Cigar Pairings

Best Meat & Cigar Pairings

J. Bennett Alexander Alexander's picture

J. Bennett Alexander

Have you ever had something really salty or sour – anchovies? – followed immediately by something sweet like caramel custard? The sweetness becomes exaggerated. This kind of ‘pairing’ begins to help us understand how to match the ‘right’ cigar to the meal you’re having. Of course, like all things these days, you can pair about any two experiences under the sun, but some things maybe go better together. Here we’re going to explore pairing cigars we love with meats we also love.

The meats I chose, some with specific preparations, are beef, pork, duck, chicken, fish and seafood (not fish). I’ll share the cigars I like for this exercise as we go. I’ll pick my favorite sizes, but others in the same line will generally match up as well. To be clear, I’ll be focused on cigars to be smoked after a meal, though the same cigar will work if you want to smoke while you eat, though that’s not something I like very much.

One note about meat and cigars is important. Meat has what chefs today call umami, the newest of the five basic tastes (in addition to sweet, sour, salty and bitter). Without getting into the science, umami is the height of “meaty” or “savory.” This is generally good with cigars, which have some umami themselves, but be careful not to overdo it with additions like soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and other umami-heavy condiments.

Let’s get cooking.

BEEF

If you painted a portrait of a group of cigar smokers at dinner, you would not be surprised if the scene was set in a steak house. Certainly, a great prime rib eye seems to go very well with the cigar you love. The marbling (intramuscular fat) in the beef helps convey any seasonings on the meat, but also helps coat the mouth. In this case, I especially favor corn-fed beef because the sweetness the corn gives the beef really makes pairing a cigar much easier. I know you’ll be shocked. My choice for a cigar to pair with a steak dinner, where you’re likely having a good deal of red wine as well (I hope!), is the Padron 1964 Anniversary Diplomatico Maduro.

I’m going with this Churchill size, 7 x 50, about $14, because, dang it, I want a lot of cigar after a big steak dinner.  The fact that this is a Maduro helps convey a little more sweetness that will complement the umami in the beef and the tannins in the wine. While some might find this cigar to be powerful, I find it to be nuanced and medium in strength. There are layers of nuts, toast and chocolate. I like the slightly raisiny finish.

PORK

There are so many great ways to go with pork. I want something truly complex. More complex, say, than a slab of St. Louis ribs or a Cuban-style roast pork (lechon asado) with lots of garlic and citrus. Those are favorites of mine, but I’m going to recommend you try something a little bolder. Go Korean. Try this dish, Jeyuk Bokkeum. It’s pork belly. So, already we’re very close to bacon. It’s also pork shoulder. Like many Korean dishes, this one is spicy and sweet, laced with the increasingly popular Korean chili paste, gochujang. Additionally, there’s brown sugar, mirin (sweet rice wine) ginger, garlic and cloves that make this dish a flavor roller coaster. The sauce is first a marinade. Then it’s a stir-fry and the gochujang marinade caramelizes with the pork as it cooks. My recipe garnishes the meat with scallions and toasted sesame seeds before either putting the pork on top of white rice or wrapping in lettuce leaves. By the way, you can use this preparation with just about any meat, including fish and seafood.

The cigar choice here is simple for me. I want an Ashton VSG and, because it’s a really full-bodied cigar, I want the Torpedo, a 6.5 x 55 Figurado at about $13. That’s plenty of cigar to take advantage of and stand up to the strong flavors just experienced in the pork. Ashton VSG carries a beautiful Ecuador Sumatra wrapper that is dark and oily. The wrapper envelops a blend of aged Dominican tobaccos that transmit bold notes of earthiness, cedar, spices and leather. You’ve eaten a flavor bomb and now you’re smoking one. They make a lovely couple.

DUCK

Here’s what happened. I’m traveling in Napa and tasting tons of wine. That night, we go to dinner at Dry Creek Kitchen, an excellent restaurant owned by Charlie Palmer. Chef Palmer is a cigar-smoker and he has often noted his appreciation of duck pairing well with cigars.

“A lot of things about duck speak to a cigar and smokiness,” Palmer told Cigar Aficionado a couple of years ago.

Palmer offers a duck dish that ‘speaks’ even more loudly to that cigar you’re going to smoke after dinner: Duck Breast with Roasted Peaches and Walnut-Parsley Fried Rice. He sears the duck breasts over medium-high heat, rendering the fat along the way. The result is crispy, golden skin and medium-rare duck after it gets a little roasting in the oven. Of course, Chef Palmer doesn’t stop there (but you can). He’s got roasted peaches and walnut-parsley fried rice to go with the duck. You can use any sauce you like, but it’s my experience the duck doesn’t need much. Of course, a nice sour cherry sauce….

I’m lighting a La Aroma de Cuba Mi Amor Belicoso. You may have noticed, my bias towards Figurados, and this one, 5.5 x 54, runs about $8.50, and is Nicaraguan long-filler box-pressed in a Mexican San Andrés Maduro leaf that was grown from Cuban seed. This is a medium-full cigar that will impart almonds, cocoa, something like honey nougat, spices and black pepper. Rich? You bet. Just like that duck.

CHICKEN

Let’s keep this one relatively simple. Roast chicken. There’s really no better way to prepare this bird. Now, I’m a dark meat eater. You might like white meat. In any case, if you don’t have a favorite place that will make a superb version of this dish, you can do it yourself. It’s not difficult, but you must brine the chicken to make sure it comes out moist. Seasoning is up to you, though there’s little better than garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper here. You can make a little pan gravy from the drippings.

I’m looking for a cigar that is medium-bodied, but that has a lot of flavor and complexity. I found that in the Oliva Serie V Melanio, about $15, 6.5 x 52. You know, the one that won Cigar Aficionado’s “Cigar of the Year” in 2014 and still rocks? The Robusto, 5 x 52, is a great alternative at around $10. The Figurado is tapered at both ends and full of Nicaraguan tobaccos in an Ecuador Habano wrapper. I get a lot of coffee, caramel, pepper and wood notes from this blend, but it’s all delivered creamily (hey, that’s a word!). OK, what I’m saying is that it’s very smooth.

FISH

There are so many ways to go here, but the tried-and-true choice is a fish with a sweet-ish flavor profile. That screams salmon. Grill this oily fish and you’ll get a lovely complement to your smoke. If you plan ahead a little, you can cure the salmon in some brown sugar, lemon and orange zest, and a little bourbon, then brush it with maple syrup before you smoke it over applewood. But you’re more likely to grill it. In either case, the cigar itself should have some sweetness.

I think this might be the best match of all. The Arturo Fuente Hemingway, a medium-bodied cigar. I’m recommending the ‘Classic’ here, a Churchill-sized Perfecto at 7 x 48 that runs around $9. This size kind of epitomizes the unique shapes in the line. The Cameroon wrapper on the Hemingway is perfect in its level of sweetness. The leaf surrounds Dominican tobacco and conveys earth, spice and brown sugar with some hints of caramel, nuts and wood sneaking through.

SEAFOOD

This is about to get serious. There’s such a variety of seafood critters and an even larger number of ways to prepare them, that there is really no wrong answer when it comes to pairing cigars. Let me get to the point. I want lobster. I want it grilled over hardwood to add a little browning and smoke. Put some clarified garlic butter and a lemon wedge next to my plate, please. And snip that Rocky Patel Decade Robusto, 5 x 50, about $10-$11, so I can light it up right when I finish.

Now, you might be thinking that you want something a little milder than the Decade after the lobster. You can go that way, especially if you’re having the lobster boiled, but you’d be missing out on the herbal creaminess delivered by this Sumatra-wrapped, Honduran-filled cigar. The Decade is consistently rated highly and is generally regarded as a medium-full smoke with earthiness, cedar and spice, but it’s got many sweet notes of almond and black cherry and is far more complex than you’d think.

That’s it. Dinner’s over. On to the cheese course!

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