June 16, 2010 in Food

Cigar tastings aren’t just blowing smoke

Nicholas K. Geranios Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

San Franciscans Gary Chan and Melissa Anderson sample cigars and sip cognac at the Occidental Cigar Club in San Francisco.
(Full-size photo)

Want a drink with that stogie? Stick to cognac, bourbon and scotch, but avoid milk and soda.

And if you want to delve even deeper into the finer points of pairing cigars with drinks, consider attending one of the growing number of smoking symposiums popping up around the country.

During a recent gathering at the Legends of Fire cigar bar in Airway Heights, for example, 100 people sampled a variety of cigars, and spent the evening pairing them with different varieties of alcohol while noshing hors d’oeuvres.

“Without the smoke, it would look virtually identical to a wine tasting,” said Gordon Mott, executive editor of Cigar Aficionado magazine, which began organizing similar gatherings during the early 1990s, but was not involved in this event.

The magazine draws thousands each year to its annual Big Smoke convention in Las Vegas.

Cigar smokers can be passionate about their hobby, which lends itself to much experimentation with flavors, shapes and prices. And pairing the right liquor with the cigar is a crucial part of the experience.

“A fine cigar is an exalted expression of the Earth’s bounty,” said Michael Gelb, author of the book “Wine Drinking for Inspired Thinking.”

Cigars tend to overwhelm most wines. Fortified varieties, such as ports, usually can stand up to cigars, Gelb said. And if you don’t do alcohol, espresso and hot cocoa work well.

“This is a question of individual taste, but most individuals prefer cognac, armagnac, port, bourbon, scotch or fine aged rum,” he said.

“It’s best to match the quality of the libation with the quality of the cigar,” Gelb said. “You don’t want to sully your 60-year-old armagnac with a cheap stogie and you wouldn’t insult your Cohiba Esplendido by pairing it with firewater.”

Things to avoid? Don’t mix a cigar with milk, eggnog, gin, soda, cranberry or grapefruit juice, Gelb said.

As for eating, it may be best to hold off on the cigar until after, Gelb said.

“No one has yet, to my knowledge, written, ‘What to Smoke With What You Eat,’ ” he joked.

Cigar smoking remains a niche activity in the United States. After a long period of decline, cigars rebounded in popularity starting in the 1990s. Sales of handrolled cigars imported into the U.S. peaked at around 300 million cigars a few years ago, Mott said. The recent economic trouble has depressed sales of what can be a fairly expensive luxury item, Mott said.

Many people end up smoking alone in their home or garage, exiled because of the smell of their hobby. Public events such as these bring enthusiasts together in a society that has banned smoking in nearly all public places.

The gathering at Legends of Fire drew stogie smokers to the only bar where the 450,000 residents of Spokane County can light up and relax. And that is only because the cigar bar is located on American Indian land that is exempt from state smoking bans.

“This is my bailiwick,” said Jim Kelly of Spokane, who didn’t know what to expect when he was invited by his cousin to the gathering.

Ticket buyers received a dozen or so cigars to smoke on the spot and take home. Liquor makers poured samples of whiskey, vodka, red wine and heavy beers to see which flavors went best with the cigars. A professional cigar roller made stogies for patrons, who also got a chance to roll their own.

Carol Weltz of Spokane was one of numerous women at the event. She sat at the bar, puffing on a fat stogie with 2 inches of ash on its end. “It’s kind of a fun hobby,” said Weltz, who gave up cigarettes years ago.

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