I find whisky pairings challenging. In my experiences to date I’ve found that whisky errs towards being complementary rather than providing a true augmentation of either the liquid or the pairing itself. Aromas and flavours meld or offset, rather than fundamentally alter in composition in the manner which you find with wine. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy experimenting with accompaniments to my whisky - on rare occasion I’ve experienced some great combinations, but these seem hard to sustain throughout a paired meal or specific flight. Producers are constantly trying to persuade me otherwise. Often in a manner which feels entirely forced - there’s only so many artisan chocolates I can take.
Taking food out of the equation, whisky’s relationship with smoke is longstanding. There are countless pages on the Internet devoted to comparing and contrasting whiskies with particular cigars – many of them are beyond irksome and seemingly hailing from some form of yesteryear man-centric reality – ‘whisky and cigars are for gentlemen’, ‘A real man’s man will smoke a cigar with his fine whisky’. The industry is making strong strides with gender equality, but it seems the moment you add tobacco into the mix 40 years of progress go out the window. It’s just not good enough to bookend an article with a throwaway ‘oh and whisky and cigars are not just for men’. Exasperating - I should clearly look out for more forward-thinking websites when conducting my research.
I digress. Dalmore’s original Cigar Malt was introduced in 1999 – engineered as an ideal complement to a whiling away a few hours in the company of a fat cigar (specifically a Partagas according to Master Blended Richard Paterson – a self-proclaimed aficionado). Bottled at 40% ABV it originally sat between the distillery’s 12 and 15 year olds in terms of both price and profile. The bottling was canned in 2009, and replaced, albeit briefly by the Gran Reserva - a whisky who’s name always seems to reminds me of cheap Spanish holiday resorts. The clamour for Cigar Malt was strong however and the bottling was reintroduced in a 2.0 version in 2012.
Cigar Malt Reserve is composed of 20% American white oak Ex-bourbon, 70% matusalem sherry and 10% cabernet sauvignon. What’s a matusalem you ask? It’s a sherry cask that’s been enriched (read sweetened) with 25% Pedro Ximenez. It’s a VORS sherry meaning that the casks used must be at least 30 years or older. The recipe here is now a world away from either the Gran Reserva or original cigar malt, however the introduction of some wine influence is a new twist, and likewise, if you believe the marketing talk, the average age of the constituent whiskies is much higher. Though to my taste I’d still peg this where it always was – around 12 to 15 years.
The ABV has been upped to 44%, along with the price – at around £70, the modern Cigar Malt costs is nearly twice its predecessor. What’s not new is the distillery’s fondness for caramel. In the glass, the hue screams of an over-abundance of E150a – similarly to a tranche of Dalmore expressions, you have to start paying the big bucks for you whisky to be delivered with any sense of naturalness.
Nose: An intriguing combination of sweet and savoury. The modern Dalmore ‘orange’ profile is in full force here – Terry’s Chocolate Orange, zest, dried peels and a box of fondants. Cinnamon spiced reduced berries and peppery stewed plums provide additional fruitiness. Alongside - a bread factory’s worth of loaves and buns – an assortment of furniture shop leather armchairs and a good plume of dry tobacco leaf. In the background, some balsamic sharpness, but also a gentle sandiness – nearly slate-like. Reduction (sparingly) shifted things up a gear with cacao powder, cherries and balsamic joining the ride, whilst the orange slipped into more of a supporting role.
Taste: The arrival gives an initial hit of velvety unctuousness, but sadly this passes all too quickly – the structure of the whisky seemingly thinning on contact with the palate. Strange. The sherry influence is up first – orange peels, raisins and plums – more heavily spiced than on the nose – cinnamon, pepper and anise. Then, the cask takes a firmer grip – toffee, vanilla, crackerbread, leather and tobacco – part sweet ex-bourbon, part dusty and drifting towards astringency. If you thought this was a bit skinny at 44%, don’t attempt to dilute it further – it’s highly hydrophobic. Notes of chalk, drying oak and an emphasis on the underlying maltiness of the spirt are introduced, with some grass and hay added for good measure - but the textural loss as a result is brutal.
Finish: Medium, wood-forward and quite astringent with peppery oak, drying spice and toasted bread.
Cigar Malt Reserve feels completely at home in the current Dalmore stable – it’s contemporary in style, wood forward and sadly a bit anaemic. I find it rather the game of two halves - the nose has some genuine intrigue, sitting Paterson-era orange aromas on a bed of polished leather and leafiness in a manner with invites the sort of patience required to smoke a cigar over an entire evening. The soft, creamy orange and spicing would not doubt complement the dry smoke of a good cigar.
But taken in isolation, the palate fails to deliver on this promise – whilst some might describe it as ‘smooth’ <shudder> I find it both anodyne and in places acerbic. There’s certainly nothing overtly flawed here – it’s fine for what it is. But for £70 I’d suggest there are other sherry-led expressions which would offer more back for you buck, and likely pair with your cigar just as well. Did we tell you the name of the game, boy?