Posted: Oct 30, 2014 1:00pm ET
It has been a month of firsts. But Saturday night ranked up there as the best of the best. It was my birthday. And, it was the first night my wife and I stayed in our new home in Querétaro, Mexico. It has been a three-year odyssey, with a lot of twists and turns, but it all came together on October 25, 2014.
Needless to say, such a momentous occasion deserved a cigar worthy of the moment. I'll be frank—Saturday night I was so tired I nearly fell asleep in my food at the small nearby Italian bistro where we had dinner. That evening passed without the cigar. But after another long day of unpacking on Sunday, I was ready to treat myself.
Smoking the first cigar in my new home couldn't be done without the proper adult beverage accompaniment. I hadn't forgotten. During the long day of hitting Costco and Home Depot (yes, they have huge ones here in Querétaro) and a gigantic grocery store, I stumbled on a bottle of 7-year-old Flor de Caña, which given my journalistic roots in Nicaragua back in 1978, seemed to offer symmetry, as well as it being one of my favorite rums.
At 6:45 pm on Sunday, I found my wife and asked her what she wanted to drink. I prepared her a rum and tonic, splashed with fresh squeezed orange juice from the tree in our back patio (Do I hear house cocktail?), and I poured myself a generous portion of Flor de Caña over ice.
The sun had just set, leaving a broad swatch of orange and pink in the sky over the rooftops of the city, and a crescent moon was sliding toward the western horizon. Jet contrails slashed across the darkening sky.
The cigar? I had a 2008 Partagás Lusitania given to me by a friend here in Mexico. The wrapper was a shiny reddish brown; a classic Colorado color. The burn was perfect and the draw had just enough effort to keep the ash even. The flavor reminded me of great Lusitanias I've had in the past; deep coffee notes with a hint of a sweet spice like cinnamon. On the finish, there was that telltale note of Cuban ligero, a little punch to the taste that lingers on the palate. In other words, it was a near-perfect cigar for a near-perfect moment.
Posted: Oct 22, 2014 1:00pm ET
I have had a lot of fun during the last decade testing some great cars for Cigar Aficionado. There was the Bentley Continental GT (big and brawny), the Aston Martin Vantage (sexy and smooth), the Audi RS6 (a twin-turbo dynamo), a Mercedes E-series AMG (fast and steady), a Corvette Stingray (slightly randy and rocket-like), a Jaguar F-type coupe (sexy and feline quick)... and that's just to name a few.
But my all-time favorite remains the Audi RS5, a stunning combination of sports super car with a daily driveability that is second to none. I spent five days in an RS5 cabriolet in October, a kind of last hurrah before my move to Mexico. If I had my druthers, I would pick the RS5 Coupe for my home garage; it's simple, really—the convertible top takes up too much room in the trunk. Mind you, the Coupe doesn't have a lot of room back there, but it's enough to hold a couple of weekend bags and one set of golf clubs. But the cabriolet was a perfect substitute. And, like all the S and RS series, the back seat offers just enough room for a couple of small adults to sit for short rides—not a long highway trip, but a quick dash for dinner to a nearby restaurant is just fine.
The real standard setting comes with RS5's awesome power and its handling out on the road. This car, like many of the high-horsepower vehicles on the road today, does what you think, when you think it. Want to pass that truck before you can count to three? Downshift with the steering wheel paddles, hit the accelerator and be sure you are ready to pass or you will end up in the tailpipe of that truck. On the highway, there is a real sense of security knowing that you can make the car do exactly what you want it to.
Sadly, I didn't have the Autobahn to speed along. And on my favorite highway in America—New York's Taconic State Parkway—the ubiquitous presence of the State Patrol makes driving too much beyond the speed limit a risky proposition. So, I motored along at a safe 10 mph over the listed speed, 55 mph, and essentially never had to touch the brakes. Well, there was that one particularly enticing downhill set of curves where no cop can hide; I had the car moving fast enough that a couple brushes of the brakes were needed to keep it on line through the corners. Yeah, it was a just a little bit of a thrill to be taking curves at well over 70 mph; but even then, the car remained so smooth and in control that my wife didn't even look up from her smartphone.
Posted: Oct 17, 2014 1:00pm ET
A master chef. A group of 10 of her childhood friends from Ensenada, Mexico. A PBS Frontline producer and his wife. Me and my wife and our hosts, Antonio Arelle and Pepe Homs. All sitting around a table on the patio, under the stars, of the hosts' apartment.
The night began with an invitation from "Tonio" and Pepe to join them at the impromptu dinner. They own a hotel, La Casa del Atrio, which is in the heart of Queretaro's Centro Historico, or Historic Center, which is a world heritage site. The boutique establishment is a wonderfully eclectic expression of the owners; a 12-room hotel that bears absolutely no resemblance to a big-box chain hotel, but is, in my opinion, the only place to stay in this center of Mexican history. For my wife and I, it was our first night as new residents of Querétaro, so we were ready for anything that gave us a glimpse of what our new life might be like.
The master chef, Loren Villalobos Alsman, had spent the day gathering ingredients in the local markets after commandeering Tonio and Pepe's kitchen for the day. It wasn't about food based on her current passion—GastroArt, a complicated style of food presentation—but a chef's home-cooked meal.
A pan roast of shrimp with sweet paprika. Roasted potatoes with spice and LOTS of garlic. Green beans with a cream reduction. Sautéed mushrooms with paprika, parsley, garlic. Beef with peppers, garlic and olive oil, simmered in the oven for several hours. And a beet dish that I lost track of the ingredients after about six items, even though Loren insisted she "never used more than four ingredients" in any dish. Whatever. It was delicious, and at least a couple of the dishes, relying not only on the fresh ingredients but whatever was in the hosts' kitchen, was worth jotting down the recipe.
As the lovely, cool evening wore on with a full moon headed into the sky, the wine flowed, the conversation swirled and the talk shifted to cigars. Chef Villalobos Alsman began to recall the cigars she had smoked. I finally asked, "Would you like a cigar?" "Por supuesto," she replied, which translates to, "but of course." I fished out a few Partagás 8-9-8s, found a working lighter and my cutter, and within a few minutes, the aromas of fine, Cuban cigars wafted around the outdoor patio.
Posted: Oct 10, 2014 9:00am ET
In the words of Jackson Browne, "All good things, gotta come to an end."
This is an ending, of sorts. But it is a beginning, too. New challenges. New opportunities. New ways of seeing, and being seen.
There is usually no easy explanation for the why and how one reaches a moment in time, a decision, a fork in the road. A spouse who argued for sooner rather than later. Some unfulfilled dreams. A clear sense that wheels need to turn, and past successes should never engender current complacency.
Twenty-five years is a long time. Oh, I'm a few months short of that magical chronological benchmark, but who's quibbling. These 25 years at M. Shanken Communications have been incredible. An immediate immersion in the world of wine and spirits. An undeniable comet across my sky that became Cigar Aficionado, and the thrilling ride that the magazine triggered. I've been lucky enough to smoke some of the greatest cigars ever made, drink the world's best wines and eat at some of the world's finest restaurants—all for my work. When personal and private passions become part of one's job, it's hard not to feel incredibly lucky.
I've also been fortunate to collaborate with some of the most creative people I've ever met. No one will ever deny the vision and genius of the man I've worked with for the last 25 years; to have been a small part of the cultural shifts Marvin R. Shanken has fostered will always be one of my greatest satisfactions. More importantly, our friendship transcended the job and the magazine.
There are far too many other people to thank in a blog format. From the incredible team of editors, writers and designers here at M. Shanken, to the group of contributing editors who provided much of the magazine's great content (many of whom I've worked with for nearly 20 years), to the long list of photographers that helped shape the look and feel of Cigar Aficionado, I only have the highest praise for each and every one of them.
Posted: Jul 10, 2014 3:00pm ET
When was the last time you were on a trip, with a travel humidor or cigar sleeve packed with your favorite smokes and, too late, you realized you were in an antismoking city like Boston or St. Louis or Chicago and had no familiar place to smoke? Usually that happens around 10 o'clock at night when you have just finished a great meal that has doubled as an important business negotiation, and you're flat out of luck finding a place. You not only feel bad, but you worry that it might make you look bad since you promised your new partner a great smoke to end the night.
You now have a quick solution: an Around Me-type app for the cigar smoker—Where to Smoke. The editors of Cigar Aficionado have tapped into our network of tobacconists, distributors and cigar brand owners, and we have come up with a list of 1,500 places around the United States where you can light up and enjoy a cigar. The app is still in beta form, but you can access it through our website by clicking here with the web browser on your desktop or your smartphone browser, too. The mobile app, which is especially designed for smartphones and tablets running Android or iOS systems, is still under development. We expect to have it ready and approved by early fall—at the latest—which will make it even easier to access the Where to Smoke while you're on the go.
Best of all, we are relying on you, the users of the product, to tip us off to new places that have opened up, or that, god forbid, we may have missed. There is an interactive feature on the app for you to send us the name, address and phone number of the location that's not in the database already. We will be verifying each new addition before it is added to the database, but you can be assured that this will help us keep the app as current and comprehensive as possible.
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