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Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan Magazine )
A good cigar never loses popularity with the right crowd. Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan Magazine )
Bongo Ron’s is a cozy, well-appointed lounge. Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan Magazine )
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The pleasure of a lovely cigar matched with distilled liquors like Scotch whiskey or bourbon has been a tradition in the U.S. since the explosion of cigar smoking that occurred in the early to mid-19th century. "If I cannot smoke in heaven, then I shall not go," Mark Twain quipped about this love of cigars. Once the bastion of gentlemen's clubs, the joy of smoking a long-burning cigar while sipping the bite and flavor of a single malt or blended Scotch whiskey, is alive and well on the Connecticut shoreline. And the experience is, in fact, growing. Like the popularity of pairing craft beer samplers with cheese boards, cigar lounges (both established and new) are seeing an influx of patrons as the cigar and Scotch lifestyle grows.
When the Clean Indoor Air Act went into effect in Connecticut in late 2003, and smoking was banned state-wide in all enclosed workspaces, including restaurants, bars, and cafes, the law destroyed the social nature of smoking cigars, according to Ronald J. Bolduc, Jr., owner and general manager of Bongo Ron's Cigar & Lounge at 65 Main Street in Old Saybrook. Fortunately, the Act exempts cigar bars.
Bongo Ron's—co-owned by Ron and his wife Andria Alex—is a cozy, well-appointed lounge. Opening its doors this past April, the shop already has a small but growing membership list. While members have exclusive use of two intimate rooms (and a private bathroom) on the second floor, non-members have reign over the first floor rooms and three-season deck. Anyone of legal smoking age (18 in Connecticut) is welcome and make up most of the clientele.
While the Owl Shop cigar and jazz club in the heart of New Haven (in continuous operation under different owners since 1934) serves its own line of liquors to pair with the cigars it offers, Bongo Ron's is a BYOB establishment.
"The Owl Shop is a classy place where you can go sit down and have a nice glass of Dalmore [a single malt Scotch] while admiring the live [music] performance," says Daniel Lance Braumann, 22, of Madison, an aspiring actor. Braumann frequents the Owl Shop with best friend Nick Iannuzzi to celebrate birthdays among their circle of 20-something friends who are all new to the cigar and Scotch lifestyle.
While some people smoke a cigar just for the joy of smoking, "Many people bring in their favorite bourbon or Scotch," states Bolduc at Bongo Ron's. What's the best Scotch for pairing with the hour-long experience of relaxing with a fine cigar? That's a matter of personal taste, notes Bolduc.
"Highlighting a particular cigar with the right Scotch whiskey or bourbon is not a science, but in some cases is critical," Bolduc states. While a great deal comes down to personal taste, the key is pairing mild-to-mild or bold-to-bold; a mild Scotch or bourbon with a mild cigar, "so that one does not over-power the other," Bolduc notes.
Personal favorites are also considered when helping patrons pair. "If someone is accustomed to a particular [drink] and they associate with that flavor, and you give them a different bourbon [or Scotch], they are going to try to associate that with what they normally drink," Bolduc says, "so we try to stick with a pairing that would be pretty close to the cigar itself."
As part of the pairing process—especially at pairing events like the type Andria Alex sponsors at Bongo Ron's—cigar shop owners will follow the recommendations of the associated manufacturers. "It's not possible to taste every Scotch or bourbon out there to know about all the distinctive tastes," Alex notes, thus a lot of it comes down to trial and error. "Is the Scotch mild or smoky? Hopefully we hit [the pairing] right," Bolduc adds.
While experienced cigar smokers will test various Scotch or bourbons to determine which pairings they like best, those newer to (or interested in trying) the cigar and Scotch social lifestyle are wise to attend free pairing events and learn from the experts hands-on.
A good cigar never loses popularity with the right crowd. That love simply shifts to each new generation that discovers the joy and relaxation associated with a premium cigar puffed between sips of spirits like aged Scotches and bold bourbons. While quality beers and wines can also be paired with fine cigars, distilled liquor and a cigar is the more common pairing. And this lifestyle experience is no longer just the purview of debonair gentlemen as in former times.
"Today, ladies are becoming cigar lovers alongside the gentlemen," Bolduc states. "Women are moving away from flavor infused cigars to mild, natural cigars, and enjoying the cigar and Scotch lifestyle."
The Taste of a Cigar
With 27 years in the business, John Troiano, territory manager for premium cigar manufacturer Alec Bradley, gives cigar smokers the inside scoop on what controls taste in a cigar.
"Since the 1990s cigars are better than they've ever been," Troiano said at a recent talk at Bongo Ron's. Cuban cigars have long been thought of as the finest of cigars the world over, but "Quality cigar manufacturers in Honduras and Nicaragua now have [tobacco] blends and mixes that diminish the Cuban hype," Troiano noted.
From the planting of the various types of tobacco seeds, to the priming (picking) of the mature leaves of the tobacco plants, to the fermenting (aging) of those leaves, the blend of the leaves along with the type of wrapper leaf used controls the taste of each type of cigar.
Troiano also noted that the location of the leaves on the tobacco plant when they are cut, influences the taste of a cigar. Experts known as "blenders" will become very familiar with how a particular group of cut and aged leaves taste when formed into stand-alone "puritos," which are made of tobacco used as the filler for a cigar. "The flavor of the final cigar will be the blend of different puritos," as determined by the experienced taste blenders, Troiano explained, adding, "and the exact percentages of how much [of each purito] is included in the final cigar is a well-guarded secret."
And while numerous factors affect the taste as determined by the three tobacco components of any cigar: the filler leaf, the binder leaf, and the wrapper leaf, taste is also affected by the circumference of the cigar. "The wrapper leaf affects about 50 percent of how a cigar tastes," noted Troiano, "but the fatter a cigar becomes, less flavor comes from the wrapper leaf and more from the filler."
Troiano also noted that the cigar manufacturing industry is now minimizing the use of pesticides, opting for natural means of repelling the insects and molds that tobacco plants must be protected from until the day or harvest.
Area Cigar Bars & Lounges
The Owl Shop, 268 College Street, New Haven. Fine tobacconists, cigar lounge, and bar, plus coffee and teas. 203-624-3250.
www.owlshopcigars.com for hours of operation. Owner Glen Greenberg.
Bongo Ron's Cigar & Lounge, 65 Main Street, Old Saybrook. BYOB (Bring your own Scotch, bourbon, craft beers, or wine.) 860-388-2876.
www.bongorons.com for hours of operation. Owners Ron Bolduc and Andria Alex.
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