Only a few brands still rate outstanding
Ever since my love affair with cigars began, I have been an aficionado of cigars made in Cuba. Some of the most memorable smokes of my life have been the benchmarks of the Cuban cigar industry: a Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona, a Partagas Lusitania, a Montecristo No. 2 or a Punch Punch. And who can forget the Davidoff cigars that were produced in Cuba prior to 1992? To this day, the great Dom Perignon and the Davidoff Anniversario 80 are simply some of the greatest cigars ever made.
But truth be told, it has been a while since I've encountered the mind-blowing experiences that those cigars delivered in earlier vintages. Over the last couple of years, I have smoked some cigars that I couldn't believe were Cubans. They drew poorly or the tobacco was raw. Then, in a blind tasting, I smoked a cigar that, unknown to me, was from one of Cuba's greatest brands. After discovering the origin of the cigar, I argued that it had to be a counterfeit. But I was told that it came from one of the most reputable Cuban cigar dealers in the world. When my encounters with substandard cigars reached their peak about six months ago, I asked my editors to put together a graph, plotting the scores of the highest-scoring Cuban cigars we had ever rated, and then track them over the past nine years. We also decided to go out in the market and buy today's version of the cigars that have scored the highest in our tastings over the years.
The results proved a point that, at least in part, supported my original impression: the overall quality of Cuban cigars has declined during the past nine years. Almost without exception, the graphs of the nine cigars we smoked show that the highest scores were given out in the early years of Cigar Aficionado. And, in more recent years, the scores have fallen significantly. Although certain cigars still have some outstanding scores, the majority are now ending up below their earlier performances.
What happened? And what's the outlook?
The causes have been well documented by Cigar Aficionado's European editor and Cuba expert, James Suckling. He has visited Cuba repeatedly over the past few years, and spent time in the fields with tobacco growers and some of the most respected people in Cuba's cigar business. Those in the Cuban cigar industry succumbed to the same pressures that affected cigarmakers everywhere during the peak of the cigar boom in the mid-1990s. They planted tobacco in areas that were not suited for it. They sped up the curing and fermentation processes. They used tobacco in cigars before it had been properly aged. They rapidly trained new rollers in the factory, and rushed them onto the production line before they could consistently create a great cigar. In short, they tried to increase production before they had all the pieces to the puzzle worked out. Throw in just one bad crop, and suddenly they not only had mediocre tobacco being rolled by ill-trained people, but they lacked the full range of tobacco varieties necessary to create the full-bodied blends associated with Cuba. No wonder everyone has had some bad cigars from Cuba in recent years.
But the Cubans in the past year have finally been willing to admit their shortcomings. They are decreasing their cigar- production targets. They are beginning to return to traditional methods of curing and fermenting tobacco. They stopped using some hybrid tobaccos that weren't right for their fields. And they are working hard to reimpose stringent quality controls in the production process. Behind all the new efforts is the presence of Altadis, the company created from the merger of Spain's Tabacalera S.A. and the French tobacco company, SEITA. Altadis also purchased a 50 percent stake in Habanos S.A. last year, and its executives are now installed in Havana to help oversee the renaissance of the Cuban cigar industry.
Will it work? We all know that cigars are not created overnight. From the time decisions are made about the tobacco plantings to the finished hand-rolled cigar coming out of a factory, production can take more than two years. We're still at least a year away from seeing the full impact of the changes in cigars reaching the marketplace. On a recent trip to London, for example, I sampled some new cigars, a Partagas Pyramid and a Montecristo Robusto, which has been released as a Millennium cigar. The first couple I tried were terrible, with extremely poor draws and very harsh tastes. But out of different boxes, we tasted some that were much better. It shows that while some good tobacco is now being used, construction problems remain and the Cubans still use plenty of raw tobacco. But at least we know someone is paying attention.
For this "Best of Cuba" issue, we decided to go into the marketplace and buy the cigars that have received the highest scores in Cigar Aficionado. We chose nine cigars based on those scores and, in part, based on what was available today in the market. Four editors then smoked those cigars in a blind tasting.
There was at least one good example of what Cuba can still do: the Cohiba Robusto scored a 94 in the tasting, its highest rating in six years. The cigar exhibited great depth of flavors, perfect construction and a silky, attractive wrapper. This score didn't reach the peak of 1992, when the cigar received a 96, but all the elements are in place for that brand to climb back to its previous glories.
On the flip side is the Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona. This cigar received the highest score ever given in a Cigar Aficionado tasting: 99 in 1992. In the recent test, the cigar received an 87, a shadow of its former depth and flavor. Furthermore, many of the larger cigars in this tasting had to be tasted twice because the draw was too tight. The London retailers I spoke with said this has been an all-too-common problem with the bigger sizes in recent months.
The results suggest that buyers must still be very careful when purchasing Cuban cigars. If you're in Havana, check out the box codes, and look for older cigars. If you can't find any older ones, be sure to check the boxes for consistency of color, and carefully check the cigars for overfilling and tight spots. In the next 12 months, we should begin to see better tobaccos getting into the cigars, and if the quality-control issue can be rectified, the cigars should get better.
I can't wait. I want to go back to those glory days of 10 years ago when you could pick up one of the great Cuban brands and know that you were going to have a great smoke.