Cigars & Scotch: A Cigar Smoker's Guide to Scotch Whisky

Category_Cigarby Juan Panesso
Scotch and cigars


Cigars and Scotch: is there a more classic pairing? Whether you're just starting your cigar journey or are a seasoned member of the Brotherhood of the (tobacco) Leaf, you likely reach for a glass of the pure to accompany your favorite stick. Many smokers have a scotch brand that they swear by and drink with every cigar, while others pair specific malts with particular cigars or wrappers. But what exactly is scotch, and what makes it go so well with a good stogie? Well, simply put scotch is a kind of whiskey made in Scotland. Generally speaking, there are two categories of scotch: blended malt and single malt. There are plenty of amazing blends made from a combination of single malts and column-distilled grain whiskey, but for our purposes let's focus on single malt. In order for a scotch to qualify as a single malt, it must be distilled in a pot still from a single mash of pure malted barley. There's no corn, wheat, or rye as you might find in bourbon and other types of whiskey (with an 'e'). It must then be aged in oak barrels for no less than three years and be bottled at a minimum alcohol content of 40%, or 80 proof. Most scotches are aged for a decade or more, and some are aged for additional time in barrels previously used to age sherry, port, Sauternes, or other wines. Now, just because all single malts are made from just water, barley, and yeast does not mean that they all taste the same. Far from it! Many factors go into the final flavor of the whiskey, including where the water came from, the location of the distillery, and perhaps most importantly the method used to malt the barley. Since water sourcing and distillery location play such a big part in how the resulting whiskey tastes, scotch is generally divided into four main geographical categories: Highlands, Speyside, Islay, and Lowlands. Let's explore each region to see what makes its whiskey different and what cigars go best with their single malts.

Highland Scotch

The Scottish Highlands: home to William Wallace and enough kilted ruffians to make an Englishman swoon. This rugged countryside has been the heart of Scottish culture for centuries, inspiration to rebels, poets, and songwriters alike. But if the terrain is burly and unforgiving, the whiskey produced there is anything but. Highland Scotch is generally some of the lightest and sweetest available, although as the largest whiskey-producing area the flavors can vary wildly. It's hard to pin down exactly why this is, although the heather-covered landscape offers a clue. Single malts from this region tend to be floral and nutty with a ton of honey and cereal sweetness. Classic Highland malts include Glenmorangie, famous for its many wine finishes, Dalmore, and Glendronach. The complex sweetness of Highland Scotch is the perfect complement to a medium to full-bodied Maduro cigar such as...

La Aroma de Cuba Monarch

This rare Maduro offering by Jose “Pepin” Garcia, of My Father fame, is a true joy to smoke. Don Pepin is known for his Cuban-style blends which tend towards flavors of pepper, leather, and cedar. This cigar, then, is a departure from form for him, but this only serves to prove that he is a true master of his craft. Now, this is a Pepin cigar, so it's stuffed full of Cuban-seed Nicaraguan long-fillers that do provide a solid background of classic wood and pepper. But the Broadleaf Connecticut wrapper is what makes this enjoyable, pairing perfectly with the filler tobacco while adding a healthy dose of chocolate and earth. This is a complex blend that is on the strong end of medium, which some might think is too bold for light Highland malts. But in reality, the sweetness of most Highland Scotches only serves to heighten the influence of the Maduro wrapper and maintain the well-balanced blend.

Speyside Scotch

Guide to Scotch Whisky Speyside is one of the smallest distilling regions but is also the most prolific. About 60% off all Scotch is distilled along the banks of the River Spey, whose waters lend the whiskeys their characteristic flavor. Many of the malts go into famous blends, notably Johnny Walker, but the single malts are truly famous in their own right as well. Macallan, Glenfiddich, and Glenlivet all hail from Speyside. Speyside malts are also generally sweet and light but have a much thicker mouthfeel and a minerality that Highland Scotches lack. The sweetness is different, too. Instead of floral and honey notes, expect green apple, vanilla, and dried dark fruit. If Highland malts serve to lighten a strong Maduro, Speysides go better with a light and sweet Maduro like:

Ashton Aged Maduro

If you have a friend who refuses to smoke anything other than Connecticut's and you want to turn them onto Maduros, Ashton Aged Maduro ought to do the trick. Manufactured by Arturo Fuente, these refined sticks are a lesson in restraint and craftsmanship. While many blenders these days race to create the biggest, baddest Maduro cigars around, the Ashton Aged Maduro shows the true versatility of the Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper. These cigars just look delicious. The dark brown wrapper appears and smells like high-quality dark chocolate – we're talking 80% or more, none of that milky stuff. Aged Dominican long-filler adds a creamy and sweet backbone to the wrapper's strong flavors to create an effortlessly balanced smoke. The cigar feels solid and inviting in the hand, and the construction holds up, with an even burn and perfect draw. Once you light your stick, you'll be greeted with plumes of deliciously creamy smoke full of earth, cocoa, and espresso. The darker sweetness of Speyside malts picks up the narrative wonderfully, building the flavor with each sip.

Islay Scotch

Okay, this is the big, bad wolf of the Scotch world and also the most famous. You may have been thinking: “Scotch is smoky, right? Why do you keep calling it sweet?” Well, here you go. Islay, an island between Scotland and Northern Ireland, produces whiskeys that are pure smoke bombs. That's because they malt their barley by laying it above burning peat. Peat is made from dried bog sod and results in an intensely smoky flavor in the malted barley. On top of this unmistakable flavor, these Scotches tend to boast salty, maritime flavors thanks to their island homeland as well as enough sweetness to make the experience bearable, even for the uninitiated. If you're looking for that prototypical Scotch smokiness, reach for a bottle of Ardbeg, Lagavulin, or Laphroaig. And to go with it, light up a classic Cuban-style cigar to highlight the maritime sweetness behind the smoke. Such as...

Romeo y Julieta 1875

Modern blenders like Don Pepin strive to recreate the Cuban flavor, but other brands like Romeo y Julieta have been producing Cuban cigars since before the embargo. After the revolution, they moved their operations to the Dominican Republic and kept making blends based on age-old recipes. You would think that a fuller-bodied cigar would go best with the strong-flavored Islay malts, but a Scotch pairing is more of a lesson in opposites or complements. A full-bodied bomb like Liga Privada would overwhelm the subtlety in the malts and result in a less than perfect pairing. On the other hand, a clean and classic cigar will help you pick up all of the flavors in the malt. That’s exactly what Romeo y Julieta 1875 does. Its oily Indonesian wrapper and Dominican long-fillers deliver a consistently medium-bodied experience with toasty flavors of earth and cedar. It's a hefty cigar, but in a clean, sweet, and entirely satisfying way. And the lingering sweetness of the finish is the perfect segue to your next sip of Islay Scotch.

Lowland Scotch

Often overlooked, Lowlands Scotch went all but extinct before the scotch boom of the past few decades. Just recently there were only five distilleries left in the region, but today there are twelve with another nine in development. The region was better known for its grain whiskey that went into blends with single malts from other areas, but its single malts are undoubtedly taking off. Lowland malts are the lightest of the bunch. They're soft and smooth with flavors of honeysuckle, citrus, malt, and cream. The most popular and highly regarded distillery is Auchentoshan, which has been producing Scotch since 1800. If you pick up a bottle, expect lots of creamy vanilla with enough ginger and citrus to keep things interesting. Since Lowlands whiskey is so light, it pairs best with a good Connecticut cigar, for instance:

Alec Bradley Connecticut

If you asked us what cigar embodies the Connecticut style, our answer might well be Alec Bradley Connecticut. The name says it all: this stick knows what it wants to do and does it impeccably well. Its construction is enough to convince you of its quality as soon as you pick it up, with a firm body and sturdy triple-seam cap. The Ecuadorian Connecticut Shade wrapper is perfectly smooth and silky, foreshadowing the smoke ahead. Inside, you'll find a Honduran binder as well as Honduran and Nicaraguan long-fillers. The draw is just right to deliver delicious clouds of oh-so-creamy smoke as soon as you light this beauty up. The flavors are pure cedar and nutty sweetness, with enough earthy spiciness to make the cigar shine. It's mild to medium-bodied and Connecticut all the way through, but all the flavors are dialed up and there's more complexity than in your run of the mill Connecticut. Like a good Lowlands Scotch, this cigar is subtle but incredibly flavorful and satisfying.