Burning ambition: Rum and cigar pairing

07 November 2016

A fine cigar deserves a fine spirit, and what better than a well-aged rum? Clinton Cawood fires up an Imbibe and industry tasting panel to find the perfect pairing of Caribbean spirit and Cuban smokes

There's wisdom to pairing particular cuisines with wines from the same part of the world, and the same logic applies when matching a spirit with a cigar. Fortunately, rum offers an abundance of choice from in and around the home of cigars.

We teamed up with Cuban cigar importer Hunters & Frankau to explore the many incarnations of this classic pairing, gathering a panel of spirit and cigar experts in the tasting room at Edward Sahakian Cigar Shop at the Bulgari Hotel. The tasting saw three very different cigars go up against a varied flight of rums from four different countries.

Tasters found – unsurprisingly – that there’s very good reason cigars and rum have been enjoyed alongside each other for so long, and when the matches worked, both elements were enhanced immeasurably. But our panellists also found that the complexity in both categories means that not every match was a perfect one.

How it works
Tasters were presented with four distinct rums, each from a different producing country, and each with significantly different flavour profiles. Cigar importer Hunters & Frankau provided three distinctly different
Cuban cigars to pair with these. Panellists tasted the four rums with each cigar, scoring each match out of 20. Scores were collated to find the best pairings. All prices are RRP/70cl bottle.

Slawomir Bielicki, Hyatt Regency Churchill; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Sean Croley, Hunters + Frankau;
Adam Lajca, Corinthia Hotel; Christian Maspes, Gong Bar, Shangri-La Hotel; Jimmy McGhee, Hunters + Frankau;
Attila Szabó, Edward Sahakian Cigar Shop, Bulgari Hotel

Appleton Estate Reserve Blend, Jamaica
40% abv, £26, Campari UK, 020 3100 9600
Jamaica's entry, the most affordable of the rums on offer, is a blend with an average age of six years. It proved to be an interesting and unusual option for pairing with these three cigars. Lighter and leaner than some of the other rums in the tasting, it brought orange peel and nutty flavours to the table, along with some appealing spice.

1st Bolivar Belgravia
The spicy, almost savoury Bolivar allowed the uniquely Jamaican elements of this rum to shine, bringing out some funk and plantain, as well as enhancing its spice notes. Vanilla and caramel notes were also brought out by this full-flavoured cigar. Not a luxurious pairing by any means, but an honest and down-to-earth one. 'A great example of how a cigar can lift the profile of a drink,' commented one taster. 'The earthy tones of the cigar quell the eagerness of the rum,' said another.

2nd Cohiba Maduro 5 Magicos
The sweetness of the maduro wrapper on this Cohiba interacted well with the Appleton, resulting in a harmonious, smooth and rounded match. One taster noticed a liquorice note in the cigar that was brought out by the rum. This pairing may have lacked a little complexity, but it made up for this with approachability. A fruity, all-day match.

3rd Romeo y Julieta Short Churchill
Tasters felt that this medium-bodied cigar needed a richer rum to pair with it, with the light, fruity notes of the spirit somewhat lost on the finish. A little sweetness wouldn’t have gone amiss here. That said, some tasters appreciated the interaction between Appleton’s spicy notes and a peppery note in the Romeo y Julieta.

El Dorado 15yo Special Reserve, Guyana
43% abv, £45, Love Drinks, 020 7501 9630
Guyana’s 15yo offering, containing rums up to 25 years old, distinguished itself as the richest, sweetest of the four rums in this tasting. This characteristic helped it pair more harmoniously with some cigars than others.

1st Romeo y Julieta Short Churchill
The distinctive sweetness of the El Dorado 15yo served it well alongside the relatively dry Romeo y Julieta. The rum brought fudge and muscovado notes to the table, as well as some sweet citrus, balancing beautifully with an appealing bitterness in the cigar. Some noticed that the rum allowed the cigar to shine in this pairing. 'A rich, sweet and nuanced match, balancing the cedar flavour in the classic Romeo y Julieta blend,' summarised one taster.

2nd Bolivar Belgravia
Big, bold cigar flavours met serious rum sweetness in this pairing and the result divided our panel. Some praised the result, identifying coconut milk and tropical fruit notes, particularly halfway through the cigar. These proponents thought this would make a satisfying after-dinner option. Others couldn’t get past the overall sweetness of the match – perhaps replacing a dessert.

3rd Cohiba Maduro 5 Magicos
This pairing resulted in too much of a good thing, and that thing was sugar. When this rich demerara rum met the sweet maduro wrapper of the Cohiba, the result, for some, bordered on sickly, although other tasters optimistically again suggested skipping dessert in favour of this pairing.

Flor de Caña Centenario 25yo, Nicaragua
40% abv, £125, Whyte & Mackay, 0141 248 5771
The most mature, not to mention the priciest of the four rums here, Flor de Caña’s 25yo was unsurprisingly defined by its oaky notes and complexity. One to offer a customer looking for a top-end cigar and spirit pairing.

1st Romeo y Julieta Short Churchill
Compared to some of the pairings on the day, this was a meeting of two nuanced elements, resulting in a satisfyingly complex result. Coffee, leather and dark caramel notes emerged between the two, along with deep, woody notes. As the cigar evolved, so did this pairing. 'Caramel notes complement the cigar, which in turn develops some spiciness – a winner for me!' said one panellist.

2nd Cohiba Maduro 5 Magicos
This was a fine example of similar elements, as opposed to contrasting ones, resulting in a harmonious match. Both the cigar and the rum brought big, bold flavours – rich toffee and woody notes, for example – into play here. Nutty notes appeared too, as well as a floral element.

'In terms of structure and strength, a very good match,' summarised one taster. 'The rum complements the subtle honeyed sweetness of the cigar, without becoming a sugar fest. The tea and toast of pairings,' said another.

3rd Bolivar Belgravia
This might have been third placed cigar pairing, but it was still a highly-regarded match – a testament to this rum's compatibility with cigars in general. Our panel praised subtle sweetness, earthy and woody notes, and some appealing dried fruit notes too. The final third of the cigar brought the necessary weight and complexity for this pairing.

Havana Club Selección de Maestros, Cuba
45% abv, £49.69, Pernod Ricard UK, 020 8538 4484
Given the provenance of all three cigars in this tasting, Havana Club was an obvious choice, and this was certainly not the first time that Selección de Maestros had been sipped with a cigar. But which one of the three would it pair best with?

1st Cohiba Maduro 5 Magicos
As a foil for the complex flavours in Selección de Maestros – which include deep spice, dark chocolate and dried fruit – this Cohiba proved ideal.

Both elements of the match were at their best, 'drenching the palate with honey and sweet sherry undertones,' said one panellist. And yet the end result of the pairing satisfied those with less of a sweet tooth too, with nutty notes emerging, as well as a leathery furniture-polish element.

This pairing also evolved nicely, with the cigar dominating proceedings at the start, but then surprisingly developing into a pleasingly harmonious match over time.

2nd Bolivar Belgravia
Our panel had no shortage of praise for this meeting of high-powered Cubans. The aromas of the cigar were compelling, with the Bolivar's smoke interacting with a smoky note in the rum, followed by some appealing dried-fruit notes on the palate, as well as some deep, rich spice. This was a classic pairing, although some felt that the pairing favoured the rum disproportionately more than the cigar.

3rd Romeo y Julieta Short Churchill
If this Havana Club achieved dominance over the powerful Bolivar cigar, the comparatively delicate and refined Romeo y Julieta stood little chance at standing up to it. The flavours in both were complementary, but when the dust settled, very little of the cigar’s balanced and full-bodied character remained.


While the marriage of cigars with rum looks, on paper, to be a match made in heaven, this tasting proved that a much more informed and considered approach is required. It was all too easy for one element to dominate. In addition, some pairings were better suited to certain occasions than others.

Sweetness was a major factor here, from the maduro wrapper of the Cohiba, to the generous muscovado character in the El Dorado. Out of balance, sweetness could be a deal-breaker for many tasters when it came to some combinations here. But when balanced by smoky or bitter notes, it made for some of the most sublime matches, too.

The advanced ageing of the Flor de Caña made it the most versatile alongside the cigars in this tasting. The rum’s evolved flavours proved to be the most suited to all the three cigars on offer.

A cigar’s flavour profile changes significantly as it is smoked, with the final third significantly different to the first third, for example. It’s worth considering offering a flight of spirits, rather than a single one to match all stages of the chosen cigar’s evolution.

Panel Comments

Slawomir Bielicki, Hyatt Regency Churchill
'Cigars can be enhanced by the sweetness in rum. That sweetness can balance a stronger, spicier cigar, but with a lighter cigar, this can sometimes be a bit overpowering.'

Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
'It's important to consider the setting and occasion when making these matches. Sometimes you're looking for a rich, opulent match, maybe after a meal, whereas some of the lighter pairings here would've been better suited to the daytime. Some customers might be accustomed to full-flavoured matches, while others are after a more nuanced pairing.'

Sean Croley, Hunters + Frankau
'Cuban tobacco is definitely rich and earthy, so lends itself well to pairings with rum in general. When matching these two together, you don't want to start a fight – you want to start a friendship. Sometimes opposites attract, and with some other matches, it was more like birds of a feather.'

Adam Lajca, Corinthia Hotel
'Rum is the main spirit in Cuba, so it's naturally the best spirit to pair with cigars. They come from the same soil. In general, I found that the darker the rum, and the more aged, the better the match.'

Christian Maspes, Gong Bar, Shangri-La Hotel
'The delicate and refined cigars worked better with the sweeter rums for me. The cigars brought leather notes, and some added some dried pepper too, and those flavours work – we're talking about South American flavours here.'

Jimmy McGhee, Hunters + Frankau
'Even the lightest cigar is still a cigar, and is going to have a big say in any pairing. Some matches didn’t shine today, but I think there's a cigar for every rum, and a rum for every cigar.'

Attila Szabó, Edward Sahakian Cigar Shop, Bulgari Hotel
'If someone asked me for a nice cigar to go with a nice rum, I'd definitely go with something that has a maduro wrapper. A large percentage of the typical cigar smokers we see are after a rum to match with their cigar. The beauty of these cigars in general is that they develop as you smoke them – there’s a lot going on.'

Many thanks to the team at Edward Sahakian Cigar Shop, Bulgari Hotel, for hosting the tasting, and for all of their help on the day. Many thanks, too, to Hunters & Frankau (020 7471 8444), for providing the cigars.

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