I am not sure what people learned yesterday in a cigar tasting of new production 8-9-8 Partagas versus 8-9-8 Partagas from 1998. The 10-year-old cigar was smoked first during the tasting in a back room of the Partagas Factory in downtown Havana, across from the capital building that is a twin to our own in Washington D.C. London-based cigar aficionado Alex Iapichino was the organizer.
The aged cigar came from the warehouse of Hunters & Frankau, the London-based U.K. distributor for Cuban cigars. It has an aged cigar program whereby it adds a second band to a cigar with the vintage when it was placed in the box. For example, yesterday’s aged 8-9-8 had a gold sub band that read “1998.”
After about 30 minutes, the room was full of smoke. My eyes were watering and I think that the other three dozen or so people were suffering as well. I was asked to comment on the cigar in front of everyone, and I laid into the 8-9-8. I told everyone in my bad Spanish that I thought it started out really well with lots of strength and flavor but that after smoking it down about two thirds of the way, it turned aggressive and acidic. I didn’t like the cigar all that much. I gave it a mercy 82 points, unblind.
We all had to fill out a questionnaire in Spanish describing our impressions of the cigar. There was one description for overall impressions that said “Would accept if given as a gift.” I added in pen: “depending who gave it.”
A few Cubans took offense over my criticism of the aged 898. A technician stood up and spent about 20 minutes lecturing to the group how the cigar was very good and that it needed another 10 years to come around. He said that it needed to oxidize more and complete small fermentations and reduce its impurties. Whatever. The group of tasters, who were mostly cigar aficionados, did not look convinced, and they were from all over the world.
Even the quality control head from Partagas said that she thought the cigar was a not a good example of the style of cigars from her factory under the Partagas label. In fact, the 1998 8-9-8 had come from a factory in the provinces of Havana, according to the box code.
Another Cuban gave me a good lashing about how I obviously didn’t like Cuban cigars that much because the magazine only highly rates cigars from Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and Honduras. I know him well and he always likes to give me a bad time. What are friends for?
The current production 8-9-8 from the Partagas blew away the aged smoke. It was balanced with beautiful creamy, spicy and cappuccino character. It almost smoked itself. It was smooth, easy and enjoyable. What it should be – 91 points, unblind.
Unfortunately, most of the participants had already left before they had finished their new 8-9-8. So there were no public conclusions drawn between the two cigars. I assume that just about everyone preferred the current production cigar.
The fact of the matter is that there is no comparison to what the Cubans were doing in 1998 to today, whether you are talking about tobacco cultivation or cigar production. Quality is much better all around from the planting of better tobacco varieties to fermentations to blend to rolling to quality control.
I have never been a great fan of Cuban cigars produced from 1998 to 2001. There was a general movement in the industry to increase production beyond the country’s capacity, and the quality went down. I have written this before and many in Cuba admit this publicly and privately.
The tasting reminded me of what French wine producers say, particularly those in Bordeaux. They say that a great wine has to be great when it is young to be great when it is old. A great wine needs balance, finesse and complexity. And I think that a great cigar needs the same.
The 2008 8-9-8 proved that. It was so much better than the 1998. It was harmonious and beautiful, just what an outstanding cigar should be. The 1998 was probably powerful and aggressive when it was young and now 10 years later it remains the same, even worse.