The draw of cigar-blend whiskies, from California to Cork

The draw of cigar-blend whiskies, from California to Cork

Cigars are a time-honoured partner for whisky, but how do distilleries go about creating an expression that complements them? We explore methods on both sides of the Atlantic

Cigars & Whisky | 23 Oct 2023 | By Andrew Faulkner

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Cigars and whisky are shedding the 20th-century image of tuxedo-clad power brokers — think Winston Churchill or W.C. Fields — and finding an every-man-and-woman appeal. Appreciation is taking root among those who enjoy the warming and calming effects of both.


Due to restaurant smoking bans, casually dressed enthusiasts can now be spotted escaping for a brisk double-fisted walk — dram in one hand, stogie in the other — or in idyllic gardens, staring at tasting wheels, looking for their sensory limits while slowly savoring these two aged products that go so well together.


A new category has emerged in the US of bourbons tailored specifically to pair with cigars, and often to pair with specific cigars. The spark that ignited this trend may just have been in one of those idyllic gardens.


Whiskey blender Nancy Fraley was sitting under the redwood trees on the deck of her Berkeley, California, home on a sultry spring evening in 2016. She was smoking her pipe and sipping some precious pours of old Armagnacs, a little George T. Stagg, and some William Larue Weller bourbons, hunting for a better pairing for her tobacco.


She recalls, “For whatever reason that evening, none of the aromatic profiles of either the bourbon or the Armagnacs were pairing the way I wanted them to with my pipe. Then I had a sudden realisation that perhaps I should add a little bit of Armagnac to the Stagg-and-Weller bourbon mixture in my glass in order to get closer to the profile I was imagining. After tasting this incredible mixture, I had a further epiphany: what if, in my professional life, I created a cigar-blend bourbon that was specially blended for a cigar or pipe smoker who also happened to be a bourbon connoisseur?”

Nancy Fraley evaluating whiskey samples. Credit: Andrew Faulkner

For Fraley, the epiphany meant grabbing graduated cylinders and Joseph Magus Bourbon barrel samples in a creative frenzy. In her excitement, she called the owners of Jos. A. Magnus & Co., at midnight on the East Coast, to convince them they should make a cigar-blend bourbon, explaining that this was neither a cigar that tasted like a bourbon, nor a bourbon that tasted like a cigar (or an ashtray).


Magnus’ national marketing director Ali Anderson said, “Of all the things we make, this one is the crown jewel.”


From her work for Germain-Robin brandies, Fraley was familiar with Old Havana, a cigar-blend brandy created by her mentor Hubert Germain-Robin, who himself was familiar with a long tradition of cigar-blend Cognacs.


Germain-Robin said, “The leading idea in creating the cigar blend… was finding the right balance between the intensity of fine cigars and the complexity of an elegant brandy – quite a challenge at first.”


“The analogy I will make between matching a good cigar and a fine spirit will be like making a movie. The supporting cast should not overshadow the leading role… The association of wide and complex spicy flavours melting with each other should result in a long, balanced, and deep experience. The combination, if successful, should induce reflection, meditation, and poetry.”


The Ashton cigar company sent Germain-Robin boxes of their best cigars as a guide in constructing the blend, a process he described as a lot of fun.


Launched in the 2016 holiday season, Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend Bourbon is already approaching its 200th batch. Fraley’s tasting notes on the Magnus website have become poetry for whisky lovers, worth reading even if some bottles are no longer available.


The Cigar Blend begins with Joseph Magnus Triple Cask Bourbon, a vatting of older straight bourbons finished separately in sherry, Cognac, and Armagnac casks, to which Fraley adds an older high-rye bourbon and marries the blend in an Armagnac cask.


When Fraley is not pairing her bourbon with a Davidoff White Band Millennium robusto or Aniversario Special R cigar, she enjoys the Arturo Fuente Gran Reserva.

Christian Huber, distiller at Indiana's Starlight Distillery. Credit: Andrew Faulkner

Starlight Distillery in Borden, Indiana, the maker of Carl T. Huber’s Cigar Batch Bourbon, takes a different turn but gives a nod to Fraley. “She’s the one that inspired me to look at the category,” said distiller Christian Huber.


The Cigar Batch Bourbon is finished in Brazilian Amburana casks, usually used for cachaça, and for this Huber uses heavier whiskies to hold up to the pungent, spicy wood. He likes to pair it with Oliveros cigars.


“It’s a very heavy blend for us. It’s done with some of the oilier, non-GMO corns we use: Bloody Butcher, Hopi Blue, and Lancaster White,” said Huber. “Those particular corns take a little bit more oil across the still, and that’s by choice. By building a whisky like that, we have bit more oil to play with because Brazilian Amburana is super powerful with the spice.”


Huber would like to increase production, but sustainability is a way of life for this seventh-generation farmer whose family has been on the same land since 1843. The biggest challenge for Starlight is sourcing casks from coopers who use sustainably harvested Amburana and do not contribute to the deforestation of the Amazon.


From the States, the idea has travelled across the ocean to Ireland. Or at least, fans of both whisky and cigars in Florida, Miami, inspired Clonakilty Distillery in County Cork to create a cigar blend.


Co-founder Padraic Coll said, “They noted that there was no Irish whiskey specifically for cigar smokers, and that to get a cigar whiskey at less than $100 was more and more difficult, so the challenge was accepted to see if we could do something about that.”


The distillery had been experimenting with different cask finishes. Clonakilty was looking for something distinctive from other cigar-blend whiskies on the market. As part of its collaboration series with US craft brewers, the distillery filled an imperial stout barrel from 26 Degree Brewing in Pompano Beach, Florida, with a blend of double-distilled malt and a 10-year-old grain whisky, finding the desired characteristics. Notes of caramelised pear and apple counter the dry mouth sometimes caused by smoking, and leave a lingering finish of citrus and dark chocolate.


“There is slightly more sweetness and a longer chocolate finish than our standard whiskies,” said Coll, who likes to pair the Clonakilty Cigar Blend Irish Whiskey with Tatuaje Cojonu 2003 cigars.

Clonakilty Cigar Blend.

Across the North Channel comes the image of Winston Churchill enjoying Johnnie Walker Red Label with a fine Cuban – a Romeo y Julieta, or an Aroma de Cuba.


Scotch cigar blends got a head start when legendary master blender Richard Paterson introduced The Dalmore Cigar Malt single malt Scotch whisky in 1999. Although the expression was discontinued in 2009, it was not the end.


As Paterson travelled the world, requests for a comeback were constant. He reformulated the blend, finishing it in a combination of 30-year-old Matusalem sherry casks and red wine barriques from Bordeaux, and released The Dalmore Cigar Malt Reserve in 2012.  


“We by design tried to play against the smoke of the cigar. And the inclusion of the Bordeaux barriques packs it full of really soft tannins,” explained Craig Bridger, head of advocacy for Whyte & Mackay Americas. “It’s got that immediately identifiable nose, with a sweetness that’s reminiscent of maple. And then behind that, the red-berry fruits emerge from the wine casks. There’s maybe a little oak spice, a hint of leather, and then, of course, you are going to get the alluring silky texture from the tannins that is a nice relief on the palate from the smoke you’re pulling from the cigar.”


Cigar Malt Reserve is part of The Dalmore’s principal collection and is available year-round. Paterson crafted it with the Partagás Serie D No. 4 cigar in mind, yet it pairs well with other cigars, or with foods such as a dry-aged steak.


“It’s a whisky near and dear to my heart. It was the first expression of Dalmore that I fell in love with,” said Bridger. “All things being equal, it is probably my all-time favourite expression of The Dalmore, whether I am smoking or not.”


That is a sentiment that most makers agree with. Huber said, “You don’t have to be a cigar smoker to enjoy the blends.”

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