In search of the perfect combination

In search of the perfect combination

It's a marriage made in heaven – whisky and cigars. But what are the best combinations? We brought a group of experts together in Cuba to find out. Damian Riley-Smith reports

Whisky & Culture | 09 Jun 2003 | Issue 31 | By Damian Riley-Smith

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Extending the boundaries of whisky enjoyment has always been one of the Whisky Magazine crusades. For those who enjoy them, there is no finer accompaniment to whisky than the cigar. And the finest cigar in the world comes from the beautiful and intoxicating island of Cuba.The timing of the event coincided with the annual Cigar Festival, (the V Festival del Habano), and from 24th to 26th February, the first-ever Whisky & Cigar Challenge was held in Havana, in association with Habanos S.A.Whisky Magazine set out to discover the finest combination of these two great products. What seemed a simple concept evolved into a complex, international logistical challenge.The 414 bottles that had to be shipped to Havana, the judges from all over the world gathered together and the arm-ache endured from pouring over 8,000 glasses of whisky over five days was all co-ordinated with the assistance of Ranald Macdonald of London restaurant group Boisdale.The Whisky & Cigar Challenge began with the ‘Whisky Bar’ at the opening evening of the Cigar Festival, a spectacular Caribbean cabaret held in the open-air Club Tropicana, with a captive audience of 750 potential whisky consumers. And the week ended with the magnificent cigar gala dinner, where the great and good from the world over assembled to enjoy the finest Havana experience.The evening was rounded off with a spectacular auction, led by Simon Chase from UK cigar importers Hunters & Frankau, with items ranging from a colossal humidor that holds 2,000 cigars to Whisky Magazine’s very own whisky and cigar humidor. Holding 25 Havana cigars and a decanter of The Dalmore 50-year-old malt worth $8,000, the lot reached a staggering $13,000, going to a new home in Cyprus.Cigar enthusiasts and retailers from across the world gathered in the cigar-producing capital of the world, many resident in the Nacional Hotel, joined by whisky writers, retailers and master blender Richard Paterson representing Kyndal Spirits.On the Tuesday afternoon, the first round of the first-ever Whisky & Cigar Challenge kicked off, and 25 judges from eight countries confronted 12 whiskies and three cigars, all tasted blind, in the Palacio de Convenciones under the auspices of Alicia Garcia and spearheaded by the pipes, courtesy of Willie Cochrane.The British Ambassador, Paul Hare, introduced the concept of the marriage of cigars and whisky, Alain Fauchier from Habanos SA introduced the three cigars, and Richard Paterson reminded us all of the key techniques of whisky tasting.And armed with our tasting sheets and clear instructions , the arduous task began.Whisky one with cigar one, two and then three. Whisky two with cigar one, two and then three … and so on. To many, this may seem to be just three hours of pleasure – but it challenged our concentration, our taste buds and our ability to discriminate between the 36 different options, each of which was awarded a mark out of 10.And after the tasting, smoking and debate involving numerous questions and answers, we handed in our sheets and parted ways for the counting to begin.It was evident that all the whiskies were delicious with one of the cigars – the key question was which combination was the most exceptional. Round 1 identified two whiskies and cigars that stood out.The finals were held in the grand Sala 3, with more than 300 judges from all over the world, each presented with the two cigars and the two whiskies, again blind, for the final challenge.And the results were:The greatest whisky & cigar combination 2003Whyte & Mackay Masters Reserve 21 Years Old and Partagas Series D No. 4 Score: 7.9The ultimate combination was the choice of both our group of 25 judges and the larger panel of 300. And there was no doubt on both occasions that the Partagas Series D No. 4 was the best cigar for this combination. Almost half the judges found this their preferred combination, with comments such as “delicious”, “superb” and “distinct balance” echoing around the room.The finest malt whisky and cigar combinationThe Dalmore Cigar Malt and Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No.2 Score: 7.6The favourite with many of the judges, clearly the endeavours five years ago to create a malt that perfectly matched a Havana cigar had triumphed. Ranald described this as “faultless”, Rob picked out the “great finish” and Osmany enjoyed the “long finish and the depth of the combined flavour”. The Dalmore and Epicure combination was the second choice of the judges in the first round, and remained very popular in the final.The other combinations follow in alphabetical order.Aberlour a’bunadh and Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 Score: 7.1Tatiana found this “close to the ideal combination” – and Rob discovered “the excellent complexity with consistent intrigue of dark spice and jam”.Bowmore Darkest and Partagas Series D No. 4 Score: 7.3The richness of the Bowmore and the Partagas seemed to bring the flavours rather closely in tune. An excellent combination. Ranald said, “if you’re in a robust mood, this could do the job well”.Chivas Regal Rare 18-Year-Old and Partagas Series D No. 4 Score: 7.4Very attractive, easy drinking and smoking combination for all the judges, and Rob found “mellow, well-balanced soft and forest fruity flavours throughout”. The blends continued to find great favour in the combination, with their complexity complementing the rich depth of the cigars.Cutty Sark 18-Year-Old and Cohiba Robusto Score: 7.4For Rob, the “fresh sea flavour of the whisky combined brilliantly with the spicy cigar”; Ranald found the “sweet and sour, salt and honey” tones appealing, and Tatiana also picked up the desirable combination of “sweetness with the light cigar”. Erkin summed it up with “soft, on the milder side, with a balanced finish”.Glenfiddich Solera Reserve 15-Year-Old and Cohiba Robusto Score: 6.6Jesús was impressed by this combination, and found the characteristics of both came through strongest here. Jorge found the “ripe fruit and chocolate flavours of the whisky worked well with the rich Cohiba”.Glengoyne 17-Year-Old and Cohiba Robusto Score: 7.1A delicious combination, the Glengoyne’s elegance working very well with the Robusto’s complexity. Osmany found this very soft. Francis likened them to “two young colts which seem to combine well”. Rob found they had “great intensity with big flavours”, and Ranald liked the “sweet and sour” effect.The Glenlivet American Oak Finish Aged 12 Years and Cohiba Robusto Score: 6.7The richness of the American Oak brought out the intensity of the Cohiba, and this was the third of the lighter-style malts that matched best with the Cohiba Robusto. A pattern had clearly emerged: the Cohiba Robusto was the best combination with a light malt.Glenrothes 22-Year-Old and Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 Score: 6.9This almost had the richness of combination to take it over seven points – but the strength of the aged Glenrothes with the depth of the Epicure left too little contrast. Mitchell found the “full, multilayered flavours were a good marriage”, and Erkin noted “great balance”.Isle of Jura Superstition and Partagas Series D No. 4 Score: 7.4This lightly-peated island malt held its head high with the rich and flavoursome Partagas. Rob loved this combination and Denis found the whisky “complemented the cigar perfectly … two distinct, aromatic flavours fighting well together”.Poit Dhubh 12-Year-Old Green Label and Partagas Series D No. 4 Score: 7.5The rich, caramel undertones of Poit Dhubh complemented the punch of the Partagas. For Laura, this was the “best combination” and for Tatiana, a “well constructed and balanced combination”. It was the third preferred choice of the judges.The Judges
Denis Barthe, Pennyhill Park Hotel; Helmut Baron von Bialy; Tatiana Camacho, Hunters & Frankau; Oleg Chechilov; Ronaldo Encarnacion; Alain Fauchier, Habanos SA; George Fereos, Fereos Ltd; Rob Fox, TDL Distributors; Jorge Gertrudes, Hotel du Vin & Bistro; Stephen Gibbs, BBC News Havana; Laura Lamas; Ranald Macdonald, Boisdale; Osmany Moreno, La Casa del Habano 5ta y 16; Mitchell Orchant, C.Gars Ltd; Francis Pearson; Steve Pineau, Hotel du Vin & Bistro; Dan Pink, Hotel du Vin & Bistro; Damian Riley-Smith, Whisky Magazine; Jesús Rodriguez, El Floridita; Lilliam Rodriguez, British Embassy; Rory Ross, journalist; Keith Rowson; Artashes Shirikyan, Cigar Clan and Erkin Touzmahamedov
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