The long, thin cigars are making a comeback among true connoisseurs
A paradox exists in the cigar world right now. Retailers are reporting the immense popularity of hefty cigars, some of which are nearly one inch thick. The robusto remains the most popular size on the market, and cigarmakers continue to release fat sizes. But despite the consumer clamor for heft, an increasing number of non-Cuban cigar manufacturers are adding slim, elegant lanceros to their size portfolios. Recently, new lanceros from Coronado by La Flor, Oliva, Davidoff, Joya de Nicaragua, Alec Bradley, Illusione, Padilla, Toraño, Cuvée, Gran Habano, Nestor Miranda and 601 have either hit the market or have been announced as new sizes. The lancero may be one of the slower sellers in the American market, but it's taking on a cult following. True cigar aficionados are choosing them as exciting, different smokes.
"It's the best size that I make," says Carlos (Carlito) Fuente Jr., who is sometimes seen smoking the long, thin versions of his Fuente Fuente OpusX or Arturo Fuente Don Carlos cigars.
"Love lanceros," says Pete Johnson, creator of the Tatuaje brand. "They were part of my original six brown-label sizes five years ago. I was making this in early 2003 when everyone was running from them, except maybe Carlito."
When asked what kind of customer buys a lancero, Michael Herklots, general manager of the Davidoff shop in Columbus Circle in New York City, answered, "An educated one. A confident one. A lancero smoker is the same type of customer who buys a Schrader RBS Cabernet—he doesn't need a trophy that other people recognize as great. He or she knows it's great, and that's enough."
The standard Cuban measurement for a lancero is 7 1/2 inches long by 38 ring gauge, but those made outside of Cuba can be a bit shorter and somewhat fatter. Most cigars with the name are finished with a signature flag cap, the pigtail that can be anything from a mere stub to a strip of leaf approaching an inch in length. When rated by Cigar Aficionado, lanceros fall under the panetela category, which comprises thin cigars. All lanceros are panetelas, but only gran (or long) panetelas are lanceros.
Thin cigars have always been part of the Cuban cigar portfolio, but the lancero is a relatively new size. It was first rolled at El Laguito in the 1960s with the creation of the Cohiba brand. "The lancero came out of Cuba—before Cohiba there were no lanceros," said General Cigar's Benjamin Menendez, whose father, Alonso, co-owned the H. Upmann factory in Havana. Fidel Castro is "the father of the size," says Cigar Aficionado European editor James Suckling, an avowed lover of lanceros and an expert on the cigars of Cuba.
The lancero, known as an El Laguito No. 1 in a Cuban cigar factory, is visually striking, its length exacerbated by the cigar's unusual lack of girth. Lancero means lancer in Spanish, and the size is evocative of the long weapons wielded by horse-mounted knights of the Middle Ages. More specifically, one might even recall the lance held by Don Quixote in the Cervantes novel.
Many lanceros have traditionally been difficult finds—or impossible to buy through normal retail channels. The first, the Cohiba Lancero, was only for Castro when it was first created, and when the Cohiba brand became commercially available, Castro cast another cigar mystique with the diplomatic Trinidad, a cigar the same size as a Cohiba Lancero, and available only as a gift of the Cuban government. (In 1998, the Trinidad Fundadore made its ceremonious commercial debut, at a slightly thicker girth, 40 ring gauge, and was instantly recognized as the new gold standard for lanceros.)
After Cohiba, the Cuban Davidoff was the first cigar brand to adopt the lancero size into its portfolio with the introduction of the Davidoff No. 1. When the Davidoff brand left Cuba for the Dominican Republic, it continued offering lancero shapes, and for years was one of the few non-Cuban cigars with a lancero as part of the brand.
Ironically, as American consumers are presented with an increasing number of lancero choices, the Cuban cigar industry is cutting back its thin-cigar selection. Suckling says that the Cubans are rolling mostly Montecristo Especiales, Cohiba Lanceros and Trinidad Fundadores, while El Rey del Mundo Grandes de España, Bolivar Especiales No. 2, Diplomaticos No. 6, Montecristo No. 7 and many other forgotten thin sizes have all been among Cuba's cigar casualties over the last few decades.
That's a shame, because thin cigars such as lanceros can be outstanding smokes. As with all thin-gauge cigars, the flavor of the wrapper leaf is far more prominent in the lancero, because there is less filler to counterbalance the characteristics of the wrapper. Some conventional cigar wisdom dictates that the only way to really taste the vega, or plantation, where the cigar's tobacco comes from is to experience the wrapper in as unadulterated a form as possible. So the tobacco's terroir, whether it be Pinar del Río in Cuba or the Bonao region in the Dominican Republic, speaks most profoundly through a thin size such as a lancero.
"We were very excited about the wrapper, and what better way is there to show it off?" asks Alan Rubin, owner of Alec Bradley Cigar Co., who just recently released his very first lancero, the Alec Bradley Tempus Creo. He was referring to the Nicaraguan Criollo '98 leaf that enrobes the new brand. Some cigarmakers will roll up a piece of wrapper and smoke it to assess the leaf's character and burn quality in its purest form. Rubin believes that the lancero best approximates this practice.
"A lancero should be made only if the wrapper can carry the cigar," says Jose Oliva, vice president of Oliva Cigar Co., which has also rolled its first long, thin cigar for the market, the Serie V Lancero. "The wrapper-to-filler ratio is so much in favor of the wrapper that it really has to be able to stand on its own, which is why we made one for the Serie V. The wrapper is so unique and rich that we created a lancero so that people had a chance to really taste it."
Cigarmakers say they believe in the lancero size, even if they are not big sellers. "We made it for connoisseurs and for ourselves," says Oliva. "We are not worried about the numbers." Says Johnson of his Tatuaje lancero: "Not the best seller, but I would never discontinue the size, because I smoke it myself."
Johnson's lanceros are made by Jose "Pepin" Garcia, who has a knack for the size. The Tatuaje Especiale, a 7 1/2 inch by 38 ring vitola, was one of Cigar Aficionado's Top 25 cigars of the year in 2004. Another smoke that was made by Garcia, the Padilla Signature 1932 Lancero, is the current No. 23 cigar of the year.
While Davidoff has been producing lancero sizes for several decades, the company has been slow to add to its portfolio of lancero shapes. This past spring, Davidoff released the Millennium Blend Lancero, the first new regular-production lancero from the company in more than 20 years.
"While so many cigar manufacturers are going bigger and bigger [with their sizes], we're paying homage to our roots," says Herklots. "The Davidoff brand was literally built on the lancero format." According to Herklots, the new Millennium Blend Lancero is the best expression of the power and character inherent in the 151 wrapper, an Ecuadoran hybrid of Corojo and Connecticut strains. "There's definitely a renewed popularity to the size, thanks to some of the more recent lanceros available."
Despite the history and newfound appreciation for the lancero, it is not without its problems. Performance, price or perception issues continue to keep it out of so many cigar smokers' humidors.
"It can be expensive, for a number of reasons," says Oliva. "It's a difficult size to roll and needs a lot of quality control in the factory because it is easy to under-fill but it is easy to overfill. There is a high rejection rate."
Construction is a large factor. If a roller does not put in enough tobacco, the lancero can burn hot, resulting in unpleasant, bitter flavors. Too much tobacco, and the cigar won't draw at all.
"They're difficult to make, and they're difficult to blend," says Litto Gomez, maker of La Flor Dominicana cigars. Only three of his rollers can make the size.
"Lanceros had a lot of draw problems in the late 1990s, early 2000s," says Suckling. "It was all due to bad construction. The bunch would get twisted during rolling if the roller wasn't careful and the cigar wouldn't draw. People started avoiding them and the trend sort of stuck."
It is not uncommon to hear stories from disgruntled customers of plugged lanceros, and there is often little recourse for someone who has bought an expensive cigar overseas, or even a box, only to come home and find that it was unsmokable.
Jay Henderson, manager of La Casa del Habano cigar shop in Windsor, Ontario, says that the only lanceros his shop carries are the Cohiba Lancero, Montecristo Especiale and Trinidad Fundadore, although a much bigger demand exists for the Cohiba.
"The biggest problem with that size is the draw," says Henderson. "I used to have customers coming back to the shop because too many cigars in the box they bought were plugged. Who wants to spend all that money on a box of lanceros and only be able to smoke 10 of them? We have our lancero customers, but most people want bigger cigars."
"I love the lancero," says Suckling, "but the market is dominated by robustos. The trend is thicker and shorter, not longer and thinner."
Part of the reluctance for some to light up a lancero is that of image. While the lancero can project stately connoisseurship, some might find it signals effeminacy—it's not for those looking to make a chest-pounding statement.
If the slender cigar does not threaten one's masculinity, it could threaten the wallet. Because of the skill required to roll a lancero properly, and the need for large, pristine, high-quality wrapper leaves, the cost can be higher than that of fatter cigars of similar length.
Trinidad Fundadores and Cohiba Lanceros each retail for about £20 ($40) in the United Kingdom. In the United States, the retail price for a Davidoff Millennium Lancero is $17.50 before taxes. That might seem like a lot of money to someone who could get a cigar twice as thick for significantly less. But while a thicker ring gauge tends to deliver more copious amounts of smoke, giving the palate substantial impressions of richness and body, the lancero could be compared to a chef's tasting at a fine restaurant where one is there to have the palate stimulated, not to fill up on comfort food. For some, the lancero's very delicacy could simply be incongruous with their notions of what the cigar smoking experience is about.
"I don't think the lancero will become another robusto in the near future," says Gomez. Says Herklots: "The lancero format is not for everyone. Many people just don't enjoy that size, they don't feel comfortable with it."
For those who are comfortable with it, there is no shortage of good lanceros, and for those who are curious, many can now find long, thin versions of the cigar brands they are familiar with. If a Cohiba smoker is willing to put down his Siglo VI or shelve his Sublimes for a little while and light up a lancero, he may taste the brand in an entirely different way. Wine drinkers go through this type of epiphany all the time, only in an inverse capacity, never understanding why Bordeaux from a huge, inordinately pricey Imperial size bottle should taste any different from a standard 750 ml bottle—until, of course, they try some.
This recent awakening of interest in lanceros should not be mistaken for a fad. Lanceros may drift in and out of cigar vogue, but those with the most erudite palates know that the lancero will remain a perennial, if not unsung, classic.