I watched as the dry, brittle tobacco leaves rolled tightly under the nimble fingers of torcedore (cigar roller) Avelino Lara. Lara was once Fidel Castro’s personal cigar roller. He retired to the island of Nassau and that’s where I first met him, rolling cigars at the islands top restaurant, Graycliff. That was a long time ago but my interest in cigars was born that day.

I learned that cigars weren’t just for burly bearded tough guys; I learned that the sophisticated who indulge in the finer things in life included cigars as one of their little luxuries; both men and women.

“It’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen, a woman smoking a cigar,” says Frank Ryan, head bartender of The Western Door at the Seneca Niagara Casino and Resort. Frank is an avid smoker of cigars, “I smoke one a day,” he says with a big smile, “I love the caramel, vanilla and hazelnut play of flavors I get from a good cigar”.

Frank started out with entry level cigars like Montecristo’s and Garcia Vega’s. Today his favorite are the more flavorful Rocky Patel, Arturo Fuente, Ashton and Romeo & Julieta’s. “I’m an everyday cigar smoker.”

But being a bartender Frank never smokes alone. While cigars and cognac are as classic a combination as Napoleon and Josephine, Frank has his finger on the pulse of the most popular drinks today, “all brown’s are hot right now, like never before!”

Frank is referring to not only cognac, but whisky, bourbon, dark tequilas, and dark rums. Cognac XO’s like Rémy Martin, Courvoisier, Hennessy and Martell; Single Malt Scotch like Islay and Lagavulin; Canadian Rye like Gibson Whisky; Dark premium rum, like Zaya and Añejo and dark tequila like Don Julio and Reposado.

I picked up his glass of Zaya dark rum and my olfactory senses were flooded with the richest Madagascar vanilla, soft gooey caramel and frothy warm cream. Woah! As soon as it touched my lips the initial burn was soothed with flavors of liquid caramel corn, sticky pecans and crème brûlée. “Now imagine a cigar giving you similar flavors,” says Frank with eyes that were longing to try them both together.

Cigars have varied flavors that range from the obvious tobacco, earth, nuts, cocoa and espresso, to the surprising flavors of cherry, plum, salt and a whole range of spices such as cardamom, clove, pink peppercorns and licorice. There are floral nuances to mineral, herbal and wet aromas like moss, wet stone and must. Like a fine wine, cigars are appreciated, aged and savored with pure enjoyment. So complex are the aromas and flavors of the different cigars that Cognac Gautier sent several of their cognacs to Cuban cigarmakers to taste and give their feedback relative to the enjoyment of cigars. A number of blends were initially created based on their responses, two were settled on, the full bodied Gautier XO Pinar Del Rio Cigar Cognac (named after the Cuban valley where the best tobacco leaves are harvested) and the Gautier Panatela, a lighter Pineau des Charentes for the lighter cigar smokers. All of the cigarmakers blind-tasted the blends and agreed on four blends.

Generally speaking cigars fall into two groups; Natural wrapped and Madero wrapped. Maduro is darker (dark brown to midnight black), complex and more robust, natural is lighter in both color and flavor. Of course, there are exceptions to this generalization and all cigar makers make both. Regardless of which category of cigar you prefer, a good cigar will burn evenly and give you equal flavor from the first draw to the last.

“My every day cigar is a natural wrap, (but) when I’m drinking scotch or cognac after dinner, I go for a richer Maduro,” says Frank who invites me for an after dinner drink and smoke; a Maduro with a glass of Woodford Reserve, small batch Kentucky bourbon, rich, brown and delicious. I picked up the cigar in my fingers and he laughs. “No, you’d look better in a Panatela,” he says as if dressing me. Panatelas are similar to a Corona only they’re usually longer and thinner, almost 7-inches long.

Frank and I make a pit stop at the Tinder Box Cigar store in Williamsville, NY. Tinder Box is the number one retailer of premium cigars in the state. Owner Jim Dvorak, claims “we have over 1,080 open boxes of cigars”. It’s a little too overwhelming for me but this is where Frank comes to select his cigars, where he’s learned so much about the world of cigars, where he comes to chat about cigars and brown drinks and where he brought me to find a cigar that I would enjoy with my bourbon.

Jim talks to me in generalities, he explains he may start with a mild cigar like a Macanudo around mid morning and in the evening he’s worked his way into the fuller, bolder cigars like a Rocky Patel. “Like (the) cognac and rum business, there is an infinite choice of cigar styles, sizes, makers, and flavors” says Jim. “Usually if you’re drinking bourbon, you want something with a little more body to it, not quite a bold cigar but definitely a heartier one.” He gives examples like a Padron Maduro 1964 Aniversario with a hint of cocoa, toasty undertones and nutty nuances, the Davidoff, a Nicaraguan Diadema with flavors of raisin, almond and coffee bean and the Arturo Fuente, Double Chateau, simply rich and delicious.

While Frank loves those choices, I find a Baccarat Panatela calling my name. It’s smaller, slender, lighter and not as intimidating as the big fat cigars. With two new cigars, we leave and settle into Frank’s evening ritual of a good smoke and drink.

There’s something about smoking a cigar, the long exhales, the way your shoulders drop, the way your olfactory senses dance around the fleeting aromas of the cigar and the permeating flavours of the bourbon. Perhaps that was the magic of my light cigar/rich brown experience, Frank describes his experience as robust, balanced and equally relaxing. We don’t talk much, we just listen to the sounds of ice floating in a glass and smoke wafting through the air.

Like wine and food pairings, both Frank and Jim talk of cigars and rich browns as subjective matches. I liked my Baccarat Panatela with the Woodford Reserve Bourbon – a lot, but I would think the Baccarat would be as inappropriate with 30-year-old XO Cognac as a Pinot Blanc is with roast beef. It’s like the world of cheeses, wines and spirits, we get to mix them together in ways that please us yet, it’s not so much the result that pleases most, as the journey.

Like Frank and Jim, Rick McLeod, Manager of Premier Wine & Spirits in Amherst, NY is a cigar smoker and it’s where Frank comes for his cognac, whisky, bourbon, dark tequilas, and dark rums. Premier carries everything from standard bottles to rare and out-of-your-mind expensive. It’s Frank’s favorite playground outside the Tinder Box.

Rick explains, “the unique thing about the browns is that they’ve endured some type of oak aging. Oak is a tree and tobacco is a natural product that grows from the ground. They naturally have similarities that make them compatible.”

Rick suggests there’s some good value in Armagnacs. The French brandy that hails from the Armagnac region has amazing complexities for the money that suit many cigars. He also agrees with Frank that bourbon with its sweet character goes really well with cigars. As for Rick? “I love a cohiba, it’s as perfect a cigar as they come and I lean towards Aniversario because it’s the most complex.”

By Lynn Ogryzlo