By Russ Ouellette
A favorite pipe and a treasured tobacco can be wonderful companions, and they’re often enhanced by the presence of a nice beverage, but we often don’t give much consideration to what we’re drinking in combination with a particular tobacco blend. Interestingly enough, I often get the question, “Why is it that I’ll occasionally get a bowl of tobacco that doesn’t seem right?”, and most people believe that the problem lies with that particular bowl not being mixed very well, or a problem with the pipe being smoked. My first question in reply is- “What were you drinking while you were smoking?”, as most people give little thought to how much impact the taste of an accompanying beverage can have on the flavor of the tobacco.
For many years, cigar dinners have been popular, and one of the intriguing aspects of putting one of these events together is figuring out what drinks go well with the cigars being offered, or vice versa. A few years ago I was offered the opportunity to lecture a culinary class at a state university about conducting dinners of this sort or how to recommend a cigar to a patron of the restaurant based upon what the customer is drinking. In the course of putting the lecture together, I came up with a general approach that can easily be adapted to pairings with pipe tobaccos as well.
My first “rule” of pairings is: Match the body of the drink to the smoke. If you are smoking a deep, rich Balkan-style blend, then you want a full-bodied libation to counter-balance the smoke. It’s necessary to do this to avoid having one or the other dominate your experience. A light white wine will not provide enough substance to even be noticed while enjoying a Latakia or Perique-heavy blend. To balance out, a Port or Bourbon would be a better bet. Are there exceptions? Of course. If you just want something to quench your thirst or cleanse your palate while trying a new blend, something easy on the palate and innocuous like water, seltzer or tea will be fine. And it’s certainly okay to have a cup of coffee with that first bowl of the day, but when you want that full sensory immersion experience, following this guideline will help.
To help with your choices, we need to understand what body is. There are sparkling waters that have a vanilla flavor to them, and there is vanilla custard. They’re both taste like vanilla, but the intensity of flavor is so much greater with the custard. There’s the defining note- the depth or intensity of taste.
Rule #2 is quite different than rule #1, however. There should be a significant contrast between the flavor profile of what you drink versus what you smoke. If your tobacco is sweet and tangy (like some of the McClelland Virginias), you would get the most out of the pairing if the beverage is dry and smooth (along the lines of a Merlot). The contrasting flavors will enhance each other, as it becomes easier to taste sweetness immediately after being exposed to sour or bitter flavors.
Fortunately, it’s a lot easier to identify elements of taste than it is to determine body. Salty, sweet, bitter and sour are easy to pick out, so figuring out a contrast shouldn’t present much of a problem. To measure body, a frame of reference is useful. Think of a dense, dark fudge cake. The flavor is deep and rich, and the concentration of chocolate is intense. That’s an example of full body. On the other end of the spectrum, you have something like cucumber - a flavor that registers lightly on the tongue, and it usually fades quickly.
Let’s take an example: You load up a bowl of Greg Pease’s Ashbury, which is a light to medium-bodied blend. It is smoky and savory, but not overly sweet. To accentuate the tobacco’s nature, a medium-bodied drink with some sugariness and a tang would work well, such as a golden or spiced Rum, or a glass of Riesling. If you want to avoid alcohol, a white grape juice, cocoa, a light-roast coffee with a touch of cream and sugar, Earl Grey tea or even a soda would work.
The way to approach pairings is usually to start with the smoke and then pick the beverage. To determine the body of a blend, understanding the intensity of the component tobaccos is a good place to start. Some tobaccos that tend toward light to medium body are: white Burleys, lighter Virginias, Carolina, Maryland and some of the lighter Orientals. Medium bodied leaf would include: medium Burleys, red and brown Virginias and the majority of Oriental and Turkish. Full-bodied varieties would include dark Burleys, Latakia, Perique and a lot of the strains of cigar leaf. Obviously, the combination of these different tobaccos will lead to varied levels of flavor depth.
Once you’ve determined the body of the blend, you’ll want to find drinks that share a similar body.
Here’s a very basic list:
- Light bodied- Water, most teas, flavored waters, clear fruit juices, most lager and pilsner beers, many dry white wines, light rums, gin, vodka.
- Medium bodied- Enhanced teas, most other fruit juices, most amber and red beers, most ales, heavier white wines and blushes, golden Rums, lighter Scotches and Whiskeys, lighter liqueurs and cordials, most mixed drinks.
- Full bodied- Medium to dark roast coffees, dark juices (grape, dark berry), Stouts and Porters, dark Rums, full, peaty Scotches, Bourbons, deep red Wines, Port and Sherry.
Once you’ve matched the bodies up, just try to get contrasting flavors, and relax for an enjoyable time. As with just about anything that involves taste, going slow always seems to help. Sip and savor the drink and puff lightly enough to keep the pipe from getting too hot as this will produce the best and most complex flavors.
Now, with all that being said, the most important thing is for you to enjoy yourself. If you like to have a cold, light tasting beer during the summer, it doesn’t matter what you’re smoking if you’re satisfied. The main purpose for doing pairings is to maximize the nuances and subtleties of both the beverage and the blend, but the bottom line is your enjoyment. After all, these are adult choices we make to help us find some delight in our everyday lives, and those choices are individual preferences that personally please us. When I’m really concentrating on the blend I’m smoking, I will try to follow these guidelines so I can pick up on the little things in the experience, but when I’m smoking while doing other things, I tend to drink what I prefer at the moment.
Whatever you do, have fun!
Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe and www.pipesandcigars.com in Albany, NY. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 1-800-494-9144 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 am to 5 pm and Friday from 1 pm to 5 pm.