People often ask, “What whiskey goes best with cigars?” Well, there are a host of aged spirits touted as the perfect cigar pairing. Some producers even go so far as to create special “cigar blends.” The Dalmore has a Scotch, Joseph Magnus a bourbon, and Frapin a cognac. Until now, there hadn’t been much movement in the opposite direction: Cigar makers designing special sticks to pair with specific spirits.
East Park Cigars is changing that. The boutique cigar maker just launched three custom-blended offerings: El Borbón, El Escocés, and El Coñac. Made in the Dominican Republic by Henderson Ventura at Tabacalera William Ventura, the cigars are intended for smoking with the appropriate drink in hand—whether bourbon, Scotch, or cognac—as both tobacco and spirit will be enhanced by the shared experience.
East Park Cigars co-founder Manny Peña has spent his career in the drinks and hospitality business (he currently serves as brand ambassador for Milagro tequila). Along with co-founder Claudio Sánchez, he had seen more and more people exploring spirits and cigar pairings. But not every matchup met with success.
“My whole thing was: Let’s try to create something so everybody who pairs a cigar with a specific spirit has a wonderful experience,” Peña explains, noting that smoking a cigar isn’t an everyday act for most people. Add sipping a spirit on top of that and there’s the opportunity for a real occasion. “Being able to create a ritual that works for people—that was the goal,” Peña adds. “[We started by] thinking about making the experience easy—plug and play.”
Before they created the cigars, Peña and his collaborators had to know the spirits inside and out. “It was really understanding the structure of the spirit and reverse-engineering to complement that,” he explains. Each cigar’s blend combines different tobaccos from around the world, with El Escocés starting at the lighter end and El Borbón being the most robust.
“Structurally, it’s heavier, and prepared to deal with heavier alcohols” such as those found in bourbons, Peña says, pointing out that it’s designed to stand up to high-proof pours. El Escocés, meanwhile, works best with unpeated Scotches. “It’s very hard to pair smoke with smoke,” Peña notes, recommending brands like Macallan, Dalmore, or Glenfiddich as ideal matches. El Coñac falls right in the middle and meshes well with a variety of cognacs.
Peña and Sánchez worked with Ventura to create the ideal combination of filler, binder, and wrapper for each variant. Along the way, they found a synergy between both cigar and spirit. For one, both undergo aging as a key step in creating flavor. All the tobacco in East Park’s cigars is at least four years old.
But it goes further than that. Smoking a cigar unlocks flavors in the tobacco that mirror those created during distillation. “When you combust a cigar, certain areas of the cigar get to around the same temperature that you achieve through distillation,” Peña says. “What’s happening when you light up a cigar is [effectively] distilling the essential oils of that combination of leaves.”
East Park eliminates the guesswork of cigar and spirits pairings, making the sticks ideal for newbies—a portal to a whole world of exploration. The cigars, which are all 5½” x 52 ring gauge (aka robusto size), are available in 10-count boxes for $15 each and can be ordered online. And for those looking to enhance their pairing skills, Peña has some advice.
1. Start Light
If you’re not a longtime cigar smoker, begin your journey with milder, lighter-bodied sticks. “You don’t want to start somebody with Octomore scotch,” Peña says, referring to the heavily peated Islay single malt. “You want to start them with something more friendly and palatable where they can start their journey.” The same principle applies here.
2. Find Your Spirit Animal
Determining the spirit you like best is the first step in learning how to pair. “Find something that really talks to you—that you’re comfortable with and gets you to that happy place,” Peña recommends. “Incorporate it into your daily life and your social settings.” He suggests trying out all kinds of combinations—not just with smokes, but chocolate, cheese, and mixed into cocktails. That will help you understand both your own palate and the spirit itself, which will make it easier for you to determine the best matchups in the future.
3. Remember the Wrapper
“The wrapper is responsible for 80 percent of the flavor,” Peña says. So matching the qualities of the wrapper to those in the spirit will usually lead to success. For example, a lighter wrapper like a Connecticut Shade works better for single-malt Scotch while a Maduro stands up to the hearty heft of cask-strength rye. Peña compares it to sipping Champagne while eating Wagyu beef: The delicate wine will be eclipsed by the fatty, flavorful charred meat.
Above all, enjoy yourself. “The beautiful thing about cigars is that you don’t have to be an expert,” Peña says. Just hold the smoke in your mouth, letting it gently swirl so the flavors pervade your palate. Don’t swallow the smoke—but do sip your bourbon, scotch, cognac, or whatever you happen to be drinking.