Chiseled ice cubes clinking in a glass, the sun setting over a palm-lined beach, a casual panama hat, and of course some cigar smoke to complete this idyllic scene … Even in air-conditioned urban cigar lounges, the lighting of a cigar seems to necessitate an accompanying cocktail (even if only an imaginary one). Preferably a cocktail mixed with rum, of course, to really make you feel like you’re on a Caribbean vacation. Recently at Cigar Journal, we lived out this fantasy of an island getaway in a glass – a whopping 30 times. Sitting at a bar in the heart of Vienna, we pursued one of our all-time most challenging tastings to find out how far the myth of the “perfect pairing” of cocktail and cigar really goes. In order to focus our results, we limited our tasting to Latin America’s essential liquors. Considering the wide variety in the world of cocktails, we could have organized a tasting of gin drinks or bourbon cocktails alone. And factoring in the naturally limited ability to consume cocktails, we knew if we featured a wide variety of spirits, we’d be comparing apples to oranges. For that reason, we decided instead to focus on some of the best-known Caribbean recipes – from the mojito to the daiquiri – and on the most important drinks made with tequila, cachaça, pisco and mezcal. We delegated the hard work of preparing 10 drinks to accompany each of the three cigars to Erich Wassicek. The manager of Vienna’s Halbestadt bar structured the recipes in increasing intensity, from refreshing to downright masculine, while imposing his legendary high standards. Only the best cocktail mint and Cuban honey (very hard to find in Vienna) were used. He and his girlfriend Konny Wunder shook their cocktail shakers in rhythm with the subway trains that thunder above the bar.
All 10 drinks were paired with each of the three cigars – a Villiger, a Macanudo and a La Flor Dominicana. The jury wanted to find out: do the aromas of both partners play nicely together? Does the enjoyment of the smoke increase through the liquid accompaniment? Once again, we learned that expectations based on personal smoking preferences do not always factor in to the winning results. For many passionados that night at Halbestadt, the lightest cigar in the test, the Villiger Celebration 125th Anniversary, proved itself as surprisingly complementary to many of the cocktails. In particular, the light cigar found itself on equal footing with the refreshing, mint-heavy aromas of Erich Wassicek’s mojito. “When the drink is mixed like this, it goes perfectly,” explained bartender colleague Heinz Kaiser of Dino’s. At his bar, the rum classic is served somewhat sweeter, “but that would make it too dominant to the cigar.” Another lesson learned during our tasting marathon: the way the cocktail is prepared really does matter. The panel returned again and again to Kaiser’s point during the tasting: the more components that give a cocktail its balance and complexity, the less likely it is to play nicely with the smoky-bitter character of a cigar. The puros’ bitter and roasty notes produced an additional taste component that struggled to find space in the already-balanced cocktail mixture. Our testers found that the somewhat cool mojito, with its herbal freshness, was able to do this well. Second to fourth places in our “harmony index” of cigar and cocktail involved the drink. Therefore we consider it the all-rounder among our tested cocktails, even if it didn’t quite make it to first place.
BARTENDER, KEEP IT SIMPLE!
A similarly popular accompaniment turned out to be the caipirinha, often looked down on by serious bartenders as a drink better suited to the beach and the nightclub. The “caipi” made it to the top of our pairings three times, going best with the mild Villiger. We also learned that the comparatively simple canchánchara, which is basically rum sweetened with honey and topped with lime juice, went well with formats with creamy smoke. This cocktail, later declared our winner, was definitely not the perfect match for the Villiger. Heinz Kaiser referred to what he calls a “vampire effect,” saying, “The drink is so brilliant that it kills the cigar.” The silky taste of aguardiente (“this drink is not prepared with normal rum,” insisted Wassicek) blossomed when paired with the fuller-bodied cigars of the second and third tasting round. Paired with the Macanudo Inspirado Black Cañonazo, the cocktail proved itself the clear winner, achieving 8.2 points out of a possible 10. Our panel found that the medium-strength cigar and balanced yet simple rum cocktail were simply made for each other.
The tasters quickly realized that out of all the variables in the drinks, the critical element was acidity. To put it very simply, most cocktails rely on a balanced sweet-acid interplay on top of a base spirit. Since the time of the British buccaneer Francis Drake, who according to legend cured his sailors of scurvy with the rum blend “El Draque,” the mixture of citrus fruit and sugar with rum has been a Latin American classic. For a cigar pairing, though, it’s exactly the element that gives these drinks their freshness, i.e., lime juice, that’s most disruptive, because it emphasizes the bitterness in the tobacco. This bitterness became most problematic when grapefruit was used, as in the paloma. In rum cocktails, the sweetness of the sugarcane spirit was able to “rescue” some pairings. “Tequila and mezcal gave me the most trouble,” confessed bar consultant Andreas Obermeier.
SMOOTH PARTNER, STRONG PLEASURE
A few odd-couple pairings actually worked well. “This is like a tango – you drift apart and then come together again,” said tobacco retailer Ercan Hazar of the combination of a daiquiri variation, the Santa Maria, with the Macanudo Inspirado. But it can also go the other way. “A tumult of aromas!” exclaimed Stefan Maran when he tasted the La Flor Dominicana Oro No. 6 with a Last Word. The alcohol-heavy combination of chartreuse and mezcal overpowered even the most full-bodied cigar in our pairing. For Andi Obermeier, himself a dyed-in-the-wool bartender, the Oro achieved a decent symbiosis with the caipirinha. “The sugarcane and the cigar go surprisingly well together.”
MORE OF THE SAME? NO, THANKS!
According to the motto “like goes with like,” our panel paired the three puros with an especially smoky mezcal from Alipus (Erich Wassicek chose it for its smokiness), but the combination found little purchase among the tasters. The more powerful the cigar, the less the jury liked the two cocktails—the Last Word and the Green Point – made with the agave distillate. The trendy Mexican spirit combined best with the mildest cigar, the Villiger Celebration. “When very intense aromas come into play, the cigar’s creamy mildness is pleasant,” commented Heinz Kaiser. For Michael Mattersberger the Green Point is a “great drink, but there’s just no harmony with the cigars.” South America expert Klaus Piber summarized our findings as going against the traditional style of intuitive pairings. “It just wasn’t the case that stronger cigar formats needed strong drinks to accompany them,” explained the founder of Mercado restaurant. And after 30 cocktail tastes, no one was in the mood to play a game of “What if…?” Still, we couldn’t help but ask: Should we have brought in other recipes? With a relatively straight drink like the Manhattan, the results could have been very differ- ent, posited Michael Mattersberger. True! So we promise: To be continued … in a later Cigar Journal tasting!
Images: Isabella Petricek