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Cigarillos: Short and Small

In Europe, the Cigarillo, or Short, Dry-Cured Cigar, Sells. In America, it Has Never Caught On.
Patrick Oster
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

The meal is over. The plates that once held veal marsala and other Italian delights have been cleared, and small cups of dark, froth-topped espresso are being wheeled to the table. The perfect time for a cigar, decides Max Burger. But with a busy afternoon ahead of him back at his factory in Lübeck, Germany, Burger realizes there's no time for something of Churchillian proportions.

No problem. From inside his dark-blue suit jacket, he pulls out a small, elegant white box of cigarillos, a seven-minute cigar for those who don't have the leisurely hour that a full-sized smoke demands.

Scenes of on-the-go people lighting up one of these thin, three-inch cigars are common in Europe, where a famous Davidoff advertisement made them fashionable 20 years ago. Burger's cigarillo is a Dannemann Smoker's Club, a favorite in Germany. But in a noisy boite in Copenhagen, the choice of a similarly time-pressed smoker might have been a Nobel Petit, reputedly the oldest cigarillo brand, about to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. In Amsterdam, a Dutchman in an outdoor café might have lit up one of Henri Winterman's Café Crème, a duty-free star and the world's best-selling cigarillo.

From top-of-the-line Davidoffs to more mundane offerings, harried Europeans have no shortage of choice when it comes to cigarillos, which they smoke by the billions each year. But American cigar smokers, who favor stronger, full-sized cigars, such as illegal Havanas or even Cuban-seed cigars made in the Dominican Republic, don't often think of the same nifty solution when a brief cigar window of opportunity opens. Burger hopes to change that, though.

He's a cigar fanatic, happy when others share his fervor. But his motives in trying to persuade U.S. cigar smokers to think small are mostly mercantile. He and his brother Christian own the Dannemann brand and that of several other cigarillo mainstays through their Swiss holding company, Burger Söhne AG Burg. As you may have noticed in recent months, Burger and like-minded firms have launched marketing campaigns in U.S. tobacco shops and publications such as Cigar Aficionado in attempts to make cigarillos more of a factor in the American market.

If you are a stickler about smoking only hand-rolled cigars, be warned that cigarillos may be a stretch for you. They are machine-made. This is not to say they spew off the assembly line at 8,000 a minute the way cigarettes do. But even at their more stately pace of about 500 a minute for those made with homogenized wrappers or between 15 to 30 a minute for 100 percent tobacco cigarillos, their manufactured nature may set off alarm bells among purists. Resist the urge to tune out their rather interesting story right here, though. Cigarillos are worth a try--especially at the price.

Even those with homogenized binders (75 percent tobacco/25 percent cellulose), such as Dannemann's Speciale (Brazilian wrapper), provide a surprisingly smooth, flavorful smoke. "The homogenized binder also produces a more uniform burn," notes Burger, a fourth-generation cigar maker whose sales pitch is as fervent as his love of cigars.

"Homogenized" wrappers also mean a lower price. Formed into tapelike rolls, this mostly tobacco material facilitates that snappier 500-per-minute rate that can't be managed with individually cut natural binders. Suggested retail for such cigarillos is typically half what it is for the 100 percent tobacco variety.

What precisely is a cigarillo, then? When cigarillos began as an almost exclusively handmade European product some 100 years ago, laws in key markets such as Germany required that any cigar product labeled "cigarillo" be three grams or less in weight--about one-tenth of an ounce. Those laws were repealed in the 1950s about the time the industry became mechanized. And today only company marketing determines what makes the grade as a cigarillo. No wonder then that there's debate about how many "cigarillos" actually are sold each year, though there's no doubt the number is in the billions and rising.

Some firms choose not to call a cigarillo that at all--except for accounting purposes. Some prefer "small cigar," "mini cigarillo," or in Spanish-speaking countries, purito. Nonetheless, a three-to-four-gram weight is informally standard as is a length of seven-to-10 centimeters (three to four inches), a diameter of five to eight millimeters (two-tenths to three-tenths of an inch) and a slight taper at one end.

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