By Rick Rhay
One of the magical properties of art is its transportive quality, its ability to move us from where we are in the world to another place and time altogether. Whether executed in paint and canvas, film and lens, instrument and voice, or leaf and malt, the most cunning works of art are those which transcend space and time, not only in themselves, but for the beholder as well. Such was the case when I recently enjoyed a La Flor Dominicana Ligero Mysterio cigar, paired with Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey.
The cigar itself is a work of art. One imagines blender and brand owner Lito Gomez’s vision, challenging his master torcedores to create a cigar the likes of which has never been seen before. A Perfecto in shape, the 7-inch cigar reaches a beefy ring gauge of 54 at its widest, tapering to a narrow head and foot, both of which are adorned with finishing flourishes of maduro leaf, set against a stunning Ecuadorian Sumatra wrapper. The balance of the blend is 100% estate-grown ligero leaf from Gomez’s own farms in the Dominican Republic. The construction is impeccable; the cigar is firmly rolled, and seamlessly wrapped down to the twisted maduro button head, with scarcely a vein in sight.
When tasted alone, the Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon is rich with flavors of black cherry and citrus, with a pronounced oaky character nicely balanced against a spicy background and a robust, malty finish. It’s a rich, amber-honey color, with a highly aromatic nose full of buttery, floral, and spicy aromas, best sampled from a proper whiskey tasting glass.
I begin the tasting with a fresh palate, and light the cigar first. The opening movements are full of tangy maduro from the unique foot, delivering plenty of texture, and a subtle, appealing spice. Within minutes, the opening maduro sequence has played itself out, giving way to a woody, peppery interplay between strength and subtlety. Here I reach for my glass and nose the liquor against the fresh woody aromas of the cigar. They call out to each other, one warm, the other cool, begging me to sip. I gladly oblige.
At first I’m greeted with caramel and cocoa beans, and my taste buds come to life anew. Neither of these flavors are overtly apparent in the cigar or the whiskey by themselves, though as I reflect on their separate tastings, I realize they were there, unnoticed, deep in the background. The whiskey lingers on my palate, and as I reach for the cigar again, I sense an herbal aspect also unseen at first. The pairing has taken on a life of its own. This is why we do this.
Then, as I go back to my glass, I smell it before I taste it, something altogether unexpected. I’m suddenly back on the Hawaiian Island of Kaua’I, at the sugar plantation I visited 5 years ago, smelling and tasting the raw, unrefined sugar. The scent of the island surround me, the flowers, the dense aromas of lush plant life, and the caramel sweetness that permeates the very air of the place. It’s undeniable, a moment of true delight. I can see the images in my mind’s eye, though transformed from their original. I am no longer weary from many days of travel, and my sunburned skin no longer troubles me. All that remains are the sights, smells, and tastes, preserved in memory as the most ideal versions of themselves.
This should require no great leap of faith to imagine, though it’s a greater challenge in execution than in conception. There’s no doubt that cigars engage each of the five senses in their own way, but no sense is more closely tied to memory than that of smell. We all experience scent memory, and those wonderful moments stripped of distractions, leaving us with a delightful recollection of times and places past. Such is this case, as I recall the setting in my mind, and that sweet, earthy aroma overcomes my other senses.
I should point out that neither the cigar nor the whiskey is notably sweet, though they both contain subtle nuances that play on that aspect of taste. The observation is almost wholly olfactory, and is derived more nearly from the combined sensation of the malted aromas of the whiskey, coupled to the caramelized woody aromas of the cigar, such that neither one in isolation would evoke such a sensation, but when paired, combine to transform the experience in such a memorable way.
As the cigar progresses through the midway point, the flavors develop in depth and complexity, rendering the woody flavors into a toasted, oaky palate, enhanced by the parallel oaky qualities of the whiskey. It’s a long smoke, and I refill my glass after an hour, having nursed the spirit to savor the evolution of the pairing. It’s here that the superlative construction of the cigar shows its real value. The taper of the Perfecto shape down toward the head causes the cigar to mellow somewhat. Right at the point where other cigars would begin the inevitable turn toward a bitter finish, the palate remains fresh, allowing the herbal nuances noted earlier to show through. The cigar ash easily holds to well over an inch, and the burn is ring-straight throughout. The finish is cool and refined at 90+ minutes.
This transformation of flavors, though rarely possible to foresee in its entirety, is by no means an accident. It happens by careful observation, event study, of the character of the spirit and the cigar as constituent parts of a greater whole. The combination of the 100-proof spirit and the powerful cigar make for an adventurous pairing, a challenge to the novice, to be sure, but a delight for a more seasoned connoisseur, a rich reward for years of practice at the art of indulgence.
The sublime pleasure of such an experience is certainly not the sole province of experts in pairing and tasting. One need only taste a fine spirit, and sample a premium cigar, and allow the transformative process take shape. In the same way that one can enjoy a musical performance or appreciate the beauty of a painting without having studied the arts or their criticism, one need not be possessed of a broad vocabulary of flavors, nor a highly sophisticated palate to enjoy the fine arts of cigars and spirits. In truth, the only requisite requirement to enjoy these works of art is a capacity to experience the pleasure and satisfaction that can only be derived from such a pairing.