Posted: Apr 18, 2014 12:00pm ET
When I smoke a great cigar, and give it an extremely high rating, I almost always have a seed of doubt that my impressions were formed by something other than just the cigar. The setting. The company. The time of day. What I had for lunch, or dinner. The beverage I was drinking along with the cigar. When it is one of our Connoisseur’s Corner offerings, it’s often doubly worrisome because we do not smoke them blind and my objectivity just can’t be the same as smoking a cigar with the band removed.
On a trip to Mexico last week, however, I had a second chance to smoke the Edmundo Dantes Conde 109, the Mexican regional offering from Habanos S.A. that was released in 2007. A good Mexican friend of mine, finding out I was in the country, sent me a DHL package with a few great cigars, including a 109. In the May/June issue of Cigar Aficionado, with Pierce Brosnan, I gave it one of the highest ratings I have ever given a cigar: 99 points.
After the package arrived, I had two days to find tine to smoke the cigars. I started one evening with a Cohiba Lancero that unfortunately had a tight draw, and moved on to a Hoyo de Monterrey. I saved the 109 for my last night in the country.
We were staying at a wonderful boutique hotel, the Casa del Atrio, run by Pepe and Antonio, in Querétaro, a booming city of 1.5 million people about two hours north of Mexico City. We had a big lunch overlooking a lake north of the city with some friends and came back to the hotel in the early evening. We packed, and then my wife and I picked up some freshly made quesadillas (basically melted cheese in a lightly fried tortilla) and brought them back to eat in the hotel’s outdoor patio. As we sat there with a full moon rising, and one of the bell towers of Templo St. Agustín illuminated by its interior lights, I lit up the 109.
From the very first puff, I knew that I had been right the first time. The cigar was simply magnificent. Different setting. Different time of day. Different beverage (a local craft beer called Hercules). Still a great cigar. The nuances of leather and sweet spices, with a perfect balance and smoothness, kept me puffing beyond when I probably should have, since we had an early morning flight home.
Posted: Feb 27, 2014 12:00pm ET
So many cigars. So little time.
At the end of my first full day here in Havana, I sat down to write a blog about what I had smoked, and I couldn't remember how many, or which cigars, I had enjoyed that day. It may have been the medicinal effect of Cuban rum, or the accumulation of caffeine in numerous Cuban coffees. Whatever.
Therefore, I have decided to give you a few highlights. I still can't remember the exact line-up or the exact count.
David Savona and I keep a locker here, so there are some treasures from previous years, both things we have acquired and items that have been gifted to us. So, one of our first stops in Havana is at the humidor to just get us through the first few days.
I pulled out a Cohiba Corona Especiales, a gift, with a box date of 1992. That was my lunch cigar on Tuesday. It was a spectacular smoke, filled with telltale notes of cinnamon and leather, with a smooth earthiness that belied the strength of a 22 year old cigar. It wasn't my first cigar of the day, but it was the first memorable smoke of the trip.
That night, we were part of a ceremony to award the 2013 Cigar of the Year to the Montecristo No. 2. The cigars arrived, and I cracked open a box. It was not the box date of our winner for the year, but we suspect that boxes, while marked "Jan 14", contained cigars that had been aged for awhile. It was delicious; full bodied and spicy, yet smooth and mouth-filling. A fantastic cigar that proved its worth as the best cigar of 2013.
Later that night—in fact it was probably the fifth, or was it the sixth cigar of the day—I lit up a Cohiba Behike BHK 52, a box from the year we awarded it our Cigar of the Year. I've always been a big fan of that cigar, and this one only reinforced my impression. It is still a baby, a full-bodied tour de force with leather and spices, and a long finish on the palate. But I smoked it down to a knuckle-singeing nub.
Posted: Feb 25, 2014 10:00am ET
The soft, magical lighting bathed the circular entrance to Club Habana, a former yacht club in the Miramar section of Havana. The guests entered through a phalanx of costumed dancers with headdresses, receiving elegant black packages of the two cigars spotlighted on the evening: the Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo de San Juan and the Partagás Serie D No. 6. There were bars serving Cuban rum and Spanish Cava, and canapés were passed through the crowd. It was the gala opening dinner for the 16th annual Festival del Habanos, Cuba's yearly extravaganza celebrating one of the country's principal products: cigars.
The event then got started with a video presentation projected onto the façade of the Club Habana, a beautiful building built in the 1920s. The video included graphic representations of tobacco barns, and the new cigars being presented that night.
The crowd then filtered into the building, where there were buffets for dinner—chicken, lobster, squid and beef with more rum and more wine. There were more than 1,000 people milling around the club's beach, and hanging on the huge balconies. There were small bands performing in some rooms, and a rock and roll band off in a cabana at one end of the club. The aroma of fine cigars wafted over the entire crowd, many of the women decked out in beautiful gowns.
The highlight of the evening finally kicked off about 10:30; A performance by the world renowned Cuban salsa band, Los Van Van. It was the first time the group had performed at the Habanos Festival.
The Festival continues today with visits to Pinar del Río, and the Vuelta Abajo.
Posted: Jan 30, 2014 3:00pm ET
Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca pointed up at the pock-marked brick facade of the Joya de Nicaragua factory, outlined with mustard-yellow pillars up to the peak of the roof. When they removed layers of paint, the bricks revealed the damage done by mortar fire, and probably .50 caliber machine gun fire, during the Sandinista uprising in Estelí in 1978. Dr. Martinez Cuenca, himself a former Sandinista presidential candidate and the owner of Joya de Nicaragua today, said they had decided to leave the evidence of war as a reminder to everyone how far the country had come.
Dr. Martinez Cuenca had invited some guests to the factory, in advance of a tour given to attendees of the Nicaraguan Cigar Festival, to show off the renovation that had just been completed during the last weeks of 2013, and to talk about his plans for the future. The renovation coincides with the company's 45th anniversary.
The renovation is an accomplishment of reframing an old building with many inefficiencies into a small but modern cigar factory. There are now large rooms on the floor plan, and more room to expand in the future. The rolling room today has about 50 pairs of workers—one man and one woman in each team doing the bunching and the rolling of the wrapper onto the cigar. The factory is currently producing just over four million cigars a year.
But as fascinating as the refurbished factory is today, there is a deeper allure because of its connection to the history of cigars and tobacco in Nicaragua. Black tobacco, the type used in premium handrolled cigars, wasn't even planted in Nicaragua until 1965. The Nicaragua Cigar Co., the forerunner to the Joya de Nicaragua brand, was founded in 1968. The original owners were Juan Francisco Bermejo and Simon Camacho, two Cubans who had spearheaded the cultivation of cigar tobacco in Nicaragua. They had quite a bit of early success, and by 1971, Joya de Nicaragua had become the official cigar at the White House.
It was there, the story goes, that Nicaragua's dictator, Gen. Anastasio Somoza, discovered the cigar, and upon his return to Nicaragua, he exerted pressure on Bermejo and Camacho, taking a majority stake in the company. Over the next few years, he acquired total control of the company. In the years preceding the Sandinista Revolution, the factory had begun to produce more than nine million cigars a year. But its connection to the Somoza regime made it a target in the uprising and it was destroyed. Within four months of the Sandinista victory in 1979, the factory had been rebuilt and was up and running.
Posted: Jan 22, 2014 3:00pm ET
Jorge Padrón stood in the damp furrow between rows of tobacco planted just five weeks before. He fondled the velvety leaves, already nearly waist high, between his fingers, and said, "Isn't this beautiful?" It was; a field of luminescent-green tobacco stretched several football fields away, with the leaves moving seductively in the light morning breeze under the brilliant tropical sunshine.
For Padrón, the president of Piloto Cigars, the parent company of the Padrón cigar brand, the field represents more than just a pretty place to grow tobacco. It's an investment in the future.
"This is about protection for us," he said. He later explained the two new fincas—small farms—that he had shown me that morning were part of a long-term strategy to give the company control over nearly all the tobacco the Padróns use, and to ensure the supply as they begin to plan for expansion beyond the approximately six million cigars a year they are making now.
Padrón said that the two fincas—Villa Vieja and Donoso—will primarily be used to grow ligero tobacco, the strongest leaves in the filler blends for Padrón cigars. Ligero has been in short supply in recent years, making Padrón's decision to take total control of the farms all the more important.
Villa Vieja had been part of the Padrón's tobacco mix, but they had been renting the property from the owners. The Padróns also built a new tobacco processing facility on the property, all painted in the signature yellow and brown of Padrón properties, and renovated the farm's tobacco barns.
Donoso is a new acquisition, but it is also located in the flat, volcanic soils around the city of Estelí. The Padróns have also built several new tobacco barns on the property
Posted: Nov 8, 2013 12:00pm ET
If you were born as part of the post-World War II baby boom, you remember where you were on November 22, 1963. This year, the events of 50 years ago—maybe more so than ever before—strike me as so surreal that they should be part of a fantasy, or a bad nightmare.
I was headed to a doctor's office when the news came on the radio. My mother started crying in the front seat. And, as we waited for the appointment, I can remember the adults in the room were just in shock. We spent the next two days glued to the television, witnessing a true national tragedy. This was America. How could such a thing happen in our country?
The National Geographic Channel will air a docudrama this weekend, Killing Kennedy, starring Rob Lowe as President Kennedy, and Ginnifer Goodwin as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Mercifully, it steers clear of the seemingly endless stream of conspiracy theories about who killed the president, 50 years of wild stories that have laid the blame at the feet of everyone from the Mafia, pro-Vietnam military officers, Cuba, the Soviet Union and disgruntled segregationists. At some point in the last 50 years, the attempts to explain that day have done more to muddy the waters around the event than provide any lasting proof of anything. For more on the conspiracy tales, check out "The Darkest Day" in the Nov/Dec issue of Cigar Aficionado, written by Peter Kornbluh.
Killing Kennedy focuses on the things we do know. The reason for President Kennedy's trip. The shooting. Lee Harvey Oswald's murder of a Dallas policeman. His subsequent assassination by Jack Ruby. We are not spared the now widely accepted rumors about JFK's dalliances with women other than the First Lady, nor does the film avoid the death of their newborn son Patrick or the president's own health problems with his bad back. In the end, probably to the chagrin of some historians, the film burnishes the image of the Kennedy White House as Camelot, an image that has endured through the decades.
Posted: Nov 6, 2013 2:00pm ET
The best moment came as my wife and I drove down the Taconic State Parkway on a fall Sunday afternoon. We came up over the crest of a hill with a lookout that has a panoramic view of the Hudson Valley west to the Catskill Mountains. I glimpsed a row of vintage Corvettes with their drivers standing next to the cars, chatting. I honked, and as I drove by it was like a ZZ Top video—the entire line-up of six drivers turned in unison and waved.
Those who read my car blogs regularly know that one of my benchmarks is how much attention a new car gets. The Corvette club drivers were just one in a never-ending sequence of turned heads, thumbs-up and big smiles. There was the guy in the gas station who asked if he could take a picture. And there was the New York State trooper, sitting in a car in his speed trap site who had a big grin on his face as I drove by at a stately 58 mph, which barely gets the V8 turning over; he was probably laughing, knowing that I hadn't been going 58 the entire length of the Taconic. I hadn't, but then I also know where almost all the favorite hiding spots are along the entire highway, and I know where to slow down.
The object of everyone's desire? The new 2014 Corvette Stingray, or in Corvette parlance, a C7, which stands for the seventh generation of the car since it's inception in the 1950s. This may be the best Corvette ever built. It answers some of the long-standing critiques of the car that wondered how a world-class sports car could have such an average interior. My fire-engine red Stingray had bright red leather interior with black accents and looked like a top German or Japanese car. For the Corvette purist, the loss of some of its brusqueness may be too much to bear, but the added little touches of comfort, the relatively quiet interior and the not-too-hard ride make for a better day-to-day driving experience.
On the other hand, the 6.2 liter, 455-horsepower V8 doesn't take much coaxing to turn this two-door into a beast. At triple-digit speeds (and I swear I didn't get beyond that magic threshold more than once) there's a feeling that there's a lot more power left to run out. And, there's excellent road feel at all times. My test car had a six-speed, paddle-shifted automatic transmission, and I can see where the 7-speed manual would make the car much more appealing to a driving enthusiast; but trust me, it's a quibble—not a deal breaker—to have the automatic, even though I didn't find the shifting as smooth as some other high-end, paddle-shift systems.
Posted: Oct 15, 2013 12:00pm ET
Dress code: Black tie. The room: Wood paneled with high ceilings. The food: shellfish stations and filet mignon for dinner. The drink: open bar and bottomless wine glasses at the meal. Sound like the good old days? It was. Maybe even better than the good old days. It's happening regularly at the Union League in Philadelphia, and the bow to the past was on full display there the last week of September.
There are nostalgic events that are melancholy remembrances of times past. And, then, there are moments that honor and glorify the past in a present day showcase, a reminder that what was, can be again and again and again. The event was the Union League Heritage Cigar Club's formal dinner; this year, they honored Robert Levin, owner of Holt's Cigar Co. and the Ashton cigar brands, with the club's "Cigar Industry Family Service Award." There are almost too many reasons why Robbie, as all his friends in the business know him, should be given an award like this: the Levin family's nearly 70 years in the cigar business in Philadelphia; Holt's dedication to Philadelphia's downtown; and the family's true devotion to creating some of the best cigars on the market today—Ashton, La Aroma de Cuba and San Cristobal. And those are just the obvious ones.
About 125 people gathered that night at the Union League. It reminded me of the great Ritz-Carlton smokers that were held through the early 1990s, all true tributes to the good life associated with a fine, hand-rolled cigar. The men, as noted, were decked out in formal attire, and the women were dressed to the nines, too. The aroma of fine cigars filled the cocktail hour, held in one of the club's great ballrooms. I had the honor of introducing Robbie, and took the opportunity to tell the crowd about the many wonderful families that dominate the hand-rolled cigar industry. Robbie's family was in the room: his wife, Suzanne, his son Sathya, and his daughter Meera. Members of the Fuente family were there, too: Carlos Fuente Jr. and his daughter Liana, Cynthia Fuente and her son Carlos.
Posted: Sep 16, 2013 12:00pm ET
There are more than a few perks of being a magazine editor in New York. For the most part, I write about the cool cars I get to drive, the golf clubs I get to test and, sometimes, the weird things sent to me to try out. I also used to attend wine tastings, but I have not done that much in recent years. However, when the invite for a lunch at Krug House arrived in my email, I couldn't say no. If you love fine things, tasting the current releases of Krug Champagne is like playing Augusta or dining at Per Se or getting fitted for a Savile Row suit.
I set off to the location, which changes every year, one of those relatively new marketing concepts called a pop-up. This year, Krug House was in a spectacular West Village townhouse, just off Washington Square; when I googled it, the address appeared on some real estate listings. (If you have to ask, you can't afford it.)
The house was a lovely, completely renovated six-story townhouse on a tree-lined block. Each floor of the building was decked out by Krug with its current marketing and promotional idea, "Stirring the Senses," which touches on the five senses (taste, smell, sight, touch and sound) with a sixth one, Enlightenment, added for the rooftop level, which had a partial view of the Empire State Building. The lunch was held in conjunction with one of New York's leading wine retail shops, Sherry-Lehmann. Three guys there—Shyda Gilmer, Matt Wong and Chris Adams—are cigar lovers, too.
The wines were spectacular. We started with the Krug Grand Cuvée, a non-vintage Champagne that nonetheless uses much older wines in its blend than most non-vintage Champagnes. We also drank a 2000 Krug, a 2000 Clos de Mesnil, which is a single vineyard in Champagne and a Krug Rose. With desert, we drank a 1989 Krug, from the Krug Collection, a stunning example of how well good Champagne can age.
I won't give you all my tasting notes. Let's just say that I could drink every one of those Champagnes every day of the year, and never get tired of them.
Posted: Sep 10, 2013 4:00pm ET
I grabbed a Cigar Aficionado baseball hat from the closet on Saturday as I set out to forage for dinner in the local farmer's market. Early September harvests are bountiful this year in the Hudson Valley, so it was great to pick through the heirloom tomatoes, the last of the sweet corn crop and fresh peaches. The stalls were packed with people on a sunny morning.
We're lucky to have a Long Island fishmonger at the market, too. I had already cleared a scallop entrée for dinner with my wife, and sure enough, he had some fresh scallops waiting for me. As he began to fill up a plastic bag, he said, "Cigar Aficionado, I read that magazine all the time."
Although I usually don't say much, I said, "Yes, I'm the executive editor of that magazine."
"Really," he said. I apologized for not having some cigars with me to give to him. We had a brief conversation about what kind of cigars he liked, and then I went on my way.
But I was reminded later just how often I'm surprised when I'm out in public by people saying they love cigars or that they read the magazine or both. They love to talk about cigars, and want to know everything they can.
In the magazine's early days, back in the mid-1990s, it was always exciting to hear from readers, in part because it made us feel like we're weren't alone. It felt good to know we were building a community.
I'm gratified to know that the cigar clan has spread far and wide. Whether it's on a golf course, in an airline terminal, walking down the street or buying fish at a farmer's market, it is always fun to know there are fellow lovers of the leaf in every walk of life. If you're like me, and there's some hint that the person shares your passion for cigars, take the time to stop and talk with them. We may not be a huge community, but it is important to keep the clan alive and thriving.