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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 6)

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."

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.

Nonetheless, serendipity does occasionally occur, and those who follow the market tend to come across the older stocks more frequently. "They pop up in the most interesting places," says Jacobs. "But you have to ask around. It's like collecting [rare] fountain pens. You have to look everywhere: collectors, stores, restaurants."

The most common way to buy aged cigars is through a cigar merchant who is holding stock for clients who decide to sell them. The past five years have been very good for buying customer reserves from merchants in the United States and England. London's Robert Lewis and Dunhill as well as Dunhill in New York updated their reserve lists a few years ago and contacted their clients who hadn't touched reserves for years. Many decided to sell.

Updating of client reserves is an ongoing process. For example, London's Robert Lewis (now James J. Fox and Robert Lewis after a merger last December) still has 2,000 to 3,000 cigars on reserve and pending a response from owners who are classified as inactive. Some haven't been in contact with the shop for more than a decade.

In most cases with unclaimed reserves, merchants try to contact family members or wait for some communication. A former employee with the Dunhill humidor room in London, however, decided a few years ago to sell some of the unclaimed customer stocks to private individuals and auction houses. One American client was sold six boxes of pristine-condition, pre-embargo cigars for about $1,900. The employee was arrested by the Metropolitan Police and received a two-year suspended sentence in the London criminal courts. The American was reimbursed by Dunhill, but he apparently would have preferred the cigars, considering their rarity.

"The only old cigars in England outside of cigar merchants in London would be the ones which are in family possession," says Sautter, who has sold nearly 10,000 pre-embargo cigars in the past five years. "The stuff is still there and stocked away unless someone decides to get rid of it. They are given and forgotten."

Every now and then such stocks surface. Chase recently came across a few boxes of pre-Castro cigars from a plumber in the north of England. "He had a couple of boxes of Romeo y Julieta petit coronas from the '30s, still in their original wrapping and unopened," he says. "In addition, there was one box of Henry Clay in the same size. They were especially interesting because they were rolled in Trenton, New Jersey, with Cuban tobacco."

In another instance, a few years ago Sautter received a telephone call from a man who said that he had some interesting, old cigars for sale. "He told me where he bought them, and I knew that they could be anywhere from 20 to 30 years old, since the shop went out of business years ago," Sautter recalls. "I told him to bring them down to London so I could take a look at them, but the man replied that he had loads of them." Sautter could barely control himself when he heard that the caller had 150 boxes of cigars; so he decided to drive up to North Wales, a five-hour trip, that weekend.

When he arrived at the address, Sautter found himself in front of a massive country manor, whose owner had recently died and whose widow wished to dispose of anything connected with her husband's two favorite pastimes: vintage cars and cigars. "There were 50 cars or more in one garage, Bentleys, Jensens, Aston Martins," he says. "After looking at the cars, I looked at the cigars. They came down in cardboard boxes with the name of the merchant marked on them. They were mostly Montecristo No. 2 (torpedoes) in cabinets of 50 cigars."

A rare find indeed. Sautter offered the manager of the estate a hefty price for them, and although the man agreed to the sale and told Sautter the cigars would be sent to London in a few weeks, he later passed on the message that the woman was no longer interested in selling. "I don't know why to this day," he says. "I was very disappointed."

Every aged-cigar aficionado has a similar story about the one that got away. Nevertheless, a few well-placed calls with cigar merchants in the United States and Britain often bring results. The key mature-cigar merchants in London include Dunhill, James J. Fox and Robert Lewis, and Desmond Sautter; in the United States, try Dunhill in New York and San Francisco, and Nat Sherman in New York. These merchants usually hold reserves of cigars for their clients in humidified storage areas and lockers--much the same way that high-class wine merchants hold cases of wine for customers. In addition, keep an eye out for charity auctions and the occasional sale at Christies in London.

The main reason why Britain is the best market for mature stocks of cigars is that the tradition began there, although some cigar merchants in Switzerland have often tried to take credit for the practice. The British elite have been buying and storing large parcels of handrolled cigars for more than a century. "The understanding of vintage cigars is still very much an English, aristocratic, upper-class pursuit," says Chase. "They buy their cigars, they lay down their cigars and they understand that they should be left for a period of time."

Many blue-blooded families in the United States, especially on the East Coast, have a strong inclination to follow English avocations of pleasure, and cigars are no exception. The U.S. branches of Dunhill, among others, have a well-established tradition of laying down cigars. Some of the best pre-embargo cigars still in circulation in the United States are those selected and sold by Dunhill. They were nearly always sold in Dunhill-branded boxes with their state-side location names printed on the inside lid: San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and Beverly Hills, California. They had special numbers for each cigar style produced by the Havana factories: designations such as H. Upmann Selection Suprema No. 22 or Ramon Allones No. 66.

In London, James J. Fox and Robert Lewis is the merchant with the largest stock of reserves. About 320 customers have cigars in storage: it's conceivable that more than 10,000 cigars might be lying in the merchant's cellar. Many of them were bought in the '50s and '60s. "We hold more reserve cigars than anywhere else in the world," says Croley, whose family owned part of Robert Lewis until the December merger. "In my grandfather's time, we never used to sell a cigar less than eight years old. Unfortunately, this is not altogether possible today, but we encourage our customers to lay down stocks to be able to enjoy a fine, mature Havana cigar."

Croley, like most other serious cigar merchants, says that the cost has now shifted to the client to lay down reserves. Customers are usually charged a yearly storage fee, or they must buy a minimum number of boxes of cigars each year. Dunhill in the United States even maintains a cigar club, the Connoisseurs' Humidor Society, to attract customers with reserves. "It builds our relationship with our customer," says Graves "Smitty" Smith of Dunhill's branch in New York. "We want more people in the society. It builds camaraderie among them."

Smitty says that more and more customers in their 30s and 40s are now laying down cigars for the future. Assuring themselves a good supply of top-quality, aged cigars is one reason, as well as the satisfaction of knowing they have their cache in a Dunhill locker. "Besides, they wouldn't like it if their wives or girlfriends knew that they spent $3,000 or $4,000 a year on cigars. So it's good for them to keep their cigars with us," he says.

That's less the case with London cigar merchants. They sell Havana cigars almost exclusively, and they cost two to four times the price of those sold in the United States from other countries. It is a major investment for cigar lovers to start laying down cigars there. For example, a cigar lover in the United States may spend $750 to $1,250 for putting on reserve 10 boxes of 25 Dominican or Honduran robusto-sized cigars, but doing the same thing in London with Cuban robustos may cost $2,350 to $3,500.


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