Back to the Drawing Board
Plugged smokes are plaguing the quality of Cuban cigars
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01
Sometimes I feel incredibly helpless when I smoke Cuban cigars. Take, for example, a recent trip I took to London with the editors of this magazine. We stopped at Desmond Sautter's cigar shop in the city's Mayfair neighborhood on the day of our arrival. Sautter kindly offered us each a Partagas Piramide Limitada, one of the new small-production Cuban cigars.
The dark chocolate-colored torpedo cigar looked rather rough with its maduro wrapper, which the Cubans say has been aged and slowly cured two years to achieve its dark color. But I had great expectations for the smoke considering all the fanfare it had caused in Havana. I quickly cut a bit off the tapered end and lit the cigar. It took a minute or two to get going, which should have been an indication of something amiss. I puffed and puffed and puffed. But it only seemed to be half burning.
I asked my colleague George Brightman how his Piramide was smoking. He said just fine. I could see the bright glow of ash beginning to build on his cigar. I finally asked him if I could have a hit off his smoke. He passed it over and it drew wonderfully, slow and steady, yet with great ease. Mine was like trying to smoke a lead pencil. It was obviously partially plugged and was not drawing correctly.
Sautter was nice enough to offer me another Piramide. He carefully felt a half dozen of the cigars in their ornately decorated box before handing me one. He squeezed each one just the slightest from head to toe, checking for hard spots and overfilling, which could suggest that the cigar would draw poorly. "This one's overfilled with tobacco," he said with great discernment. "That one seems to have a hard spot just under the band. Ah. Here's a nice one. It feels just right. That will do you good."
I had an immediate smile on my face in anticipation of a satisfying smoke. I cut a half inch off its tapered end and I began to draw on the cigar before lighting it. "Desmond, I don't want to be ungrateful, but this cigar is also plugged," I said.
Sautter looked distraught. "This is a big problem," he said. "I have a number of customers complaining how their cigars won't draw. And there's nothing we can do to correct the problem."
Finally, the third Piramide I tried from the box did finally draw, and it smoked wonderfully. Granted, the Partagas Piramide Limitada is a young and rough smoke at the moment. One of my fellow editors pitched his into the gutter after a few minutes, saying it was much too harsh. But I still believe that it will be a well-regarded smoke in three or four years as the tobacco begins to mellow. However, having to smoke three cigars to find a smokable one is ridiculous.
My experience is apparently not an isolated one. What I can ascertain from friends and members of the cigar trade around the world is that the percentage of plugged smokes in a box of Cuban cigars is running about 20 to 30 percent. If this is true, it's totally unacceptable. So, if you buy a box of 25 Cuban cigars, which may cost $300 or $400, up to seven or eight of the cigars will not smoke. That's throwing away -- or shall we say not burning -- close to 100 bucks a box. How incredibly unfair!
The Cubans are certainly aware of the problem and are trying to correct it. They are even planning to use suction machines to test the draw of their cigars before they are placed into boxes. This is a popular apparatus in many of the Dominican Republic's top cigar factories. The most widely used machine tests the cigar just after it comes out of the presses and before the wrapper is applied. The bunch is placed in the mouth of the machine, which looks like a small plastic tube, and the machine measures the resistance of the air being drawn through the bunch. Those with too much resistance, which would assimilate a plugged cigar, are rejected. Moreover, the roller who made the cigar is reprimanded and instructed how to improve the technique.
One of the pioneers with this form of quality control is the Dominican Republic's Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd. in La Romana, now the property of the Spanish/French tobacco giant Altadis, which makes such U.S. brands as H. Upmann, Montecristo, Santa Damiana and Oynx. The manager of the factory, Jose Seijas, said that it has reduced its rejection level of plugged cigars to 2 to 3 percent with the machine (before it was used in the late 1980s, the level was about 35 percent).
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Stefan vachev — December 13, 2011 2:54am ET
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