If Hummers, Big Gulps and McMansions are any indication of America's appetite for oversized products, it should come as no surprise that the premium cigar industry is super-sizing its smokes as well—and the trend is showing no sign of slimming down. Today, it's not at all difficult to find a cigar smoker burning through five or six matches trying to adequately light his 70 or even 80 ring gauge cigar. For those unsure of just how large that is, an 80-ring-gauge smoke is about as thick as the inner tube found in a roll of toilet paper.
Helping to explain this curious phenomenon was a Big Smoke panel that consisted of two cigarmakers and one retailer: Matt Booth of Room101 Cigars, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo of EPC Cigar Co. and Michael Herklots of Nat Sherman International.
The panel was introduced by Cigar Aficionado's senior contributing editor Gordon Mott and executive editor David Savona.
"Cigar Aficionado might be partly responsible for this trend, as we were the first to point out that bigger ring gauges can allow for more tobacco and more complex blends," said Mott as he addressed the crowd. "But this idea has been taken to the illogical extreme."
Perhaps Perez-Carrillo shares some of the blame—or responsibility—for this trend as well.
"When I was with General and made the La Gloria Cubana Serie R, it started out with a 52 and 54 ring gauge," he said. "A year later, I made a 6 by 60 and that really took the Serie R to the next level."
After Carrillo left General Cigar, he struck out on his own to create the Inch brand, a line of cigars that is rolled in thicknesses up to 70 ring gauge.
"The Inch is my best-selling cigar," Perez-Carrillo said. "With a big ring gauge, you can put in so many different types of tobacco. In a robusto, for example you can put three to four different types of tobacco, but with a 6 by 60, you can use eight to twelve."
Matt Booth started in the industry in 2009, much later than Perez-Carrillo did. "A 60 ring gauge cigar was a staple when I started," said Booth, whose brands include Room101 Namakubi, Daruma and The Big Payback. "We make a 60 ring in most of our series. But 7 by 70 is the biggest. Certain blends connect well with a thick format."
From a retailer's aspect, Michael Herklots told the Big Smoke audience what he observes on a daily basis in New York City's Nat Sherman cigar shop.
"We have 700 different facings in the store," said Herklots. "Thirty percent exceed a 50 ring gauge. The scale of perception has totally changed, but people are buying big cigars for the right reasons, approaching these ring gauges for their ability to deliver complexity. Fatter cigars also tend to burn cooler and slower."
When asked what he does when someone comes into the shop requesting an 80-ring-gauge cigar, Herklots answered jokingly: "I find someone else to help them."
The response, though meant in pure jest, speaks to the love-it-or-hate-it relationship that so many cigar smokers seem to have with 60-plus ring gauges.
Booth points to value as one of the driving factors for this trend. "I stopped asking 'why' a while ago," he said. "The answer I predominantly got was that people wanted more tobacco for their money. In the Big Payback line [which comes in 60 and 70 ring gauges] we take a smaller profit margin, but the product is there to offer that value."
The trend seems to be only gaining velocity. As Perez-Carrillo pointed out, even Cuba is discontinuing its smaller ring gauge cigars in favor of thick smokes. With 80-ring-gauge cigars making their way into mainstream humidors, the next question is quite logical: How big will they go before the industry and consumers decide that they've reached their limit?
"Next year I'll be releasing a 250 ring gauge," offered Booth. The crowd laughed.
Although they didn't know it, everyone would be receiving an Inch cigar the very next day. At that moment, however, the thickest cigar they had in each of their Big Smoke seminar packets was the 54 ring gauge Davidoff Nicaragua Toro. And as the panel of speakers stepped down, Davidoff's U.S. brand ambassador Jeff Stone stepped up to introduce himself and the Davidoff Nicaragua cigar. Not only was it the thickest cigar of the morning, it was also Cigar Aficionado's No. 3 cigar of 2013.