Posted: Jan 9, 2009 10:55am ETCasa Magna! I know you're all surprised. We were too after our initial round of Top 25 tastings. And, then, that cigar just kept holding its spot among the top five cigars. In the end, the other factors—price, availability, intangibles—that we consider when making our final choice proved to be the tipping points in favor of the Casa Magna Colorado Robusto.
Let me respond to some of your questions and comments. Everyone has noticed that certain cigars in the Top 25 have higher scores than cigars ranked higher in the final list. There's no mystery or mistake there. We do not base the final selection for the Top 25 on scores alone. If we did that, then we wouldn't even bother to hold a special tasting for it; we'd just go down the scores given during the year and rank the cigars from one to 25. But gee, what fun would that be? We really do consider everything from price to country of origin to production quantities and that word intangibles, which boils down to whether or not we find something unique about the cigar that sets it apart from other products in the market today.
The NFL or NBA Playoffs are a good analogy for the Top 25 tasting. Teams make the playoffs based on their performance during the regular season. But once the playoffs begin, it's a whole new season. About 45 cigars qualified for the final "taste-off," based on scores of 91 points or better in Cigar Aficionado or Cigar Insider during the issues published in 2008. Even in that selection, if there are multiple cigars from the same brand, we'll just choose the highest rated one for our final test. Then, we begin smoking. The test is conducted just like all our blind tastings for the magazine; cigars are purchased in the marketplace, the bands are removed and replaced with a simple white numbered band and placed in each of the taster's humidors. The Top 25 tasting panel included me, Dave Savona, Jack Bettridge, James Suckling and Marvin R. Shanken.
Posted: Jan 6, 2009 9:01am ETI’m sitting here back at my desk after being away for nearly two weeks. It was a glorious holiday season with lots of time spent among family and friends, eating great meals and drinking outstanding wine and, perhaps most importantly, just relaxing. Like all of you, this past fall was a tough season with the economy imploding, the non-stop banter and uncertainty about presidential politics, and in the case of magazine, more smoking to do than normal. We had our normal tasting for the Jan/Feb issue, but on top of that, three elimination rounds to choose our Cigar of the Year. Oh, and I almost forgot, two Big Smokes in November. As a result, I needed some time away from smoking.
That’s right. Not smoke. Of course, like James Suckling pointed out yesterday, it’s not the easiest time of the year in North America to have a cigar if you don’t have an indoor smoking venue. But I wasn’t worried about a place to smoke, I needed to let my palate clear out a little bit and take a break. It was a truly a case of too much of a good thing, and you all know the easy antidote to feeling that way, whether it’s about playing too much golf, eating too much rich food or imbibing a bit too much of adult beverages--get away from it for awhile.
That brings us to yesterday. My first day back in the office and the decision of the day: What do I smoke? Trust me, I was more than ready. I'd been thinking about this moment since New Year’s Eve when I was in a non-smoking household, and the outdoor temperature was 4 degrees with a minus-15 degree wind chill.
Now I had some choices. Cigars were already resting in my humidor for the March/April issue of Cigar Aficionado. I had finished up some cigars for that tasting before the holidays, so I was ahead of schedule, but new ones always appear. But I also knew it wouldn’t be fair to the tasting process if I were to jump right back into fray with a blind-tasting cigar. No, I wanted to know what I was enjoying so I could relish every puff. There were some Connoisseur Corner cigars in my humidor, given to me by a good friend from Latin America, but again, I wanted to have some benchmark smokes under my belt before tacking a classic Cuban cigar. And somebody, (I haven’t asked who yet), left me a small selection of Cuban lonsdales, some of my favorites, in my humidor over the holidays.
Posted: Dec 15, 2008 4:47pm ETIt has taken a few days for this news to sink in. I had drinks with a Mexican friend, Max Gutmann, who among his many businesses, owns the Casa del Habano franchise in Mexico. He came to that business honestly; he’s one of the biggest cigar aficionados that I know and has an extraordinary collection of Havana cigars. I wrote a blog once about getting chastised for a score we published on a Partagas Lusitania; it was Max doing the chastising and he emphasized his point by giving me a Lusitania that was one of the greatest cigars I ever smoked.
We had drinks at a midtown hotel in New York City, where there is not any expectation today that one might be able to have a cigar. You can’t. Punto final. But then he told me about the new smoking laws in Mexico which have been in effect since last summer. Somehow, I had managed to ignore that news, figuring that like many things in our South of the Border neighbor, there would be ways to get around a no-smoking law.
No such luck. Mr. Gutmann told me that smoking in public places has been virtually shut down, and in fact, you can’t even smoke in his cigar shops in Mexico City. He said the law was written with restrictions that make it one of the most draconian in the world. And, since it focused on the health of workers in the workplace, it’s hard to find any way around it. He said that among other things, the business that he used to do with restaurants around the country has dried up entirely because it is against the law for them to even offer cigars for sale.
Gutmann says there is some backlash building, and there is a chance that the law will be modified, and made less restrictive in 2009. But for now, Mexico, which was one of the last places on earth that I thought would go smoke free, is not a paradise for cigar lovers any more.
Posted: Dec 2, 2008 3:02pm ETWow! That’s all I can say about the new Cigar Inn on Second Avenue, between 53rd and 54th Streets in New York City. Gus and Billy Fakih, who also own the original Cigar Inn on First Avenue between 70th and 71st, cut the ribbon on their second store this morning, December 2. Their other brother, Bass, was there too, since he is a partner in the new shop. About 50 people showed up for the 10 a.m. ceremony. There was a red ribbon. A rabbi blessed the store. And everyone tested the store’s great ventilation system by lighting up in celebration.
Full disclosure here: This Cigar Inn is the first time that Cigar Aficionado has licensed the use of its name with a tobacconist. Inside the shop, there is the Cigar Aficionado humidor and there is a Cigar Aficionado lounge at the back of the store. The lounge has lockers, which are for rent, and lots of couches and tables where people can sit and hang out. There’s no liquor license, but locker holders can keep their favorite beverage there for themselves, and, of course, they buy up their favorite cigars to keep them there. Not that anyone will ever lack for a selection of great cigars; the shop already has a pretty full compliment of all the most sought after cigar brands.
But here’s where it gets even better. There are two barber chairs that will have professionals doing shaving and hair cutting. And, there are two shoe-shine chairs, which will be the domain of young ladies who will also be working in the lounge.
I told the Fakih brothers there was only one word to describe the new shop: Fabulous. It’s been beautifully designed to not only cater to the walk-in trade, but to provide a comfortable setting for people to sit down and smoke a cigar. One of the guests said it was like having a new living room to go to and hang out with a cigar.
Take a look for yourself. We shot a little video this morning:
Posted: Nov 25, 2008 10:01am ETI won’t presume anybody’s political leanings here. But I doubt anyone would argue with the statement that the 2008 Presidential election was one of the most important in American history. Regardless of whether your guy won or lost, you will have been present at a moment that will go down in the history books, and be noted 100 years or more from now. Partly because of its historic magnitude, there have been hundreds of stories told by people who were moved on election night to celebrate when their guy, now President-elect Barack Obama, won.
This is one of my favorites, and one that every cigar aficionado can appreciate.
Fifteen years ago, Garrett Oliver wrote a story for Cigar Aficionado about the renaissance in the art of beer brewing. He was, and is, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, a fine microbrewery that has a big presence on the East Coast. I had all sorts of connections with that world, since one of my best friends started one of the first microbreweries on the East Coast, New Amsterdam Beer, back in the early 1980s. But having Oliver write a piece of on the subject was like having Brett Favre write a book about quarterbacking. I had forgotten that during a post-publication visit, I had given Oliver a Fuente Fuente OpusX, a cigar that had hit the market about the time he wrote the story.
Here’s the e-mail I got from Mr. Oliver last week:
“Greetings from Brooklyn. Twelve years ago, I wrote an article for you about beer. You gave me an OpusX, which has spent those long years in my humidor. Marriage came and went, books were written, breweries were erected, houses were built, and still the cigar lay dormant. On Election Night, at 11:05 pm, I lit that cigar. And even though my humidor is full of Cohiba and his cohorts, it was the best cigar I've ever smoked. So thanks, and I hope this note finds you well.”
We all search for those perfect moments to enjoy that one cigar that we’ve been saving for just the right time. Garrett Oliver reminded me again how cigar aficionados truly cherish those great moments, and enhance them with one of their favorite things in life: a great cigar.
Posted: Nov 14, 2008 10:17am ETI went to Club Macanudo last night with some friends. I was hardly ready for another cigar; we’d spent the afternoon working through the final selection for the next Top Cigar of the Year. A bit smoked out, and tired, I walked up Madison Avenue, past stores still lit up but empty of shoppers, and that was a nerve-wracking reminder of all the financial news that had been flashing across my computer screen all day—and Thursday was a good, albeit pretty tumultuous, day on Wall Street.
So when I walked through the door of Club Macanudo, and was hit by the sweet aroma of good cigars, I was little surprised at my reaction; a deep breath and a sigh of relief and a glow of pleasure. I felt like I was walking into a living room filled with friends.
My friend was already at the bar with a glass of wine, and a cigar given to him by the man who was the main reason we were all gathering, Arek Aboulian of Raffi’s cigar shop in Geneva, Switzerland. Arek had joined James Suckling at the Las Vegas Big Smoke for a panel on the state of the Cuban cigar industry, and was passing through New York on his way home to meet with some folks who frequent his store in Switzerland.
Arek handed me a wonderful aged cigar of “unknown” origin. I ordered a glass of Montecristo Rum on the rocks. And immediately, I was transported leagues away from the cares of the day. My friend and I began talking about golf and cigars and stories about our kids; he won the kid story competition but I won’t repeat it here. We were joined by more of his friends, some of whom I also knew from Sleepy Hollow Country Club.
I had said I could only spend about an hour there, and when I finally looked down at my watch, the hour had passed, and I had to leave. Fortunately, the cigar was down to the last third, although it was still painful to leave it behind. It was also hard to leave. The camaraderie and relaxation was just what the doctor would have ordered. And, I was reminded once again about the reasons we all love to share a great cigar and a glass of our favorite adult beverage with friends.
Posted: Nov 10, 2008 1:45pm ETI’m back in my chair Monday morning after a great Big Smoke Weekend in Las Vegas. Even though we didn’t top last year’s numbers, there was a huge turnout. Like always, there was a sea of happy faces, and everyone was drinking and smoking and generally having a great time.
I want to publicly thank all the attendees, and I want everyone out there to know about it. We were under some pretty severe restrictions about where we could smoke, and it would have been all too easy for people to ignore our pleas for compliance. But they did. It meant there were a few times we didn’t get to light up like previous years, but we managed to move from those rooms to the main seminar room where everyone could enjoy their favorite cigars. And the main Big Smoke room was jammed with smokers both Friday and Saturday night.
Our coverage of the Big Smoke will begin later today, and continue for the rest of the week. You’ll get to read about some of the really great moments: Jorge and Jose Orlando Padrón presented their 40th Anniversary cigar. Carlos Toraño told great stores about fooling Spanish smokers into thinking they were smoking Cubans, but they were his cigars. And Carlos Fuente Jr. reminded everyone just how much of a family effort the cigar business can be. There was a rolling seminar with La Gloria Cubana’s Ernesto Perez-Carrillo that demonstrated every step of the process used to make a great handrolled cigar; I even served myself up as fodder for making a fool of myself, trying to put a wrapper on a cigar in front of the crowd. Talk about nervous; I said I’d rather tee off in front of 50 people than do that again. James Suckling led a great discussion about the state of Cuban cigars. And then, James and Dave Savona led a great panel about the process of blending cigar tobacco. All I can tell you is that the seminars sold out more than three weeks before the event, so if you are interested in coming next year, give yourself a reminder for mid-year to make your reservations.
Posted: Oct 22, 2008 10:49am ETI was standing on the corner of 44th Street and 5th Avenue recently in New York. I looked up as a Nissan Maxima cruised through the light. The window was open, and the driver was puffing away on a big double corona. He wasn’t going that fast, and as he passed down the street, the sweet aroma of the cigar wafted over the crosswalk.
My first thought was, “well, now I know where everybody is smoking cigars!” But I realized almost immediately that I’d known that many people choose to smoke in their cars anyway. For some, it’s the only place they can enjoy a cigar. Home is off limits, unless it’s outside on the back patio. Forget the workplace. I’m not sure there any offices left in America, other than ours, where you can light up a cigar; it’s either the law or company policy. There’s the golf course, of course, but not everybody plays golf. And, as Gay Talese once pointed out in an early issue of Cigar Aficionado, there’s always walking the dog time to light up.
We’re also lucky in New York because there are still half a dozen cigar bars or more, and some restaurants that have rooftop access have put in smoking lounges. And nearly every tobacconist that can re-arrange his store, or expand it, has been putting in areas where their customers can smoke. I’m sure that’s true around the country, where even the most draconian smoking laws in some states have exempted retail tobacco outlets. But it does mean there are quite a few options in New York City to have a cigar in a public place.
I, for one, have never enjoyed smoking in my car. One reason is that I do lease my cars, and cigar smoke permeated leather is one of those items that triggers an end-of-lease damages payment. I also never got into the rhythm of smoking while I drove. I love to drive, and there’s always too much else going on, especially with the manual transmission in my new car, to really sit back and relax with a cigar. Another reason is that I spend a lot of my work day in a smoke-filled office, my own, and the last thing I want to do at the end of the day is sit in a car with a cigar going full blast; by the way, opening the window to me would diminish some of the enjoyment of the cigar, not to mention causing it to burn unevenly.
Posted: Oct 17, 2008 11:19am ETI promised everyone an update on my golf exploits. I won!!
As I explained in a previous blog, the Governor’s Cup is a season-long match play tournament with full handicaps that is open to all members in good standing of Sleepy Hollow Country Club. It does mean that the lower your handicap, the harder it is to win because you end up giving strokes. I gave strokes in three of my five matches, but in the finals, I was lucky to get four strokes from my opponent, a wonderful gentleman named Kieran Duffy.
I was surprised that I didn’t feel my nerves more on the first tee, but my first swing belied the truth; a classic big slice that suggests you’re a little tight and not getting through the ball. I ended up with a bogey, but my opponent’s nerves were apparently getting the better of him, too, and I won the hole. We halved two. But I lost three, four and five; each putt produced tremors in my hands that I couldn’t believe. But I turned it around on the 6th hole, a par 5 where, even though I was in trouble, I hit my fourth shot to two feet for a par that led to a win. I got back to all-square on eight, and then on nine, played my worst hole of the day, and I made the turn one down.
On 10, a beautiful par 3, we both hit the green, but I was a good 30 feet from the hole with a downhill putt over a ridge. I ran it 15 feet past the hole, and I realized I was looking at a two-down deficit. Instead, I sank the putt, he missed and we halved the hole. I won 11 outright so the match was all-square again. We both bogeyed 12 by missing fairly easy par putts, and then my run of putts began. I sank putts of more than 10 feet on the next four holes, leading to two wins and two halves. I was two up with two to play. I nearly drained a 30 foot par putt on 17 to end the match, but then he sank a great 15 footer for par to extend the match. I was one-up on the 18th tee. On the 18th green, I left myself a three-footer for par, he missed his par putt, and conceded the match. Whew!
Posted: Sep 23, 2008 2:48pm ETLast night, I had the honor and pleasure of attending the 20th anniversary celebration for Food Arts magazine, another publication in the M. Shanken Communications world. The magazine’s audience is mostly limited to white tablecloth restaurants and top chefs, but it is truly an amazing food magazine run by Michael and Arianne Batterberry. The chefs and restaurateurs in attendance would wow any foodie from anywhere in the world: Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, Jean Georges Vongerichten, Emeril Lagasse, Drew Nieporent, Mario Batali, and Susanna Foo were among the many celebrity chefs at the dinner at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.
But if happened once, it happened half a dozen times. Ken Aretsky of Patroon in New York asked me jokingly where we’re going to have cigars. Drew Nieporent said he had to leave one outside on the sidewalk because he couldn’t walk inside the Plaza with it. Adam Tihany, one of the top restaurant designers in the world, wanted to know when we could light up. No one seriously thought we could because the smoking laws in New York City are very well known, but just the joking tone was enough to reveal how much we all missed even the possibility of having a cigar after the meal.
It used to be, in those halcyon days before smoking bans, that every M. Shanken Communications dinner or gala event came complete with cigars and a fine selection of spirits for after the meal. Whether it was in New York, Miami, Las Vegas or even San Francisco in the early 1990s, the cigars would come out and people would light up. At the Wine Spectator’s Wine Experience gala banquet every year, it didn’t take long after dessert was cleared that you could smell the unmistakable aroma of a hand-rolled cigar; that even occurred for a few years after the smoking bans had been passed.
But times have changed. No one expects cigars and very few people arrive at the dinner ready to smoke. Hotels and banquet halls have gotten very specific in their rules and regulations so it is impossible to “break” the law without causing problems. As a result, everyone is reduced to joking about smoking a cigar and letting their nostalgia fill in for the true pleasure of having a post-dinner smoke.