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.
Posted: Jan 7, 2013 12:00pm ET
Every year that we run the Top 25, we watch the page views creep ever closer to a threshold that, for us, is the magic number: ONE MILLION. In previous years, we’ve come so close—oh, so close. But this year, we surpassed it, with room to spare. Today. So, first of all, this is a thank you to all you cigar smokers, and cigar lovers, and folks just interested in the world of cigars—you are the ones who made this possible.
But let me give you an idea of where you are all from. Since we started the top 10 countdown last Wednesday, we have had visitors from more than 160 countries. Yes, the bulk of them, more than 70 percent, come from the United States. But the list includes Canada, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Switzerland, Denmark, Brazil, Ecuador, Luxembourg, Jordan, Israel, Togo, and yes, even Angola and Burkina Faso.
We have always believed that cigar lovers have their own global community. But now the hard evidence is out there. I’m sure you’ve all experienced a moment when you are traveling, with a cigar in your hand, when someone walks up to you and asks, “What are you smoking?” It’s not a question that comes from someone not familiar with cigars. It is a cigar smoker’s question.
We also know that in the United States, the cigar community crosses all kinds of barriers: political, religious, regional, gender and socioeconomic. The Brotherhood of the Leaf (BOTL) that so many of you identify with is a cross-section of America and of the world. At our Big Smokes, for instance, you witness hedge fund guys chatting with police and firemen, women describing their favorite cigar and just plain folks from all walks of life enjoying a great smoke in a setting with like-minded people.
The Top 25 is more than an expression of that community—it is the industry’s Oscars. The first week of January is the moment when the entire cigar world pauses to gauge Cigar Aficionado’s take on the best cigars of the year. Not everyone agrees with us, of course, but that’s part of what makes it interesting. We do take the 700 to 800 cigars we smoke every year (the calendar for the Top 25 runs from October to October); we choose the best scoring cigars that represent a cross-section of brands from different countries and different manufacturers, and then we put them through several rounds of blind-tastings to come up with the final list. We do weigh different factors in choosing that list, but in the end, it is a real playoff among the best cigars of the previous year.
Posted: Nov 12, 2012 12:00pm ET
After more than 100 Big Smoke notches on my belt, you might think I could never be surprised by the event. But the Big Smoke Las Vegas this past weekend was another amazing couple of nights, bringing together cigar lovers from around the globe and the United States.
In the middle of the Friday night extravaganza, held this year in a gigantic ballroom at the Mirage Hotel in Vegas, I stopped to speak with a pair of gentlemen. One of them had traveled all the way from Australia to attend. I also spoke with people from Texas, Alabama, New York and California, and I had conversations with folks from Mexico and Canada. I'm sure if you surveyed the room, there were people there from almost every one of the 50 states, and many more countries than the ones I found.
But the most amazing thing was the turnout. We had more than 4,000 people there for the two nights, so many more than we anticipated that we actually had to post a Sold Out sign; that's a first in the history of Big Smokes.
The Saturday seminars, which sold out within a couple of weeks of tickets going on sale this fall, were another revelation. Well, it wasn't exactly a revelation because my observations weren't new. The curiosity, and the sophistication, of the questioners were enough to send me back to the classroom again to be sure the answers I was giving, and the questions I was asking, lived up to the high standard of knowledge shown by the attendees.
Was a good time had by all? Well, I hope so. I usually have a rule of thumb—if I'm having a good time then I figure most everyone else is having a great time because they don't have to worry about anything else. I had a great time.
The crowds stayed until the lights dimmed. They drank great spirits. (I stuck to my usual choice—Zacapa 23-year-old rum.) They smoked a selection of cigars that may have been better, or at least as good, as any Big Smoke we have ever held. And, the food was outstanding with stations set up around the room by the hotel, as well as booths manned by chefs from restaurants such as Delmonico Steakhouse, Tao and Lavo.
Posted: Aug 20, 2012 12:00pm ET
It is a little hard to describe the pride we feel here at Cigar Aficionado. Twenty years ago, the world kept telling us that it was a bad idea to launch a cigar magazine, that there was no future in it. But thanks to Marvin Shanken’s vision and passion, he ignored all the naysayers and plunged ahead with the project. Today in 2012, we have enjoyed an incredible two decade run of success, all the while having a lot of fun and remaining true to our original mission of educating the world about the pleasures and joys of not only a good cigar, but the good life too.
We began with a simple prototype, the product of an outstanding design team working with an equally simple mission—make it beautiful, the best-looking magazine you can design. We reviewed dozens of magazines, always keeping in mind that we wanted a magazine that epitomized the good life and stayed true to a couple of key words—simple elegance. We have always felt that we achieved that goal.
The 20th anniversary issue of Cigar Aficionado will be arriving on newsstands or at your tobacconist or in your mailbox over the next few days or weeks. You will find a first-ever interview with Mr. Shanken taking you from his early days as a cigar smoker, to the realization of his dream to create a cigar magazine. You’ll hear from some of the people in the cigar industry who have been along for the entire 20-year ride, and you’ll read about the thoughts of some our cover subjects and why they were thrilled to be on the cover. And we will take you behind the scenes of our tasting process as well as some thoughts from our editors. Throughout the planning of this special issue, we wanted to focus on the people behind the magazine’s success, personal recollections of an incredible experience that has defied all predictions.
We hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as we enjoyed producing it. We spent long hours reminiscing, going through back issues and back note books, remembering some of the good times we have had. In the end, we realized that the one thing we appreciate more than anything else is the community of cigar smokers that has been created since the launch of Cigar Aficionado. For that, we thank you. Enjoy the memories.
Posted: Jun 1, 2012 12:00pm ET
I wrote an editor’s note for the July/August issue of Cigar Aficionado wondering about the implication of a proposed regulation for New York City apartments that requires them to have a written smoking policy. Of course, it opens the door for smoke-free buildings, and I suggested, given the track record of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s three terms in office, that it was only a matter of time before this “optional” written policy outlining a building’s rules would lead to an explicit indoor smoking ban in all apartment residences. That’s just the nature of the fight against tobacco today.
But I also warned that there is a slippery slope in these kinds of umbrella regulations. If a government feels like it can get away with telling you what you can and cannot do inside your own home, even if the activity is completely legal, then where does it stop? Too much ice cream in your freezer? Excessive purchases of red meat? Haven’t gone to the gym in two weeks? Shame on you, you are a public health risk. Here comes government telling you how to live.
Yes, you could accurately chastise me for using some hyperbole in trying to make a point. Well, guess what. Since I wrote that article, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a plan to limit the size of soda and other sugary soft drinks that can be sold in the city. And, again, if you think it stops with commercial establishments like restaurants and delis, think again—it’s only a matter of time before you won’t be able to find a soda or soft drink container anywhere larger than 16 oz. sold in New York City.
Now, we can all agree that obesity is a national crisis, and soft drinks may be one of the contributing factors, especially in young children. And, we can all agree that eating too much fat, in any form, leads to health problems that are becoming epidemic in this country. We also can all agree, too, that smoking three packs of cigarettes a day leads to health problems that affect us all, a fact that has been widely accepted for more than 50 years.
Posted: Apr 9, 2012 12:00pm ET
Spring’s early glories were in full bloom under a crystal clear blue sky. The forsythias, dogwoods and cherry trees dotted the landscape with their yellows, pinks and whites, and the first tinges of green laced the canopy of trees with small, just emerging buds. But the vibrant hues of spring clashed with the solemn blacks and grays of the suits and dresses worn by the men and women waiting in line at the small Episcopal Church in the rural community north of Philadelphia.
What set this weekday morning apart from the normal memorial service or funeral was the sweet aroma of cigar smoke filling the parking lot and wafting across the somber line of mourners waiting to pay their respects. The cigar world had gathered to pay respects to one of their own, Manny Ferrero.
I write this blog not just to pay my respects to Manny—yes, he was a friend of mine—but about the world that he moved in, the world of cigars.
Suzanne Levin, the wife of Robert Levin, the owner of Holt’s and Ashton Cigar Distributors where Manny worked, spoke eloquently about the moment of his death, on the dance floor at the Tobacconist’s Association of America annual meeting, twirling his wife, Rosemary, around him in a joyous celebration. “They gathered,” she said, talking about the place, a luxurious resort on Cabo San Lucas, and then relating how they sat in a small chapel the next day recalling the life of one of their own, and how he had touched each of them with his humor, his love of life and his often characteristically blunt way of speaking.
Those words have stuck with me now since the funeral, spending a few hours at a lunch and a reception with Manny’s fellow cigar cohorts, and people from other parts of his life—his private social world, his colleagues from his former life as a Philadelphia policeman and friends from his community. But also in the crowd were people in the cigar business I have known for 20 years—manufacturers, retailers, distributors and competitors, all gathering to pay their respects.
Posted: Mar 28, 2012 12:00pm ET
If you’ve ever been to, or heard about the IPCPR, you know there are endless aisles packed with booths from cigarmakers, pipe dealers, humidor and accessory manufacturers and various sundries that are essential to the operation of tobacconists around the country. The trade show at the Festival de Habanos is a mere shadow of that scene, and in truth, is a showcase for various Cuban government enterprises and a smattering of foreign companies conducting business in Cuba. A generous guess would put the number of booths at 50.
It is housed in the Palacio de Convenciones, or PALCO as it known to attendees. There are two small levels of booths, the majority of which are filled with artisan goods—paintings, wood products, some jewelry and a seemingly endless array of antique items. If you dawdle, the trip through them might take an hour.
The unavoidable centerpiece is a grand booth from Habanos, filled each year with the cigars being released for the Festival and beautiful photographs of factories, fields and other cigar-related scenes. We shot a little video of the fair (see below).
The Festival’s real draw is the seminars and programs that are held throughout the week. There are tastings of cigars with various spirits. There is a “Habanos Sommelier of the Year” contest with entrants from around the world; a Mexican won the prize this year.
One of the best-attended events was the rolling seminar, run by Arnaldo Ovalles Brinones, the general director of the El Laguito factory where the majority of the big sizes of Cohiba cigars are made. More than 400 people packed the room with the requisite tobacco leaves to make a cigar. (Most were making cañonazos, or Siglo VI cigars, as the schedule promised, while we found others who were making more diminutive Siglo Is).
Unlike some seminars that I’ve seen where the amateur rollers are given a completed bunch and just asked to put the wrapper leaf on, the participants here started with stacks of leaves to make the blend, a binder leaf and a wrapper leaf. If you’ve ever tried to roll a cigar yourself, you can imagine the results, most of which look nothing like a handrolled cigar. But the crowd was completely enthralled and did their best to duplicate Sr. Ovaldo Brinones.