Posted: May 11, 2015 11:00am ET
Whisky and cigars. They're two of the three pillars of my employer, M. Shanken Communications Inc., the publisher of Cigar Aficionado, Whisky Advocate and Wine Spectator magazines. But they're also the indulgence of a very special person, Richard Overton. You may have never heard of Mr. Overton, but today he celebrated his 109th birthday.
Turning 109 is notable for anyone, but Mr. Overton is more than just your average centenarian. He is being called the oldest living World War II veteran in the United States. And yes, he's a cigar smoker who also enjoys his whiskey. I chatted with him this morning to wish him a happy birthday, and to maybe get a bit of life advice from a man who has lived an extraordinary one.
The voice at the other end of my cellphone was full of energy, clear and bold, not quite what I was expecting. And his first question caught me a bit by surprise.
"How old are you?" said Mr. Overton.
"Forty-six," I said with a smile.
"Forty-six?" he answered. "Why you're in diapers."
Mr. Overton has been smoking cigars far longer than I've been alive. He smoked his first cigar 90 years ago at the age of 18, and he has smoked regularly for nearly all of his very long life, which included serving in the U.S. Army in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War. He went to Guam, Hawaii, Iwo Jima and Palau. "I lost a lot of my friends," he told me solemnly. "Bullets went behind me, above me, why they didn't hit me, I don't know."
He enjoys cigars every day, and prefers them mild and on the smaller side—he doesn't enjoy the fat cigar trend, doesn't like a cigar that's too big to hold comfortably in your mouth.
Ricardo B. Brazziell/AP
Posted: Apr 15, 2015 11:00am ET
Montecristo is one of the world's most famous cigar brands, a marque that was created 80 years ago by Alonso Menendez. Emblazoned by a logo of a proud fleur-de-lis surrounded by a sextet of crossed rapiers, the cigar is smoked and enjoyed around the world.
Like many cigar brands that were born in Cuba, there is a non-Cuban version of Montecristo as well. The first non-Cuban Montes were rolled in the Dominican Republic, and today there is also a version rolled in Nicaragua.
Laws forbid the sale of Cuban and non-Cuban Montecristos side-by-side in any market, but the TAA show offered a rare opportunity to taste these three varieties side-by-side at Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd., one of the largest handmade cigar factories in the world, and the home of the Dominican Montecristo cigar brand.
Tabacalera de Garcia is owned by Altadis U.S.A. Inc., which is a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco PLC. Imperial also owns Altadis S.A., a Spanish/French company that itself owns half of Cuba's Habanos S.A.
A bit confusing, as Altadis U.S.A. has nothing to do with Habanos and vice versa. But, loosely speaking, all of these Montecristos can be ultimately traced back to one corporation.
I arrived at Tabacalera de Garcia (along with several retailers from the TAA trade show) to sit in on a special tasting of all three versions. At my station were three Montecristos-a Montecristo Epic from the Dominican Republic, rolled right at the factory hosting the tasting; a Montecristo Edmundo from Cuba, and a Montecristo Espada, the newest of the trio, a Nicaraguan smoke released last summer.
Not only were there three cigars, but three rums as well, a quaff of Dominican Atlantico, some Cuban Havana Club and Nicaragua's Flor de Caña.
Posted: Apr 14, 2015 11:00am ET
This week, the Tobacconists' Association of America is holding its annual meeting, a gathering of U.S. cigar shop owners and cigar manufacturers that has taken place for 47 years.
The meetings tend to be convivial, relaxed, quite unlike the hectic week of IPCPR trade show activity, which will take place this summer. The TAA is one part doing business and one part making new relationships and cementing old ones.
Several years ago, the show was sleepy, with few retailers and cigarmakers taking part. Now it's anything but. There's a new life to this organization, and this year's show—being held at the Casa de Campo resort in La Romana, Dominican Republic—has a record attendance. There are now 77 retail members of the TAA who represent some 264 shops spread around the United States. In addition, there are 33 associate members, most of them makers of premium, handmade cigars. All of the associate members are here at the show, and 72 of the 77 shop owners.
The associate member list is a true who's who of the cigar industry: Arturo Fuente Cigars, Alec Bradley, Altadis USA Inc., Arango Cigar Co., Ashton Distributors, CLE Cigars, Colibri Group, Crowned Heads, Davidoff of Geneva, Drew Estate, EPC Cigar Co., General Cigar Co., Gurkha Cigars, J.C. Newman, Joya de Nicaragua, Kristoff, La Flor Dominicana, La Palina, Lotus Group, Miami Cigar, My Father Cigars, Nat Sherman, Oliva Cigar Co., Orleans Group, Padrón Cigars, Phillips & King, Quesada Cigars, Rocky Patel Premium Cigars, Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., Tabacalera Perdomo, Tatuaje, Villiger and Xikar.
The site for this year's gathering is the Casa de Campo Resort in La Romana, Dominican Republic. Here in the southeastern corner of cigar country, cigars are embraced. After all, Casa de Campo abuts the grounds of one of the world's largest cigar factories, Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd. (I'll be there later today) and is very close to a new one, the boutique Le Matilde Cigar Co.
Posted: Apr 8, 2015 11:00am ET
It happens in so many places in Havana that sometimes I don't even notice. But when it happened at El Rum Rum de la Habana, a skinny, bright and clean paladar located on the narrow streets of Vieja Habana, it made me think about how special it is, so I began writing.
El Rum Rum, a new paladar located a few steps away from the famous Cuban bar La Bodeguita del Medio, is one of the many fine restaurants you'll read all about in the June issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine, hitting newsstands two weeks from today. I enjoyed my meal, and you'll read all about the cuisine in Gordon Mott's story about Cuba's rapidly evolving dining scene.
Back to what caught my notice. Our appetizers had just been cleared, a second cerveza was on its way, and I took a cigar from my leather case. Pigtail tip, uncut foot, a cigar without a band rolled on a farm in Pinar del Río, given to me by a friend who lives in Havana.
Without a word, as my cigar was revealed, the waiter brought over a simple black ashtray. My fellow diners paid no mind as I put flame to the foot of the plump cigar. My smoke joined the breeze and moved toward the open doors, and two men in caps standing near the well-stocked bar began to play their guitars and sing.
The unbidden ashtray. I never asked for it, but the waiter knew it was something I needed. No one questioned my cigar, no one paid mind to the smoke as it drifted away.
Moments like that are a welcome sight to any cigar aficionado visiting Cuba.
Posted: Feb 27, 2015 11:00am ET
Montecristos of all sizes, Romeo y Julietas galore and Cohiba Maduros for everyone you've ever known. Havana's cigar shops are full of cigars on this trip.
So far I've been to seven Casa del Habano cigar stores, including the standouts at the Meliá Habana Hotel, Quinta Avenida, Club Habana and the Habana Libre Hotel. Rumors of a cigar shortage have been overblown, but there's certainly things you can and cannot get.
As Gordon Mott pointed out in a news story yesterday, there are no Behikes on the shelves here. (There may be a few behind the counter held for dear customers, common practice in any cigar shop, but unlike last year you won't walk into a Cuban cigar store and see stacks of that distinctive black, glossy outer box.) I had heard they were impossible to find, but I've asked on every stop and have received the same, weary answer. No Behike. Some say it has been months since they've seen one, others, like the shop at the Habana Libre, just ran out.
Punch Punch cigars seem a little short, and you seldom see many H. Upmann Sir Winstons or Ramon Allones Gigantes. But aside from those cigars, you can do very well shopping here indeed.
If you've shopped for cigars in Cuba, you know that prices are fixed, so the price in one shop will be the same price as another. So why go to different shops? Selection varies from store to store. Here are a few notes from each stop:
A store that's always a bit on the quiet side, and one that always seems to have something of interest that you won't find anywhere else. I noticed many boxes stamped 2011, including Partagás Serie D No. 4s (153.75 CUC) and Cohiba Siglo VI (490 CUC). Most shops here are full of cigars marked 2014, and some 2013. I have yet to see one stamped 2015. When you go, spend 5 CUC on the house cigar, the legendary Monsdale, always pay extra attention to the boxes in the far left corner of the humidor. You typically find something with some age lurking there.
Posted: Feb 26, 2015 11:00am ET
It's all anyone wants to talk about—what kind of cigars can you buy for $100 in Cuba? More important, in my opinion—what cigars should you buy for that $100?
The landmark decision on December 17 to improve U.S.-Cuba relations has changed the laws about official America travel to Cuba. American visitors to Havana have long been forbidden to come back with so much as one cigar or a drop of Cuban rum, but as of January 16 those who visit this island on authorized trips can legally return home with $400 worth of Cuban goods, $100 of which can be tobacco or alcohol. No insult meant to Cuban rum, which is lovely, but my $100 is going to go strictly to cigars. Yours should, too.
I'm here in Cuba all this week, attending the Habanos Festival with Gordon Mott, and I've been spending time in the city's lovely cigar shops to get a sense of what they have and don't have. Every time I poke around a humidor, I have an eye on that $100 question.
First, Cuban cigars are relatively inexpensive in Havana. Everything is priced in Cuban Convertible Pesos, known as CUCs, a currency that is officially equal to the U.S. dollar. (When you turn dollars into CUCs in Havana, you are charged a fee, once 10 percent but is now 13 percent, so $100 U.S. gives you roughly 87 CUCs.) But a fee is a fee, and the CUC is, officially speaking, equal to the dollar, so for our purposes we're looking at cigars that cost 100 CUCs or less per box.
Most cigars here sell for less than 10 CUCs apiece. The entire Montecristo line, for example, ranges in prices from 4.50 CUC for a diminutive Montecristo No. 5 to 9.70 CUC for the Double Edmundo.
Cohibas are quite pricey. The newish Cohiba Pirámides Extra Tubos is 22.50 per cigar, Lanceros are 15.90. Box prices for the Cohiba line put them far out of the $100 limit. A tiny Cohiba Siglo I (great cigar, by the way) is 172.50 CUC per box of 25. A box of mighty Cohiba Siglo VI (another fine smoke) will set you back 490 CUC. You're not getting many of those for your $100, so I would avoid them entirely.
Posted: Feb 24, 2015 1:00pm ET
It was late in Cuba's capital city. The air was warm and heavy, with no hint of a breeze, and the royal palms stood still, unswaying, as if they were made of stone. The car stopped on a quiet street, and our party walked through the flowered courtyard of La Moraleja, a fine paladar in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana.
We sat at a quiet corner table. Soon a bottle of wine had been relieved of its cork. A ceramic ashtray appeared, unbidden, subtly, placed in the middle of the table. The clack of cigar cutters and the snick of lighters springing to life were the only sounds other than unhurried, civil conversation, and soon plumes of rich cigar smoke were rising into the air as delicious food made its way to the table.
Such is life in Cuba, where cigars remain welcome at many restaurants and American cell phones and Internet plans simply don't work, leaving evenings free (for the most part) of chirping electronic devices.
I landed in Havana around midday, flying on a charter from Miami. The American Airlines plane was nearly full of tourists, some heading to the annual Habanos Festival, others simply exploring this land that has remained off-limits to most American travelers for more than 50 years.
The Habanos Festival—Cuba's weeklong celebration of all things cigar—began last night with a party themed around one of Cuba's most familiar brands, the iconic Romeo y Julieta. Officials from Habanos S.A. spoke about new additions to the Romeo line, including a Romeo y Julieta Pirámide Añejado and a RyJ Wide Churchill Gran Reserva Cosecha 2009. Both cigars were passed out at last night's party. I puffed the Añejado, which took a long time to express itself, but the cigars passed out here are typically not ready to judge, and smoking at a party with hundreds of people doesn't give a fair chance to the cigar, so I'll reserve judgment until later.
The crowd was thick last night in Havana, and as usual the Festival is filled with distributors, retailers and cigar lovers from all over the world. I met people from Canada, Great Britain, Kuwait, Ireland, Brazil, Serbia, Hong Kong and (of course) Cuba last night alone.
Posted: Feb 23, 2015 11:00am ET
Monday morning, at the Miami International Airport. I'm sitting by my gate, staring out the window at a silver, red and blue American Airlines jet getting ready to take on passengers and make the short flight south across the Florida Keys to Havana.
The room is packed, which I'm used to, but the crowd is different this time. Whereas this flight is usually made up of those with family members back in Cuba, I see the faces of eager American tourists, many of them on a large group tour. They are wearing name badges and listening to the advice of their tour leader, preparing to embark on an adventure to a land that I imagine many are visiting for the first time.
Five years ago, taking this flight, it left from a deserted, forlorn gate far away from the amenities of the main terminal, as if those leaving were being punished for where we were flying. Today I'm at Gate D-19, near shops, kiosks and even a Café Versailles restaurant selling bracing cups of rich, sweet café Cubano. My flight is only one of six leaving between now and 2 p.m. to Havana. It feels like a new day.
I'm going back to Cuba for the annual Habanos Festival, where I'll be joining Gordon Mott for a week of fact-finding and research for Cigar Aficionado magazine. Havana is crowded. The hotels are full. And people are eager to go. Cigar Aficionado has been there for more than 22 years now, and we will continue to go and cover the changing face of Havana.
As I get ready to board my plane with all of these eager travelers, I can feel the energy in the air. Follow our blogs this week to stay abreast of what's going on.
See you in Cuba.
Posted: Jan 13, 2015 11:00am ET
All good cigar companies have them: packages of tobacco wrapped in burlap or palm known as bales. It's the lifeblood of the industry, the raw material that is painstakingly turned into cigars. Without warehouses filled with bales you simply won't last very long in the cigar business.
J.C. Newman knows that adage well, as it has been making cigars in the United States since 1895, first in Cleveland and today in Tampa's Ybor City. It has plenty of tobacco, but one of the bales in its company headquarters is quite unlike the others.
It's a bale of Cuban tobacco, the last one owned by the company.
It's not new, and it's not illegal. When Tampa was the cigar capital of the United States, the deep port of Tampa served as the entry point for ton after ton of rich, dark Cuban tobacco. Tampa made cigars by the millions—more than 500 million in 1929 alone—and most of them were crafted from Cuban leaves. Cigars of that nature were known as Clear Havanas, made entirely of Cuban tobacco in the U.S.
When J.C. Newman moved from Cleveland to Tampa in 1953 it was one of many cigarmakers, but today it's the only cigar company of any size left in the town. The company long stopped making cigars by hand in the U.S. (its partners, the Fuentes, make Diamond Crowns and Cuesta-Reys for them in the Dominican Republic, and other handmade Newman cigar brands such as Brick House are rolled in Nicaragua) but it still makes some bargain-priced cigars in Tampa on old machines.
The Cuban bale sits apart from the regular inventory, on display in the Newman's small tobacco museum. It weighs some 160 pounds, and contains tobacco from Pinar del Río, Cuba, that was harvested in 1958, before the embargo was enacted.
Eric Newman, the president of the company, estimated that the bale contains enough tobacco to make some 10,000 robustos. But he's looking forward to the day when he can use not only that old bale, but when he can once again import Cuban leaf into his hallowed halls.
Posted: Dec 10, 2014 12:00pm ET
The man in the suit reached out his hand, a smile spreading across his face.
"Randolph Churchill," he said.
The famous surname was no mere circumstance—Randolph Churchill is the great-grandson of the late, great Sir Winston Churchill, and I had the chance to meet him last night. The celebration was one worthy of his famous ancestor, a party with cigars and fine spirits celebrating the launch of the Davidoff Winston Churchill.
Churchill told me that he enjoys the camaraderie of cigars and especially enjoys a good smoke while hunting. When I told him I imagined it would be hard to have his last name and not enjoy cigars, he gave a hearty laugh.
While the name Churchill resonates with virtually everyone, it rings a particularly strong note with cigar lovers. Churchill is arguably history's most famous lover of cigars, and he smoked abundantly and without apology. A noted author, soldier, statesman and commander, one could speak for days about his accomplishments without running out of stories.
The event, held last night in a hip art gallery turned show-space on the west end of Manhattan, featured a first taste of the cigar and a chance to hear Randolph Churchill speak about his famous great-grandfather from the stage in an interview format between him and Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard, the chief executive officer of Oettinger Davidoff AG.
"People were just captivated by his character," Randolph Churchill told the crowd. "He could understand what it was like as a bricklayer, or a soldier in the trenches. ... He was great fun to be around."
He spoke of a visit Churchill made to the White House, around Christmas time, and his advising the staff of his typical drinking schedule: sherry in the morning, wine with lunch, whiskey and soda after, and Cognac before bed. When put on a plane during the Second World War, he tucked a lit cigar into a compartment before takeoff, and the smoke from the stogie filled part of the cockpit soon thereafter. Nonplussed, Churchill took out the cigar, put it back in his mouth, and began puffing happily as the plane reached altitude.