Posted: May 29, 2015 12:00pm ET
Remember when you were a child and one of your old aunts or uncles would produce a silver dollar for you if you hung around them long enough? Well, that's exactly what happens when you hang around Carlos "Carlito" Fuente Jr., only it isn't silver dollars or buffalo nickels that he presses into your palm. Rather, it's a rare OpusX cigar, and it's usually an exotic shape that you've never heard of. Or if you've heard of it, you've never actually seen one. It is indeed a delightful treat, but not one that made me lose sight of the reason I was with Carlito in the first place.
I saw Carlito a few weeks ago at a charity dinner and auction held in New York City's Grand Havana Room for the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation. CFCF is an organization started by the Fuentes and the Newmans—first families of the Dominican Republic's premium cigar industry—and its main goal is to raise money for the impoverished families of the island nation. It has also built schools and other infrastructural facilities to benefit the country's children as well. Their sense of civic duty drives the Fuentes and Newmans to hold lots of fundraisers every year, like the Toast Across America for example.
This particular evening event was hosted by Dr. Jude Barbera and centered around a cigar and wine auction. I'd be lying if I told you that the evening didn't vaguely resemble our own Night To Remember. It's structured in much the same way and Dr. Barbera has been attending the Night to Remember for many years, so he's no doubt taken some hosting cues from us. Although there is no cigar buffet table, you do get a Boveda packet of fine cigars at the door, each containing: an Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Robusto, an Ashton Estate Sun Grown 24 Year Salute, a Diamond Crown Julius Caeser Toro, and a Fuente Fuente OpusX Petit Lancero. The cigars were donated by the Fuentes and Newmans; the wine by Celani Vineyards.
Posted: May 4, 2015 12:00pm ET
About eight years ago, a cigar retailer just outside of Indianapolis asked me to try some little perfectos from a brand I had never heard of called Falto. They kind of reminded me of Fuente Short Stories, only they were a little longer and a little thinner. That December, I get a newsletter from a shop announcing that they were carrying this same small brand. The Falto cigar brand is owned by La Garrita Cigar Company out of Puerto Rico, but it's not a Puerto Rican cigar. It's a Dominican cigar and it is has been quietly manufactured at La Aurora for 20 years.
Falto is owned by Luis Falto, who works very carefully with La Aurora to create his line. Maybe "line" is not the right word. There is one brand: Falto. But there are many sizes, and each size has its own blend. This isn't a gimmick. Falto really believes that any given tobacco blend can only truly excel in one size. That's not too uncommon.
Ask any cigarmaker about his blends, and he'll tell you which size is best in the line. But once Falto finds that perfect size, he goes no further. And that IS uncommon. He finds the perfect ratios, the perfect dimensions, and then he's done, completely uninterested in scaling the blend up or down. That's the entire brand. One blend per size. Or, probably better to say one size per blend. I must admit, there is a charming simplicity to that.
Then again, if you love the taste, but hate the size, you're out of luck. I can give you a perfect example. Falto makes an exquisite lancero called the Falto Dos Banderos Lancero (91 points, April 2015 Cigar Aficionado). It's a great cigar with a Dominican Corojo wrapper, a Brazilian binder and filler tobacco from the Dominican Republic and Cameroon. Interesting blend. But a lot of cigar smokers won't touch lanceros. I know that lances have a very passionate and dedicated following and lancero smokers are always looking for new and dynamic slender smokes to put into their smoking rotation. But those who have a penchant for fatter cigars will never even look twice at Dos Banderos. Pity. They'll have to turn to the Mentor, which measures 5 3/4 inches by 54 ring gauge. This cigar was named for Manuel Inoa, who is the operations manager and tobacco guru at the La Aurora factory.
Posted: Feb 21, 2015 12:00pm ET
The cigars certainly pile up here at the ProCigar Festival. Everywhere you turn a cigar manufacturer is either handing you a smoke, or a beautiful young lady is giving you a gift pack of cigars with a smile that you'll probably remember on the plane ride home. The first box, for example, is a strikingly minted case courtesy of Vrijdag Printing, the Dutch lithographers that turned 110 this year. It comes with a Xikar cutter (the X875 to be exact) and lighter as well as 11 cigars ranging from a Fuente Fuente OpusX Angel's Share and Davidoff Colorado Claro to a Quesada Selección España and Saga Blend No. 7.
Saga is the new brand from Augusto Reyes. It's also the name of Augusto Reyes's new restaurant in Santiago. OK, so I failed to make the connection when I first went there for lunch two days ago, but things were clear after I went there for lunch a second time and had the pleasure of sitting with Nirka Reyes, Augusto's daughter and president of what used to be known as CCE, or Corporación Cigar Export. We had lunch after the factory tour.
The Reyes family changed their company name this year to Los Reyes Cigars, putting the family name up front, kind of like what the Quesada family did with the old MATASA (and its distribution arm SAG), which is now called Quesada Cigars. As part of the new Los Reyes, identity, Nirka told me that they've also decided to scrap all the previous Reyes brands that they made and start over. So, that Saga Blend No. 7 I just mentioned is part of the new push. They also have something called Saga Golden Age and the Don Julio brand.
The rest of the factory is dedicated to Phil Zanghi's Debonair brand, and a curious little line called Puros de Hostos. I've never seen them for sale anywhere, but I'm told by Gustavo de Hostos that they are mostly a European brand. If you ever go to the factory, Gustavo is the large, multilingual Belgian who's an Olympic powerlifter turned Italian sommelier turned French sommelier turned cigarmaker, and he wears his sommelier pins on his apron in the cigar factory. Like everyone there, he is passionate about Dominican tobacco, particularly the types from the Navarrete region grown by Leo Reyes, Augusto's brother. Los Reyes is an active member of ProCigar, as are the Quesadas, who were next on my ProCigar itinerary.
Posted: Feb 19, 2015 12:00am ET
If you're looking for a draw-testing machine at Ernesto Perez-Carrillo's Tabacalera La Alianza factory in the Dominican Republic, you're wasting your time. "If you need a draw tester, than you shouldn't be making cigars," he said succinctly. He didn't just say it to me, but to an entire group of attendees at the ProCigar Festival. The tour of his factory was one of many being offered at this week's Dominican Cigar fest.
The way Ernesto sees it he puts so much time and effort training his rollers to make cigars in the entubado method that he feels he doesn't need a draw tester. He told me that his rollers are so good, his rejection rate is less than 2 percent. Any factory owner will either say that this is an outstanding rate, or that his numbers are BS. Personally, I'll go with the former.
I had a lot of options that morning as I woke up to the sweeping and verdant mountain views up in the high altitudes of Camp David. It seems that although I thought I registered for the La Alianza tour that morning, the only thing I registered for was the dinners and nothing else. Who would do something like that? So I just jumped on the bus heading over to the free zone where La Alianza is located.
Naturally, Ernesto was surprised to see me. My name wasn't on the list. It was my first time in his factory, and there's a lot going on. Firstly, production of his La Historia is up 30 percent since Cigar Aficionado announced it as the No 2 cigar of 2014. That means that he still has 70,000 of these cigars back-ordered. He can't keep up, and that's a good thing. He doesn't strain his rollers though. They work an eight-hour shift and are limited to making a maximum of 300 cigars per day. He's seen other factories where rollers have much higher quotas, but he thinks that just results in sloppy cigars. Besides, the entubado method requires more time anyway. It's a style of rolling cigars where the bunch is formed in a tube shape and the tobacco is evenly scrolled throughout the entire cigar. That means that the draw is better, the different tobaccos are dispersed more evenly, and you get improved combustion over easier rolling methods.
Posted: Feb 6, 2015 11:30am ET
A curious delivery came to me in the mail the other day. Cigars. Nothing strange in that respect, but when I opened it, I was struck by the packaging. To be honest, I was more than struck. I was impressed.
Now, anytime you talk about packaging in the cigar world, you often get a knee-jerk uproar of dismissive barking from the righteous and the skeptical: "I don't care about packaging, I just care about the cigar," or "You don't smoke the box, you smoke the tobacco," or "You're just paying for the packaging. It's all—" Let me stop you right there.
The thing is, you do care about packaging. Either you don't know it or you won't admit it. And there's nothing wrong with appreciating or even wanting smart design in your cigar boxes and bands. It doesn't mean that you're some rube whose fallen prey to a marketing gimmick or the victim of well-planned psychological warfare. Packaging is there to foreshadow and address the upcoming experience.
But like it or not, packaging is part of the entire experience. If you have a quality product, you want it to be confirmed by a tactile and visually appealing exterior. Good cigars deserve good, conscientious packaging. That's where it starts. And not everyone can do it effectively. Most cigarmakers know this.
Nelson Alfonso knows this. You might not know the name, but many in the industry do. He's the imagery and creative director for the Golden Age design firm. They handle most of the major branding for Habanos S.A. and Alfonso has been instrumental on the Cuban Cohiba design since 1999. While he didn't design the original logo, he has developed it over time and brought it to where it is today. And Nelson Alfonso also designed Padron's 50th Anniversary humidor.
So when I opened the curious package, the first thing I thought was "Cohiba." But not today's Cohiba. Not even the Cohiba of the last two decades. I was thinking the old Cohiba logos with the tobacco leaf and black Taino head and no trace of yellow. Remember those?
Posted: Oct 14, 2014 3:00pm ET
I have mixed feelings about this blog. Part of me wonders what the point is in talking about a Scotch that so few people in the entire world are ever going to taste? Another concern is overall tone. People tend to have immediate emotional reactions when they read about something they'll never be able to have. How do you write about your experiences with a $25,000 Scotch without coming off as though you are gloating? When I ran this concern by executive editor David Savona, he told me I had it all wrong. According to Savona, the scarcity of the Scotch in question is the very reason to report on it. He told me that because so few people will ever try it, I have a duty to our readers to report my findings. He's right. Here it is.
The Scotch I'm referring to is The Glenlivet Winchester Collection 1964. It's a Speyside single-malt and the first release in a series of 50-year-old Scotches that the company intends on releasing to the world in very small quantities. One hundred bottles to be exact. The United States, Glenlivet's biggest customer, gets the world's largest allotment of five bottles. As for the rest of the planet, all the sultans, princes, tycoons and pharaohs are going to have to fight for the remaining bottles. The price tag? $25,000. That's $25,000 for one 750-ml bottle. I urge you to not get caught up in the emotional trap I was talking about before. When people hear prices like that, you get a variety of reactions. Some are in instant awe. Others are more skeptical, dismissing the cost as mere marketing, while others become angry and resentful before even hearing a single fact about the Scotch. Human condition I suppose, especially in a class-conscious society.
Here's a fact. The Glenlivet 50 was put in American oak Bourbon barrels and laid down in 1964 by Captain Bill Smith-Grant. According to Glenlivet lore, the Captain was famous not only for being the founder's last living descendant, but for keeping the distillery alive during the Great Depression when other distilleries were closing. Master distiller Alan Winchester has been keeping the barrels safe ever since he joined Glenlivet in 1979 and has allowed the Scotch to mature. He knew that this barrel was destined for greatness and didn't want to waste it on a 20- or 30-year-old release.
Posted: Aug 14, 2014 3:00pm ET
The last time I wrote a blog that included oysters, the story ended with me running out of John Besh's August restaurant in New Orleans and beelining it to a toilet in the Windsor Court Hotel across the street. Not that I got sick off of Besh's food. The oysters actually came from another place a few hours prior. It was the summer of the infamous BP oil spill in the gulf. No matter.
This time, I was at the iconic American Hotel in Sag Harbor, New York, a historical village incorporated in the 1700s and a town of beautiful homes. Somehow, Jonathan Drew was able to secure a table for us at the hotel's coveted front porch and I recently had the opportunity to join him for lunch, which began with local Peconic oysters that did not make me sick.
Each year, Jonathan takes the time to visit Sag Harbor so he can spend a few days with family and decompress. He's been coming here since childhood, so, needless to say, there's a special part in his heart for this harbor. Because Sag Harbor belongs to both East Hampton and South Hampton, it also gets the typical influx of summer tourists and moneyed Manhattanites looking for a waterfront reprieve from the city. The locals, of course, have mixed feelings about the seasonal crowd, but it's hard to not be charmed by Sag Harbor Village. Even the smallest of homes are very rich in architectural details, and The American Hotel has done a great job preserving its interior and exterior character over the decades. It's also somewhat of a tony town with some pricey restaurants and great little shops.
When I stepped up to The American Hotel's porch, I admit that I fully expected Jon to be puffing a cigar, brazenly flouting the town's laws and festooning the hotel's exterior with plumes of smoke. Instead, I came upon a rather sedate guy sipping a Talisker, watching the scenery and chewing on an unlit pipe. It was one of the new pipes from his Drew Estate Tsuge pipe line introduced at last month's IPCPR trade show. They're made in Japan and are pretty hip, designed with a very nice combination of classic burl and newer materials. Very Drew Estate. Jonathan developed an eye for classic design at a young age. I never knew this until our quiet lunch, but he comes from a family background of art and antiques. His parents owned antique shops and he used to accompany his father to the auction houses. This type of early exposure to Victorian era art, Art Deco and Art Nouveau is sometimes exactly what's required to really turn on someone's artistic genes.
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."