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Cigar Pairings

Best Cigar and Barbecue Pairings

J. Bennett Alexander Alexander's picture

J. Bennett Alexander

You know that steak, preferably a big, well-marbled rib eye, pairs supremely well with your favorite cigar. Well, I’m here to tell you there’s a cut from the cow that goes even better with your smoke. It is smoke. As in barbecue. As in smoked meats. Here are five pretty classic barbecue dishes that pair with cigars.

What is Barbecue?

You’d think the answer is pretty easy. Barbecue is anything, usually meat, that is cooked using wood. The wood generates smoke and that imparts flavor to the meat being cooked. Some will argue that only the ‘low-and-slow’ method is really barbecue, but there are very successful examples of ‘hot-and-fast’ smoked brisket that many travel hundreds of miles to savor. Other provincialists will tell you that only smoked pork in the Carolinas is ‘real’ barbecue. I call them ‘BBQ jihadists.’ They’re also in Texas, claiming only beef qualifies as the true Q. In Memphis, maybe it’s just ribs. In any case, for our exploration, barbecue is anything that is smoked, whether done directly over the fire (as in Driftwood, Texas’ Salt Lick) or in a big smoker box (like at Smoque in Chicago) or an open grill in Santa Maria, California, that gently imparts oaky smoke onto tri tip (a cut of sirloin found mostly in the Golden State). Let’s smoke! And eat! And then smoke our cigars!

The Giant Short Rib

Short ribs are tender after they’ve been cooked a long time. You’ll find them with the meat taken from the bone and braised in fine-dining restaurants. The short rib I’m offering here is big, smoky, and not shy of marbling (intramuscular fat). This rib comes from the cut on the cow known as the ‘short plate,’ comprised of ribs six through eight on the animal. This is not the cut that leaves short bones in a strip of meat, the flanken cut or what you find in Korean restaurants, but the one that leaves the three long bones intact. You prepare that entire plate by rubbing yellow mustard and your favorite rub on it and let it sit a couple of hours just so the rub adheres. Then you put the whole thing into your smoker with some pecan wood or oak. It’s going to take a good seven hours or more for this to get to where you want it, about 200°F internal temperature. Then you’re going to wrap it in foil and let it rest while you choose your after-dinner cigar.

I like a complex, full-bodied cigar after this short rib. You’ll note a lot of sweetness in the meat and it’s not particularly light. My choice is the Don Pepin Garcia Original Imperiales, less than $9.00, a Torpedo (6.125 x 52) that has a beautiful Corojo wrapper enveloping all-Nicaraguan tobacco. You’ll get tons of spicy pepper, that becomes cedar, that turns to cocoa and back to cayenne and cedar. This is a cigar with a spicy finish. It delivers all the way through.

Let Me Get This Off My Chest

There are two briskets on every cow. The brisket is a chest muscle and it is one tough customer, the most difficult cut to barbecue and get right. A properly cooked brisket will come out moist with a dark, deep bark (crust formed from the rub and fat). Unless you’re a dedicated barbecue cook, this is something you want to leave to the pros. First, you really need to find a brisket that has both the ‘point’ (top, fatty muscle) and the ‘flat’ (leaner muscle under the point). This is called a ‘packer’s cut.’ It’s untrimmed and has a lot of fat on it. You’ll have to trim that to get the fat cap to about no more than a quarter-inch, preferably a little less. I like my briskets to be in the 12 to 16 pound range so that I can cook it a lot longer and get more flavor into it. I also like to inject it with a low-sodium beef broth that helps keep it moist. In Texas, the capital of brisket, the rub is very simple, usually salt, pepper and maybe some cayenne. My rub is considerably more complex. Then it takes around 14 to 16 hours to cook at around 200°F, though some places in Texas Hill Country do it hotter and faster. Again, the internal temperature should get above 200°F. Mostly, I like eating brisket! So, cook it yourself or go to Franklin’s or Valentina’s in Austin and enjoy it. No sauce needed. You can sit outside and have a cigar after you towel off.

The challenge here is to choose a cigar that has sufficient strength, some sweetness and a creamy finish. I like the Rocky Patel Decade Toro, 6.5 x 52, for less than $12.00. The Decade is a medium-full blend of aged tobacco from Honduras and other undisclosed origins wrapped by Ecuador Sumatra. The cigar is earthy and spicy, but you’ll taste almonds and cherries and a lot of creaminess. Just a great, complex end to complement your brisket stupor.

A Lot of Ribbing

Ribs. How could you not love this meat on a bone delight? The debate, in some circles, focuses on which cut of rib. Most barbecue aficionados, however, will opt for the spare rib – the center of the bone – as opposed to baby back ribs that come from, well, the back or top of the rib bone. The spare rib can be left intact or, preferably, trimmed to form a St. Louis cut. This takes off the little bones and extra meat at the top of the slab and promotes more even cooking. Then the question is, wet or dry? Wet means the ribs are finished with sauce. Dry means that the ribs are allowed to form a light bark with just the marriage of the fat and rub. If you want sauce, apply afterward. The main choice, to me, is choosing the rib cut. Baby backs are leaner and have less flavor and that’s why you rarely see them cooked dry. The St. Louis cut at a place like Fiorella Jack Stack Barbecue in Kansas City, Missouri, shows why that’s the way to go. Ribs take about four to six hours to finish in a smoker.

The flavor of pork is lighter than beef, so you have a much wider range of cigars to choose from here. I like the Ashton Heritage Puro Sol Corona Gorda, 5.75 x 46, for about $10. This is a solidly medium Dominican cigar with an Ecuador Habano wrapper. The ‘Puro Sol’ means every leaf in the cigar was grown under direct sunlight. This helps intensify the flavor in this beautifully balanced, complex cigar. I love this cigar for the caramel and nut notes it emphasizes. Satisfying without being overwhelming.

I Like Pig Butt and I Cannot Lie

Okay, pork butt is not the pig’s hindquarters. The name comes from Revolutionary War days when the top part of the pork shoulder would be packed in barrels knows as ‘butts.’ The important thing to know is that the butt is what you use to make pulled pork and is the part that usually contains the blade bone when you buy it. I like to leave that in when I cook it because it will just slide out clean to indicate you’ve cooked the pork just right. I like to inject a solution that includes apple juice to enhance moisture. I lay the rub on pretty heavily and, while the pork is smoking, I spray it every hour or so with a mixture of apple juice and apple cider vinegar to help form the bark. You can usually find pork butts in the six-pound range and that’s enough for a lot of sandwiches. Pork shoulder (butt) is the cut of choice in the western part of North Carolina and is traditionally served with a simple sauce of vinegar, pepper and a little tomato. Exclude the tomato and you’ve got what’s preferred in the eastern part of the state, where cooking whole hogs is prevalent. In South Carolina, the delicious sauce is mustard-based. No matter which sauce, or no sauce, you choose, you’ve got some excellent meat to put on a bun with some simple coleslaw or just by itself. Great tacos too!

Let's Get Some Beans On!

I cringe when I see beans in a barbecue place that are just a revamp of canned pork and beans. Why bother? It’s mostly sugar. Let’s amp up those barbecue beans. I like to use a combo of red, white and black beans. Mix them with red pepper, green pepper, jalapeno, red onion and a sweet-ish barbecue sauce. And chopped, heavily smoked brisket. DO NOT ADD SUGAR! Put this into your smoker and use your favorite wood to impart more great flavor. This is a crowd favorite every time.

This can be a side dish or a meal in itself and it will lend some sweetness to your meal. I’m more likely to go with a cigar that plays off the sweetness here and brings something extra. That’s the La Aroma de Cuba Mi Amor Churchill, 7 x 50 and about $8.50. This Nicaraguan cigar is made by the Pepin Garcia factory in Nicaragua and brings a lot of spice, nuts, pepper and ultimately sweetness in the form of cocoa and cherry notes. The finish on this medium-full, San Andres wrapped beauty is sweet.


There’s no room here, but one day we’ll talk smokers and how to make brisket burnt ends. And we’ll find just the right cigar to enjoy.

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