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The Power Train

Strong Cigars Fuel the Industry's Hottest Trend.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

Rich was in trouble. A casual cigar smoker, he had only minutes before put a match to his first real flavor bomb. The small cigar was far stronger than he expected. He stood in the smoking lounge of Morton's Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan, puffing away with three friends, as beads of sweat sprouted to life on his forehead. The beads then assembled into rivulets, and the pink of his flesh was completely replaced by white. He was about to collapse.


He ran to the bathroom.

Not a pleasant first experience with strong tobacco, but a fairly common one. People used to puffing on Macanudos or Davidoffs are frequently overwhelmed by the taste of a Cuban. The difference is that this macho cigar hailed not from Havana but from a factory in the Dominican Republic. Cigars with muscle are what Americans, who once preferred a mild smoke, now want, according to an October 2001 poll on in which 75 percent responded that they enjoy smoking strong cigars. And the industry has delivered, catering to the new breed of smoker with cigar names that suggest the intended power of the cigars: Cohiba Extra Vigoroso. C.A.O. eXtreme. Indian Tabac Super Fuerte. Advertisers used to promise their cigars would be "smooth"; now they trumpet such qualities as "rich" and "full."

Read the ad touting Ashton Virgin Sun Grown cigars. "Explosive undertones," the copy warns. An earlier version even depicted a leather chair, advising smokers daring enough to try the cigars to sit down before taking a puff.

Many advertisements tend toward hyperbole, but in the case of the Ashton, the warning is valid. The VSG is one of the strongest non-Cubans sold today.

The cigars' Ecuadoran wrappers are grown on hilly plots in the foothills of the Andes mountains by Oliva Tobacco Co., a specialist in Sumatra-seed leaves. When John Oliva Jr. and Angel Oliva III smoked the finished cigars for the first time, some five years had passed since their company had actually grown the tobacco leaves.

The lit ends glowed as the Olivas took their first puffs. Eyebrows lifted as the intense spice of the cigars blasted the insides of their nostrils. "Whew!" said Oliva Jr. "Whew!" He shook his head, said "Whew!" again, then took a chair.

It's not every day that a cigar is strong enough to bench a professional tobacco grower. VSGs are a lot stronger than many modern Cuban cigars, which many experts are now claiming are devoid of ligero, the most potent of filler tobacco. (A grade, not a species of tobacco, ligero is taken in the primings of the tops of the plants.) Nowadays, you're more likely to be bowled over by the strength of a non-Cuban.

Take the El Rico Habano, recently reintroduced by Ernesto Perez-Carrillo of La Gloria Cubana fame. Think La Glorias are strong? If La Glorias pack the strength of a silverback gorilla, El Ricos are King Kong.

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