Posted: Jan 4, 2010 10:19am ETThe night was balmy. There was a moon high in the sky, and a light breeze off the nearby ocean, where you could hear the unusually high surf crashing into the beach. I wanted to end 2009 on a high note, a celebration of a year survived and a silent nod to how many great, and some not so great, cigars that I smoked during the year.
I was in Puerto Rico at a new development called Bahia Beach, which about a year from now will have a new St. Regis hotel to go along with a challenging Robert Trent Jones II golf course, and that long stretch of sandy beach. Today, there are condos, a few houses and a golf clubhouse, and not much else in an area surrounded by nature preserves, lakes and a lot of tropical vegetation. In the distance, you can see the mountains of El Yunque rain forest.
Sitting on the patio of the condo I was staying with my family, I lit up a cigar given to me that day by the club’s assistant pro, Jorge. We had chatted in the late afternoon as I practiced on the putting green, and after exchanging answers to questions about what each of us did for a living, he returned in a few minutes with a cigar that he said had been given to him by a cigar retailer in San Juan. No name. No band. Just a well-made lonsdale; even he didn’t know what it was, but he said that he’d been given it by this man and he been keeping it now for eight months. I told him I would smoke it that night, because I wanted to give it a try in a completely relaxed setting, somewhere other than my office where I smoke nearly all the cigars that I taste every year.
From the first puff, I was struck by one of those realities that everyone knows, but often forgets. The cigar tasted different in the tropics. Better? That’s open to debate, but it just seemed like the setting was making this cigar something that it couldn’t be inside an air-conditioned office in a cold and snowy December. Maybe it’s the natural humidity in the air; it wasn’t uncomfortably steamy but I didn’t really need to keep the cigar in a humidor either. Maybe it’s the earthy aromas coming off the lush tropical vegetation that enhances the already earthy quality of great, aged tobacco. And, you can’t discount the feeling of not having a care in the world, taking as much time to enjoy every puff, and every sip of the red wine in my glass. Whatever the reason, the cigar was fabulous, a smooth, richly textured smoke with a earthy finish, and a light touch of leather. Was it Cuban? I doubt it, although it had a triple seam cap, and some of those dark earth tones on the palate. Whatever its origins, the cigar just seemed to be in perfect harmony with the surroundings, and thus, made better than it might have been in another setting.
Posted: Dec 15, 2009 12:00am ET
I attended a gathering at the Cigar Inn, the home of Cigar Aficionado’s lounge. Billy, Gus and Bass Fakih hosted a group of cigarmakers including Eddie Ortega of 601, Nestor Miranda and Rene Casteneda of Miami Cigar & Co. and Pepin, Janny and Jaime Garcia of My Father Cigars. By the time I got there at 1 p.m., the cigar shop was crowded with guys smoking up a storm, enjoying an open bar including Presidente beers and working their way through a buffet table of great food.
The all-day event attracted hundreds of people, and it was tough to get Billy or Gus out from the behind the counter to ask about their business because they were so busy behind the counter. They admit that business could be better on some days, but for the most part, they have done OK this year. We know that to say your business is OK is the new up.
However, I had a brainstorm. It’s time for all you cigar lovers out there to let your significant others, friends, acquaintances, colleagues trying to curry favor with you… whatever, that what you really want for Christmas is not a partridge in pear tree, but some of your favorite cigars. Don’t be specific. Cigars. Just cigars.
Tell your family that a couple of sticks will take the place just fine of a new book, or a scarf or a pair of socks. Any kind of cigar instead of a new tie. If you really want to get creative, tell them the 12 Days of Christmas story, you know the one with different gifts for each of the 12 days, with the number of items growing each day until it reaches 12…if you get lucky, you’ll end up with 78 cigars. Not bad.
Even if you’re not quite that audacious, just letting your friends and family know that you’ll take cigars for holiday presents will not only be good for you, but good for your local retailers and ultimately, good for the cigar industry. And, we all like to do good with our requests for presents, don’t we?So, have Happy Holidays. And, if you get a chance, head off to any event your local retailer is having, like the one at Cigar Inn last weekend. It’s a great place to have some camaraderie with your fellow lovers of the leaf…and enjoy a cigar at the same time.
Posted: Dec 10, 2009 10:54am ETThe sun was dropping below the mountaintops, and darkness was coming quickly to the small farming valley in north central Nicaragua. But Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca, the owner of the Joya de Nicaragua brand, showed no signs of nervousness as we climbed into his SUV and his driver steered us out on the Pan-American Highway headed toward Managua. The last rays of light disappeared from the sky. I silently thought that 30 years before, or even the last time I was in Nicaragua in the 1990s, I would no sooner travel the highway between Estelí and Managua after dark than jump into a rattlesnake pit. Not today. The road was filled with traffic, small cars, buses and semi-trucks vying for space at every turn.
Don’t take my amazement the wrong way. This was not a smooth, easy ride on a superhighway between two big cities. It was a dangerous dance on a narrow, winding two-lane road, first through the mountains and then rolling agricultural land, some of it scarred with potholes and twice blocked by looming hulks of stalled trucks, their presence in the dark notable only by a small little red triangle sitting in the southbound lane less than 20 yards from the back of the blacked out vehicle—a foot on the brake pedal is a necessary driving skill here. There was no livestock lounging on the asphalt this trip, but that too can be a nighttime driving hazard since the herd usually forgets to put out the red triangle. And one can’t forget the two-wheeled, donkey-powered carts, or the ancient four-wheeled cars held together with bailing wire crawling along at less than 10 miles an hour in the same lane as cars traveling 60 miles an hour or more. More than once, our driver had to nearly come to a halt as an oncoming car failed to gauge the amount of space he needed to get back on his side of the road as he passed a slower-moving vehicle, and the same thing happened as drivers passed us and darted back into their proper lane before getting crushed by an oncoming car or worse, a passenger bus, its sides decorated like a holiday season, department store facade, each corner set off by another neon light of red, yellow, green or blue. Never a dull moment; our driver was extremely cautious, thank god, despite the fact it took more than two hours and 30 minutes to traverse the approximate 90 miles.
Posted: Dec 8, 2009 4:40pm ETThe day dawned early with a 7:30 departure to Estelí, Nicaraguan time. We left at 8:20 and spent nearly an hour slowly weaving through early morning traffic in Managua, trying to get to the Pan-American highway. Once on the highway, things sped up, but I didn’t have enough time to take up the Padróns on their offer to get a quick tour of their factory. You haven’t lived, however, if you haven’t spent two hours in a car with Jose Orlando Padrón, puffing away on his morning stogie and providing directions to his driver at every turn.
When we arrived, the Nicaraguan Cigar Festival’s opening ceremony was under way with the mayor of Estelí welcoming the visitors, followed by Nicaragua’s Vice President Jaime Morales. Morales gave a positive view of the cigar industry, saying how important it was to the country and how committed his government was to the private sector entrepreneurial spirit among the manufacturers. The country’s Minister of Tourism followed with an interesting presentation about the growing investment in that sector and statistics that showed Nicaragua to be among the safest in Latin America right now; a perfect atmosphere to visit the nation’s pristine Pacific Coast beaches, the many active volcanoes, and the wild areas of the country’s interior as well as natural wonders like Lake Nicaragua.
Nestor Plasencia Jr, the young son of the region’s largest tobacco grower—and one of the biggest manufacturers of cigars in the world—then provided a detailed history of the cigar industry in Nicaragua and an interesting discussion of the types of tobacco lands and tobacco types.
I left to take a quick lunch at the Padrón factory with Jorge Padrón and his father José Orlando—a stout offering of fried chicken, rice and beans and fried plantains…total bliss. We finished quickly and went into the factory where about 120 rollers were hard at work; Jose Orlando introduced me to several of his supervisors who had worked for him since he first came to Nicaragua in the early 1970s. He kept pointing out young men and women at the benches who were related to various older employees in the building: “We are one big family,” he said smiling. The tour was quick, but by its end, we were walking through building 21, a new warehouse under construction on the edge of the town; that’s right, 21 buildings scattered across the town filled with the production facilities and a lot of tobacco in fermentation piles and in bales. You don’t have to worry about not having any Padrón cigars in the years ahead.
Posted: Dec 7, 2009 11:53am ETI was in Nicaragua last week for the first time in years. For me, it was a nostalgic trip, as it is every time I visit, because of my time there as a young foreign correspondent for The Associated Press during the country’s 1979 revolution and then the Contra wars in the 1980s. The sights, sounds and smells bring back lots of memories. I’m always searching for old landmarks—General Anastasio Somoza’s bunker complex on the side of a hill, a battered Texaco station where a wild firefight between National Guard and Sandinista forces took place, a fork in the road where friends of mine came under direct machine-gun fire in Estelí.
For every vaguely familiar place, there were hundreds of new sights that frankly boggle the mind. Arrival in Nicaragua used to be the quintessential Third World experience—the stairs rolled up to the plane, a trudge through the steaming tropical heat to a slightly bedraggled building with mostly open-air corridors that all caused a sweat-stained shirt before you even got through customs. Today, the Augusto Cesar Sandino International Airport is a gleaming, modern building with huge shiny steel arches, marble floors, air conditioning and a sense that you could be anywhere, if it weren’t for the Flor de Cana rum billboards and a smattering of folkloric artifact stands in the wide corridors. Or when you ask to be taken to the Hotel Intercontinental (the hotel of choice for the army of foreign reporters in country back in the day), you end up at a gleaming high-rise in the middle of a business district, not the old pyramid shaped edifice that it used to occupy and where Howard Hughes spent some of his last years—that’s a Crowne Plaza now.
Each change is a not so gentle reminder that the Nicaragua of the 1970s and 1980s, at the epicenter of the Cold War struggles between the United States and the Soviet Union, and locked in its own internal battles between Marxism and capitalism, is no more. While the scars of nearly 15 years of what amounted to a civil war are barely covered over, there is a sense of vibrancy and forward movement that can’t be ignored. The current economic crisis has caused some disruptions, but not nearly as much as some countries. The agricultural economy is thriving, and current account balances, dependent in part on Nicaraguans overseas, is quite strong.
Posted: Nov 17, 2009 9:55am ETBack at my desk today after a weekend in Las Vegas with the most enthusiastic, upbeat cigar smokers that you could find anywhere on the planet. The occasion was the 2009 Big Smoke, which is one of my favorite annual events. In the upcoming days, you’ll read and see our coverage of each Big Smoke night, and the two days of seminars. Here are a few of my ruminations.
Penance of a Red Sox Fan
The guys will be reporting on the details of the seminars, and the panelists who all did a great job. My thanks to Nestor Plascencia Jr. of the Plasencia tobacco growing family and Sam Leccia, the creator of the Nub brand for Oliva Cigar Co. They both showed great knowledge about tobacco, and gave great answers to the questions thrown their way. I’ve now been in the cigar world long enough (17 years to be exact) to have the next generation start to move into positions of responsibility and authority. Whether it is the young Quesada daughters, Sathya Levin from Ashton, Jorge Padrón at Padrón Cigars…the list actually is long. But the observation is the same: These guys are good. Apart from the knowledge they have, and the expertise they have developed over the years, they have brought with them something that can’t really be taught: The passion of their fathers. It’s a treat to see.
Posted: Sep 11, 2009 3:43pm ETI cleaned out some filing cabinets right after Labor Day, an ongoing personal effort to get up to speed on an organization system called Getting Things Done, or to those in the know: GTD. Sure enough, one of the things that can happen when you start cleaning up what in my case amounted to a geological kind of storage system…the further down you dig, the further you go back in time…you find good stuff. And, there it was, in a file I hadn’t checked in probably 10 years—How to Judge a Good Cigar. I knew immediately who the author was: Richard DiMeola, the former executive vice-president and chief operating officer of what was then called Consolidated Cigar Corp., today’s Altadis U.S.A. Inc.
The first line reminded me how important this article had been to my own initiation into the world of not just smoking cigars, but testing and rating them: “There are two general elements involved in the making up of a fine, handmade cigar: QUALITY TOBACCO AND QUALITY CONSTRUCTION.” The capital letters were in the original. In the heart of the document, there was a primer about the various errors that can be made in the construction of a cigar: overfill and underfill. I recalled that DiMeola had led an effort to suction test every cigar that came out of the Tabacalera de Garcia factory in La Romana, Dominican Republic; at the time, it was still a pretty secretive device and he nearly had a conniption when my boss, Marvin R. Shanken, tried to photograph the machine on one of our first trips to the Dominican factory. There was a discussion of proper smoking characteristics with a firm ash, an even burn, and the presence of good mouth feel as well as an attractive appearance.
The article goes on to talk about the quality of tobacco, and the vital importance of a large inventory of tobacco to ensure consistency in the blend of each cigar year to year. It talked at length the role fermentation and processing has in the creation of great tobacco that’s ready to be rolled into a cigar. There was a pointed criticism of manufacturers who rush that process, and use not only inferior tobacco, but tobacco that because of poor preparation can be harsh or that keeps going out. And, DiMeola argued forcefully and correctly that once a cigar is rolled, the fermentation process is over.
Posted: Aug 25, 2009 3:01pm ETIt’s always hard as summer winds down, and you’re left wondering how the last three months disappeared. The 2009 version, in the Northeast, will be remembered as one of the coolest, wettest summers on record, although the last couple of weeks have been making some headway on the temperature front. But I can’t complain. There were some fun excursions on my itinerary.
What a great city! My wife and I started our week’s vacation there with a couple of long-time friends. Our first target was dinner at Toqué, Normand Laprise’s restaurant in downtown. We had a multi-course tasting menu that was a riotous combination of local ingredients, and a deft touch with everything from wild strawberries to foie gras. Of course, it was too much food, but who cared; every bite was delicious. We talked with Chef Laprise, and there was a brief lament about the days when a good cigar could follow a great meal. But Canada is like everywhere else in the world today—no smoking.
The next night served up the real reason to be in Montreal: The International Fireworks Competition. The contest runs on eight consecutive Saturday nights starting in June, and culminating in late August. It is like an Olympics of fireworks, with one nation each night being represented by a fireworks display company. We saw the United States (the defending champion), which was represented this year by Melrose Pyrotechnics from the United States, which had won the Gold Jupiter Award (1st Place) in 2006. The theme was Reel Movies, and the soundtrack for the 30-minute show was taken from well-known Hollywood movies. It’s hard to describe a show built around more than a dozen theme songs, but suffice it to say it was like watching 30 minutes of grand finales from the greatest fireworks show you’ve ever attended. It’s worth the trip to Montreal just for this annual event. The United States, by the way, finished third this year; Canada was the winner.
Posted: Aug 19, 2009 11:16am ETI haven’t spent a lot of time in Vermont, but it’s always been my impression that Vermonters travel to the beat of their own drum. They still hold dear those values of our forefathers, especially those regarding self-reliance and the whole live and let live ethos. You won’t find a whole lot of tolerance there for anyone or anything intruding into their private lives.
My wife and I vacationed there in early August, setting up base on Lake Willoughby at a wonderful place called the WillowVale Inn, which sits on a small bluff at the northern end of the lake with sweeping views of the water and two mountains that frame its southern end like towering twin pillars: Mount Pisgah and Mount Hor. We arrived at the hotel late on a Sunday afternoon after traveling through rain much of the day down from Montreal. After checking in, I politely asked the woman at the front desk if there was anywhere I could get a bottle of wine but I prefaced my question with the observation that since it was Sunday there wouldn’t be any wine shops open. She looked at me quizzically and said, “Why wouldn’t we sell wine on Sunday? The grocery stores all sell wine today.” And, then she gave me directions to the nearest grocery store in a town about seven miles away.
Vermont hasn’t been immune to the no-smoking laws that have swept the country, so I guess you’d have to agree that there are some chinks in the traditional Vermont resistance to over-regulation. But the porch on the hotel was set-up to accommodate smokers with a couple of ashtrays and some benches and rocking chairs. But I figured it was still safer to ask the question whether or not cigars would be allowed there or not. I asked the same desk clerk, and again, got the same quizzical look: “There’s an ashtray out there, isn’t there?” Enough said.
I enjoyed a wonderful lancero cigar as the sun sank low in the sky, and the pastel colors of a summer sunset began to play across the surface of the lake, and the tree-covered slopes of the mountains. It was perfect ending to a long day of hiking and bike riding, and a perfectly fine meal in a small country restaurant.
Posted: Jul 22, 2009 4:47pm ETJack Bettridge and I were chatting last week after we both wrapped up the taste test for the September/October issue of Cigar Aficionado. By the way, you guys are gonna love the cover subject….I’ll say no more.
We recalled how our taste tests used to be a lot more difficult. There were some issues back in the mid to late 90s where we tasted 140 cigars or more for each issue. The tasting format was different too. We would rate one size each issue, and try to find every example of that size in the marketplace. If nothing else, the cigar boom brought a lot of brands to the marketplace that we had never seen before, and for that matter, have not heard of since the end of the boom in late 1997. But our humidors were packed to overflowing and it was a struggle almost every issue just to get through the cigars, and not suffer serious palate burnout.
Today, of course, we divide things up a bit differently by doing six sizes each issue, and having 13 to 15 cigars in each category. Our tasting coordinator keeps track of each size in each brand, so that over the course of a year, we hope we taste everything in a given size in the market. But it also means that we only have 80 or so cigars each issue to test.
The thing that struck both of us about our most recent test was just how few bad cigars there are in the market today. True, there are a lot of middle-of-the-road cigars that don’t offer a lot in way to complexity, but you can’t describe them as bad cigars. They simply are well-balanced with decent tobacco and good construction.
Back in the old days, (I won’t call them the good old days), we used to come across cigars that didn’t even really taste like cigars. We know today that tobacco was in such short supply back in that period that some less scrupulous cigar makers were buying tobacco from anyone and anywhere, including plain old burley tobacco used in cigarette manufacturing. The results were often mind-numbing and palate destroying. I remember smoking cigars that would end up being the last one of the day because they were just so bad, my mouth couldn’t recover that day.