Supersize My Cigar
Anything but a fad, the fat cigar trend seems destined to stay
Everything in America is bigger. Our heavy-handed culture of size is either expressed as a badge of honor or rebuked as a gaudy sign of excess. McMansions, Big Gulps, Hummers and Mega-churches are all oversized emblems of American appetites. And now, in keeping with this American tradition, premium cigars have become thicker, fatter and larger than ever.
Over the last 10 years, many premium cigar manufacturers have stopped producing coronas, lanceros and other slim sizes formerly associated with the gentlemanly art of smoking. Outside of niche markets, they simply don't sell like they used to. Today, the consumer's preference for heft has forced every cigar manufacturer to make thick, fat cigars in sizes and proportions that would have been laughable a few decades ago.
Although self-styled connoisseurs will never miss an opportunity to disparage this fairly new trend, these disgruntled smokers are now nothing more than the vocal minority. They can protest all they want—the trend is only growing and it's probably here to stay.
If you go back 20 years, a cigar with a ring gauge of 46 was considered on the larger side. This is no longer the case. By today's standards, 46 is a small smoke. Even robustos, which tend to have ring gauges of 50, look diminutive compared with today's giants. Many companies won't even produce a cigar with less than a 50 ring gauge, and the reason for this is simple—consumers are focusing on ever fatter cigars.
"You can't give panetelas away," says Jeff Borysiewicz, owner of Corona Cigar Co. in Orlando, Florida. "Coronas and lonsdales sell, but slowly. When we look at bringing a line of cigars in, we are going to stock the top five sizes and coronas and lonsdales usually won't make that cut."
What does make the cut is a format that's been dubbed the "6 by 60," which measures 6 inches by 60 ring gauge, making it close to one inch in diameter. Most new cigar lines include at least one cigar with a 6-by-60 dimension, and some cigars are even fatter. A few cigarmakers have gone as large as 70 ring gauge, and a few more are pushing the fat cigar category into 80 ring territory—that's about as thick as the cardboard tube you'd find inside a roll of paper towels. Standard toros and robustos start to look much smaller by comparison.
These cigars are untraditional, so there is no official name for the size from the history books. When Cigar Aficionado added the 6-by-60 category to its tasting format in the December 2012 issue, it dubbed the size "Grandes." The popularity has continued, and now these fat smokes are familiar sights in humidors.
The trend didn't happen overnight. But one could point to a few cigarmakers who quietly ushered in the big cigars over the last 20 years, bringing the huge smokes into the mainstream without knowing it would affect the market in years to come.
If there is a godfather of large-ring-gauge cigars, it has to be Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, the owner of EPC Cigar Co. and the former owner of the La Gloria Cubana brand. Sure, large ring gauges existed before he came to prominence, but Perez-Carrillo was the first to normalize the 6 by 60 with La Gloria Cubana Serie R, a nationally recognizable brand created in the late 1990s that enjoyed broad distribution and respect among serious smokers.
"I created the Serie R in 1997 or 1998 after I moved my operation from Miami to the Dominican Republic," recalls Perez-Carrillo. "The Serie R came in two sizes, a 52 ring gauge and a 54. During a meeting back in 2000, I said, ‘Why don't we come out with a 60 ring gauge?' I got the idea from some old cigar molds I had laying around the factory. Some were 58 and some were 60. First we put out the Serie R No. 6, which was 6 by 60. And then the No. 7, which was 7 by 58. Big cigars."
The way Perez-Carrillo remembers, the new, huge cigars were an instant success, surpassing the previous sizes almost instantly.
"The consumers fell in love with these sizes," he says. "I think that they were ready to accept a 6 by 60."
The Serie R wasn't Perez-Carrillo's first foray into large ring gauges. In his earlier days, when he made all of his La Gloria Cubanas in a small, cramped shop in Miami, he was dabbling in the strange art of bulky vitolas for his custom clients.
"We had customers that would ask for big ring gauges," he explains. "We wouldn't make La Glorias in that size—the biggest La Gloria at the time was 52—but we had a house blend that we'd use for the custom jobs. There were these bikers that wanted us to make a 666 cigar—6 inches with a 66 ring gauge. I even made a 9 by 70 for someone. That was in 1980 or '81."
If Perez-Carrillo is responsible for bringing the bulky dimensions to the premium cigar mainstream, the seeds were sown years before by Rolando Reyes Sr., who once owned and ran Cuba Aliados Cigars.
Some may recall the gargantuan proportions of a cigar named The Chief. Made by Puros Indios in the 1980s, the hulking cigar measured 18 inches long, needed two wrapper leaves to cover its enormous form, and was rolled with a 66 ring gauge. The size first appeared under the Cuba Aliados brand as The General. It wasn't the only massive smoke made by Reyes, who also had a 7 1/4-by-64-inch figurado called Piramide No. 1, and the 10-by-60 Grand Victoria.
"In the old days, our big cigars weren't really big sellers, with the exception of the Piramides, The Chief and The General," says Carlos Diez, grandson of the late Reyes and now the president of Reyes Family Cigars (formerly Puros Indios). "The Chief and General were always big sellers because of the novelty aspect. In the early 2000s, my grandfather Rolando Reyes Sr. let me come up with different variations of large ring gauges like the Gordo (6 by 60), Bronco (6 1/2 by 54) and the Corona Gorda No. 5 (5 1/2 by 64)."
Other big cigars existed in the years before the modern-day cigar boom. Matasa Cigars (today known as Quesada) has long made a gigantic cigar known as the Casa Blanca Jeroboam, measuring 10 inches long by 66 ring gauge. Robert De Niro's character puffed on the "smaller" version in a movie theater in the 1991 remake of Cape Fear, the 5 inch by 66 ring gauge Half Jeroboam. But those cigars were still regarded as a novelty with a niche following.
The late Stanford Newman of J.C. Newman Cigar Co. had a more subtle approach to bringing larger ring gauges into the mainstream premium cigar market. In 1995, he created a line of cigars called Diamond Crown, which celebrated the company's 100th anniversary—and every size had a 54 ring gauge. The lengths differed, and the blend wasn't particularly strong, but every cigar in the line was thick and weighty with a lot of tobacco. By Newman's thinking, the relatively large 54 ring gauge would allow for blending six or seven leaves, ensuring that the blend was full of flavor. The cigars were made by the Fuentes in the Dominican Republic. In 1995, a 54 ring gauge wasn't very common.
"Everyone thought my father Stanford was crazy to create such a large cigar," recalls Eric Newman of J.C. Newman. When the brand debuted in Beverly Hills, it was only available on the West Coast as a sort of regional specialty. It eventually spread east.
Oddly enough, J.C. Newman never released Diamond Crown in a standard 6-by-60 format. Rather, the company turned to Nicaragua in 2009 after the trend clearly started to take hold.
"Our first 6 by 60 was the El Baton Double Toro, which was a hit from the start," Newman explains. Made in Nicaragua, El Baton was originally one of J.C. Newman's vintage nickel cigar brands from 1914, handmade at the company's Cleveland, Ohio factory using Cuban tobacco. The Newmans resurrected the brand giving cigar smokers another line of plump smokes (nothing under 54 ring gauge), but at a value price.
"We put out our second 6 by 60 in the Brick House line," he says. Released in 2010, it was called Mighty Mighty. "It's still the best-selling Brick House cigar size to date. I'm glad there are people who want to purchase these cigars. As a manufacturer, it allows for more creativity in the blending process and complexity of flavor."
Perez-Carrillo agrees. "There's so much that can be done with large ring gauges," he says. "So many different types of tobaccos. The format lets you come up with very interesting blends that you simply couldn't do in smaller ring gauges."
Not everyone in the industry is enamored of the trend. Hendrik "Henke" Kelner, who's the tobacco guru for Davidoff of Geneva, acknowledges the blending possibilities, but personally finds the size to be awkward.
"I remember in the '90s, a ring gauge of 50 was considered large," he says. "For me, the maximum ring gauge to enjoy comfortably is 54. With larger ring gauges, you have the possibility of using many different tobaccos for complexity, but it requires more care and control in the blending to maintain consistency, especially when the cigar is long. A cigar works like a filter. You need tobaccos of greater strength and adequate distribution."
Davidoff was not one to dive into the trend. The Swiss company's large portfolio encompasses many classic sizes that the rest of the premium industry has seemingly marginalized. Coronas, panetelas, lonsdales and lanceros within Davidoff's repertoire coexist harmoniously with robustos, pyramids and toros. The company has been cautious in regards to the trend, and is not one to load its Davidoff lines with heavy ring gauges. Occasionally, the ring gauge of a Davidoff cigar will make it to 60, but these are restricted to limited-edition releases. Most of Davidoff's core lines do not exceed 54.
While the vaunted Swiss company won't allow its Davidoff branded smokes to get too fat, it does loosen the tape measure for its edgier, subsidiary brands like Camacho and Room101. Nearly every Camacho comes in a 6-by-60 format and Room101 has taken the large-ring-gauge trend to exaggerated heights. Forget, for a moment, its brands like Daruma and Namakubi, which both have 60-ring-gauge varieties. Instead, consider a brand called Room101 The Big Payback—a brand dedicated to extreme parameters. It starts off normal enough with a 50-ring-gauge robusto, but then expands to a size called the Culero, which measures a whopping 7 by 70. If that wasn't extreme enough, it gets even bigger. The Jaquemate weighs in at 8 by 80.
"This is the super-sizing of the cigar world," says Room101 owner and creator Matt Booth. "A good deal of our consumers want what they perceive to be more cigar for their money. You will notice that the price point on such sizes is quite affordable. This is what makes for the ultimate success of an oversized cigar. The taste has to be there, but equally important—if not more so—is the price."
For Booth, the philosophy was easy: he identified a demand in the market and satisfied it. And he isn't shy about sharing his personal opinion on the smokes: "they are a perversion of the premium cigar."
Tom Lazuka isn't as harsh in his judgment. His Asylum brand, which debuted in 2013, is made in an 80 ring gauge as well. "Just like there are people who enjoy lanceros, there are plenty of guys who enjoy our 70- and 80-ring-gauge cigars," he offers. "I truly believe it's a mix of quality and price that drives Asylum and big-ring sales."
Asylum 13 is offered in sizes so monstrous that a 6-by-60 cigar seems normal by comparison. There's the 680, which is 6 inches by 80 ring; the 770 (7 by 70); the Super 11/18 (8 by 70) and the 880, which is 8 inches long and 80 ring gauge. One would think such a massive rolling of tobacco might cost a fortune, but the suggested retail price for the 880 is only $10.43. For an 8-inch cigar as thick as a tailpipe, that's a lot of tobacco for your money.
Not every heavy-ring-gauge cigar was a hit. Recall a brand called Oliveros XL For Men, which was created by Rafael Nodal and Hank Bischoff of Boutique Blends Cigars (formerly known as Oliveros Cigars). When XL For Men hit the market in 2005, the 6-by-60 format wasn't quite as common as it is today. The line came in ring gauges of 52, 55 and 60. It was a good cigar, but, in retrospect, the timing wasn't optimal.
"There are many reasons why XL For Men didn't catch on," says Nodal. "First it was way ahead of its time and we did not do a good job marketing the cigar. Also, production wasn't consistent."
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