Posted: Jun 25, 2014 12:00pm ET
Cigar dinners are rare. I remember there was a time in the not-too-distant past where restaurants had no problem renting out their private rooms for exclusive cigar affairs. If a bit of smoke occasionally wafted out into the main dining room when a door opened, people generally shrugged it off. Now, that same bit of smoke causes tirades of public indignation, not to mention fines, lawsuits and, worst of all, the threat of being closed down.
Today, cigar dinners are either held outdoors, under special license, or illegally. But you can still find them, especially as the weather gets warmer and restaurants open up their patios and rooftop spaces. It never hurts to have a sympathetic restaurant owner who also smokes cigars. But this blog entry isn't (totally) intended to bemoan the loss of cigar rights. This entry is really about a particular cigar dinner held by one of the country's top chefs in one of Manhattan's top restaurants (and I don't use the term "top" lightly).
Last week, chef and cigar smoker Charlie Palmer held the Pigs, Pinot & Puros dinner at his iconic Aureole restaurant in Manhattan. Don't be fooled by the indelicacy of the title—the food was pretty sophisticated and the pairings very well thought out, especially the cigars. A lot of the time, the smokes at cigar dinners are quite arbitrary and passed out without consideration to the food or wine. Not here. Michael Herklots of Nat Sherman sat down with Aureole's executive chef Marcus Gleadow-Ware and seriously considered how certain Nat Sherman cigars would pair with the basic elements of each course. What we got was a beautifully orchestrated meal complemented by interesting wines and some very nice smokes-or, great smokes complemented by a very nice meal and interesting wines.
No, the event was not indoors (one day again, maybe), but in an adjacent outdoor space called The Patio, where Aureole usually serves nightly cocktails. The restaurant is on 42nd St. between 6th Ave. and Broadway, which is right on the fringes of Times Square, so the foot traffic certainly thickens as you walk your way westward from Grand Central Station, past the public library and past Bryant Park to Aureole. Despite the crowds, the patio is a pleasant, airy oasis that makes you forget how just one block away, half a million clueless tourists are bumping into each other while taking pictures of themselves buying T-shirts and hot dogs.
Posted: Apr 15, 2014 3:00pm ET
I think there might be some confusion between the terms box-pressing and trunk-pressing. You hear the word box-pressed used to describe any cigar that's taken on a flattened, rectangular shape, but it's not totally accurate. One happens in the box, the other outside the box.
If you've never seen the trunk-pressing process, check out the video below. I took it in Nicaragua at Rocky Patel's Tabacalera Villa Cubana S.A. factory—more casually known as TaviCusa. Here you can see how the Rocky Patel 15th Anniversary cigars take on that attractively pressed, angular shape that makes them look like chocolate bars. The Robusto was named one of Cigar Aficionado's Top 25 cigars of 2013 list, taking the No. 18 spot with 93 points.
Here's what box-pressed cigars and trunk-pressed cigars have in common: they both start out with the same cylindrical shape and both end up with a different appearance. Here's the difference: box-pressing is when a cigar takes on a square-ish shape after it's packed into its final box. Because the cigars are quite moist upon packing, they naturally assume that squared-off form from the pressure of the other cigars packed in the box. In Cuba, they also apply pressure to stacks of full dress boxes in order to ensure further conditioning.
Trunk pressing is when the manufacturer deliberately presses each cigar into a rectangular shape even before it's packed. Trunk-pressed cigars tend to be more dramatic in appearance with shear, flattened surfaces and severely angled edges.
Why do manufacturers do this? I've heard some say that the pressure from box- or trunk-pressing packs the tobacco tighter, causing the cigar to burn cooler and smoke slower. It sounds like a good reason on paper, and might make you sound like the resident know-it-all, but once you take into account the fact that rollers use less tobacco for trunk-pressed cigars to ensure a workable draw, the slow-burn argument isn't as compelling.
Posted: Feb 28, 2014 10:00am ET
I berate myself every year for not visiting the Davidoff factory during the ProCigar festival. I've been to their field tour in Jicomé plenty of times, but the factory has always escaped me. Not this time. People may not be aware that the facility is broken up into three sections: Cigars Davidoff, where White Label, Davidoff Nicaragua (aka. Black Label) and Puro D'Oro are made. That's on the top floor. Then there's OK Cigars where they produce brands like Avo Uvezian and Zino. It's on the ground floor. And in an adjacent building is another factory altogether. That's where they make Cusano, Hammer + Sickle, Corazon and other ancillary or third-party brands. All, of course under the watchful eye of Davidoff's master blender and primary operations manager Hendrik "Henke" Kelner.
There is something vaguely ecclesiastical about the top-floor factory of Davidoff. The ceilings are high and vaulted with exposed wooden slats that add warmth despite its hulking steel frame while workers roll attentively. Kelner is still in awe and slightly perplexed over the huge success of Davidoff Nicaragua. Since the first production run, Davidoff has had to more than double the amount of rollers making this new Nicaraguan puro. Kelner has taken many rollers off White duty and put them on Black. He thinks that the production craze will eventually level off, but so far, the demand has shown no sign of slowing. I took a robusto off one of the rolling tables and lit up. Then I wandered over to a sorting table and swiped a beautifully made figurado. It's slated to be some 2014 limited-edition release.
Before I could grab anything else, Henke ushered me to his office to smoke some small cigars made solely of Dominican piloto Cubano tobacco. This tobacco, as many of you know, is the pillar of Davidoff's White Label production and the defining taste of most Davidoff cigars. We smoked the little puros together and he explained what he is looking for in terms of palate stimulation whenever he considers the quality of the piloto. Sweet. Tip of the tongue. Linear. A core flavor from which to blend around. Davidoff has changed its motto, by the way. What used to be "The Good Life" is now "Time Beautifully Spent."
Posted: Feb 27, 2014 12:00pm ET
Before last week, I had never attended the first part of ProCigar's yearly festival. It always came at a time that was difficult for me to get out of the office, and it only has one cigar-centric tour anyway. Seeing how this year was my fifth ProCigar Festival, and how we had a bit of downtime here in our editorial cycle, I decided to go for the whole trip. Plus, there was always the guilt factor nagging at me. Outside of a factory tour on the way to Santiago, the first leg is pretty much a vacation at Casa de Campo. Yeah, there are cigars waiting for you in your hotel room, and yes, there is a cigar dinner every night, but let's be honest—it's a vacation. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. Not at all. The warm weather was a welcome change from the winter wasteland I left behind in New York, and I was much happier sunbathing on the sapphire shores of Minitas beach rather than shivering on the dirty platform of a subway station, merely looking at a billboard of Minitas beach. So I jumped straight out of the misery of a New York winter and right into the pages of a brochure.
For two days, I woke up whenever I wanted to, took breakfast and a cigar on my terrace, went to the beach, and had lunch at Sirio Maccioni's Beach Club by Le Cirque. The more adventurous guests took a catamaran trip to the Palmilla sand bar and spent their days on the pristine sands of Saona Island. Me, I just parked on the beach, kept the Presidente beers coming and dipped into the cigar pack that was waiting for me in the hotel.
Seeing how this portion of the trip was sponsored by Altadis, most of the smokes offered were Altadis brands. Remember, Altadis has taken a huge (and very smart) initiative by fortifying its marquee brands with a hearty Ecuadoran Havana seed wrapper. Romeo by Romeo y Julieta, Monte by Montecristo and H. Upmann Reserve are all emblematic of this effort.
During the dinner at the Beach Club restaurant, ProCigar handed out a Monte by Montecristo Jacopo No. 2 and all guests were asked to rate it according to a sheet. It went like this: You had a sheet that listed about 15 taste characteristics. Next to each one you put a number from 1 to 10. For example you'd have the word "chocolate" and then a slot for the number. Other descriptors included nuts, cut grass, etc. If you got the numbers right, you got a prize. I take issue with the word "right." There's a difference between how much chocolate flavor Altadis says its cigar should have and how the cigar actually ends up registering on my personal choco-scale. Besides, I didn't even know they blended for such specific flavors.
Posted: Jan 14, 2014 12:00pm ET
I still haven't cleaned the Ecuadoran soil off my boots. Something about that dusty patina on top of the black leather makes me think for a second or two that I'm some sort of a cowboy, or at the very least a rugged ranch hand. Never mind.
In November I went to Ecuador to check out the recent crop of Havana-seed wrapper grown by the Tampa-based Oliva Tobacco Co. It's quite an impressive operation, and whether you know it or not, you've probably smoked at least one cigar with Oliva's wrappers. So why am I writing about this now? Well, the full article appears in the recent issue of Cigar Aficionado, and is full of great pics of tobacco farms as well as objective information on the tobacco, so you could regard this entry as a sort of digital appendage to the main text. But thinking back to the article, I realize that although I imply it, I never come out and say what I've been thinking for the last two months: John Oliva Jr. is one of the unsung tobacco men of the premium cigar industry. Not that he regards himself in that light. Not at all. But if you take a look at the Top 25 Cigars of 2013 and years passed, you'll find his wrappers appear on cigars up and down those lists.
Here is a guy who, along with his family, is the primary supplier of Ecuador Havana wrapper to the entire premium industry and each year one of his main goals is to produce a better crop than the last. If you'll allow me to intellectualize his work, I'd say that he produces an expression of Ecuadoran terroir through tobacco just as profoundly as the country's best cocoa, coffee or fruit (yes, I've had all three).
The harvest period has just wrapped up in Ecuador, but I was lucky enough to see fields full of tobacco before the crops were culled and hung to dry. The soil itself is beyond fine. It doesn't even look or feel like dirt, but has the sifted consistency of cocoa powder. Oliva focuses on growing Havana 2000 and Corojo '99, both native seeds of Cuba. He grows Sumatra-seed as well and his farms are a patchwork of plantations, some of which are in the Los Rios province near Quevedo, others in Guayas at the foot of the Andes mountains. Although the seed varietals are the same, different plots of land will produce a wrapper leaf with different properties.
Posted: Aug 7, 2013 12:00pm ET
We're in the middle of our IPCPR wrap-up coverage. By "we" I mean the Cigar Insider, and by wrap-up coverage, I mean an A to Z recap of everything we saw at the trade show in as much detail as possible. Or as much detail as we deem to be relevant. We released our first Cigar Insider installment a week ago and made it to the letter "D."
In recalling the show, I can't help but remember some of the odd or different or annoying things that happened. While it's great to see so much of the industry all together in one place, some things just keep popping back into my head.
Like the mechanical bull at E.P.C. Cigar Co.'s booth. It was there one day, gone the next—not exactly sure why. The bull was a clever way to play off the E-Stunner, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo's newest brand, and the strongest cigar he makes. There's a bull on the band. Ernesto tried to shame me into taking a ride on that mechanical beast and to tell you the truth, I would have done it, save for one thing—the Internet. Sure, I would have mounted it, and yes, I eventually would have been flung off. No problem. But I also know that the second I straddled the saddle, ten camera phones would have come out all held by jeering cigar smokers just waiting for me to be tossed directly into the adjacent booth. The way I figure, I probably would have been jettisoned straight into General Cigar. I decided to walk over to General instead.
At 6,000 square feet (60 booths), General tied with Davidoff for biggest set of the show. Their pavilion was more like a World's Fair exhibition than a simple convention-type setup. Makes perfect sense. Fifty years ago, General Cigar constructed an entire 15,000 square foot building at the legendary 1964-65 World's Fair in New York City (the building's renowned architect, Cecil Alexander, just passed away on July 30). It featured daily magic shows by Mark Wilson in the General Cigar Hall of Magic where "a pretty girl floats in the air...another is cut in half...a pair of detached hands perform amazing acts." Or so the World's Fair program claimed. A giant outdoor smoke machine blew smoke rings 10 feet in diameter into the open sky every 20 seconds and there was a display of "the world's most expensive box of cigars" at the pavilion's "Galerie du Tabac." Whatever those cigars were, they went for $500 per box. Again, this was in 1964-65.
Posted: Jun 14, 2013 12:00am ET
If you've followed Fuente's elusive lines of exotic smokes, you've probably seen a Fuente Fuente OpusX in the BBMF shape. And if you've been to Las Vegas, you've seen a ForbiddenX in the BBMF shape. But have you ever seen an Ashton VSG in the signature Fuente BBMF shape? I'll explain all these acronyms momentarily.
For most of you, the answer to my question is no. Unless you were at the 20th Annual Smoker fund raiser for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, you've never seen such a specimen of cigar, but let me assure you: an Ashton VSG BBMF does indeed exist. It was one of the cigars offered at the St. Jude charitable cigar dinner on June 7, an event that is spearheaded by Dr. Jude Barbera and heavily supported by Carlos "Carlito" Fuente Jr. as well as Ashton Distributors Inc. It was held in New York at the Grand Havana Room, which sits on the 39th floor atop the 666 Fifth Avenue building.
This year, Barbera wanted something unique to his event. Something that you could only get if you attended, and so, with the cooperation and generosity of Ashton and Fuente, the Ashton VSG BBMF was born. And yes, I have one.
Getting back to those acronyms: the VSG in Ashton stands for Virgin Sun Grown, and is a fairly full-bodied cigar made by the Fuentes in the Dominican Republic for Ashton. The BBMF? That was a creation of Carlos "Carlito" Fuente Jr., who was in attendance. It's basically an OpusX rolled in a double-tapered perfecto shape with a twisted mop-top cap and high-octane blend. The letters BBMF stand for Big Bad Mother...you get the idea. But Fuente is not in the habit of making the BBMF shape in anything outside of the OpusX brand. As far as I know, this is the first time he's done this. The first time I've ever seen it, anyway.
Not that there weren't plenty of other interesting smokes throughout the night. During cocktail hour, the first cigar handed out was an advanced sample of the new Ashton ESG (Estate Sun Grown) 24 Year Salute. It's a beautiful double perfecto that measures 6 5/8 inches by 47 ring. I asked Ashton vice president Sathya Levin if these cigars will make it to the IPCPR trade show coming up this summer. He wasn't sure, but told me that it's the same blend as the rest of the line, which surprised me a bit. They seemed a bit milder than I had remembered the ESG line to be. This isn't a knock on it. It smoked great and was still full of flavor but I guess I just expect every new cigar I light up to rip my head off with strength.
Posted: May 7, 2013 12:00am ET
I fell from the sky last week and landed directly on the My Father Cigars/Tatuaje 10th Anniversary party in Miami. Let me explain. If you were in South Florida (or like to watch The Weather Channel), you'd know that the region recently experienced monsoon-like storms. Well, I flew in those storms, if you can call that flying. After being chewed up and spit out by one storm cloud after the next, my plane was the last one to land before Fort Lauderdale airport finally suspended service for a while. I'm an anxious air traveler as it is, but once the flight crew could no longer hide their panic, I didn't think we were going to make it.
Needless to say, we survived the heavy turbulence, and by the time I made it to the My Father/Tatuaje 10th Anniversary party on Saturday night, I felt about 10 years older myself.
It's been a decade now since El Rey de los Habanos first opened its doors on Calle Ocho in Miami. Pete Johnson's Tatuaje brand was José "Pepin" Garcia's first client. The business relationship has since grown into a true friendship, and both Johnson's and Garcia's brands have since outgrown that small Calle Ocho operation. Though most of their production has relocated to Nicaragua, they still do a small amount of rolling in Miami. It's no longer called El Rey de los Habanos and is no longer in downtown Miami, but is now called My Father Cigars and is headquartered in an industrial park in Doral, Florida.
Last Saturday, the Garcias converted their warehouse space into a full-fledged nightclub. The flowing white drapery and Caribbean theme reminded me of the old Asia de Cuba before it closed down in New York. In other words, very professionally done.
"This is nicer than some of the Miami nightclubs I've been to " said José Ortega, My Father's vice president of sales. He gave a speech about how the Garcia's long journey brought them to this point and also thanked Cigar Aficionado for naming the company's Flor de las Antillas Toro 2012's Cigar of the Year. But before the speeches and before the live band and before the dancing, I sat down with Pete Johnson.
Posted: Apr 2, 2013 2:00pm ET
It was almost 12 years ago when I first had an Avo Uvezian cigar. I was on a business trip in downtown Chicago and ordered it from a cigar menu after dinner back when restaurants in the Windy City still allowed you to smoke and actually provided table side cigar service. I even convinced the waitress to ring it up on the bill as dessert so that it wouldn't look questionable on my expense report when I got home. This, of course, was before I worked for Cigar Aficionado. I recall it was a Domaine Avo Robusto. Believe it or not, I still have the band. Yes, I collect bands. Call it a form of philately combined with a generally geekish instinct to collect things. No matter.
That evening, I was dining alone, as I often do, and drifting a bit while smoking. Back then, even though I was a cigar smoker, I didn't know the story of Avo Uvezian's musical career and certainly never thought that nearly 12 years later I'd be dining with the man, much less celebrating his birthday. But that's exactly what I did last week. Uvezian turned 87 years old (or years "young" as Avo insisted) on Thursday. And, as has been the custom for Avo since 2001, he released a limited-edition anniversary cigar in honor of his birthday. The party was 39 stories above ground level at Manhattan's Grand Havana Room and even though there were plenty of Avo cigars being passed around during the celebratory dinner, I was really holding out for the Dominant 13th, which was the main cigar of the evening. Named after a complex jazz chord, the Dominant 13th is a 6 inch by 52 ring smoke made by Davidoff with mostly Dominican tobacco, a bit of Peruvian leaf and an Ecuadoran wrapper.
The dinner in New York kicked off Uvezian's promotional tour. Even at 87, he'll be visiting five more cities until May, but this is always the grandest event and actually falls right on Avo's birthday.
Jim Young, the North American president of Davidoff, took the microphone and announced to the room of about 75 people that the Avo brand is Davidoff's second best-selling cigar after the White Label. Avo makes up 20% of the company's cigar sales. I didn't know that, but it makes sense. There are plenty of smokers who have the taste for Davidoff cigars, but not necessarily the budget, so it seems to me that the Avo brand satisfies that demographic without sacrificing quality. Still, Avo Uvezian is by no means a cheap cigar.
Posted: Feb 28, 2013 12:00am ET
Don’t ever start a ProCigar Festival with an empty stomach. I don’t care how tough you think your gut is, if you start smoking at 8:30, that’s about 4 hours of power puffing until lunch, and I refused to make that mistake. My key to survival was this: mangú. It’s a dense dish of mashed plantains often eaten for breakfast in the Dominican Republic. This is why I could spend each morning smoking one cigar after the next without keeling over.
Thursday morning. Some changes at Corporacion Cigar Export since I was there last year. The small facility is owned by Augusto “Fufi” Reyes and I figured I’d hit two birds with one stone by taking this tour, which also featured the MATASA factory.
On the machine-made end, Reyes has taken on a contract for producing Swisher Sweets. He produces them in a separate building, and this is smart, because no matter how hermetic you think your operation is, flavors will travel. There is no sense in denying it. Tobacco is highly absorbent. Flavorings and infusions are very strong. They will find each other.
Export’s main facility got a bit of a face-lift. Each room off the main rolling gallery has a pastel facade decorated with a type of Caribbean Victorian trim, as though it were someone’s island home. Destemming and sorting take place on the same floor and the factory is responsible for brands like Augusto Reyes, Augusto Reyes Platinum, Urban and a new brand called Debonair, which was first unveiled at last year’s IPCPR show.
Debonair is owned by Phil Zanghi, part owner of Durfort Holdings, a company that owns part of the facility. Zangi, who started Indian Tabac with Rocky Patel, has been in the machine-made business for quite some time, but decided last year to come back to premium. Samples of Debonair were available. I grabbed a robusto. Indeed a tasty smoke and one that Zangi is quite proud of. He’s growing the brand at a slow pace. Right now, it’s only in 30 shops, but is certainly worth trying. Keep your eye on that guy.