Cigars and Liquid Gold. (The art of matching cigars and liquor)
If you think that it is tough to arrive at a consensus on a cigar, it is many more times so to form any sort of agreement over matching a cigar with a drink, but that is half the fun. First, select your cigar. Then, depending on the circumstances, time of day, weather, company, music and a great many other variables, pick a drink (or not if you prefer).
Personally, I struggle with red wines and cigars, notwithstanding the very many times I have given them a chance. Rum, some malt whiskies, port, an occasional cognac, very often champagne, some whites – all work better than reds. Others disagree.
Some time ago, on a trip to Spain, I had a chance to go to the famous Mugaritz, in San Sebastian, for dinner (don’t miss it – truly mindbogglingly good. Most critics seem to have it in their top two or three in the world, although the Michelin people have it only as a two-star, suggesting that they are way out of touch). I was keen to have a chat with their sommelier, Nicolas Boise.
Nicolas is a young Frenchman, though you’d never know from the accent (Burgundian, actually). He has worked in the Fat Duck, and for me, was as good a sommelier as I’ve ever encountered. Knew his stuff thoroughly and, unlike so many that one comes across, especially here, no airs and graces or poncy superiority (no screenplays in the bottom drawer). Just a bloke who loves doing what he does and who is extremely good at it. He really is prepared to think outside the box. Some combinations (and at this stage, we are talking food, not cigars) involved things like a spicy beer, a particular sake or even just water.
Needless to say, I asked about matching cigars.
His first suggestion, and obviously all this is dictated by exactly which cigar one is smoking, was rum. So, we were immediately on the same track. I had intended to return to rum and discuss it in more depth but we got sidetracked on so many other topics.
His view is that a refreshing drink is usually the better match. He considers that many cocktails work extremely well but again, which cigar and which cocktail could probably earn someone a Ph.D.
His next suggestion was tea (I should add that Mugaritz has a fantastic selection of teas and the white tea, ‘No 20, Fujian Jasmine’, I had was absolutely spectacular – the best tea I have ever enjoyed. Sadly, indoors in Spain, no chance for a cigar to test the theory). That said, Nicolas recommends black teas and also red teas, because of the pure earthiness. But he suggested avoiding lapsang souchong – we were off again before I could establish quite why.
Then, without any prompting from me, he suggested that champagne was a great match. I knew he was good! The fizz he particularly liked with cigars was from Jacques Selosse. Must say, I like Selosse at any time – for those not familiar, it is a much richer, more complex style than many. It was a suggestion that made perfect sense.
He also mentioned PX sherries, and also lovely old sweet oloroso’s. I guess one could take that further to include ports/muscats/tokays/fortifieds in general, but we didn’t go down that road.
I asked Nicolas about reds. His response was that they didn’t even come to mind. And that from a Burgundian! He did say that the structure of pinot noir made it by far the most appropriate red, if one wanted to go that way.
Finally, we discussed whiskies. He felt that the strength and powerful flavours of the peaty Islay malts were too much – personally, if it is a richly flavoured cigar, I really enjoy that match. He dismissed Ardbeg and Laphroaig for those reasons. He was very much in favour of Auchentoshan, a triple distilled malt from Glasgow. Then, he put me on to one of the most bizarre finds I’ve ever encountered – a whisky producer from just outside Beaune in Burgundy (and an exceptional one at that) – Michel Couvreur. Michel, originally from Belgium, went to Beaune in the 1950s to make Burgundy, but his marketing trips to Scotland, which allowed him a chance to fish and hunt, introduced him to Whisky.
A friend and I tracked Michel down in a tiny village about the size of a football field, though it took three visits to identify the correct house. Michel was long retired and his son-in-law now ran the business and blended the barrels. Down to the cellars, 500 feet of cellars dug out by Michel, we went. Full of old barrels and demijohns of whisky, brought across from Scotland to eventually be blended, bottled and sold, it was a treat. After a fabulous tasting, Michel himself emerged. Although his English was minimal, knowing we were Aussies, he brought out some of the giant old accounting books from decades earlier – no computer records then. He opened one of the dusty leather-bound tomes, flicked through it until he came to the records for 1970. It seems that way back then, one of his best customers was an Aussie. He would have the wine shipped around the world for collection.
The address? The Cooktown Post Office. Even today, the population is less than 2,000, so what would the place have been like nearly half a century ago, (although 150 years ago, it did have 47 pubs, many illegal grog shops and brothels, thanks to the gold rush du jour). Was it for a local (and by local up there, one could mean anyone within 800 kilometres) or perhaps someone who occasionally sailed by on his yacht? We’ll never know, but I like to think they also picked up their order of Cuban cigars to go with it.