It’s not just dark spirits that can pair with cigars – we found mezcal makes a mean match too. Jacopo Mazzeo reports
As ‘creating an experience’ becomes increasingly pivotal to retain a steady footfall in your venue, a cigar and drinks pairing might be the very thing that offers your guests a potentially new adventure – one which would be difficult to replicate at home and that will keep them ordering drinks for at least the entire length of the smoke.
Cigars are traditionally paired with dark spirits, as white spirits are deemed to lack the necessary depth of ﬂavour, intensity and complexity to stand up to an entire smoke. This is not the case for mezcal though.
The Mexican distillate is renowned for packing plenty of complexity without the need, in most cases, of a lengthy maturation in wood. All of which explains why we thought it was the ideal candidate to unpack the white spirits category’s cigar-pairing potential.
Furthermore, ﬂavour proﬁles vary widely (mezcal can be made from over 30 varieties of agave) and its production process often lends a certain smoky character to the spirit, which is an added plus when pairing with cigars.
So how does one go about matching the two categories? To ﬁnd out, we called in a diverse range of top mezcals, including some that have spent time in wood, and a trio of well-known habanos from cigar specialists Hunters & Frankau. We then tapped a team of somms, bartenders and cigar experts to decide on the best pairings.
How it works
We asked UK agents to submit examples of premium mezcals from their portfolios, of any style, all available to the UK on-trade and independents. Leading cigar distributor Hunters & Frankau supplied a trio of widely known habanos. We tasted all the spirits blind, then lit up the cigars and attempted the pairings. We unveiled the mezcals’ identities once all results were in.
Glen Collins, manager at Boisdale Belgravia; Adam Lajca, head cigar sommelier at The Corinthia; Jacopo Mazzeo, Imbibe; Jimmy McGhee, head of communications and training at Hunters & Frankau; Gergely Horvath, general manager at No.6 Cavendish; Dino Pala, assistant bar manager at Bōkan; Andres Sossa, head sommelier at Balthazar; Melody Wong, head sommelier at Skylon
‘As a cigar expert, my approach to pairing is often to ﬁnd one that brings out something of the cigar, something quite unusual,’ explained Hunters & Frankau’s Jimmy McGhee. ‘However, it’s always important to ﬁnd an even match, you have to be able to enjoy both products.’
When pairing cigars with drinks – or food with wine for that matter – neither product should ever prevail
Indeed, when pairing cigars with drinks – or food with wine for that matter – neither product should ever prevail. As Adam Lajca pointed out, for instance, his top spirit of choice was Ilegal Añejo, but he thought that it tended to overwhelm the smoke when sipped alongside the cigars.
Overall, most tasters were astonished by how well white mezcals paired with cigars, as they often found more than one ideal accompaniment to each habano. ‘I found a lot of different personalities and wrote tasting notes that I would have never imagined,’ said Melody Wong. ‘People think that mezcal has to be necessarily very smoky, but these actually present a delicate smokiness and rather a lot of umami ﬂavour: mushroom, earthiness, soy sauce.’
Given the promising number of successful matches, the tasting helped rethink the cigar category too, unveiling its potential to reach a new audience by going beyond classic pairings and experimenting with new drinks categories.
HOYO DE MONTERREY EPICURE NO.2
There was little consensus on which was the best match for this cigar. For this writer, at ﬁrst the ideal pairing was with Koch Tepextate, which offered appealing meaty notes, but halfway through the smoke the fuller body and higher intensity of Derrumbes Zacatecas added interesting tomato and blackcurrant leaf notes.
‘I would match the Epicure with Derrumbes Zacatecas too,’ commented Glen Collins, ‘as it brings out some nice barbeque and peppery notes, but also Alipús San Andrés, especially a little while into the smoke.’
For Andres Sossa it was Koch Ensamble, ‘as the cigar brings out the freshness and sweetness of the mezcal, with all its tropical, banana and citrus notes.’ McGhee was of the same opinion: ‘the cigar helped to enhance Koch Ensamble’s rich fruitiness and sweetness.’
For Pala it was Koch Espadín. ‘This mezcal matches the light intensity of the cigar; it doesn’t have too much of a smoky note, more of a spicy, peppery character.’
Wong went for the oakiest of the ﬂight: ‘Ilegal Añejo is the most immediate match; when I ﬁrst tasted it, I didn’t expect it could go well, but eventually the cigar really enhanced the woody and smoky notes in the mezcal.’
Lastly, Lajca suggested Pensador, ‘because of the butteriness and the spice, which I ﬁnd in both products, so they really complement each other’.
ROMEO Y JULIETA SHORT CHURCHILL
With the cigar’s volume tuned up, our tasters’ pairing suggestions featured more aged spirits. ‘The earthy notes of Pensador went really well here,’ commented Collins, ‘but Ilegal Añejo was perhaps the best match, with its vanilla and peppery notes.’
McGhee suggested Ilegal Añejo too, while Pala and Sossa both indicated Los Danzantes Reposado as their top choice. They felt that the vanilla and woody ﬂavours in both mezcal and cigar enriched each other perfectly. ‘It’s a balanced mezcal that shows more of a tequila proﬁle, so not much smoke, but more buttery and vanilla, which I also ﬁnd in the habano,’ said Pala.
For Wong and myself it was the lighter Koch Espadín. ‘It’s unique,’ said Wong, ‘and makes the whole experience rounder, creamier, it almost brings a touch of sweet spices which I didn’t ﬁnd when tasting the mezcal on its own.’
PARTAGÁS SERIE D NO.4
This was the fullest of our smokes and there was consensus among much of the panel that Los Danzantes Reposado made for the ideal pairing.
Collins said that the cigar brought out the sweetness in the mezcal successfully, helping to make such an intense smoking experience a more balanced one, while Wong thought that Los Danzantes Reposado was ‘a very complete spirit in itself and that’s what you need for such a full-bodied cigar.’
She pointed out that Koch Ensamble was a good pairing too, as she believed that the spirit wasn’t as characterful as the other expressions, but that a puff of Partagás Serie D No.4 was enough to bring its personality into focus.
Collins agreed, explaining that the pairing highlighted the mezcal’s dark ﬂavours of black olives and balsamic vinegar, and a pleasant citrus freshness. Pala and Gergely Horvath’s suggested pairing was instead Koch Tepextate: ‘It’s got green fruit aromas to it,’ explained Pala, ‘but also a peaty smokiness that’s almost comparable to an Islay whisky.’
Alipús San Andrés
‘Ripe nose of banana, honeysuckle, tropical fruits and grapes. Then there’s some added complexity of smoke, vanilla, grass and pepper. My favourite of the ﬂight,’ GH. 47% abv, RRP £55.10/70cl, Amathus Drinks, amathusdrinks.com
‘Citrus-led mezcal, with notes of orange and lemon and an earthy character on the back of the palate,’ GC. 48% abv, RRP £39.50/50cl, Meanwhile Drinks, meanwhiledrinks.com
‘The nose is intense, citrusy, with scents of aromatic herbs, chalk, spice and earth. The palate is smoky, saline yet smooth. A very long ﬁ nish,’ AS. 47% abv, RRP £39.95/70cl, Spirit Cartel, spiritcartel.com
'Intriguing nose of black olives, cocoa, balsamic vinegar and banana. The palate is waxy, displaying ripe tropical fruits and hints of smoke. A real treat,’ JM. 47% abv, RRP £48.54/70cl, Spirit Cartel, spiritcartel.com
‘This is not an aromatic style. The nose is woodled, it has a medium-body, good creamy texture and elegant, fresh ﬁnish. Balanced, rich but not overwhelming. Very pleasurable,’ MW. 45% abv, RRP £49.95/70cl, Nickolls & Perks, nickollsandperks.co.uk
‘A typical, quite complex mezcal. It has a captivating soy sauce, seaweed freshness, complemented by aromas of cucumber, marzipan, cardamom, white pepper and strong balsamic notes of eucalyptus and mint. Very exciting,’ JM. 42% abv, RRP £50.75/70cl, Speciality Brands, specialitybrands.com
‘The nose here is of wet wood, forest ﬂoor and cream, with some lemony scents and a delicate smokiness. The palate is smokier, showing ﬂavours of caramel and black pepper,’ AS. 47% abv, RRP £66.45/70cl, Spirit Cartel, spiritcartel.com
Los Danzantes Reposado
‘A smooth, tequila-like golden mezcal with aromas of caramel, camomile, lemon zest blossom and vanilla. The palate brings an added complexity with ﬂ avours of coriander and just a hint of smoke,’ DP. 43% abv, RRP £69.15/70cl, Amathus Drinks, amathusdrinks.com
Los Danzantes Añejo
‘Lemon in colour, this has a delightful yellow fruit character to it, a balanced smokiness and a savoury character. It’s mildly smoky on the palate, and creamy with a light herbal and savoury ﬁnish,’ AL. 46% abv, RRP £71.93/70cl, Amathus Drinks, amathusdrinks.com
‘Yellow plums on the nose and a touch of madeira-like oxidative character. Very interesting, elegant and round spirit. It’s smooth and balanced on the palate, displaying a very delicate smokiness. Impressive,’ MW. 40% abv, RRP £87.95/70cl, Speciality Brands, specialitybrands.com
Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No.2
This light-ﬂavoured cigar is approachable as it’s subtle and reﬁned. The ﬂavours are of wood, cream and cocoa, then a gentle pepperiness as the smoke approaches the end. £22.10, Hunters & Frankau, cigars.co.uk
Romeo y Julieta Short Churchill
Romeo y Julieta is now one of Cuba’s most recognisable cigar brands and this medium strength expression, named after cigar devotee Sir Winston Churchill, is a testimony to the habanos’ long association with Britain. The ﬂavours here are balanced and aromatic, led by notes of coffee, chocolate and vanilla. £21.80, Hunters & Frankau, cigars.co.uk
Partagás Serie D No.4
This full-strength cigar is the best-selling habano in the world. It has a leathery start, enriched by earthy and cedary notes, then there’s a transition into a deep, peppery, roasted richness towards the end. £21.80, Hunters & Frankau, cigars.co.uk
Many thanks to Ajay and Bhavna Patel for hosting the tasting, and to the No.6 Cavendish team for all their help on the day.
Photographs: Seb Higgins