- East Enders who long for the not-so-distant past should take the Port Jefferson/Bridgeport ferry across the Long Island Sound and make the short drive into New Haven. There, you'll enjoy a Bespoke Restaurant cocktail calibrated to accentuate the individual flavor profile of any cigar available next door in what is without exaggeration one of the finest cigar lounges in the country, the Owl Shop. Connecticut, like New York, does not permit smoking in bars. Fortunately for cigar smokers, the Owl Shop is the exception to the rule.
Founded in 1934 by a Greek immigrant couple, the Owl Shop epitomized the great American tobacconist for decades until its recent transformation into a full-fledged cigar lounge - an oasis where customers can both drink and smoke!
The LE10 featured at The Owl Shop in New Haven.
Conveniently, Bespoke, the aptly named restaurant where New Haven's best mixologist builds custom cocktails, is located right next door. Steve Bayusik
, the bespectacled alchemist behind the elegant slate bar has directed his cocktail list to Bespoke's impressive dinner menu, but he's equally capable of putting his talents to use for the cigar enthusiasts in residence next door at the Owl. We invited Bayusik to the Owl to sample two magnificent cigars before we returned to his bar to put his wizardry to the test.
Cigar smokers love to debate the merits of different drink pairings, but we have a curious reluctance to venture beyond the brown spirits. Even wine pairings have a faint odor of the unproven - and cocktails? Unless it's a classic cocktail - an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan, perhaps - speak not to us of mixed drinks with our cigars.
No matter how well that Islay malt may complement your favorite smoke, you're still buying a straight pour off the shelf. A cocktail, on the other hand, can be tailored precisely to the cigar, complementing the blend of tobaccos for an entirely unique experience. Given the range of boutique tobaccos available to today's cigar connoisseur, ought not our stalwart instincts be put to the question? This installment of "Beyond the Humidor" will do precisely that, bringing the mixologist's palate to bear on the art of pairing cigars with cocktails.
We sat down with Bayusik at one of the Owl Shop's custom-built cigar tables to talk through the creation of a cocktail for the Oliva Cain F, a heady, spicy Nicaraguan puro. Under the direction of Bill Raffaele
, the Owl Shop's cigar manager, the Owl Shop has become a repository for a vast selection of Nicaraguan cigars, which in Raffaele's estimation "are the best in the world, better than Cubans." Aficionados are familiar with the notoriously poor quality control of the contemporary Cuban product and, as a result of similar soil composition and climate conditions, celebrated blenders like Don Pepin Garcia have migrated to Nicaraguan tobaccos.
Bespoke Restaurant master mixologist Steve Bayusik.
Do yourself a favor sometime and talk cigars with a mixologist. While cigar smokers focus on the flavors presented - the 82 percent ligero wrapper on the F, for example, creates a bold opening, introducing increasingly nutty undertones to an earthy, peppery base over the length of the cigar - the mixologist immediately thinks about where those flavors register on the tongue, seeking appropriate, complementary flavors. Picking up on the distinctive earthy spiciness of the Nicaraguan ligero and the cigar's gentle introduction of hazelnut notes, Bayusik's eye went immediately to the Owl's impressive roster of peaty single-malts. After a few different pours, he settled on the 16-year Lagavulin for a base, explaining that the Scotch could stand up to the heady cigar without overpowering it, and the earth, smoke, peat, and spiciness on the back palate would tease out the Nicaraguan cigar's unique flavor profile.
Placing a few candied orange slices in the bottom of a rocks glass with a splash of Booker's high proof bourbon and a bar spoon full of Lagavulin, Bayusik flambéed the oranges. When an aroma of caramel and citrus began to emanate from the flame, he blended two ounces of Lagavulin 16 with a bar spoonful of Angostura bitters in a Boston shaker over ice and extinguished the merry blue blaze with the Scotch, rocks and all.
When Bayusik presented the cocktail he calls the F Train, we discovered flavors in the cigar that we didn't even know we had been missing. The F Train drew the flavors of the Cain F and the Lagavulin together, highlighting the peaty, smoky Scotch flavor while inviting the nutty, buttery undertones in the cigar to announce themselves against the clean, understated citrus notes.
For the second cigar-cocktail pairing we wanted to review a stick new to market and Raffaele suggested the Avo Limited Edition 2010 (LE-10) Super Robusto. Sinatra fans will be interested to know the fingers tickling the ivories on "Strangers in the Night" belong to the same Avo Uvezian
responsible for the LE10. Raffaele, who has dined with Avo in the Dominican Republic, shared an insider's perspective on the man "a real gentleman" and the cigar.
The Owl Shop features live jazz and blues along with serving as a last bastion for cocktails and smoking.
The Avo LE-10 sports an oily, dark sun-grown Ecuadorian wrapper with a Mexican binder and Dominican filler composed entirely of ligero tobacco, those potent leaves from the top third of the plant which produce a bold, dominant blend. Despite the powerful innards, Raffaele predicted, the LE-10 would surprise us with a deceptively smooth smoke, a product of careful aging. Indeed, cigar cognoscenti would be correct to expect a lot of spice from the Mexican binder, but the tobacco in the LE-10 has been aged since 2006, producing a much less aggressive taste profile than the Cain F. Well-balanced coffee and molasses notes predominate in this cigar.
Here again we were fortunate to have a mixologist on hand. Cigar smokers talk a lot about how cigars burn - whether a cigar burns hot or cool is primarily a function of construction - but rarely consider the drink. A whiskey neat will poorly address a hot-burning stick, and Bayusik settled on a bold combination of malty flavors for what he is calling the Epilogue: an ounce of hoppy Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale, two ounces of Zaya rum for a rich, caramel texture, an ounce of an herbal liquor called Averna for a slightly floral sweetness, topped with a few dashes of Reagan's orange bitters. Because the cigar burns on the hotter side, responding immediately to the mildest puffs with warm, luxuriant clouds of smoke, Bayusik built the Epilogue over ice to balance the temperature of the pairing. The nicely chilled result mutes the heat of the smoke, allowing the molasses and coffee of the LE-10 to linger pleasantly in the mouth with the malt and caramel of the Epilogue.
The Owl's cigar man, Raffaele, was suitably impressed, pronouncing the cocktail's gentle wash an apt pairing for the deceptively smooth cigar. Epilogues in hand and cigars lit, we grilled Raffaele and Bayusik on the relationship between a cigar and its drink. In an earlier installment of "Beyond the Humidor" we entered the debate about whether red wines or bold, brown liquors were best to pair with cigars. Some argue that the high alcohol content in Scotch, for instance, can overpower the flavors of a cigar. But for Raffaele and Bayusik it is a matter of taste and timing. "You don't want a cocktail that will retain flavors in your mouth before your cigar. You always want to work from light-bodied to full-bodied," said Bayusik. He suggested that smokers start with a classic aviation cocktail as, "It will bring your taste buds to life. You can then get progressively heavier in terms of both cocktails and cigars."
A ferry ride and short car or train trip from Bridgeport brings cigar lovers to the beautiful and comfortable Owl Shop where smoking with cocktails is still legal.
Raffaele's view of brown liquor pairings depends, unsurprisingly, on the cigar he is smoking. "If you are going to smoke a mild cigar you are not going to want brown liquor," said Raffaele, but with stronger, spicier sticks, "you'll want something that will stand up to the cigar." Alternatively, the Owl Shop's cigar manager likes to pair his favorite smokes with dark, full-bodied rums, which are available in spades at the Owl. He concedes, however, that "bourbon pairs very well with a full-bodied Nicaraguan cigar, or the cigar we are smoking (the Avo LE-10)," said Raffaele. The Owl has recently collaborated with Woodford Reserve to release a custom-distilled Owl Shop bourbon, a delightfully smooth blend with a warm, slightly sweet mouth presence and a light rye finish. "Beyond The Humidor" can confirm Raffaele's choice, the Owl's signature bourbon is a perfect companion for a full-bodied cigar.
Pairings aside, the Owl Shop is a cigar aficionado's landmark in its own right. A New Haven institution, the Owl's storied history lives on through Joe Lentine
, who began working at the Owl in the 1960s and continues to blend pipe tobacco on site today. The story of the Owl Shop is the story of New Haven itself. During the heyday of the adjacent Shubert Theater it was common to see the likes of Edward G. Robinson
, Vincent Price
, Van Johnson
, Alec Guiness
, Rex Harrison
, Olivia de Havilland
or Helen Hayes
visiting the shop.
The legendary Avo Uvezian with Owl Shop Cigar Manager Bill Raffaele.
In 1998, Glen Greenberg
purchased the quaint tobacconist and completely refurbished the space, creating an inviting, wood-and-leather interior replete with armchairs, couches, and custom-fitted cigar tables. "My intention was to create a warm atmosphere reminiscent of, and possibly an extension of, one's living room," says Greenberg. "The challenge was to do this without losing the inherent character and overall feeling of this classic tobacco shop." Today, the Owl Shop still attracts a refreshingly mixed crowd of New Haven regulars, visiting dignitaries, Yalies, and a remarkably full representation of the New Haven Bar. Early evenings at the Owl often see stalwart prosecutors encamped in the bay window overlooking College Street, while defense attorneys and trial lawyers congregate at the bar and trade war stories.
Greenberg has recently introduced a robust line-up of live music to the Owl. A jazz aficionado, Greenberg installed a sound stage in the rear of the cozy lounge and booked live bands Monday through Wednesday. The resulting vibe is part speakeasy, part Blue Note, and completely unique. Come down on Tuesdays, when The Greg Sherrod Blues Band
brings first-class soul to the Owl with a mix of blues staples and funkier numbers.
"Beyond the Humidor" may well agree with Sohail Ramirez
, a lounge Lothario who waxes poetic on the experience, "A good puro lifts your taste buds, a well-constructed stick impresses your fingertips, the slow burn entices your nose, and the thick plume is a marvel to the eyes. Greg provides the perfect soundtrack, bringing your ears in line with the rest of the senses." Between Sherrod's powerful, stirring vocals and a truly remarkable rhythm section, the chemistry between the sidemen is electric and the virtuosic bassist solos frequently to great local acclaim, it's difficult to disagree.
So make the trip to New Haven. We insist. Drop into Bespoke and let Chef Yousef Ghalaini
know that you need some ballast for a post-dinner cigar next door and he'll be happy to oblige, indeed, he's been known to haunt the Owl. Tell Bayusik what you'll be smoking and he'll be happy to set the stage with a Bespoke cocktail. Then head next door to the Owl, settle into a leather armchair, light up a Nicaraguan puro and discover flavors you hadn't imagined back when you were still buying off the shelf.
Bespoke, 266 College Street, New Haven, CT 06510, 203-562-4644 or www.bespokenewhaven.com
The Owl Shop, 268 College Street, New Haven, CT 06510, www.owlshopcigars.com