Cigar Aficionados: It's Time to Trade in that Rocks Glass for a Wine Glass

Image: Getty. Additional images: Kelly Magyarics.

The best pairings for your favorite smoke just might surprise you.

Quick – what’s the first drink that comes to mind when we say “cigar”? If your mind immediately turns to whiskey, you’re not alone. A glass of bourbon or a dram of Scotch is the natural accompaniment to a stogie, right? Not so fast, says one Washington, DC-based certified tobacconist.

“Part of my goal at Bourbon Steak [Washington, DC, at the Four Seasons Hotel] has been trying to get people out of the ‘whiskey and cigar’ mentality,” says Mason Foster. “Because cigars are viewed as ultra-masculine and old-timey, there’s a perception that whiskey is the only match, [when] in reality, cigars have a wide range of flavor profiles.”

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Mason Foster - Bourbon Steak inside the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, DC

Whiskey, no matter the style, category, or the base from which it’s made, can be overpowering. After all, Foster says, a lit cigar is already giving you fire in your mouth, so high-proof spirits can actually exacerbate that effect. Because of their alkaline PH levels, he says, cigars actually pair best with wines, especially those that are acidic, mildly sweet, or a little bit of both. His preferences? Sauvignon Blanc, a Zweigelt-based rosé, or Champagne.

What’s that? The perfect partner for a stogie may be a crisp white wine? Yes, indeed. When you bring acidity to the table, it pulls out the flavors and contrast of the tobacco, he notes. (While he was undergoing his certification, Foster actually starting eating Skittles or Starburst every few minutes while smoking in order to bring PH levels back to a neutral center; we bet your mouth is watering just thinking about that, which is exactly the point.)

But let’s not forget the role that the right cocktail – and the acidity and sweetness it may contain – can play in a cigar’s enjoyment. Bourbon Steak head bartender Torrence Swain likes to step out of bounds with drinks, Foster says, which can be challenging when it comes to figuring out which smoke on the menu will work with which libation. Swain’s East Meets West, for example, has gin, lemon, jasmine and sesame  oil. “[These are] four ingredients that don’t traditionally belong together, but are phenomenal when combined,” Foster points out. The drink has a pop of fresh citrus to neutralize the cigar’s alkalinity, though, as well as sesame oil (and black sesame seeds) to lend a smooth mouthfeel and earthy notes that match up with tobacco leaves’ tannins.

East Meets West cocktail - Torrence Swain of Bourbon Steak in Washington DC

“[Torrence and I] often sit down and talk about how to integrate certain flavor profiles into the cocktails (dried leather, cedar, wood, etc.) so they can better pair with cigars,” notes Foster. He describes Swain’s Freshen Up cocktail – made with gin, lime, mint and ginger – as “Sauvignon Blanc if it was a cocktail”; its aromas, bracingly refreshing quality, and great line of acidity works with several cigars on the menu, including the Cohiba Toro Tubo.

When Foster is approached by a guest at Bourbon Steak for help with choosing a cigar, he asks him or her three questions:

  1. Do you frequently smoke?
  2. Do you want a drink with that?
  3. Have you recently eaten?

From there, he can determine which of the 8 cigar offerings on the menu (priced $17 to $50) will be the best fit, and pair a beverage accordingly: a glass of Sancerre with the short smoking time and mild flavors of the Arturo Fuente Hemingway Short Story, a blanc de blancs Champagne with the high-end, delicately spicy and full-bodied Davidoff Aniversario #2, or a ”feminine” red Burgundy with the medium-body and nutmeg/white pepper notes of the Flor de Las Antillas, for example.

Arturo Fuente Hemingway Short Story cigars paired with Sancerre - Bourbon Steak in Washington, DC

If he does recommend a spirit pairing, Foster is apt to pick an aged rhum agricole from the Mount Gay distillery in Barbados, whose sweetness and notes of toasted almonds, dried leather and damp cedar can hold its own alongside the sweet wrapper, earthiness and full-bodied quality of a Padrón 45th Anniversary Natural, which is rolled with tobacco that’s been aged for 10 years.

Here are a few other of Foster’s favorite cigar and beverage pairings:

Davidoff Double “R” with Nicholas Feuillatte, Veuve Clicquot or Louis Roederer Champagne: “The [wine’s] flavor is buttery, bodacious and oaky. The cigar will have a relatively mild flavor, but a very robust presence with praline and some slightly salted pistachios. When it hits the Champagne, you’re going from two very different contrasts of similar buttery/creamy flavors.”

Flor de Las Antillas by My Father, with a South African Sauvignon Blanc or Portuguese Vinho Verde: “Vinho Verde does something interesting and similar to Champagne, in that it converts to lactic acid. It has some very light and soft bubbles that have a little twang to the crispy, refreshing flavor profile. The cigar is a little bigger in body, with a more nutty flavor with white and black pepper. This pairing is sweet and salty. Vinho Verde isn’t sweet on its own, but the cigar really brings out that element.”

My Father Le Bijou Torpedo 1922, with Fifth Season cocktail: “This is a primarily Nicaraguan tobacco cigar with an incredibly big body and rich, bodacious flavors of black pepper and chocolate-covered raisins. It’s best with [this] cocktail, with Jim Beam Rye Whiskey, Lagavulin Scotch, Galliano Ristretto and a dash of cane syrup. This falls in line with that rich, thick, deep, dark, dank flavor of bourbon, Scotch and coffee. There’s some slight sweetness with it, with the cigar’s Madeira wrapper. Any dinner you end with this cigar will feel like you’re at the Four Seasons.”

Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, DC, area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on  Twitter  and  Instagram  @kmagyarics.

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