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A Few Good Books

Cigar Aficionado Rates Three Cigar Guides
| By Michael Frank | From Ron Perelman, Spring 95

Cigar smokers have seen a lot of changes over the past two years. New cigar brands and the introduction of additional lines or sizes by established manufacturers have flooded the market. And new connoisseurs have become a fast-developing audience, eager for any available information on what they are smoking.

Cigars are only the beginning. It seems that every week another marketing whiz comes along with a new line of accessories, from cases to humidors, cutters to lighters. Not that these products are unnecessary. For the most part, consumers of cigars are more sophisticated than in the past, so the slickest salesmen have been teaming up with designers to make sure their products are outstanding.

Despite all of the legitimate business being done in the name of cigar capitalism, there is still one grossly undersold product in the cigar-accessory market: knowledge. Cigar Aficionado readers call the magazine daily with countless questions about aging, storing, touring, smuggling and smoking. And inevitably they ask: "Isn't there a book about all this?"

There are several. Though no single volume mentioned below could be called authoritative, each has its merits. We have ranked them in order of quality, including readability, expert advice, accurate information and the aesthetics of the publication. One noticeable omission from this list is Zino Davidoff's Connoisseur's Book of the Cigar. Last published in the early 1980s, the book is not widely available in the United States, and even in Europe the French-language edition is all that can be found. Another book, The Gourmet Guide to Cigars by Paul Garmirian, was not reviewed because it is written by a cigar importer, and throughout the book the author frequently recommends his own cigars. And while Garmirian succeeds in entertaining the reader and providing some insightful knowledge, even his best-intended and well-spoken advice is tainted by the occasional sales pitch.

The Illustrated History of Cigars
by Bernard Le Roy
Harold Starke Ltd., London
(1989, English-language edition 1993)
199 pages, $79.95.

The Illustrated History of Cigars is better than any rival publication because it exceeds expectations, even for such a costly book. Oversized, like most coffee-table volumes, it contains excellent photography, lithography and brilliant captions. The translation is also top-notch, giving the main text a lively, engaging tone.

The narrative of The Illustrated History of Cigars flows easily. The book begins not with Columbus landing in Cuba but with more recent times, although it covers many colorful historical aspects of the cigar as a life-enhancing pleasure. Cigars, explain the authors, are as much a part of civilized society as gourmet cuisine, fine wines or apéritifs. And Le Roy and Szafran maintain an eloquent, dignified tone throughout the volume. From chapters on the history of Havana cigars to cigar making and smoking and reviews of individual cigars, this tone makes the guide hard to put down and a pleasure to turn to for advice.

The recommendations and history in the book are both first-rate, and the presentation adeptly avoids being overbearing. For example, the authors state that there is still some controversy about the geographic origin of the tobacco plant, citing both Mayan and ancient Chinese texts as proof. Wisely, they then sidestep a polemic by leaving the matter to historians and the reader's own discretion.

Le Roy and Szafran are not didactic, even when the subject is more tangible than digging for botanical or historical artifacts. In a section that seems pretentiously titled "The Art of Smoking," the authors dispense showy advice: "Where pleasures are concerned, rules are meaningless." While this may be stretching it a bit, this attitude is refreshing, especially to cigar smokers who have enough people telling them what to do with their stogies. The authors seem to feel the same way, distancing themselves from the hordes of self-proclaimed cigar scientists with one very bold statement:

You should smoke whatever, however and wherever you please as long as you enjoy it and are contented....For over half a century great minds, great public speakers and brilliant theoreticians have claimed to have established a set of rules for what they readily dubbed the art of cigar smoking. Some insisted that the rings should not be removed, others recommended removing them, some made a ritual of lighting the cigar, others insisted that cigars should never be re-lit, some systematized the way the end should be opened and still others even laid down the pattern a smoker's day should follow. This is nothing but hot air. If rules are a must, there should be only one: to please yourself.

The two shortcomings of The Illustrated History of Cigars arise from a generally overzealous love of Cuban cigars and a failure to adequately describe non-Havana stogies and their lineage. The former quirk is in evidence when the authors claim Havana cigars are produced from tobacco that has been aged for four years. This might have been possible when The Illustrated History of Cigars went to press more than five years ago, but today there is little chance that the Cuban government can afford such a luxury.

The authors' very cursory look at the non-Cuban cigar industry is an oversight that should be addressed in any updated editions. In the 1993 edition, little is said about cigars from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Jamaica, Honduras and Nicaragua. An exhaustive chart at the back of the book, which includes nearly every size and shape of Havana cigar, lists only seven non-Cuban brands.

The guidance in The Illustrated History of Cigars is excellent, but sometimes more fascinating are the tidbits of history, from the origin of cigarettes to the myth that young Cuban women roll cigars on their thighs.

The Cigar Companion: A Connoisseur's Guide
by Anwer Bati,
Running Press,
Philadelphia (1993),
224 pages, $24.95.

The Cigar Companion was never intended to be as comprehensive as The Illustrated History of the Cigar, but it does stand up on its own merits. The first 46 pages give an accurate, if occasionally curt, description of the cigar, its origin and manufacture, and the next 156 pages evaluate nearly every cigar brand on the market, with a few notable exceptions. In the back of the book is a guide to buying and storing cigars and a directory of retailers.

In Bati's tasting pages, he lists country of origin, flavor (in terms of strength) and quality of construction. He does not subdivide cigars by country, but he does seem to have a bias toward Havana cigars, heavily favoring the Cubans when most people admit that they are not as well made today as they once were. Bati also gives little detail on the history and flavor of Dominican and Honduran cigars, while talking extensively about many Cuban brands. However, Bati prefaces his tasting notes by stating that cigars are evaluated subjectively and the only definitive barometer of taste is your own discretion.

There are several odd inclusions and evaluations in the "Tasting Directory," such as Gispert cigars, which are unavailable anywhere, and many inconsistent cigars from the Philippines and other countries that receive fair and even good ratings in the book. Bati does redeem himself by accurately evaluating most brands, but it is a shame that the pages weren't used to better analyze the history of major Dominican and Honduran brands--not to mention cigars from Mexico and Nicaragua.

While Bati's language often flows, it becomes stilted just as frequently, sounding like an old Soviet apparatchik handing down edicts: "The cigars are marketed under different names in Europe and America. Some sizes come in a choice of maduro or 'natural' wrappers. The Hemingway Signa tapers at one end. The dark Rothschild is a splendid cigar."

There are other things to quibble about in The Cigar Companion, such as Bati's recommendation for restoring dry cigars. The author suggests wetting the bottom of a cigar box and putting the box into a sealed plastic bag, which seems a very haphazard method for restoring what are likely very precious, old smokes. He also says that no cigars are worth aging for more than 15 years. There are a few smokers coughing on their pre-Castro Havanas at that idea.

The Ultimate Cigar Book
by Richard Carleton Hacker,
Autumngold Publishing, Beverly Hills (1993),
262 pages, $34.95.

Underneath an illustration of a tobacco leaf on the page facing the foreword is a note stating that most of the photographs in The Ultimate Cigar Book were shot by the author. To the author's credit, the images in the book are adequate, but they could be improved. That said, Hacker's words hold up a bit better.

One of the best things about The Ultimate Cigar Book is the research and review of non-Havana cigars. Hacker describes production outside of Cuba, and this information is very valuable to the American reader. Direct, concise prose is used to describe the cigar-making process, and Hacker doesn't miss a beat when describing various brands in the section entitled, "International Compendium of Cigar Brands," although it is easy to tell which cigars are his favorites. Nonetheless, Hacker doesn't shy away from including even the most obscure brands, even those made by machine--such as Phillies.

The author also makes a few ill-advised generalizations, such as the statement that a lighter shade wrapper will indicate a milder-tasting cigar, and that if the major veins of a cigar run parallel to the length of the cigar, it will draw smoothly. In each of these cases, Hacker is asking the reader to judge a book by its cover, or the draw or taste of a cigar by its outward content. It is impossible to determine draw by appearance alone, just as it is impossible to judge taste.

There are other mistakes in The Ultimate Cigar Book, including a very quirky chapter on celebrity cigar smokers. This guide works best when the author has something specific to explain, such as the making of a cigar. However, when Hacker begins to recount personal history, the book is of less utility to the reader.