Two Cigar Aficionado editors. Two cigarmakers from the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. The game: a smoke-off.
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We called it a cigar jam session. It was sort of like when musicians get together and just hang and play music. But instead of guitars, saxophones or some other musical instruments, we had cigars.
It was basically an excuse to sit around, smoke, talk and compare Cuban versus non-Cuban cigars in an informal and friendly atmosphere. Cigar Aficionado senior editor David Savona and I hung out with cigarmakers Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana and Jorge Padrón of Padrón Cigars on the veranda of Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare on one hot night in Las Vegas last July during the annual cigar retailers show. It was more reflective than confrontational. In fact, we all had a great time. (We made a video, so you can check it out.)
"This is what the cigar business is all about," said Jorge, as he puffed away on a Cuban Montecristo Petit Edmundo. "You can hang out. You can smoke cigars among friends."
I wish the cigar business was only about that. Granted, I am a journalist and critic, and not part of the cigar business, but I felt like a hard-core cigar merchant after a few days at the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers trade show in Sin City, or Las Vegas as it is officially called.
Just about every major cigar producer outside of Cuba was there, showing its smokes, both new and old. During my three days there, I must have spoken to close to a dozen cigar manufacturers, not to mention retailers and tobacco growers. By the end of the show each day, the floor of the convention center looked like London with fog on a cold and humid winter day. It was smoky to say the least. But the most memorable part of the trip was hanging out with my fellow editor and Litto and Jorge.
There are few things better. Savona said it best: "There's not much that can top talking about the finer things in life" such as the best cigars from Cuba, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
There was some debate on just how "great" some of the cigars really were. I had brought a number of Cuban cigars from London. We had conducted the same exercise about three years ago in New Orleans during the cigar show with Jorge and Litto. And they were not all that enthused with the Habanos. In fact, they had criticized just about everything about the Cuban smokes.
Jorge was not much happier this time around. He found the Montecristo Petit Edmundo too humid, with an imperfect burn and a slightly acidic flavor. "Taste," he said. "It's not a bad taste, but it's not a good taste either. It's a little acidic."
I just shook my head. I love that smoke. I had smoked it most of the summer. But maybe it was a little acidic compared to the juicy, espresso-like smokes of Padrón? Enjoying cigars, just like wines, can be about disagreeing, especially with friends and colleagues. It's just like anything else: politics, sports, women … it's hard to agree who or what is the best when you get a bunch of dudes together.
Savona didn't exactly go for the jugular, but he did point out that Jorge probably didn't smoke a lot of Cubans. And Jorge responded: "We tend to concentrate on our own stuff. Nevertheless, we know what a good cigar, or a great cigar, should taste like." Jorge 1, Savona 0.
I reminded Jorge that he always says that he smokes his own cigars and what he (or the rest of his family) doesn't smoke, he sells. We all had a good laugh. I think the only time he has smoked Cuban cigars has been with me and Savona. Litto actually seemed to be enjoying his Cohiba Maduro 5 Secreto, and he admitted that it was the first maduro cigar from Cuba that he had ever smoked. "I have been smoking my cigars all day long, so I really find this different from what I have been smoking," he said as he puffed away. "After the first half inch, I began to feel lots of toasted nuts and things…. It has very solid flavors. It's not overpowering. It has good balance. And the flavors are good.… It's very, very solid."
Larger than life both in energy and girth, chef Paul Bartolotta was hanging for a while in his stained kitchen whites and smoking a Coronado by La Flor Lancero. He wanted to know what were some of the obvious defects of a cigar.
Being my shy self, I jumped in first. "For me, the biggest defect in a cigar is if it is bitter or it has the flavor of ammonia," I said with great authority. I am afraid Padrón beat me on this one. He said there was one defect even more obvious than that, and he's right. He said that if a cigar doesn't draw, then "you are dead in the water. Even if it is good or bad, you are not going to know."
But assuming it draws, I said, a cigar has to have great flavor or why bother to smoke it? In my opinion, even if a cigar doesn't look great (its wrapper can be marked or ugly) but it has great flavor, then it can be a great cigar. "Cigars are all about flavor," I said.
This sparked Savona into commenting on how flavorful the Coronado by La Flor Lancero was that he was smoking. "I know that some people think that a non-Cuban cigar can't be stronger than a Cuban, but I think that this has really got a strong kick to it."
In fact, I was surprised how much "kick" so many of the cigars had at the cigar retailers show. There were many new and improved cigars on show. Just about every cigar manufacturer I visited was talking about "more flavor." For example, who would ever have thought that Davidoff and Macanudo—two cigar names that have built their reputations on mild smokes—would come out with full-bodied cigars? Davidoff released a maduro and Macanudo introduced a reserve.
The biggest revelation was the Macanudo 1968—the darkest and richest Mac ever produced. I have never been a great fan of Macanudo. I have found them to be just too mild. But the new Mac is a MacDaddy of flavor. After a few puffs, you get loads of coffee and chocolate character with medium body. It's spicy and super fresh and keeps your mouth moist and your taste buds satisfied. It is of outstanding quality.
"We are going back to the basics," said Daniel Núñez, the head of General Cigar Co., about the new Macanudo, which is made with a dark Honduran wrapper, a Havana-seed binder grown in Connecticut and a mix of Nicaraguan and Dominican filler. "We are not reinventing the wheel. We are putting more value into the leaf.… It is strength and flavor, but keeping a balance."
The 1968 Mac comes in four sizes and costs slightly more than the regular Mac: Churchill (7 by 49 ring gauge), $10; Toro (6 by 54), $9.50; Robusto (5 by 50), $8.50; and Gigante (6 by 60), $11.
Davidoff's slightly enhanced robusto (5 by 50) looked strange with its dark brown maduro wrapper. I am so used to seeing Davidoffs with light brown, almost yellow wrappers. I remember the owner of the company, Ernst Schneider, once preached to me about how Davidoff cigars must be light colored, beautiful and mild, like a beautiful woman who's wearing delicate perfume. Times have changed! Sam Russell from Davidoff admitted that the company had been skeptical about the maduro thing. "We are not a trendy cigarmaker," he said, as I smoked one of the Maduro Rs at his stand at the cigar show. "But people asked us for years. Maduro is just the wrapper. We don't make that distinction. It is the blend that counts for us. So we didn't just make a maduro cigar. It is a maduro blend.
Traditionally it was just about the wrapper. But we wanted to do more with that. We wanted to make a blend for a maduro."
It was impossible to get to all the new smokes at the show, but some of the others that impressed me were the La Aurora Puro Vintage 2003, El Rey de los Habanos's MF line (MF is for My Father) and C.A.O. Lx2. There were many more. They all shared the idea of more flavor is better, without necessarily being strong. I wish we could have smoked them all at the cigar jam session at the Wynn. There just wasn't enough time. Maybe next year?