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David Savona

Do Tasting Notes Help?

Posted: Apr 10, 2007 9:43am ET
A cigar book hit my desk the other day. I flipped through it, then stopped at a sidebar that caught my eye.

“I have never tasted cinnamon in a cigar. Neither have I tasted nutmeg, leather, fruit, or a hint of straw. Cigars taste like cigars…” The quote, in a book by author Tad Gage, is attributed to an unnamed cigar company executive.

It doesn’t take the team at CSI to figure out where this barb is aimed. We use tasting descriptors in every issue of Cigar Aficionado, and this is hardly the first time someone has taken a swipe at them.

Saying cigars taste like cigars is about as useful as saying wine tastes like wine. If all cigars tasted the same, what would be the point of sampling different brands? Of blending tobacco from various countries? From different parts of the plant?

When I first started smoking cigars I didn’t think much about things like vanilla, leather, wood or spices when I smoked. I thought about strength, and I thought about construction, and of course I noted if the cigar tasted good or tasted bad. But once I began studying the notes in Cigar Aficionado, first as a reader and then as an employee of the magazine, I took a little more time with what I was smoking to try and see if the flavor descriptors worked for me. When I found a cigar sweet, I thought about the sweetness—was it sweet like a chocolate bar? Like cocoa powder? Did that rich taste remind me of that cup of cappuccino I had the other night? Was that aftertaste on that Connecticut-shade cigar creamy?

Tasting notes are a tool. They help describe the sensations a cigar blend brings to your palate and assist in letting you know what to expect from a cigar beyond simple descriptors such as “good,” “rich” or “pleasant.” Before I was a cigar taster, I was a curious cigar smoker, and when I found flavors that appealed to me in cigar ratings I found ways to buy cigars that went beyond the rating itself.
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Can A Cigar Be Too Strong?

Posted: Apr 4, 2007 11:50am ET
Can a cigar be too strong to enjoy? That’s the gist of a recent thread in our Cuba and Cuban Cigars forum. A reader picked up a box of Bolivar Corona Extras (fine cigars, by the way) and was overwhelmed by their power, so much so that he didn’t enjoy them at all.

I haven’t had such an experience with Cuban Bolivars, but I’ve smoked a few cigars that have been too strong for me to enjoy. And I smoke a fair number of cigars, so if I have a problem with a cigar being too strong, I bet it happens to a good number of cigar smokers.

After Ashton VSGs became a raging hit, some cigarmakers responded by releasing blends with pumped up power. The VSGs were strong—early advertisements actually suggested the smoker be seated before lighting up—and helped spark a strong cigar trend. Some of the competing cigars were lovely, but a few contained all power and no finesse. I like a strong smoke, but I don’t like smoking something that is noticeably unbalanced. I’ll take peppery flavor but give me some sweetness to keep my tongue from hurting.

I remember a meeting in our offices many years ago when a group of cigar executives came in with a new blend. They had created the strongest cigar they could possibly make. We lit up, and from puff No. 1 it was as if I had put flame to a Scotch Bonnet. My throat burned. My tongue was aflame. And it felt like a mule had kicked me in the stomach.

I couldn’t smoke the entire cigar, and neither could anyone else in the room. I probably gave it a half an inch. I don’t think the men ever intended to sell the cigar: it was more science project than serious product development. But smoking it wasn’t fun at all.

I drop in on occasion to a cigar club in Connecticut called Club Perfecto, and last year during baseball season a club member named Dave handed me a smoke that had been dubbed “The Lobotomizer.” I thanked him, lit it up, and found it just too strong for my palate. (Who could have guessed?)
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Reflecting on a Cohiba

Posted: Mar 30, 2007 10:46am ET
I recently fired up a Cohiba Siglo I with a good friend. I love those little cigars. After a few rich puffs we got to talking, and before long I was reminiscing about the first time I tried that particular size.

It was more than ten years ago, January 1996, and I was in the middle of my first trip to Cuba. I was a newcomer to the magazine at the time, only on the job about six months, and I was tagging along with European editor James Suckling and George Brightman, at the time the magazine's director of business development. Both were cigar experts. I had smoked plenty of cigars, but to these two I was as green as a cigar-boom corona, and I was just happy to be along for the ride. I was soaking up information as best I could, and smoking more cigars a day than I ever thought possible. And I was in Cuba!

After spending a few days in Havana, we had driven out to Pinar del Río in this ridiculous purple Hyundai we were given as a rental car. We were there to tour the tobacco fields, and, of course, we were smoking dozens and dozens of great Cuban cigars.

But it was a tough time to buy Cuban cigars, even in Cuba. Double coronas were just about impossible to find, as were many robustos. This was, in part, our fault—Cigar Aficionado had built a worldwide demand for big and thick cigars, and even the shops in Cuba were out of stock on many smokes. It wasn’t easy to find Partagas Serie D No. 4s, and forget about Hoyo and Punch Doubles or Partagas Lusitanias.

But we made do. We had plenty of Bolivar Belicoso Finos from the Partagas factory store, incredible Juan Lopez No. 1s and 2s with some of the most lush, brick-red wrappers I had ever seen, plenty of La Gloria Cubanas in various sizes and just about every Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo cigar that was made.
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Poker Night

Posted: Mar 26, 2007 12:13pm ET
I clamped my teeth around my Fuente Fuente OpusX Lancero, puffed a cloud of spicy smoke across the table and flipped over a ten and an eight, both of them clubs.

“Flush,” I said with a crooked smile.

Tim threw down his hole cards, skipping the flourish of cigar smoke.

“To the jack,” he said, and reached for the pile of chips.

Getting outflushed in Texas Hold ‘Em isn’t fun, but I didn’t sweat the loss. It was only a couple of bucks, plus it was Friday night after a busy work week, and six friends and I were tossing back adult beverages and smoking great cigars. Who could be upset?

Poker night is nearly always at my house because I have the only cigar-friendly home in the group. My basement is my smoking room, and I have the green light to fire up there at will thanks to my very understanding wife. Her father is a cigar smoker, so when I light a Churchill the aroma reminds her of her childhood. When most of my buddy’s wives smell cigar smoke they get ballistic, rather than nostalgic.

The cards are almost an afterthought. The stakes are modest, with each man kicking in $20 to the start. A few unlucky ones put in a second Jackson to replenish. Take away the poker and we’d still have had a good time. But remove the beer, whiskey and cigars? That would be a problem.

I began the night with cold Pilsner Urquells. My friend Mark, always an adventurer, brought some Costa Rican beer called Imperial. Russ didn’t bring any Scotch, but no one could blame him: a few years ago there was a rather famous game where he came with a bottle of expensive whiskey that had been aged in France. It didn’t last long, and Russ soon looked like a farmer who had lost a bumper crop to uninvited locusts.
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Cigars At The Table

Posted: Mar 19, 2007 1:49pm ET
Endless cigars, free-flowing wine, gourmet cuisine and a license to smoke as much as you want, wherever you want. Sound good? That’s how I ended my recent trade show.

The site of this indulgence was the Graycliff Hotel in Nassau, the Bahamas. It’s hard to imagine a more cigar-friendly restaurant and hotel. I had stayed at Graycliff in 1999, when I wrote “A $20 Nassau,” a Cigar Aficionado feature about the cigars made at the hotel. The room was ornate and comfortable, done in old-world style, but what really struck me was the number of ashtrays. They were everywhere. This was really a smoking room. I walked around, puffing on a cigar, tapping an ash into about a dozen different ashtrays in the bedroom, bathroom, wherever I was.

This is how a hotel should be.

On this recent winter night, my wife and I joined about 200 others from the cigar industry to close the Tobacconist Association of America trade show in style. I started by firing up a nine-inch long Graycliff with a ragged foot while my wife puffed on a slim freshly rolled panetela. We sipped Champagne before heading to the covered outdoor seating area where dinner was to be served. (I tried to stress to my wife that most of my trips are not like this—they typically involve quite a bit of hard work with far less luxurious meals and accommodations. I’m not sure she’s buying it.)

We sat with Manny Ferrero of Ashton Cigars and Rocky Patel, and this turned out to be a good thing. Manny and Rocky are wine lovers, and they simply couldn’t turn down the wine list, which holds the Wine Spectator Grand Award, the magazine’s highest accolade. The list is thicker than many phone books with jaw-dropping selections at jaw-dropping prices. We went from Amarone, to Zinfandel to Cabernet, enjoying each stop along the way.
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Fake Cigar Central

Posted: Mar 13, 2007 4:49pm ET
I just returned from the Tobacconists of America show in the Bahamas. While I was there, I took a little walk down Bay Street in Nassau. Bay Street is a busy place with endless markets. You can buy just about anything there: diamonds, clothes, liquor, coedeine without a prescription and plenty of Cuban cigars. I can’t vouch for the drugs and booze, but the cigars ain’t real.

The Bahamas are a key place for fakes due to the tourist trade, and Bay Street is tourist central. The massive cruise ships dock right there, and eager tourists spill out ready to buy. Sadly, the cigar items for sale are not worth the money.

In a span of all of ten blocks I saw four stores selling cigars, and they all looked like counterfeits. All the stores had Montecristos and Romeos and most had Cohibas. I even saw a fake Cuaba Salamone. There were plenty of Cohiba Siglo VI cigars in tubes, priced at $12 (Bahamian or American. They’re of equal value and U.S. greenbacks can be used for all purchases here.) This is a cigar that sells for more than double that in legitimate shops, depending on where you are in the world, so either this is the deal of a lifetime or the cigar is as phony as $10 Rolex.

A counterfeit Edición Limitada was laughable—the Edición Limitada band was about twice the width it should have been, and the words were written in yellow type on a black background. Lord knows where that came from.

I saw a fake I had never seen before, a Cohiba cigar made with a barber pole style wrapper. It looked hideous. Didn't catch the price on that one.

The other day I asked Paolo Garzaroli, who makes Graycliff cigars here in Nassau, about the local counterfeiting problem. He estimated that 95 percent of the Cuban cigars sold here are fakes. Seeing what I saw today, I can believe it.

There were problems with the packaging on most of the cigars, and none of the bands looked quite right. The cigars didn't have that Cuban look, the style of Cuban leaf or the construction of a typical Cuban cigar. But the sad fact is that with so many tourists, so much foot traffic and not enough knowledge of the real deal, people buy those cigars everyday. The shops wouldn't be there if the business wasn't there.
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