machine”, either assembled entirely mechanically (90% of world production) or “hecho a mano”, a cigar with short or chopped leaves filler, and especially “hecho totalmente a mano” therefore supplied in long leaves filler, synonymous with aromatic richness and quality.
Hecho a mano
The different modules
When we talk about cigar size and shape, we are actually talking about “modules” or “calibers”. It is like talking about time, because the longer the cigar, the more time will have to be devoted to it.
The question of the diameter is important too, we often think (wrongly) that starting with a thin cigar will be easier, but this is rarely the case … Because the larger the diameter, the more the combustion gases are dilated, and the less the cigar is aggressive.
Color can be misleading. Indeed, it does not play in any way on the power of the cigar, the wrapper is mainly there to maintain and dress the cigar, only the filler and the binder, as well as the origin define the power.
The balance and choice of cigar revolve around these three factors: length = time; diameter = smoothness; and finally, origin = aromas.
Examples of modules:
- Minutos and small corona: short modules and small diameter, discovery or small break
- Corona (medium length/ standard diameter) = not as sweet as you’d like to think, especially if it’s Cuban.
- Robusto (medium length/ large diameter) = perfect for beginners, a balanced module
- Dalias (or Churchill) can be considered as a long robusto
- Toros (long and very large) impressive and satiating module
- Prominentes or double corona (longer than a Dalias)
- Pyramides, conical shaped cigar, allows a cut of the combustion diameter to measure
- Figurados, closed at both ends, rare and vintage look
Notion of “terroir”
The terroir, as with wine, is the taste of the cigar, its aromatic profile, even if in the terroirs themselves differences are established.
Cuba: Powerful, rich and satiating, with woody, spicy, peppery notes, aromas of honey, cocoa, but above all a typical earthy and animal signature.
Dominican Republic: Considered generally softer than Cubans, Dominicans are also rich and complex and generally easy to smoke. A good choice for a gentle initiation. Note that the Dominican soil makes the production of “corojo” difficult, the leaves of the wrapper are therefore largely imported (Connecticut, Brazil, Ecuador, etc.)
Honduras and Nicaragua: neighbors with close soils, they are considered respectively as “Dominic Jr” and “Cuba Jr”. Good value for money in perspective, and quality that is only increasing. (same for the import of capes)
Other origins exist, but their quality is rarely equivalent: Costa Rica, Brazil, Mexico, France, Italy …
- Storage: a cigar is ideally stored in a humid and healthy environment, so if you do not have a cigar humidor, you must buy “ready to smoke”. Choose your “civette” (the french nickname for places where cigars are sold) carefully; it must be equipped with a “humidor”, which guarantees a humidity level between 70 and 80%, but without mold.
- Choice: the module must be tender; too dry it will be consumed quickly, and the smoke will be acrid and unpleasant, on the contrary if it is too soft, humid, combustion will be difficult or even impossible. Do not hesitate to feel the cigars, from the head (closed part) to the foot, to check that there are no “knots” (especially in the head).
- Lighting: Long matches are preferred (sometimes capricious in outdoors conditions…), but a lighter works just as well. On the other hand, we will avoid gasoline lighters, zippo type, at the risk of leaving a taste of “gazole” in your cigar (so no “Wolverine” trip)
Cigars and spirits pairing
Cigars and spirits go hand in hand, and in some cases can lead to major accords and sublimate by highlighting reciprocal characteristics.
From experience here are the objective criteria that serve as a basis for developing my associations.
First, take into account that smoking a cigar raises the temperature in the mouth, some peppery tobacco can attack the palate too. I therefore prefer spirits close to 40% ABV, rather round, sweet and fatty, for comfort. Unless you are a cigar veteran, combining a Cuban “doble corona” and cask strength armagnac is a perilous operation …
Everyone will judge the delicacy of their palate and place the gauge where it seems appropriate.
Ron and rum: the local
The cigar being Caribbean rum makes sense. The association with the Hispano-Cuban style production of solera works wonders. It’s an easy match, Abuelo, Zacapa or Santa Teresa … Be careful, however, of the sweetness, which makes the mouth pasty and reinforces the drying sensation of the cigar. Anglo-Saxon and French styles are affordable as long as they are old and well behaved. The “high esters” rum, and “agricoles blancs” products are difficult, but can work wonders.
Brandies: the “French Touch”
Cognac and cigar are matching very well: softness and roundness. An XO with rancio will respond perfectly to the earthy and animal richness of a classic Cuban, while the fruit and freshness of a VS will highlight the Dominican terroir. My favorite is “Pineau des Charentes”, which when aged has all the richness of old “eaux-de-vie”, with increased drinkability.
For armagnac, I prefer very old vintages or blends “Hors d’âge”. The alcohol has lost its ardor and gives way to a palette of spices that sparkles with both Cubans and daring Nicaraguan.
Finally, without being brandies, sherry wines are partners not to be overlooked, rich, gourmet, balanced. Beware of too dry “finos” or too sweet “PX” …
Whiskeys: Modern Love
As the whiskey family is particularly colorful, I favor balanced alcoholic volumes, the roundness and smoothness of old blends, whether they are grain or malt. Sherry casks like bourbon casks, the whiskey, cigar and glass of sparkling water trio can take you far into the night.
Beware of peated malt and cigar combinations, the idea of peat smoke on smoke can turn into a fire, especially if it is “cask strengh”. A solid experience of both is necessary for this type of household.
Agaves: the other local
If tequila and mezcal “joven” are difficult to combine, on the other hand “reposados” and other “añejos” are much more docile. A Honduran robusto, floral and aromatic will be perfect, but beware of the alcoholic degrees and the bulky smoke of Mezcals.
Cocktails: How to tailor
The evidence of this encounter is based on various factors. First, mixology allows you to tailor strength, sweetness and sourness to your palate. Then, dilution and ice are greatly appreciated, especially when attacking a large caliber. Finally, if the “old fashion”, the “Pierre Collins” or the “Rob Roy” have not completely satisfied you. You can tell to your bartender a word, believe me, there is no more playful and curious people than these ones!
For all intents and purposes, this article is not intended to praise tobacco but rather to discover the cigar, its history and the interesting pairing with spirits. In addition to the effect on those around them of passive smoking, smoking cigars carries risks for the health of the consumer.