Based on a scotch’s taste, you can almost breathe in the salty ocean air blowing near the Highland Park distillery in Scotland; you can almost feel the coarse boards of the oak barrels the brew rested in and smell the burning layers of peat which flavored the barley as it dried. Matching the silent and sordid past of scotch, cigars can also unravel a story. The expert hands that tightly rolled the large tobacco leaves of a fine cigar largely remain anonymous. And because cigars must be prepared in a humid climate, like Honduras and the Dominican Republic, their reluctance to adapt to the Western hemisphere makes them that much more intriguing.
Like scotch, cigars can pack an intense flavor which lights up taste buds with notes of vanilla, ginger, cinnamon and cedar. With their complimentary flavors and fun-loving nature, cigars and scotch are frequently found pairing up at parties.
Based on attendance at the Creve Coeur Club’s 3rd annual Evening of Scotch and Cigars on Oct. 20, the duo are rolling their way onto more palates, club past president Phil Walker said.
“Since its first year there have been more female members attending and spouses. It was sold out from the first event on, it will clearly be an annual event far into the future,” Walker said. “Every year we have different cigars and scotches, it’s an educational evening.” He elaborated to say that some members are surprised to find an extremely wide variety of scotches and cigars, from very light to very heavy and from a citrus sweetness to a nutty taste.
More and more tasting events are popping up as scotch and cigars grow in popularity. However, as Jim McAvoy, manager at Friar Tuck, points out, cigars, as well as scotches, are not consumed in quantity but are savored for their quality. McAvoy has been smoking cigars for over 30 years and said the experience is “pure mental therapy and relaxation.” He enjoys accompanying his favorite cigar with meditation at the end or beginning of his day. When it comes to pairing scotch and cigars, McAvoy said to seek out comparable tastes.
“Start with something you enjoy. The more bold the scotch, the more bold the cigar,” McAvoy said. “You don’t want to overpower either one to get the best of both.”
He elaborated to say that the color of the wrapper can indicate a different flavor, but a dark color does not necessarily indicate a stronger or heavier cigar. For example, a Partagas Black Label cigar is bold, with notes of coffee, cocoa and a nutty aftertaste, but by no means overpowering, McAvoy said. Machine-rolled cigars are significantly inexpensive compared to hand-rolled cigars and tend to burn more unevenly. Prices on cigars fluctuate wildly from under $3 to over $100 for a single cigar depending on age and quality. Like scotch, cigars can be aged for years and with each year the flavors will change. Even where and how the tobacco is grown can influence a cigar’s flavor, said Jason Fuller the general manager of Super Liquors in Peoria.
“Keep in mind a bad growing year equals bad cigars. It’s very much like making wine,” Fuller said. “It’s amazing that the U.S. does make the best tobacco wrapper, a Connecticut shade-grown wrapper, but for filler the U.S. is not so great because there isn’t the humidity.”
The perfect growing temperature for cigars is 70 degrees with 70 percent humidity, like in Cuba—which is considered by many the best place to buy cigars. A 1962 U.S. embargo made Cuban cigars illegal, preventing their import into the U.S. However, imported cigars made in Ecuador, Honduras and the Dominican Republic come extremely close to rivaling a Cuban smoke, Fuller said. The two most common cigar shapes are called parejo and figurado. The more common of the two, the parejo, is a cylindrical shape with straight sides. The figurado is an irregular shape, like a triangular or torpedo shape.
Peoria resident and Creve Coeur Club member JoEll Allen said for her smoking cigars is a pleasure she enjoys in moderation, especially while on the golf course. “Every cigar has an individual story. Somewhere it was farmed and someone rolled it,” Allen said. “No matter how much you think you’re going to know, you don’t.” She added, “The times have changed, the ability to enjoy the experience is in no way gender specific.”
Just as avid cigar aficionados seek out their favorites, Fuller said he has watched as his customers over the last 14 years have sought out more refined scotches and made high-end requests which he honors.
“Single malts are very popular now. In the last six to seven years the consumer has become more educated and is willing to spend more,” Fuller said. “They do their own research and are buying finer spirits these days, not just blended scotches.”
Super Liquors now sells hundreds of varieties of scotch up from only about 30 labels five years ago—a scotch connoisseur can purchase a delicately-aged, premium brew for $2,000 and a more budget-conscious customer can pick up a younger scotch for around $30.
By law, scotch whisky has to be aged for at least two years in Scotland and conform to the Scotch Whisky Order of 1990 (U.K.)—which attempted to clarify the Scotch Whisky Act of 1988—to be dubbed as scotch. About two years ago, the Scotch Whisky Association released new guidelines to define scotch. With the word single attached, it means the scotch was created at a single distillery. A single malt contains 100 percent pure barley— while the word blended means the scotch is composed of whiskies from two or more distilleries and generally mixed with a grain whisky. Malted is the term for the process of steeping barley in water until a specific germination point. During the germination process, enzymes break down starches and help convert them into sugars. When the desired germination peak is reached, the barley is then dried using smoke—frequently from burning peat, a mossy substance—and mashed with hot water and yeast and lastly, distilled. The complex and timely process behind making scotch can be described in the most simplest of terms as making rudimentary beer and then distilling it, Fuller said.
But because it is a much more elaborate process involving various ingredients; it may not be surprising to know that flavors of scotch continue to evolve even after more than five centuries of brewing.
In Orkney Island, the northern-most distilling area in Scotland, a strong wind greatly affects the peatiness of scotch at the Highland Park distillery. The wind stirs up a different consistency in the region’s peat which then smokes multiple earthy tones into the barley. In addition, distillers commonly decide to store scotch in used barrels which previously held port or bourbon and now opt for alternate storage between barrels which contained various brews, over the course of a few years to over a decade.
Perhaps the mystique of scotch and cigars stems from the combination of these climatic and human-controlled factors which culminate in a distinct flavor.
More people than in years past have come out of the woodwork to appreciate the smoky and even gingery flavors as well as the overall ambiance both cigars and scotch can offer.
“You work your way into perceiving the flavors. It’s fascinating to hear the stories of the aging of scotch,” Allen said. “And on occasion I like to sit back and enjoy a cigar and watch the snow come down. It’s an overall feeling.” a&s