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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

(continued from page 1)

Not all cigar experts agree, however. Dick DiMeola, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Consolidated Cigar, says his cigars are ready to smoke when they leave his factory in the Dominican Republic. Avelino Lara, manager of Cuba's El Laguito factory, which makes Cohibas, believes that aging cigars makes little or no difference. "Cigars improving with age is folklore," Lara says. "Some people even say that Cuban cigars improve when they cross the sea to England." Nonetheless, both men have been known to praise a fine, old cigar when they smoke one; Lara even gives seven-to eight-year-old Cohiba Lanceros as special gifts to visitors.

Other merchants with a commercial interest in promoting young cigars are less critical. "I am not saying that fine, aged cigars are better; they're just a different experience," says Desmond Sautter, one of London's more knowledgeable cigar merchants. "I was skeptical myself in the beginning when I sold some very old cigars. How good could a 35- or 40-year-old cigar smoke after all these years? But once I started selling them, people kept coming back and saying, "My God. Have you got any more of those?"

Part of the buzz about these cigars, especially pre-Castro and pre-embargo ones, admittedly has nothing to do with quality. People appreciate them for their age. "They can be good cigars, but I don't go crazy over them," says Edward Sahakian, owner of the Davidoff store in London. "A lot of it has to do with nostalgia. My emphasis is on the future and not on the past."

Nevertheless, a trip to the past while smoking a fine old cigar can be memorable. For this report, CIGAR AFICIONADO tasted 14 old cigars, mostly from the late 50's, and there was not a poor one in the bunch. Perhaps we were slightly more forgiving of the cigars in view of their age, yet they all offered a finesse and a subtle depth in character that we seldom find in cigars currently available on the market.

Take the Cabanas No. 751, which was made in 1960 for Alfred Dunhill Ltd. Rich and mellow, it delivered loads of creamy, nutty tobacco flavors yet retained an amazing delicacy. It was the kind of cigar you would burn your fingertips with rather then let it extinguish.

"I wish I knew exactly what happens to a cigar when it ages," says Simon Chase, the marketing director for London-based Hunters & Frankau, the key importer of Cuban cigars in the United Kingdom. Chase is considered one of the world's leading experts on old cigars. "But the cigar becomes more refined and easier to smoke regardless of the richness of the blend. It is a maturing and aging process rather than a fermentation process. There is no major chemical change taking place. Cigars tend to dry out a bit with age, but they can be wonderful to smoke," he says.

When a cigar reaches about 10 years of age, it doesn't hold as much moisture, and it is usually slightly hard and dry compared with fresh cigars. But once you tight them, and an inch or two of ash develops, they soften, giving a clean, fresh flavor. That dryness seems to play a special role. Most of the London experts in aged cigars agree that storage should be at a lower humidity than the industrywide standard of 70 percent. "If they are too wet, some of the aging doesn't take place," says Chase. "There has never been a disagreement with that."

Years ago, London cigar merchants wanted to store their cigars at about 55 percent humidity, producing what was known as the classic, dry British style, according to the late cigar merchant Tony Anderson. He also said that English importers would dry their cigars before importing them to reduce the duty and taxes levied according to the weight of the cigars. "But a dry, aged cigar gives you the taste of pure tobacco," Anderson always said, "not simply water."

Most cigar merchants who currently store cigars for clients tend to keep the humidity slightly higher. "We keep clients' cigars at a maximum of 65 [percent humidity], although closer to 60," says Neil Millington of Dunhill's humidor room in London. "We want them a little wetter than in years past to keep the oils in the cigars, but they are still dry enough so that we have less problem with mold."

Storing old cigars is one thing, however, buying them is another. Even a merchant such as Desmond Sautter, who specializes in old cigars, comes across only 20 or 30 boxes a year. Few, if any, other cigar merchants around the world hold mature stocks; they're just not available. Most of the buying and selling of these cigars is done among a handful of experts and collectors. They know where the mature cigar stocks are and who wants to sell or buy.


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