Stirling takes a first step towards reclaiming his youth from ‘the mild cigar’.
It was foul, really terrible. I have a clear recollection of it being as bad an experience as I could imagine and the accompanying thought ‘Why would anyone do this for pleasure’. This wasn’t a trip to Greggs, it was my first cigar. It had probably been on the tobacco shelf of the shop, drying out and desiccating for months, overlooked for the more popular Hamlet – ‘The mild cigar’. Admittedly I was only 4 and the blended Spar scotch I’d been sipping prior to lighting up probably didn’t help. Formative year memories like this can scar a man for life, would I ever be able to enjoy a cigar with a whisky again? With the encouragement of our resident cigar expert, I said yes to an invitation to the Old Bengal Bar in Liverpool Street for a good splash of Suntory and a Cohiba.
The Old Bengal bar holds regular cigar and whisky evenings, combining the best of both to what is obviously a popular yet exclusive format. Zoran Peric, brand Ambassador for Suntory Whisky and Daniel Pink from Hunters & Frankau, the only importer of Cuban cigars into the UK, are on hand to guide me through the evening. It’s not hard to find detailed information about whisky and cigars on the internet, but having personal, impassioned and informed chaps of this calibre on hand to add detail, humour and encouragement is a great way of getting into the swing.
The calibre of Suntory is easy to see, just by glancing over the numbers this family run business has gone from strength to strength. Celebrating its 90th anniversary this year (making it the oldest distiller in Japan) and boasting 3 recent ‘distillery of the year awards’, add to that a $50 million investment into production, research and craftsmanship which can only have a positive impact for the lovers of a dram. One of the arsenals of companies held within the warm Suntory embrace includes Bowmore whose pedigree needs no questioning here.
The whisky culture in Japan differs slightly from here. Although slowly changing, the drinking of scotch in the UK still has one foot firmly in the wood-panelled, chesterfield-adorned club where it is quaffed by men wearing tweed and grumbling about the women’s vote. Luckily the likes of Alwynne Gwilt and her peers are bringing glamour to art of sipping scotch. Heading back East, the cool thing to drink when out with your Yūjin at the start of the evening is the highball. Served on tap and apparently universally popular in Japan it wouldn’t usually be my first port of call (a drop of water in scotch perhaps, but as a long drink?) in this case the Hakushu Highball cocktail proved to be a refreshing, palate cleansing start.
An introduction from Zoran and Danielle and we are off. A full run down of the specifics and anatomy of the Cuban cigar reveals some key details: The EMS stamp guarantees quality, but a Havana cigar has more to it than that. Hand made in Cuba, obviously, and crafted with long filler tobacco, the wrapper leaf makes up 5% of the cigar, and the binder leaf another 5%. The rest is smooth, bold tobacco. The Cohiba Maduro 5 we were treated to was a 52 gauge which gives it an easier draw, the number 5 denoting the age of the leaf. Cohiba is the most expensive brand you can buy and a favourite of Fidel Castro.
As such, to accompany this extremely fine cigar of note you will need an equally well-regarded bed fellow, so we were presented with three fine Suntory whiskies to compliment the beginning, middle and end stages of the burn.
As flame meets leaf for the first time a good slug of Hibiki 17 is poured. Fruits ride along with rose on the first nose, a sip delivers caramel, sweet and balancing the fresh, early part of the cigar. There is oak, but not too powerful and certainly not competing with the Cohiba. Conversation on cigars and whisky abound – should you straight cut with a guillotine, perhaps use a punch, how much water to use, what about ice? From experts to first timers, the love of this pairing is obvious. As we approach the middle of the cigar we move onto the Hakushu 18. With a long, smoky finish that is hinted at by the nose, and another burst of fruit (this time less citrus, but with notes of pear and sweet pastry) I take a moment to sit back and enjoy the moment, which is delicious and lingers like the smoke.
Then to finish, both the evening and the cigar, the hearty Yamazaki 18 appears. As the cigar has become stronger towards the end it is evident something powerful is needed to give it a run for its money. Dark chocolate, spice and a little oily on the palate it combines with a long and ‘profound’ finish that gives this the final drop the necessary oomph. The relaxed atmosphere of The Old Bengal Bar, the easy going manner of Zoran and Daniel, the quality of the Cohiba and the refined and perfectly partnered Suntory went so well together I was positively despondent when the evening came to an end.
My question ‘Why would anyone do this for pleasure?’ is answered. When the ingredients are very fine, the combinations inspired and the atmosphere alive with passion, it is hard to find yourself anywhere other than content and wanting the night to linger on.
To discovery Suntory whisky visit their website and to dive into the heady world of Hunter and Frankau visit their website. For an evening of convivial cigar smoking, whisky sipping and canapés, visit the Old Bengal Bar.