The island's oldest and most venerable smokes have been superseded by the new kids on the block
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Cuba has made many great cigars since I first wrote about the island's "star cigars" in 1992. Sure, there have been some ups and downs in quality, and the worst period ever—from 1999 to 2001, when as many as one out of five cigars exported did not draw properly—has long passed. Now that those days are gone, a new age for quality Cuban cigars is here.
Today's best Cuban cigars, in my opinion, are the most consumer-friendly ever. They have been created with the smoker in mind. They cater to the wants and needs we have as lovers of the leaf, and to the modern life we all aspire to.
Take, for example, the recently released Montecristo Petit Edmundo. If there has ever been a "now" cigar, it's this one. It's short, fat and flavorful. Measuring 52 ring gauge by 4 1/3 inches, it delivers the most in smoking pleasure in the shortest amount of time. The same is true for the Hoyo de Monterrey Petit Robusto, which is as short as the Edmundo but a tiny bit thinner at 50 ring gauge.
These cigars are the abridged versions of the originals: the Montecristo Edmundo and the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2. It's that inch or so less of each cigar that makes them near-perfect smokes for many of us.
"It's the perfect one-coffee smoke," says Enrique (Kiki) Lopez of La Casa del Habano cigar shop at the Partagas factory in Havana. "My customers love the Petit Edmundo. You can smoke it in 10 or 15 minutes, which is about the same time it takes to drink a good Cuban coffee."
He's slightly exaggerating. It takes me a little longer to smoke a Petit Edmundo and a little shorter to consume a café Cubano. But you get the idea. None of us has the same amount of time to enjoy a great cigar that we used to, and that doesn't take into account the difficulty of discovering a place to enjoy one. But somehow we do.
I have spent many an enjoyable moment recently, smoking a Petit Edmundo on the terrace of a bar or café in Los Angeles, even though the city has some of the most draconian antismoking laws in the world. I have even taken my petit smoke for a short walk down the street to a nearby park to enjoy it in solitude, free from protest or indignation from passersby. It's the same thing with smoking in your car. Yes, it's come to that, but there's no use complaining.
That's the biggest change in the last decade in Cuban cigars, and cigars in general. In the 1990s, the star cigars in the market were double coronas, in particular the Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona. Cigar Aficionado rated it 99 points in 1992, and it became a legend among cigar lovers around the world. It became so sought after that it became nearly impossible to find. I know one multimillionaire in Toronto who sent his private jet down to Havana to pick up 20 boxes after he couldn't find them anywhere else.
The 49 ring by 7-inch cigar is still excellent, but who has the time to smoke one? I recently smoked a 2003 production from a cedar cabinet of 50 that was one of the best I've had in years. But sales of the Hoyo double are not what they used to be. "It's a shame, but people don't have the time to smoke big cigars anymore," lamented Edward Sahakian of the Davidoff cigar shop in London. He still has stocks of Hoyo and Punch Double Coronas from the 1997 vintage for sale.
Nonetheless, the large Montecristo No. 2, which many aficionados fondly call a pyramid, is as popular as ever. I guess some of us find the time for this big smoke. It was one of the magazine's star cigars in the 1992 article and remains a "top-of-the-charts" smoke. Cuba now makes about twice the original quantity of the cigar, or close to 3 million sticks per year. But the high quality remains, and the 52 ring by 5 3/4-inch cigar is one of the most flavorful, best-drawing smokes ever. Only the top-rated rollers at the key export factories such as H. Upmann, Partagas and La Corona make these cigars.
"The No. 2 is a classic cigar and the Cubans always seem to take care of this one," says Thomas Boherer, owner of Habanos Holdings, a Hong Kong—based cigar merchant specializing in aged cigars. "It is an icon."
By comparison, the Edición Limitada cigars are certainly not iconic in any sense of the word. But they are clearly outstanding cigars in most cases, and they are a huge success in the market. For me, the 46 by 5 5/8 Partagas Serie D No. 3 is the best ever of the range. It was reproduced for last year's limitada range, since it was so popular in the market. "The Serie D No. 3 was the most popular limitada of them all," says José Antonio Candia, a marketing officer at Habanos S.A., the global trading organization for Cuban cigars.
The limitada idea has been one of Habanos's best in the last 10 years. Each year since 2000, the company has released three or four different-sized cigars with three-year-old aged wrappers. The production is usually about 5,000 to 10,000 boxes, and the sizes, or vitolas, are special for each brand.
But the standard-bearer of Cuban cigars today remains the robusto. Its size, delivery of flavor and price give today's smokers what they need. For instance, the Partagas Serie D No. 4 is one of the most popular smokes among aficionados of Cuban cigars around the world. Its spicy, rich character and cool draw make it Cuba's best "all-purpose" cigar. The Montecristo No. 4, a petit corona, may be Cuba's best-selling cigar in volume, but the red-banded D No. 4 is the hands-down favorite of informed smokers. It's definitely a star smoke.
The popularity of the robusto has given rise to new sizes, or super robustos, for lack of a better word. Such cigars as the Cohiba Siglo VI and Trinidad Robusto Extra were created for the lover of the standard size, but improved to offer even more pleasure. The latter vitola, first produced for the 30th anniversary of Cohiba, was sold in a special humidor bearing Cuba's most famous brand. The 50 by 6 1/8 cigar, originally created in the 1980s at the Cohiba factory, El Laguito, for use as diplomatic gifts, became so popular that it was launched under the Trinidad band. The Robusto Extra size—one of three vitolas launched in 2003—is surprisingly refined and mellow for its size.
Mellow and refined are not the words I would use to describe my superstar smoke of Cuba, the Cohiba Siglo VI. This, in my opinion, is the greatest cigar made in Cuba in the last decade, and its 52 ring by 5 7/8-inch size is great for all of us. It delivers masses of flavor with a near-perfect draw. It has loads of leather, cocoa, cedar and tobacco character, and the classic, almost salty, soft texture that only Cohiba delivers. The cigar is made mostly in the Partagas and H. Upmann factories, under the supervision of technicians from El Laguito (Cohiba's mother factory).
It's hard to believe that the Siglo VI was only launched about four years ago. The cigar is already a classic in my mind. It's truly a star among stars. But that's what is great about the world of Cuban cigars—stars are being born every year.
Montecristo No. 2 -- 97
The classic torpedo that no one can duplicate gives you all the cedar, spice and tobacco character you can hope for. Always draws like a dream.
Cohiba Siglo VI -- 96
A combination of richness and finesse gives just the right combination of power and class. Cool smoke.
Partagas Serie D No. 3 Edición Limitada -- 95
This always delivers loads of roasted coffee bean and tobacco character, while the typical Partagas decadence surfaces with each puff.
Montecristo Petit Edmundo -- 94
A concentrated version of the Edmundo gives you more spice, more cedar and more pleasure all in a quicker format. The perfect cigar for those in a hurry.
Montecristo Edmundo -- 93
This gets better and better with lots of spicy, cedar character and a full, rich finish.
Trinidad Robusto Extra -- 93
The creamy texture and cedar notes say Cohiba, but the spicy, light earth and vanilla flavors say Trinidad.
Hoyo de Monterrey Petit Robusto -- 92
The rich, toasty and decadent character stimulates each taste bud in a elegant, creamy way. Quick satisfaction.
Partagas Serie D No. 4 -- 91
This is now the biggest-selling Cuban robusto and always delivers plenty of spicy, earthy, almost decadent character. A classic Habano.
James Suckling tasted these cigars non-blind in Havana.
THE ORIGINAL STARS
Here are the original five Cuban cigar stars, along with excerpts of the reviews published in the Winter 1992/93 issue of Cigar Aficionado.
Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona -- 99
Perhaps Cuba's greatest cigar. The Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona is a benchmark for the cigar world. It is gorgeous and smokes like a dream. The aromas and flavors are incredibly distinctive and reminiscent of chocolate, nutmeg and cinnamon. This is one of the biggest smokes, with the greatest amount of flavor and style.
Cohiba Esplendido -- 98
The Cohiba Esplendido is perfectly named. This is truly a splendid cigar to smoke. It has great richness and full tobacco flavors yet it retains great class and finesse on the palate. A Churchill-sized cigar measuring 7 inches long by 47 ring gauge thick, it is called a Julieta in factories by the workers and remains one of the favorite smokes of the rollers.
Cohiba Robusto -- 96
What more can we say about the cigar that put this size on the map? The Cohiba Robusto is mouth-filling with rich, coffee and spicy flavors and a impressively long finish. No other cigar offers such a burst of flavor in such a relatively small size. The Cohiba Robusto is one of the hottest-selling Cuban cigars.
Montecristo No. 2 -- 94
There is nothing quite like it. The Montecristo No. 2, sometimes called a torpedo or a piramide, represents the best in Cuban craftsmanship. It takes years to master producing this tapered cigar, called a piramide by the rollers themselves. Whatever you call it, it is a bombshell of a smoke, packed with spicy rich flavors that go on and on with each puff.
Punch Punch -- 94
Punch Punch is Cuba's cigar for the connoisseur. It offers plenty of captivating, creamy, coffee character yet maintains a harmony in aroma and flavor that leaves you spellbound. The thick format gives the cigar richness, but the length makes it easy to enjoy in less time than a full-fledged Churchill.
Photo by John Curry