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.
Posted: Aug 20, 2013 4:00pm ET
Awesome is the first descriptive word that comes to mind after a weekend in the new Jaguar F-type sports car. What does that mean? I guess it is just a more succinct way of saying spine-tingling, jaw-dropping, neck-snapping, eye-popping and just outrageously fun.
The fun starts as you approach this car. The sleek, low-slung, two-door sports car was dressed in white for my weekend test drive, and the black convertible top set off the smooth arcing lines, the front air intakes and the oval Jaguar grill. There was a subtle hint of what I was about to experience—a small "S" next to a green and red emblem. The gentleman who delivered the car to me smiled devilishly and said, "Be careful, it's very powerful."
Yeah, right. If you've read my blogs, and car reviews in Cigar Aficionado, I've had the great fortune to drive some of the fastest supercars in the world during the last 20 years: Lamborghini Gallardo, Bentley GT, Aston Martin Vantage and a Corvette ZR-1. I'm also lucky to have friends who own Porsches and even an Audi R-8. So, I've been behind the wheel of 400-plus horsepower beasts enough to know they can surprise you with how quickly you can lose control if you're not careful. Guess what, the guy was right.
The F-Type V8 has a supercharged engine that churns out 495 horsepower. The official zero to 60 time is 4.2 seconds, but I'd wager that is a few ticks slower than what you could do under ideal conditions. And if you make the mistake of punching the accelerator while turning a corner, you'd better be sure there's enough room for the rear end to quickly come around to where the front of the car was a second earlier. Trust me on that one.
But once you get the feel for this car, only superlatives suffice. The F-type does what you're thinking it should do, almost before the thought is finished. Pass quickly? You're around the car in front of you before they even see you coming. Stop on a dime? It does. Take a corner faster than you normally would? It will probably do it even faster than you can imagine.
Posted: Jun 3, 2013 12:00pm ET
The late afternoon sun had bathed the 18th green at the Squires Golf Club in soft yellow light, and the intense heat of summer's first heat wave on the East Coast had dissipated just enough to make the outdoor seating comfortable. Around the table were good friends of my buddy, Dr. Matthew Stern, who had been asking me to join him for years at one of Squires' Thursday afternoon get-togethers. It's a simple idea: a tee-time around 1:30 or 2, a round with a group of friends, and then a 19th hole libation followed by a sumptuous dinner.
I had finally said yes to Dr. Stern after a charity golf outing had been cancelled, thus opening up a spot on my calendar. I drove from my home in Westchester County, New York, in an Audi RS5, on loan from the company (check out my review in the next issue of Cigar Aficionado), and without any traffic on the Garden State Parkway or the New Jersey Turnpike or the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I arrived "quickly." The doctor and I grabbed lunch, hit some balls to warm up and then played a fast 3:30 round; I'm told there is only one rule at the Squires Golf Club—don't make the group behind you wait. How refreshing.
After a less than stellar round on my part, we showered quickly, and I walked into the bar at the club, a dark wood-paneled lounge area with wide-screen televisions. It was packed with guys who had taken the afternoon off to attend the weekly event. I should explain: Squires is a men's golf club, and the ambiance really is of a private home with a locker room and a golf course. And, in the men's rooms, there are ashtrays on the walls. When was the last time you saw an ashtray in a public bathroom? Need I say more?
I'd been dreaming about a steak all day long, so I ordered a New York strip and served myself a green salad and sipped on first a California Chardonnay and then a fine bottle of Silver Oak Cabernet. Finally, the moment I'd been waiting for all afternoon was there: an after-dinner cigar at the table.
Posted: Apr 30, 2013 12:00pm ET
Can books take on a charmed life? Normally, they come and go. Some with big name authors earn mega-bucks. Some languish in obscurity, waiting to be discovered. But every so often, a book is researched, written and published against long odds, and then, it acquires even more relevance because of an external event.
That's how I would describe Amir Saarony's excellent history of the Partagás saga, from the brand's beginnings in the famous factory behind Havana's Capitol building to the current day. Since he finished the book, and almost simultaneously with its release in February at the annual Festival del Habano cigar party, the Cuban government announced that the Partagás Factory was closed for good as a manufacturing facility and would become the new home of the country's tobacco museum. Partagás, the brand, of course, will still be made, but in another factory.
The author, Amir Saarony, is a graphic designer based in Canada. He fell in love with Cuba working on some projects there, and then became "obsessed" with the historical artifacts of Cuban cigars. A true aficionado, he began researching Cuban cigar history, and after many conversations and discussions, decided on the Partagás story as the first of a series of books about his passion. "The project really is the evolution of a dream," Saarony said recently.
While he poured a lot of his own money, and time, into the book, in the process overcoming many obstacles thrown up by the basic difficulties of getting anything done in Cuba, he said that the book would not have been possible without the collaboration of many friends in Cuba. Many of the chapters are written by Cuban authors including Orlando Arteaga Abreu and the former director of the Partagás shop, J. Abel Expósito Diaz, who is currently under investigation for unspecified charges for his activities at the shop.
Posted: Apr 18, 2013 12:00pm ET
Cigar Aficionado's cigar ratings are a cornerstone of our success. Manufacturers wait for the independent judgment on their products, retailers post the scores in their shops, and consumers use the scores to help them make buying decisions. In 20 years, we estimate that we have rated more than 15,000 different cigars.
The process is rigorous. We have a full-time employee—Clay Whittaker fills the role today—who regularly goes out into New York City cigar shops, buys cigars, brings them back to the office, removes the bands and places them in the tasters' humidors. There have always been at least four staff members—our editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken also takes part—who participate in the blind tastings, and we are training new staffers right now who will become members of the panel in the future. Each taster scores each cigar in four different categories—appearance, smoking performance, flavor and overall impression—to reach a number based on a 100-point scale.
I would be remiss to not point out that the ratings have been controversial from the day we debuted the magazine. No manufacturer of any product in the world likes to be subjected to independent criticism, especially if it doesn't meet their expectations. We also created a lexicon of tasting vocabulary that some experts dismissed as misleading, but we have always believed that taste is universal, and four basic tastes—sweet, sour, salty and bitter—can be found in a cigar too. Of course, consumers seem to relish the debate, criticizing us if we don't like their favorite cigars, or being astonished that we can like something they don't.
In the end, we strongly believe that the ratings have provided a focal point for debate that has opened up conversations between cigar smokers that didn't exist in the past. Smokers today compare notes, talk about what kind of flavors they discover in their cigars, and give their own ratings on a 100-point scale. They argue and compare, and then share their cigars to try to convince their fellow smokers.
Posted: Mar 4, 2013 12:00pm ET
Anticipation. Excitement. Thrills. The gala dinner capping off the Festival del Habano never fails to deliver. Habanos S.A. throws a spotlight on one of their marquee brands; this year it was Partagás and the PabExpo hall was decorated in the distinctive red, gold and black that the brand is known for. The crowd of 1,200 people, mostly dressed in formal wear of one form or another ranging from black tie and gowns to the white and tan of a fancy tropical dinner, knows they are getting to see and taste things most Cubans and most foreign visitors only dream about. But, believe it or not, cigars are not the highlight of the evening.
The musical and dance numbers begin almost immediately as the crowd filters into the room. The dancers’ costumes are over-the-top gorgeous, although the ultra-tropical theme in several numbers—colorful pineapples on the dancer’s heads—were maybe just a bit too gaudy. Colorful? No doubt about it. The show reached its zenith very quickly; Omara Portuondo, the 82-year-old diva of Cuban music whose career has spanned more than 50 years, sang a number of songs. Helped on to the stage by several attractive young men, she was soon crooning away in a voice that’s at least 30 years younger than her age. Other performances during the evening included pianist Emilio Morales and Mayito.
But let’s get to the cigars. Now, I cheated heading into the dinner because there’s only so little time and so many cigars to smoke while I’m in Cuba. I picked a 2010 Cohiba Behike BHK52, our cigar of the year in 2011. As everyone knows, I don’t like to give scores to current production smokes in a non-blind setting; there was certainly plenty of positive influences to skew my impressions—I was in Cuba, where all cigars seem to taste better and I knew it was our No. 1 cigar of the year. But I will say it is one of the best current production cigars I have ever smoked. If you have one, light it up.
Posted: Mar 1, 2013 12:00pm ET
It was a rainy night in Havana. But following a rainy day, the damp air was cool by local standards and the huge El Laguito protocol salon didn’t bring on a sweat. Walking down the line of beautiful hostesses handing out flowers and a pack of Vegueros cigars—with everyone in tropical dress, the men in guayaberas and many women in light linen dresses—the evening took on an air of a tropical bacchanal. All for the launch of three new sizes of the relaunched and rebooted Vegueros cigar.
I had chosen as my first cigar of the night a Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011, our No. 2 cigar of the year. While I had smoked the cigar several times before, the second I lit the cigar and took my first draw, the cigar’s elegance, depth of flavor and smoothness was overwhelming. I came back to the cigar more than once during the evening to relight it and enjoy its earthy, chocolate overtones, and each time was amazed by its power. Jorge Luis Fernández Maíque, a former co-president of Habanos S.A., and now it’s commercial vice president, turned to me at our table when he saw the band and commented that it was one of the best cigars the company had made in recent years—that from the creator of the Behike.
But tonight was about the Vegueros. The three new sizes are a Mañanitas, a small petit belicoso, the Entretiempos, a robusto-style size and the Tapados, which is modeled on a Montecristo No. 4. The cigars handed out last night were extremely young, reportedly having been rolled within the last few weeks, but they were well-made and had a pleasant middle-of-the-road taste/strength profile. The brand is aimed at the middle- to low-price range in the market, and Habanos executives expect the cigar to provide an attractive value for smokers. I liked the Entretiempos the best of the three; it has the thickest ring gauge and the most complexity. The proof was I removed its band to keep on smoking it down to the end.