Posted February 14, 2000, 5:30 p.m. e.s.t.
A great cigar begins with a great blend of tobacco. As simple as this sounds, some cigar aficionados apparently don't believe it.
When I was in Havana last fall, I ran into a self-confessed cigar expert who lives part of the year on the island. He was bragging about how he had a roller in one of the factories make him whatever he needed to smoke.
"He makes me Punch Double Coronas, Romeo y Julieta Churchills, Cohiba Robustos, even the legendary Hoyo de Monterey Diademas Perfecto," the man claimed, smoking the double-tapered cigar to which he referred. My first clue to his deception? The cigar did not have a band. "I pay nothing compared to what you pay in the shops, and the cigars are better. I can tell him if I want it stronger in flavor or a little lighter, and he does exactly what I want."
That same trip I ran into an extremely nice American who lived in Mexico and he told me a similar tale. "I use one of those rollers in a cigar shop in Havana and he rolls whatever I ask him to roll -- Montecristo No. 2 torpedos, Hoyo Doubles…whatever," he said. "His cigars are much better than the crap you get in the shops."
These guys are fooling themselves. They are not smoking the real Cuban cigars that people purchase from La Casa del Habanos or licensed brokers of Cuban cigars. Granted, they may be getting some jolly good cigars made with Cuban leaf; smokes that are in fact made by some of the master rollers on the island. (A good number of super rollers do make cigars in various cigar shops in Havana.) But they are not getting real Monte No. 2s or Hoyo de Monterey Diademas Perfectos.
The reason? The blend smoked by people who purchase tailor-made cigars, as they are called in Havana, is not the same blend that goes into the established classics that comes out of established factories. How could they be? Cigar rollers themselves are the last ones to know the exact blend of a cigar.
Sure, rollers know that a particular cigar, whether it's a Churchill (called Julieta in all factories) or a torpedo (piramide), is made with four leafs of seco, one of volado, and a half leaf of ligero. But they do not know what grade or classification of the tobacco should be used in each particular brand and size, or vitola.
Dozens of classifications for filler tobaccos exist, classified not only according to where they come from but also according to such factors as texture and strength. When a roller receives his tobacco each day in the factory, all he knows is the proportion of each tobacco for the particular size of cigar to be made and how many cigars should be produced from that pile. Even if one of these bespoken cigar rollers in a Havana shop knew the particular blend of a certain cigar, I doubt he or she would ever possess the right tobacco to truly replicate the cigar, or know which priming of the leaf goes into which cigars.
If you want to make a Cohiba, for example, the tobacco must be leaf that has been fermented three times (most tobacco is only fermented twice). Plus, it should come from a handful of selected plantations in the Vuelta Abajo, the best growing region for tobacco on the island. Last, the tobacco used needs to be a selection of the best wrapper, binder and filler tobacco. Some roller working in a cigar shop in Havana or anywhere else in the world is not going to have access to such leaf.
This reminds me of when I regularly traveled to the Dominican Republic, when the cigar boom in the United States was at its height. Some of the start-up companies -- most of which no longer exist -- used to boast about their production manager being "one of the key rollers at the Fuente factory who made Fuente Fuente OpusX." I would laugh to myself under my breath. Maybe their production managers could roll a good cigar, but they didn't have a clue about how to blend one, how to buy tobacco, or how to handle leaf. Maybe that's why their cigars tasted so bad, and why now they're no longer in business.
I'm not saying that the tailor-made cigars of Havana are bad cigars. I have smoked and enjoyed them on many occasions. But I am not keen on them. When I smoke a Havana, I want to smoke the real thing.
A friend, Tim Johnston of Juveniles wine bar in Paris, called me the other day to talk about Port. He said he was smoking a special cigar from Havana that a friend had made for him by a well-known roller in the city. "It's really good," he said. "You don't know what you are missing."
I said, "You mean those double corona cigars your buddy has made? The ones that have the unfinished ends that look like celery sticks? Not a bad cigar, Tim, but they are not the real thing."
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