What do Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sir Winston Churchill, Michael Jordan and Pierce Brosnan all have in common? No, we’re not talking fame and fortune (although the two do ring true for all,) it’s their love of puffing on a big fat cigar. From Groucho Marx to Al Capone, not forgetting Alfred Hitchcock along the way, great men and great cigars have always gone hand-in-hand.
But when a fine cigar is paired with a fine oak barrel-aged Cognac…that’s when the magic happens. That’s when Bach’s “Air On the G String” (best known to you and me as the theme tune to the iconic British “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet” adverts from 1966-97) breaks into spontaneous play. The sheer variety of cigars and Cognacs available is mind-boggling and deciding which cigar to pair with what Cognac is a subjective matter.
Cigar aficionados spend years honing their palates and fine-tuning their preferred combinations, but for the enthusiastic amateur a good tip is to match the strength of flavor of the cigar with the strength and flavor of the Cognac, says Dawn Davies MW, buyer for The Whisky Exchange. “Cigars, like spirits, can range in flavor and different cigars will work with different spirits,” she says. “Cognac is an ideal pairing as the rich spiced notes from wood aging together with the sweetness of the spirit can handle the full flavors of the cigar.”
Inextricably linked to cigars is the island nation of Cuba, famed for its wide variety of smokes, including a myriad of limited editions or “Ediciones Limitadas.” The recent news that the U.S. and Cuba will resume diplomatic relations means one thing for many Americans: Cuban cigars. The world-class Cohiba, the more expensive of the brands, is rumored to be the cigar rolled specifically for Fidel Castro. The manufacturer’s 40th anniversary cigar, the Cohiba Behike costs $450 a piece, and these hand-rolled masterpieces should definitely catch your attention, and your lighter.
Cuba for cigars has been likened to Napa Valley, California, for wines — a prolific hub of production thanks to its ideal growing conditions, in this case for tobacco. First timers should try something along the lines of Partagas, a strong and heavy Cuban cigar with earthy, peppery flavors blended with a robust tobacco taste; the more common Romeo y Julieta contains every flavor imaginable: floral and nutty, herbal and tangy, fruity and woody without being particularly tannic.
It’s not all about Cuba, however, so for something exceptional there is the King of Denmark, a Royal Danish Cigar made to order using the very rare Regal Blend and encrusted with Swarovski crystals, wrapped in gold foil embossed with the client’s name — it costs a mere $150 a pop. Or for the ultimate pairing, push the boat out with Gurkha’s His Majesty’s Reserve (HMR); each cigar contains 18-year-old tobacco and has been soaked in a $2,500 bottle of Louis XIII de Rémy Martin Cognac. These cigars define excess and taste at $15,000 a box or $750 for a single cigar. While there are close to 200 Cognac producers in the world, a large percentage of Cognac comes from only four: Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell and Rémy Martin.
For a brandy to bear the name Cognac, which is protected under appellation law, it must be made from specific grapes, of which Ugni blanc (or Trebbiano), known locally as St. Émilion, is the one most widely used. The brandy must be twice distilled in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels made from the forests of Limousin or Tronçais. Courvoisier remains the only Cognac house to control the whole process from grape to glass, while Hennessy, the largest Cognac producer in the world, was founded in 1765. A highly regarded brand, the range stretches from VS (Very Special) to XO (Extra Old) and beyond. The prestige cuvée Richard Hennessy, which is housed in a crystal decanter, is considered to be truly exceptional, priced at $3,240 per bottle.
Cognacs blended specifically to accompany cigars usually contain XO-quality Cognacs with sufficient age to develop the cigar-friendly “rancio” traits. Cognac house Gautier even sent several of its Cognacs to Cuban cigar makers to taste and give feedback; four blends were created based on their responses. On the whole, however, it’s hard to go wrong if you pair like-for-like, says Davies: “Try a fuller XO Cognac with a more powerful flavored cigar with notes of mocha and sweet spice, such as a Cohiba Robusto, or a more delicate VSOP [Very Superior Old Pale] Cognac with a softer cigar, such as an H. Upmann Coronas Major.”