Emperors Among Kings
When it is time to celebrate, I want fantastic cigars and drinks. But being sure the cigars and drinks marry well requires research. Time for another tasting!
I wondered, if I had occasion to smoke and drink the best, what would I choose? The list of exclusive drinks is long, Cristal, 1982 Bordeaux, Single Malt Scotch Whiskey, Cognac, Aged Rum, Port, and Blue Mountain Coffee sit high on the list. For collectors, the list of cigars is even longer.
Edward and Eddie Sahakian of Davidoff in London, along with myself determined to put together a tasting that included drink alongside premium cigars. Our last tasting exhaus-tively compared aged Davidoff and Cohiba Lanceros. It went extremely well and generated much conversa-tion. Our goal this time was to challenge ourselves by introducing a liquid element into the afternoon. The liquid could not simply be for refreshment, but it should add equal value to the experience.
London was awash with discussions of financial downturn. So I decided to be contrarian. Even in difficult times, some people can afford the best. Moreover, it is depressing to avoid the most exquisite tastes in times of great difficulty.
I wanted inspiration. Forget price! From among the best products we would choose the most superior. From that spark, the theme was born, we would seek an extraordinary pairing of drink and smoke from among the most rare and beautifully handcrafted consum-ables within reach.
What to include?
But choosing is not easy. Every product seems to have a group of connoisseurs who scrutinize and search for the top offering. To make things simpler, we opted to first find a suitable drink. Then we would use our best estimation of cigars likely to pair well with that liquid.
How can you choose among scores of fantastic drinks for a celebration? I think that personal preference should play the strongest role here. In my case, I love a rich, complex drink. In order for such a drink to not overpower a cigar, it should have finesse and balance. This leaves my favorite rums, coffees and whiskeys behind and brings Cognac to the forefront. Its richness, when well blended, allows a cigar to be enjoyed without masking its own varied flavors and aromas.
No superior Cognac is as globally recognized as Louis XIII from Remy Martin. While there may be other Cognac and Armagnac worth considering, the Louis XIII fit my requirements of taste, prestige, and availability.
With the formidable Baccarat crystal bottle of 100-year-old Cognac at our imagined table, the selection of cigars made me nervous. How could I select cigars that had the two qualities I required? I needed both exclusivity and a well-matched taste.
The Cigar Choice
I had some memory of Louis XIII but it is not my daily tipple. So a consideration needed to be made. Without knowledge of what would pair well, several cigars had to be chosen. The exercise then came to be clearly defined. We would taste all three cigars alongside the King Cognac and our task would be to find which of the three paired best.
Davidoff in London is perhaps the best place to search for the highest caliber cigars with which to pair an iconic beverage. The selection there ranges from Dominican Republic, to Cuba and through Central America then from vintage to fresh.
Since Louis XIII has a strong personality, I chose cigars that I predicted would not stand against the wall but would get on the floor and lead the dance. The three well-dressed suitors were all Cuban Cohibas but with entirely unique styles. The Behike BHK 56, Sublime Edición Limitada 2004 and Gran Reserva were ultimately chosen.
Louis XIII Alone
Alexandre Quintin, Louis XIII UK Ambassador joined us for our tasting and kindly provided us with a history of the Cognac and its makers. Its blend of some 1200 different cognacs ranging from forty to over one hundred years old would become evident later in the tasting. We tasted it without cigars at first.
Its golden amber color glistened in the crystal glasses. After several minutes of admiration and discussion we remembered that our tasting must conclude within three hours. Glasses were raised and the tasting began. On the nose this viscous, glistening treasure brought an intense bouquet of floral and spicy notes. Like Pointillist Impressionism, the longer you inspect the artwork, the more depth and detail is revealed. The Cognac reminded us of lilac, rose, cinnamon, maple, and countless related aromas. The drink seemed to transform at every sniff to reveal a slightly different aroma. Drawing the drink across the tongue was like tasting a fireworks display. It is one of the most complex tasting drinks ever created with a finish rumored to last an hour.
Alex explained that this complexity in Louis XIII has attributed it to the many constituent cognacs from a century of vintages which are all combined into each bottle of the spirit. Alongside the cigars, the cognac behaved in its consistently complex way. Over the hours of tasting, it variously revealed tastes of candied fruits, nutmeg, Mediterranean fruits and light woods. This foundation gave us a challenging spirit with which to taste our prized cigars.
Behike BHK 56 – This newcomer in the Habanos lineup is rare in its use of Medio Tiempo leaf. Sun grown and powerful, (useable) Medio Tiempo is found on very few plants. Scarcity and strength are endowed upon the new Behike giving it its two most unique characteristics. Behike cigars can only be produced as long as supplies of Medio Tiempo are available. Those that are created exhibit a strength greater than that found among all other Habanos. Most connoisseurs rightly reserve this cigar for the end of a day after a buttressing meal. Its character is earthy, with a long sweet finish, fresh acidity and a perfect draw. Spice builds throughout the smoke. While gorgeous and delicious, its strong flavors, particularly the acid and sweetness, competed with the cognac.
Cohiba Sublime 2004 – When released in 2004, this limited edition cigar was regarded as excellent. As time passed, its esteem grew while the cigar matured. It bursts with coffee, cocoa, and wood flavors. It is mellow and heavenly. The taste of sweet rich tobacco exudes from the cigar. Alongside the sweeter, spicier flavors in the Louis XIII, this cigar shone brilliantly. Both were mellowed by time yet maintained their richest core flavors. There was a dance of flavor accents between the pair. Louis would lead for a dance then the Sublime would take the lead. This dance could easily last through the night.
Cohiba Gran Reserva – From its birth, the Gran Reserva was recognized as a work of extraordinary blendsmanship. At its release I commented that I wish all Cohiba Siglo VI would taste like this. Its tobaccos are aged before rolling for considerable years. The aged tobaccos selected for the Gran Reserva are somehow richer and sweeter than those used in other canonazos from Cuba.
Complications in Tasting
We encountered one problem during the tasting that we had not anticipated. We were well aware that a cigar would change its taste from beginning to end. Louis XIII, however, also shows different sides of its personality at different times. When first poured into the glass, Eddie noticed light spice, crème Brule and vanilla. Edward added “fresh fruit” and I “molasses”. But after it interacted with the air, it showcased more floral aromas and flavors of spiced fruit. Would we have to suggest one cigar for the freshly poured Louis XIII and another after half an hour? Our choice was difficult but it was made easier when one partner bowed out, citing incompatibility due to an age difference.
RESULTS – Why the Behike Didn’t Win
It may surprise you that the highly celebrated Behike BHK 56 did not emerge victorious in our tasting. The cigar is a work of art and at the right moment is an ideal cigar. Its strength and finesse are unlike any other cigar offered today. But alas, it was a terrible bedfellow with this Cognac. Youth and vitality are admirable traits. But partnerships between the world-wise and the sexy model of today are not likely to be long held. We observed this as the muscular Behike pushed and pulled the Cognac. Resultantly neither was seen in its best form.
Choosing between the winners
The final two potential mates were both excellent pairs. As so often happens in mate selection, several will suffice but one must be chosen, in most jurisdictions. Cohiba’s 2004 Edición Limitada was an admirable competitor. It held an early lead in the contest. Its strong start with tastes of dark woods and coffee married exquisitely with the Cognac’s early rich sweet fruitiness. As time drew on, it was the Cohiba Gran Reserva that was declared the winner. As the Louis XIII brought its spice including jasmine, saffron and ginger to the fore, the Gran Reserva complemented the bouquet with woodiness and sweet rich tobacco tas-tes. The blissful combination demonstrates to the fortunate connoisseur the pleasure brought by such harmony and opulence.
My memory of this tasting takes a different course than the narrative above. Tastes and aromas were memorable but it was the people and our appreciation of craftsmanship that come to mind now. For four hours we sat together, old friends and new, discussing the mastery of craft rolled and poured into these products. For centuries, the skills and techniques have been developed which enabled the creation of absolutely remarkable consumables. Without knowledge and skill, the grape and leaf would remain just that. But due to the devo-tion of lifetimes, some few people have been able to turn the sun, soil, and rain into masterpieces worth writing about. So there we sat, appreciating the work of others. We were friends, enjoying camaraderie and conversation. If ever there was a cure for a mind full of economic woe, this was it.