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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

(continued from page 3)

"In the old Cuban style, the top leaves are left to overripen, and it looks ugly as hell," says Fuente Jr. "That's the medio tiempo, the maduro, your heavy leaves. And that's what gives you your baritone, heavy flavor, more body. It gives you more complexity." But many contract farmers opt to skip that final, time-consuming step. "The farming techniques in the Dominican Republic changed. It did a lot of damage to the Dominican Republic," says Fuente Jr. "Instead of leaving those last few leaves until they are ripe, once farmers got to the fourth priming they would just pick the whole thing."

Fuente Jr. also says that the manner in which most wrapper leaves are cut at the rolling table eliminates much of the flavor of a tobacco leaf. When a wrapper leaf is prepared for rolling, a cigar roller takes a chaveta and slices a crescent-shaped piece of tobacco from half a leaf. In most factories, says Fuente Jr., the roller simply cuts at will. In his factories, he instructs his workers to cut right at the edge; he says flavors and power are concentrated there.

"It's very, very easy to make a strong cigar, and it's very, very easy to make a mild cigar," says Fuente Jr. "What's very, very difficult is to make a rich, complex, balanced cigar consistently."

Fuente Jr. is an unabashed lover of powerful smokes, what he likes to call high-octane cigars. Able to smoke a fresh, supercharged cigar right off the rolling table on an empty stomach, he possesses tastes that are certainly not shared by the average Joe cigar smoker.

"People see the band on the Fuente Fuente OpusX and their eyes gleam, but I know that's not their choice to smoke all the time. That's for a certain smoker," he says. He calls his milder offerings his company's "bread and butter."

And despite Fuente Jr.'s reputation for making powerful cigars, he's no fan of the word "strong."

"Honestly, I prefer not to use the word 'strong,' because when I think of something strong, I think of something that intimidates you, or is overaggressive. And I think ideally, a cigar should be intense, complex with a lot of flavor," he says. "The sense that I get is that there's a lot of cigars out there now that are taking advantage of people who want more flavor. It's something that's a fad now, that's fashionable."

"There's a big difference between strength and complexity. Anybody can make a cigar that can blow your head off, but can you smoke it?" asks Jose Orlando Padrón, patriarch of the Padrón family. Like many cigarmakers, his company is introducing a stronger blend, the Padrón Serie 1926 cigar, but he wants the cigar to still have the finesse and complexity for which his brand is known. Padrón believes that some brands sacrifice flavor and balance to achieve strength.

"I have gotten sick from smoking tobacco that's not fermented," says the 75-year-old Padrón, a lifelong smoker who still puffs around 10 Padróns every day. His son Jorge agrees. "The challenge is not to make a strong cigar, it's to make it balanced," he says. "What's the point of making a cigar you can't smoke to the end?"

But makers of strong cigars feel there is a place for their powerhouses, even if they can't be smoked one after the other. Frank Llaneza, a pioneer of the strong-cigar business, can't smoke his strongest blends back-to-back. "The heavy cigar is a good cigar, but you can't smoke too many," he says. The former co-owner of Villazon & Co. is still involved in the production of Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey cigars from Honduras. Llaneza went to Central America after the United States imposed its embargo on Cuba, seeking to duplicate the strength of Cuban tobacco with Cuban seeds cultivated in Nicaragua and Honduras.

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