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|| News Item: Posted 2000-04-27

The Count on Cigars: The Perfect Beverage
By Eric Risberg

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One of the things I like best about cigar smoking is picking out an accompanying beverage. As I write this column, I'm watching the last bits of light fall on a number of boats bobbing in Richardson Bay near Sausalito, Calif. Burning beside the laptop is a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Number 1 gran corona cigar, and next to the ashtray is a glass filled with a 1990 Rutherford Grove cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley. A medium-bodied cigar with a very smooth and mellow cab, neither overpowering the other. A nice combination for a relaxing moment to ponder this column.

When many think of what drink goes best with a cigar, the first thought has been cognac --- part of what the French call the "Three C's" (coffee, cognac and cigars). Another thought is the standard scene in a Victorian novel or play depicting the English gentleman retiring to the drawing room for a glass of port and a cigar. While I enjoy both cognac and port, I want to recommend that there are a number of other drinks that can be enjoyed as well. They include champagne, armagnac, red wine, whiskey, single malts, beer, bourbons, rum, madeira and coffee.

Pairing the right cigar with the right drink involves a number of factors such as the time of day, the mood, the food. But most important are one's particular taste and achieving a balance. While some may enjoy a heavy cigar with a very heavy cognac, that may be too much for others. With a glass of champagne, a lighter cigar is preferable in order to not overwhelm the delicate flavor of the drink. But with a fuller wine, a lighter cigar may be overpowered by the heaviness of the fruit and flavor. And a heavy cognac or whisky can numb the palate to a point where the flavor of the cigar will be lost.

Sometimes the weather conditions might influence the choice of beverage and cigar. For instance, on a very cold evening, a strong bourbon might be matched with a strong cigar. On a warm, humid island in the Carribbean, a glass of rum on ice may go perfectly with a medium bodied cigar. While many think of Cognac as THE after dinner drink with a cigar, I encourage people to try an armagnac as something new to discover and an alternative. Armangnac has a lighter taste and aroma than the thicker cognac because unlike cognac, armangnac is distilled only once.

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My particular favorite drinks to accompany a cigar have been port, rum and espresso. While I enjoy a cognac or single malt, I have found that the combination in most cases is just too much. It is like matching fire with fire and can be very overwhelming. That is my particular palate. Some might find that the flavor of vanilla in a bourbon matches perfectly with a cigar. Port, however would be at the top of my list because the flavor and weight of the port balance perfectly with cigars. The warm flavors of cedar, leather, cocoa, etc. found in cigars complement the sweeter and fruitier character of the port.

There are a number of ports available from tawny ports to vintage ports, one of the best values being the LBV (late bottle vintage). A LBV consists of a blend of wines from the same vintage, aged in wood for four to six years and then bottled and ready to drink. LBVs are slightly more expensive that ruby ports but considerably less expensive than vintage ports, which need to be aged at least 10 or more years before consumption. Late last year, I purchased several bottles of '94 Osborne LBV for less than $20 a bottle. It was a fantastic value given that it was ready to enjoy and was from perhaps one of the best port vintages of the century. A similar '94 vintage port would have sold from four to 10 times as much and would not have been ready to be opened for several years.

My second favorite drink with a cigar has to be rum -- preferably an aged rum on ice. However, there are rum based drinks such as a mojito, daiquiri, or even Cuba Libre (rum and Coke) that also go quite well with a cigar, especially one that is medium- bodied or light. My favorite rum is the Havana Club 7 year rum. Unfortunately, this rum is not available in the U.S. The closest thing to that in the U.S. would be the Bacardi Anejo. The aged rum has many of the vanilla and caramel flavors found in bourbons, but on a sweeter scale.

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On those moments when I'm covering a sporting event at night, I don't want to drink an alcoholic beverage during the day. So, after a leisurely lunch, before I saddle up for the stadium, I turn to the journalist's best friend --- coffee. A favorite after-lunch combination is a medium-bodied robusto cigar with a double Illy espresso. I have found that espresso drinks containing milk, such as lattes and cappuccino, have not gone well with cigars. A single cup of espresso has more than 600 - yes, 600 -- different taste characteristics, which makes it the perfect cigar companion.

If you don't drink alcohol, coffee is a good choice as a cigar companion. If you drink neither, you can experiment with non-alcoholic wine or other beverages. Sometimes a nice glass of ice water makes a perfect palate cleanser and keeps you from getting a dry mouth.

And if you do choose a fortified beverage, please drink responsibly so that you can continue to enjoy good smokes for many years to come.

Happy smoking!
The Count

(Eric "The Count" Risberg is a staff photographer for the Associated Press based in San Francisco.)

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