Posted April 16, 2001, 5 p.m. e.s.t.
It was about 3 a.m. when I finally gave the Partagas Short to my Cuban friend. Granted, he had been dancing most of the night with some other friends at the Macumba Habana club in Havana, and he was fairly well lit on seven-year-old Havana Club rum. So, I wasn't expecting him to notice anything special about the cigar when I gave it to him. But you should have seen his face.
"Wow, man, this is a great smoke," he said, drawing on the cigar as if it were his last smoke before facing a firing squad. He was looking at the small cigar as he smoked it and slowly shaking it in his hand as if it were a long-lost friend. "This has power. This has flavor. What is it?" he asked.
I told him that it was a Partagas Short and that it came from a cedar cabinet of 50 that I had been storing in Havana for five years. He shook his head and said, "You don't get cigars like this anymore."
If anyone would know, he would. He works in the Cuban cigar trade. But more important, he is right. You can't get Cuban cigars like you used to. As much as people like to say otherwise, Cuban cigars, on the whole, are just not the same as they used to be. It's not that the new cigars are bad quality (some are, of course), it's that most of them on the market today are only good to very good smokes. Occasionally, you can come across some phenomenal ones. I recently lit up a Cohiba Robusto from the current crop in Havana shops and it was superb -- rich and spicy with loads of coffee character, just how it should be.
With a few exceptions, however, Cuban cigars today do not have the richness or flavor of those from four or five years ago. Smoke a 10-year-old Habanos and the difference is even more stark. A few months ago, I smoked a Cohiba Robusto and an Epicure No. 2 (also a robusto) from 1990, and they were both mind-blowing. The Cohiba smelled so good in the box that I didn't want to light it. It reeked of freshly ground coffee, cloves, pepper and cedar. It was full bodied with decadently rich flavors that lingered on the palate. The Epicure No. 2 was even better, with floral, cinnamon and milk chocolate notes. It was medium bodied with a wonderfully fresh aftertaste.
By comparison, the new cigars on the market, from Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas to Montecristo No. 5s and Cohiba panetelas, have much less flavor than any of the older cigars. Also, they taste more alike than they used to. I find a large number of the Cuban cigars I now buy and smoke look good, but they all seem to have a similar medium body and creamy, spicy character. They are not exactly the same, but the differences in flavor, in brands and in sizes are less well defined than before.
Some Cubans in the cigar trade tell me that my palate has changed and that I am so used to big, rich cigars that I can't tell the difference anymore. I guess that's a nice way of saying that my palate is burned out. But that's nonsense. I don't have to defend my tasting abilities to anyone, considering my taste buds earn my living. More to the point is that most Cuban cigar aficionados I speak to agree with my assessment. They yearn for the days of big, rich smokes, when the differences between brands and types of cigars were more than obvious; the days when Bolivar Belicosos were as rich and powerful as a serious espresso; the days when Romeo y Julieta Belicosos were as flavorful, aromatic and fine as a cup of refreshing Darjeeling tea. They were both great cigars, but completely different in character.
If you think I am way off, than take a look at the Cuban cigar forum. There's nearly always a posting on this subject.
So what has happened? It's hard to point a finger at one reason why Cuban cigars are no longer as rich and powerful as they once were. The problems are numerous with Cuban cigar production, but the most understandable is the continued shortage of good tobacco, both filler and wrapper. Without the best materia prima (raw material), the Cubans are not going to make great cigars. It's like a great chef who uses only frozen ingredients; he's never going to cook something outstanding.
Quality wrapper tobacco has been a big problem. Mother Nature has been hard on the Cubans for the past few years, not only making the growing of tobacco difficult, but also the curing due to wet weather in the spring. The introduction of Habanos 2000 (which has been abandoned this year) and other hybrids has been less than 100 percent successful. Most become susceptible to disease within a year or two. Plus, the processing of the new wrappers is not as fine-tuned as with the late and great El Corojo tobacco variety. Some say the wrapper processing has been grossly rushed, which obviously also undermines quality.
Another problem has been the filler tobacco ligero, which means light in Spanish, but is actually the richest and most powerful of the fillers. Dark and rich ligero just isn't available at the moment. A roller might use a quarter or a half leaf of this tobacco when making a cigar and it can make all the difference in the world in taste and character. It's like when a chef uses salt and pepper -- without them, everything tastes bland and rather the same.
Most of the problems with tobacco can be attributed to the ill-conceived idea over the last three or four years to increase Cuban cigar production to monumental levels. It was a policy that almost killed the goose that laid the golden egg. There just wasn't enough materia prima to sustain such rapid growth. The tobacco that did exist was not properly processed, whether by forcing the curing with heating or in ovens, or by shortening fermentation and the aging of the tobacco.
However, this destructive policy appears to be over. Apparently, the Spanish and French at Altadis have weighed in and changed the course after paying about $477 million for a piece of the Cuban cigar business. Granted, it is only for 50 percent of the distribution organization, Habanos SA, but the Europeans know that they won't find any return on their investment selling less than outstanding-quality cigars. The word is that they are insisting on decreasing production and increasing quality -- price increases will be undoubtedly forthcoming. But I would be more than willing to pay more for Cuban cigars if I could be sure of their quality and character.
Regardless of the amount of Cuban cigars produced or exported last year, it's almost certain that many of these Habanos will not have the quality and character we cigar aficionados hope for. Until then, we can only smoke what we have from the past and get by with the current crop in anticipation of better Habanos in the future.
Reprinted from the April issue of Cigar Aficionado.
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