This feature article is brought to us courtesy of Dale Roush, co-host of Dog Watch Cigar Radio. In this article Dale gives us some insight on how to pair up some of our favorite cigars with Single Malt Scotch.
Cigars and Single Malt Scotch
Where to begin?
Where to begin?
A few weeks ago Walt told me he was beginning to get the urge to start exploring the wonderful world of Single Malt Scotch, and wondered if I could provide some tips for pairing scotch with cigars. There are many others out there with far more experience than I in this area, but I am known to dabble in Scotch a bit, and often enjoy a wee dram with my cigars, so I will offer my thoughts as a place to start. By no means is this the definitive primer, just my opinions, and I encourage you to experiment, expand and be bold in your search for the varieties and styles of this nectar of the gods that fits your palate, just as you would with cigars.
First, as with any new venture, I highly recommend studying from those who really are experts. My favorite resource is a book called Michael Jackson’s (no, not that M.J….) Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, subtitled A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Single Malt Whiskies of Scotland. I have the 3rd Edition from 1994, Running Press publishers. I read it so often that much of what I write here may sound like Michael is in the room with me. I give him all due credit for much of what little I know about the fine spirits of Scotland. The title of his book sets apart what it is we are talking about. Single Malt Scotch is whisky made from malted barley and packaged for sale from a single distillery without being blended with whisky from any other distillery. Oh, …and it comes from Scotland. There are great blended whiskies out there, one can find marvelous whiskies from Ireland, Canada and elsewhere, and of course American Bourbon is a fine spirit. None of those offer the same character as Single Malt Scotch. They are the most natural of spirits, formed more than any other by their environment. For that reason, they are the most individualistic and offer a myriad of complexities, subtleties and flavors, much like a fine cigar. Thus, the fun in finding the Scotch that complements your pajero or figurado.
Much like great wine, there are Regions of Scotland which produce whiskies of different general characteristics. Within each Region are different Districts. Explanations of all those and their whisky styles are far beyond the scope of this introduction. Again, I refer you to other resources for a definitive description; however in general, the malts of Scotland can be referred to as coming from The Lowlands, The Highlands, Campbeltown and Islay. Once you’ve sampled some typical offerings from each area, you will have a good idea of the character of Scotch you may prefer. In general (and for each area there are the exceptions which prove the rule), the Scotch from the Lowlands is a softer, rounder spirit. The Highlands distilleries produce Scotch which has many variations, yet most seem to have a firm, dry character with more peatiness. Peatiness? What the heck! Yes, most malted barley destined for Scotch is dried and smoked over fires of peat moss, dug from the local bogs near the distilleries! The longer the malt is smoked, the peatier the Scotch will be. The Campbeltown malts are known for having a briny character. When you get to the eight distilleries of Islay, you find them to be distinctive of the sea – a bit seaweedy, salty, and even a bit medicinal. Now don’t let these descriptors scare you away – remember we talk about earthiness, barnyard twang, and other natural flavors in our cigars. They key, as with our cigars, is to try several types that are fairly typical of the Region, and then refine your search by experimenting with different distilleries from that Region to stock your Scotch cellar.
So where to start? As with wines paired with food, I usually tend towards matching Scotch that is heavier, stronger or deeper with more full bodied cigars. Yes, Scotch has “body” too, and I describe it the same as with cigars – it is the “mouth feel” of the liquid – how full or weak does the spirit feel to the mouth. Does it evaporate immediately and leave a clean feel like water? Does it coat the mouth with drippy, clinging nectar that stays and stays? These are characteristics that one needs to consider so as not to overpower the cigar with the Scotch. Scotch also has “nose” like wine, and the aroma is a large part of the experience. Different malts also will have their own finish, again much like cigars. Some are long & strong, others sweet, many with that earthiness that goes well with cigars. I think a few minutes with a notepad while one tries a new Scotch for the first time, writing down experiences similar to a cigar review about how you find the Scotch you are trying, will help you recognize flavors, sensations and aromas you like or dislike. From there, think about your favorite cigars, and how those experiences are either similar or opposed.
Let me recommend a few malts from each Region that I think go well with cigars. I will give you what I think are the major characteristics of each Scotch. I tend to prefer Scotches from the Highlands Region, so there will be more recommendations in that area. This is similar to my preference overall for cigars from Nicaraguan tobacco. You will likely have completely different preferences, and as with cigars, there is no one region that is better. You will find your preferences, and hopefully enjoy the differences along the way!
- This Scotch is characteristically soft and floral with a light body. Often a citrus note, sometimes grassy. I think it goes well with the mild bodied Habanos.
- A wonderfully complex, medium bodied malt. Light and floral with some spiciness. Mildly sweet. Complements the standard line Dominican cigars like La Aurora, Cuesta Rey and Fuente.
Littlemill 8-year-old – Very pale spirit, almost clear. Malty sweet, clean and with and exotic finish. Very nice with a Davidoff or Avo product!
- One of my favorite Scotches, this medium to full bodied malt has a whole room full of flavors wrapped up in a clingy mouth-feel and long lasting flavor development amber colored package. Malty sweetness, nutmeg spice, toffee, dark fruit, mint and smooth peat are just some of the components. Surprisingly, this is also a very affordable Scotch. I haven’t found a cigar I don’t like with it, but it pairs best with well aged OpusX, DPG Cuban Classic, Illusione and the like…
The Balvenie Doublewood 12-year-old
- Wonderful orange peel, honey, cinnamon and nuts. A medium bodied malt with a long finish. Very deep and rich, yet with some light fruity notes on the top end. A VSG Wizard is my perfect match! Also goes well with the new Ashton San Cristobal.
- Another I drink often, this Scotch is full bodied and a wonderful golden color. The flavors just keep developing as you let the spirit slowly drain down your throat – heather, honey, peat, spice, nuts…the list goes on. The mouth feel is slightly oily and sometimes a touch phenolic. Great with any premium Nicaraguan or Honduran cigar!
- One I treat myself with on occasion! Medium bodied, reddish-amber in color with sweetness at first, then walnuts & oak, finally spices come rushing in! Very aromatic and complex. I happen to love this malt with Partagas, Vegas Robaina or Trinidad Habanos.
There are many more Highland Scotches I think are worth trying, but due to space I will just list several more I keep on hand. Cragganmore 12, Dalmore 12 and Macallan 12 are 3 stalwarts that always satisfy. For a change of pace Oban & Jura are refreshing. Of course, if you are going out to eat, most places carry The Glen Livet and/or Glenfiddich. They are ok in a pinch, but strike me as the Budweiser of Scotches. Non-offensive, but not exciting. Why bother when you can have a something so much more interesting?
Glen Scotia 14-year-old
- Smooth, oily, salty and very aromatic. A big Scotch! A great drink for before dinner. I like a La Flor Dominicana style cigar with it. Also pairs well with a Bolivar Belicoso Fino.
Springbank 15-year-old and 21-year-old
- In this Scotch I like to spend a bit more and taste the difference some aging brings to the spirit. While the 8-year-old is very drinkable, the saltiness and peat mellow with age and more of the toffee sweetness and nuttiness comes forward in the older versions. Medium to full bodied and goes well with any spicy, full bodied cigar. I like it with Tatuaje Havana VI and some of the La Tradition boutique blends.
Bowmore 10-year-old and 12-year-old
- Reminds you of a day at sea. Saltiness is mellowed by the smokiness. Slightly sweet with heather and a touch of oak. The 12 is a bit spicy too and with more complexity. The body is medium and oily. Try a Padron Series or a Camacho Corojo in smaller ring gauges with this sherry cask aged malt.
Caol Ila 12-year-old
- Another very light colored, almost clear Scotch, with an oily medium body. Notes of pepper, spices and lots of peat. Has an olive & mushroom aroma to me that is heavenly! Very nice finish that is warming and salty. To me, a great match for big maduro cigars – the saltiness seems to go well with the sweetness of the Brazilian Mata Fina tobacco.
If you like your spirits strong and you smoke nothing but quadruple ligero, high strength cigars, give Laphroig or Lagavulin a try. These are Islay Scotches with a reputation for serious peatiness and phenol. I warned you…..
I have mentioned about 20 different Single Malt Scotches that I really enjoy. There are many more that I haven’t had the pleasure to try yet, and several I do not like at all. There are many that are just ok and I would drink if many better ones were not available. Mmmmmm….kind of like cigars!
My suggested pairings are just that – suggestions. They may not work for you. They are just a place to start. One recommendation that will work for everyone is the correct method of drinking your malt of choice. Single Malt Scotch should always be kept at room temperature. Do NOT put it over ice. Cold closes up the spirit and doesn’t let its flavors out. I like my Scotch neat, meaning with nothing added. Give me a couple fingers of Scotch in a highball (or better yet, a Scotch glass from Riedel), let me swirl it around the glass a bit to let the aromas start to rise and I’m a happy guy! Some folks like to add JUST A COUPLE DROPS of pure distilled or spring water to the Scotch. In some cases I can tell how it opens up the Scotch even more. However, I do not recommend so much water as to dilute the Scotch. Enjoy its fullness, sip it slowly and let it warm you up. Match it to a favorite cigar and you have something around an hour of pure bliss!