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Cigars of a Different Flavor

Long a part of the machine-made cigar world, flavored smokes make a stand in the premium market
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Michael Jordan, July/August 2005

They are appearing in unexpected places, in tabacaleras that specialize only in hand-rolled cigars and on the shelves of some of the best tobacconists. Yes, they may be cloistered away in their own case, but flavored products are taking a market position that is quite unheard of in their long history: the premium cigar segment.

New flavoring methods, novel tastes and marketing concepts, and the use of hand rollers to construct the cigars, have put flavored products in an unlikely arena. Yet, instead of developing leathery, earthy or creamy notes from blends of premium tobacco, these cigars are directly flavored with syrups, liquors and food products. They are steeped, soaked or infused with vanilla, rum, honey and dozens of other flavors. The result is a taste and aroma quite foreign to the traditional smoker. And while they make purists squirm, it is hard to deny their presence.

Consumers are buying them. "They have been doing so well that we have no cigars," Nick Perdomo, owner of Tabacalera Perdomo, says about his Mr. Hyde's. Says Jose Blanco, marketing director of La Aurora S.A., "I would say it's the fastest-growing segment of the industry."

Some of the biggest names in the cigar business sell or make flavored cigars, many of which are made by hand. As this article went to press, Altadis U.S.A. Inc. was putting the final touches on its entry into the handmade flavored cigar market, Havana Sweets, cigars that are being made in a separate area of the Tabacalera de Garcia factory by José Seijas. General Cigar Co. markets a Kahlúa cigar made by Drew Estate, which makes Acid cigars in Nicaragua. (Drew Estate also makes a cigar flavored with Sauza Tequila.) The Frey brothers of Las Vegas (known as the Freyboys) created a line of flavored cigars called Sweet Daddies, Dominican smokes in a variety of flavors, including grape and chocolate, that feature a sweetened tip. Perdomo makes a line of flavored cigars called Mr. Hyde's Monstrous Flavors, handmade smokes made with Connecticut wrappers laced with honey, cherry, vanilla and other flavors. Gurkha Cigars has some varieties flavored with Cognac, and there's even a Maker's Mark cigar, infused with the world-famous Bourbon and packaged in a glass tube complete with the brand's signature wax.

Still, it is at best an uneasy peace that exists between the two worlds. Cigar shops typically present flavored cigars in their own case, which keeps their distinctive aromas from affecting the unflavored cigars. (The nature of tobacco is that it readily and heartily absorbs aromas.) For the same reasons, flavored cigars are also made in their own sections of cigar factories, and sometimes in factories dedicated solely to their production.

But the segregation isn't solely physical. There's also an image problem. "Before there was a concept in people's minds: flavored cigars equals cheap cigars," says Tim Ozgener, vice president of C.A.O. International Inc., who takes a gourmet approach in the marketing of his flavored cigars. "The biggest hurdle to overcome is that people think flavored cigars are bad cigars."

Despite their robust sales, these cigars aren't rated in Cigar Aficionado. First, it would be an unfair comparison. The tobaccos used in premium, handmade cigars are typically well aged. When they're properly blended, they develop flavors that hint at notes other than tobacco: cream, spice, leather, coffee, orange peel, etc. A flavored cigar, however, develops its taste from being steeped in a foreign agent, and it is rarely subtle. Applying the same rating criteria to each type would be somewhat like comparing a piece of Vahlrona chocolate to an artificially flavored candy bar.

Second, a flavored cigar has no place in a humidor that contains premium smokes—its aroma would permeate the other cigars. Because ours are blind taste tests, neither can we separate the cigars—that would make their identity obvious to the tasters.

Third, after smoking a flavored cigar, it's hard to move on to an unflavored one without hearty cleansing of the palate—the flavoring process leaves a much more aggressive taste in the mouth. Many have a sweetener applied directly to the tip along with whatever flavoring is added to the tobacco blend, giving them a cloying flavor.

Some premium cigar smokers dabble in flavored cigars: 17 percent of respondents to a poll on said they smoked flavored cigars. "I have one every once in a while with strong black coffee," wrote a poster named Bronson.

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