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Old Havanas

The best aged cigars, from 30 to 60 years old, are refined, stylish powerhouses of flavor.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

The cigar's wrapper has an opulent dark brown color; its texture is silky and flawless. A large band, slightly yellowing and oily like the surface of an old painting, encircles it with the name "Belinda" printed in block letters. Perhaps most striking is its ornate style with a red background and a gold crest of a leaping lion, a key and three bricked towers, which speak of another time, a grandiose age long forgotten in the cigar factories of Havana.

Slightly hard and very square in shape, the six-inch cigar crackles as the cutter nips off its end. It quickly takes to the flame of the wooden match, almost lighting itself as it rotates under the fire. Within a few minutes, a white velvety ash develops, giving off blue-tinted smoke. Its aromas and flavors are refined with a mild, spicy tobacco character and a soft texture.

Who would have thought that smoking a piece of history could be so good? When this Belinda corona cigar came off the workbenches of the La Belinda factory in Havana, no one would have ever expected it to be so delicious almost six decades later. The corona is believed to have been produced in the late 1930s; yet it is fresh and savory like a cigar made just a few years ago.

Some connoisseurs will tell you that the sensation of smoking a great, aged cigar can compare only to drinking a fine, mature bottle of wine. They're wrong. A rare smoke gives you more. Both mature wines and cigars stimulate your senses of sight, sound, smell and taste, but touch is enjoyed only with cigars. And the right cigar aged the proper way will give you an unparalleled sensual experience that fully expresses the joys of all five senses.

"There's nothing like it," says Shelly Jacobs, 48, a Minneapolis-based restaurateur with one of the world's largest private collections of aged cigars. He claims to have nearly 300 boxes of Havana cigars from the late '50s and older.

Collectors like Jacobs are primarily interested in old Cuban cigars although they may also buy the occasional mature box from Jamaica, Honduras, the Dominican Republic or the Canary Islands. Older cigars produced before the December 1959 Revolution are commonly described as "pre-Castro." Those made before President Kennedy declared the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba in February 1962 are "pre-embargo."

This doesn't mean that a cigar must be more than three decades old before it's considered properly matured. Usually cigars develop a mature character after about eight to 10 years of age. That means that cigars should ideally have five to seven years of storage once they arrive from the factory because aged tobacco is used in the blends of nearly all premium hand-rolled cigars.

"After about 10 years of age, cigars change their character," explains Jacobs, who seldom smokes anything with less than five to six years of box age. "By that time, they have a great bouquet and become slightly musty like ripe cheese. I really enjoy my aged cigars. I smoke them only on special occasions, however. There's nothing better than lighting one up at night by myself with a glass of Port."

Buying and smoking fine old cigars may seem appropriate for only the most devoted aficionado, considering the cost and inconvenience. But once you try a well-matured cigar, you must have more. "I am now like some wine collectors I know," says Jacobs. "I have too many aged cigars now. I don't know if I will ever smoke them all."

Yet Jacobs is still buying. It's a little like an addiction or collecting vintage sports cars. Of course, a fresh-off-the-factory-line Hoyo de Monterrey double corona or a new Porsche 911 each represent superb quality, but there's something extra, something special, when you're touching a vintage edition. "Aged cigars are the best thing in the world," said Michael Croley of James J. Fox and Robert Lewis, a London merchant with a long history in selling aged cigars. "It's more subtle. I can smell the difference between an aged cigar and a new one right away."

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