Posted: Jan 18, 2015 1:30pm ET
Estelí, Nicaragua. The epicenter of the country's cigar renaissance is a mishmash of old and new, thrown together in a haphazard, Third World boomtown kind of way. New supermarkets next to street food stands. Stacks of new tires at a ramshackle roadside shed next to a shiny fast-food joint. And, in the cigar world, brand new factory palaces and older, more traditional edifices sit within arrowshot of each other. The new A.J. Fernandez factory, and the older factory of the Plasencia family, epitomize the juxtaposition.
A.J. Fernandez, with brands such as San Lotano and New World, has been working in Estelí for nearly a decade. But two years ago, he built a cigar-producing palace on the edge of town, set back from a bumpy dirt and stone road. The factory sits behind a 10-foot cream and rust stucco wall with fancy wrought iron along its top edge. The entrance is a circular driveway surrounded by the factory's buildings.
For Fernandez, the factory represents a long-term strategy of vertical integration, which is also highlighted by a tobacco farm just a few hundred yards down the road, behind the same imposing wall. "This is a marathon," he said, "and keeps getting better every year."
The A.J. Fernandez factory produces between 10 to 12 million cigars a year, and with 170 two-person teams of rollers and bunchers, they are currently at peak production level. When you make 40,000 to 45,000 cigars daily, it demands a huge infrastructure of workers and tobacco inventory, all of which are under the same tile roof. Room after room are beehives of activity, with strippers pulling the veins of big, aged tobacco leaves, sorters finding subtle shades of color in each leaf and piling them together, and workers lifting and restacking pilones, the big stacks of tobacco going through the fermentation process. In the aging rooms, the nylon packs of tobacco from Nicaragua, Indonesia, Dominican Republic, Peru, Paraguay, Brazil and Pennsylvania reach halfway up to the 25-foot high ceilings. And, of course, it all feeds into the gigantic rolling room, which feels as big as a football field. The bent-over teams race to finish their daily quota of 400 to 450 cigars each. It is a factory designed to be as efficient as possible.
Posted: Dec 18, 2014 4:30pm ET
Is today the day cigar smokers have been waiting for? That day when Cuba is no longer isolated, no longer taboo for Americans who love to smoke cigars? It is really too early to answer those questions.
What is clear is that officials of both nations have been in direct contact with each other, (apparently repeatedly over the last 18 months) culminating in the first direct conversation since the early 1960s between the two nation's presidents—an hour-long phone chat between President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro. They agreed to swap prisoners—Alan Gross for three Cuban spies held in U.S. jails—and to begin discussions to re-establish formal diplomatic relations between the two countries, with a U.S. embassy to open in Havana. It is a historic moment, and has to be seen as the first step in a thaw in the 53-year freeze between the two neighbors.
We at Cigar Aficionado have been arguing for this moment since the magazine was launched in 1992. It was not very complicated for us. We saw that the Cuban people suffered the most under America's policy. And, we have always believed that the best way to get the Cuban government to open up was to lift all restrictions on both economic and personal interactions with the island, just 90 miles to our south. The rigid U.S. stance served as the boogeyman for the Cuban government, giving it a convenient scapegoat for any shortages, lack of economic development or almost anything that didn't work right inside Cuba. And, by restricting trade and all economic contact, the United States denied itself its greatest weapon—the strength of its capitalist system.
We have never glossed over the deficiencies and shortcomings of Cuba's current regime. Nor have we ever dismissed the deep emotions of Cuban-Americans who fled the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Those are realities that will only be resolved over many years. But over the years, we have pointed out repeatedly that after more than 50 years of a policy that failed to produce any obvious positive results for America, it was time to try the only thing that had not been tried—dealing directly with the Cuban leadership and opening up links between the two countries.
Posted: Dec 15, 2014 10:30am ET
It's that time of year again. The Top 25 reveal started this morning. I can tell you that it takes a lot of extraordinary effort to put together that final selection. As one of the tasters this year, I know how seriously we take this part of our job. But the reveal makes it all the more fun for those of us involved because we finally get to see your reactions to our picks.
Some of you must be saying he is a masochist. After all, not everyone agrees with the choices. And, sometimes the responses, or attacks, on the Cigar Aficionado tasting panel, makes one wonder about what's going on in the world. So, it's a good time to remind everyone how the process works, and how objective and fair we try to make it.
We taste more than 700 cigars a year. At the end of our calendar year—after the November/December issue is put to bed and we have the final tasting results from it—the editors go over the list of the top-scoring cigars. We keep updating that list through the end of October as issues of Cigar Insider are published; that often gives us a chance to get cigars into the Top 25 which were introduced at the IPCPR show and often don't reach the market until September.
We select a representative cross section of cigars, trying to include every company and region with qualifying scores, with a focus on the best in each brand. Those selected cigars are put through another blind test—the bands removed, numbered bands put on them and then smoked. Once that test is done, we typically have a top 10 (sometimes that number is as big as 15, or perhaps as small as seven or so) and those cigars are smoked blind once again to determine the top cigar of the year. Occasionally, as with this year, there's yet another round to determine that final winner.
And that's when the fun begins. We get to shoot videos with the cigars, smoking them for the camera. And we get to smoke them on our own to revel in the quality of the cigars in the Top 25. And, we wait for your feedback.
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.