Though I was hardly a cigar neophyte when I was introduced to the pleasures of vintage cigars, I certainly wasn't an expert. At home in New York, I occasionally paired a Macanudo Maduro with an aged single malt to help me relax. When traveling abroad on business, I never turned down the opportunity to indulge in a full-bodied Cuban Cohiba or Montecristo.
It was my growing appreciation of cigars -- and the fact that I'd run out of the small stash that traveled across the Atlantic with me -- that drew me to Edward Sahakian's world-renowned Davidoff of London on my most recent trip abroad. The service at Davidoff was impeccable, and I found its humidor room to be a cigar lover's haven. I was about to reach for a small handful of Davidoff 1000s (enough to last me the rest of my trip) when the small but noticeable vintage selection, housed in a glass-enclosed container, caught my eye. Should I splurge, I asked myself? I hesitated at the prices. (A 1995 Hoyo Double Corona ran £34, almost $50 per stick.) The contents were undoubtedly pricey, but intriguing.
As I mulled over making a vintage purchase, the realization that I'd sometimes paid top dollar for aged single malts and wines hit me; why should cigars be treated any differently? Like many of the finer things in life, wouldn't cigars only get better with age? A knowledgeable vintage cigar sales associate soon answered my questions. Cigars mellowed with age while retaining much of their flavor, explained the savvy salesman. Listening to the heartfelt pitch I decided I would indulge in some vintage selections on this trip. After all, these Cuban treasures were not ones I'd be able to find in my favorite cigar shops back home in New York.
In the ensuing days, the moment when I was to enjoy my first vintage cigar presented itself. After dining with my good friend Rupert at one of London's most elegant and exclusive private clubs, we decided to share a smoke, a 1989 Havana Davidoff 1000. Rupert, who happens to be quite a cigar connoisseur, lit the cigar artfully, took a few puffs, and handed it to me. Knowing how rare this smoke was, I was a bit hesitant with the first puff. I puffed again, this time with more vigor. The taste was nothing short of amazing. It was flavorful yet mild, with a smoothness unlike any cigar I'd ever had before. I continued to puff, involuntarily closing my eyes on occasion. I savored each puff for as long as I could, not wanting to exhale the rich flavor that danced on my tongue. That's exactly how my fascination with vintage Havanas started; I knew from that evening onward that my palate had been thoroughly and inordinately gratified and that I was forever hooked on time-ripened cigars.
My next vintage was a 1989 Havana Davidoff No. 1. Again, I found myself at the elegant private club on London's well-known St. James's Street. The club's commanding presence, highlighted by its grand staircase, detailed moldings and stunning collection of artwork, was a regal environment befitting an equally regal cigar. At 7 1/2 inches, the No. 1 was significantly longer than the Davidoff 1000, with a slightly larger ring gauge. The size was ideal for a long, carefree smoke, and once again my taste buds were in heaven.
It was a spicy, peppery cigar with nutty notes on the finish. I continued to puff with the enthusiasm of a young girl as the cigar developed in richness when I reached the halfway mark. As I tasted this subtle phenomenon, this deepening of flavor, I felt the rush that I'd felt the first time I reached the center of a Tootsie Pop -- this was the adult equivalent. With the nonvintage cigars I'd sampled in the past, I had thought that spiciness and smoothness were a tradeoff. To my surprise, the 1989 Davidoff No. 1 had both those qualities. I smiled as I took long, lingering draws even as the cigar was nearly finished. It was too special a cigar to let die prematurely. I delighted in smoking the No. 1 to the very end.
During the remainder of my extended stay in London, I was fortunate enough to have a magnificent aged Havana on hand whenever the moment seemed right. I indulged in a 1996 Havana H. Upmann Grand Corona with Port at a formal event; other vintage favorites from the trip included a 1994 Hoyo de Monterrey Short Corona and a 1996 Bolivar Churchill Tubo.
The highlight of my London vintage cigar-tasting experience was, without a doubt, the 1973 Davidoff Chateau d'Yquem, an indescribably delectable treat. As cigar connoisseurs know, these examples are the rarest of the Davidoff Chateau series. Aged nearly three decades, this cigar had matured into a truly sumptuous smoke with an incredibly mild, yet deeply complex flavor, becoming fuller and richer as it was smoked, and bearing a smooth finish throughout. Though I'd sampled some nonvintage cigars with smooth finishes, the Chateau d'Yquem was in a class of its own: its silky finish was of a kind that could only be acquired through careful aging. The experience of smoking a cigar nearly the same age as myself was utterly transcendent.
Now that I'm back in New York, I continue to experiment with cigars of different vintages, sometimes comparing more than one in my own cigar tastings. I revel in knowing that each vintage cigar has patiently bided its time in a cool, moist humidor, eagerly awaiting its time to glow.
I still close my eyes when entranced with an aged Havana. As I slowly puff, I ponder about experiences I've lived through, of those that await me, but most of all, of those that exist only in my dreams. Give me a smooth single malt and a vintage cigar, and those dreams seem all that much closer to becoming reality.
Brie Lam is a freelance writer who was part of the analytics team for the emerging markets fixed-income group at JP Morgan Chase.