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The Age Equation

At a special tasting in Havana, a 10-year-old Partagas 8-9-8 goes up against a current production cigar
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Hugh Grant, November/December 2009

Most Cubans get pretty excited when they have the opportunity to smoke an aged cigar—even the tobacco experts. It just isn't something that most of them get to do, even if they grow tobacco or work in a cigar factory or shop. It's understandable. They live for current production cigars. They have to focus on growing and processing tobacco for use now. Or they have to figure out the complexity of a blend for a new smoke, or decide on what's the best cigar to sell to the customer who walks into the store. Why would they worry, or even be interested, in cigars that were produced and sold a few years ago, or even longer? Moreover, many prefer the flavor of young tobacco—a fresh cigar. A friend of mine from London, cigar maven Alex Iapichino (his day job is being a lawyer), organized a comparative tasting of a 10-year-old Partagas 8-9-8 against the same cigar from the current production. It was held in a low-ceiling meeting room in the Partagas factory in downtown Havana. In about five minutes, the long, poorly lit room was full of thick smoke from the three dozen or so participants.

The aged cigar came from the warehouses of Hunters & Frankau, the London-based distributor for Cuban cigars in the United Kingdom. Hunters has an aged cigar program; the firm adds a second band to a cigar with the year when it was placed in the box. For example, the aged 8-9-8 that we smoked carried a gold sub band that read "1998."

"We have a good stock of old cigars and we are laying down some of everything every year," says Simon Chase, director and consultant for Hunters & Frankau. Prices are normally five percent more than current release for the same cigars. "And it's wonderful to see how they develop. Many times they grow in flavor and strength. We don't release any of these cigars until they are at least 10 years old…We are simply continuing the English tradition of the great aged cigar." Simon was at the Partagas tasting with me during this year's Havana cigar festival. As we puffed away, our eyes were watering from the thick smoke. The others at the small event were also suffering. I was asked to comment on the cigar in front of everyone after about 25 minutes of smoking. I wasn't very complementary of the 8-9-8. I told the small crowd in my bad Spanish that I thought the cigar started out really well with lots of strength and flavor, but it soon turned aggressive, bitter and acidic. I didn't like the cigar all that much. I gave it a mercy 82 points, unblind.

We all were asked to fill out a questionnaire in Spanish describing our impressions of the cigar. It was the same old thing about combustion, aromas, flavor and strength. But included was an odd question asking for overall impressions and whether the smoker: "Would accept it, if given as a gift." I wrote "probably" but added "it depends on who gave it to me." (I never discovered if they found that amusing. Probably not!)

Anyway, a few Cubans took offense of my criticism of the aged 8-9-8. One government tobacco specialist stood up and spent about 20 minutes explaining why the cigar was very good and that it needed another 10 years to come together. He said that it needed to oxidize more and complete small fermentations to reduce impurities.

I wasn't convinced it would ever improve. In fact, the cigar seemed to be on its way down. The group of tasters, who were mostly cigar aficionados, did not look convinced either, and they were from all over the world including the United States, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and the Far East.

Even the quality control head from Partagas said that she thought the aged smoke was a not a good example of what was being made in her factory. Her point was well taken. She probably didn't realize that the 1998 8-9-8 had come from a factory in the provinces of Havana, according to the box code. Need I say more? Despite my experience in Havana last February, I always have been a huge fan of aged cigars. I love smoking them when they are great. They are more refined, subtle and elegant than a fresh smoke, especially Cubans. I am not 100 percent sure of the aging process that takes place. Some say it's a slow fermentation, or a drying process. The former concept makes more sense to me as the residual impurities in the tobacco apparently lessen as the cigar ages.

However, aged cigars that are well made with good tobacco provide an entirely different dimension to smoking pleasure. It's like comparing a young, top-class Bordeaux to one with 10, 20 or 30 years of bottle age. The latter is much more complex, silky and satisfying. We all know that.

I used to be so proud to say that I seldom smoked a Cuban cigar with less than five or six years of box age. It was something I learned from some of the great cigar merchants of London in the 1980s, including James F. Fox, Robert Lewis and Davidoff. The first two merged together a few years ago.

It always seemed so civilized to be "laying down" boxes of Cuban cigars for future consumption. I felt like an aristocrat, talking to my cigar merchant in London or Havana and discussing which cigar to buy and age. I even spent hours choosing the "right" box of cigars with the right age and the right wrapper color.

I still have a few hundred aged smokes in my small collection at home in Italy. Most of the cigars are from the early 1990s. As you probably know, the quality of Cuban cigars went down after about 1996, and it didn't come back properly until 2002. So I didn't buy cigars for aging after 1997. But that is a story I have told before.

But I have to admit that I have second thoughts about the whole idea of aging cigars. I have found recently that many of my aged smokes, as well as those my friends own, are losing their flavor and character. For example, I used to love smoking Davidoffs from the late 1980s, but many now taste like nothing. They are essentially like smoking paper. And some of my prized Cohibas or Partagas from 1993, 1994 and 1995 are losing character too.

The quality of an aged cigar does depend a lot on how they've been stored. They should be conserved in an environment that is relatively humid and cool. I like to keep mine under 65 percent humidity and 65 degrees Fahrenheit or less. Some cigar collectors like to keep theirs at a lower humidity and temperature. And the cigars must be kept in a clean, odorless place, so they maintain their pure tobacco character.

Aside from the frequent disappointment in old cigars, I am not sure why I am less enthusiastic about the whole idea. It may be because today's cigars from Havana, and, for that matter, the rest of the world, are just that much better. So many young cigars are so good to smoke now when they are young. Why bother aging them? Smoke and live for the day.

And I can't say that I have been laying down many cigars in the last five years. I still have too many old ones around that need smoking. And I am busy smoking new ones at the same time. There are only so many hours in a day, and so many years in the future.

So how did the Partagas smoke-off end? The current production Partagas 8-9-8 blew away the aged smoke. It was balanced with beautiful creamy, spicy and cappuccino character. It almost smoked itself. It was smooth, easy and enjoyable. What it should be. I rated it 91 points, unblind.

Unfortunately, most of the participants had already left before they had finished their new 8-9-8 so there was no public consensus. I assume that just about everyone preferred the current production cigar. But I noticed many of them simply left the room with the new Partagas in their hand or pocket unlit. Maybe they didn't have to smoke it to see the difference?

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