It’s always been surprising to me how little scholarship there is on the subject of vintage cigars. Look at vintage wines, or antique furniture or other period-piece hobbies. They’re supported by voluminous documentation and have no shortage of experts or enthusiasts. Vintage cigars, in this respect, are different, so when one comes across a true, world-class expert and collector of vintage cigars, it’s like looking through a window into another era.
Ajay Patel is one of those people. He owns the Casa del Habano in Teddington, just outside of London, but unlike many of these official Habanos franchise shops, this one is also stocked with verticals of rare, vintage Cuban cigars. On top of collecting, documenting and selling these treasures, Ajay smokes them, too, which makes him not only knowledgeable about the subject, but a true authority with clear palate recall and a mental Rolodex of old Cuban brands and their respective flavor profiles. When he talks, I listen. And that’s what I did recently during a private dinner and tasting of vintage cigars in New York City.
He came over from England to attend Cigar Aficionado’s 20th Anniversary party, but while he was here, Ajay rallied a small group of New York’s cigar-smoking cognoscenti, and collectors of vintage cigars—a specialized group within a specialized group. He held court about the cigars we were smoking, and why they were relevant in the scheme of Cuban cigar history.
We started with a Montecristo Dunhill Selección Suprema No. 1 from 1959. The wrappers were strikingly dark and oily, the draw flawless, and the smoke of a dense chewy texture that left impressions of earth and cocoa on the palate with underpinnings of salt and cedar. Too often, vintage cigars can be light, papery and dusty tasting. These disappointments are examples of past-their-prime cigars that have aged out and weren’t terribly robust or age-worthy to begin with. They can also give vintage cigars a bad name, leading people to believe that this is how all old cigars taste. Obviously not the case for these particular Montecristos.
“You can’t really get the sense for the tobacco and how it aged unless you blow it out your nose,” suggested Ajay. “These are English Market Selection Dunhill cigars, meaning that they were especially chosen for London’s Dunhill outfit. To get a meaningful idea as to what that means flavor-wise, and the type of tobacco grown during that period, you must take it through the nose.” The Montecristo was paired with a course of seared foie gras served with portobello mushrooms and Port reduction. For those who enjoy smoking and eating simultaneously, it was a very good match and somewhat of a surprise how such old tobacco could stand up to such a rich first course. Others put their smoke down, finished their food and resumed. I happen to be one who is always looking for that three-way synergy of smoke, drink and food, so smoking and eating is no problem, as long as I can get a good sense for the tobacco first.
During a lull between the first and second course, an unexpected cigar came out: the Cohiba Siglo VI Gran Reserva, a cigar released in 2009. Three years is hardly a test of time, but the cigar is already scarce and, even in its youth, is an auction-quality item. Cigar Insider gave it a score of 92 back in 2009 when it first came out, and in my opinion the Gran Reserva has gained some refinement since its debut. Some people smoked it and some didn’t in anticipation of the next cigar.
The second course arrived, a cut of filet mignon plated with a potato-leek cake and Bordelaise sauce, and with it a Don Candido Seleccion No. 500 from a chest of 100, rare even in the world of vintage cigars, as Don Candidos normally came boxed in cabinets of 25. The Don Candido was a brand owned by Dunhill and was a precursor to the Dunhill proper brand, which came out in the early 80s. Ajay advised, “If you are still smoking the Gran Reserva, I suggest that you hold off on smoking the Don Candido. It’s like the difference between chalk and cheese.”
The Selección No. 500 can best be described as a Hermoso No. 2, which is 6 5/8 inches by 48 ring. Although that’s not the official factory name of this particular Don Candido, it’s the closest analogous size in today’s portfolio. Nevertheless, the cigar was stunning—packed solid with tobacco, dark and oily, silky to the touch, and topped with a perfectly mounted flat head. And it tasted as good as it looked: brawny and profound, with a distinct core of chestnut and hickory flavor. The cigar was about 40 years old—I can only imagine the strength of this smoke when it was first rolled.
During dessert, Ajay conducted a small charity auction of vintage cigars, which included a box of RyJ Hermosos No. 1 Edición Limitada 2003, a box of Montecristo No. 2 cigars from the 1970s, a full box of Cohiba Siglo VI Gran Reservas, and a rare cabinet of pre-embargo Dunhill Selección H. Upmann double claro panetelas with green candela wrappers. The bidders at the table were indeed no stranger to vintage smokes. To give you an idea, people were pulling out their own Cuban Davidoffs and smoking them casually in between courses as though Cuban Davidoffs were still in production. Every time someone lights up a rare, discontinued cigar like that, I’m guessing it only boosts the value of the mark. By objective definition, it becomes that much less available.
After the auction, which raised $10,000, Ajay then passed out the new Cohiba Pirámides Extra, the most recent addition to the Cohiba brand and now part of its regular production. By that time, the small group was pretty smoked out. No one lit them up. Not that I saw, anyway. Most of those Cohibas were inspected and then disappeared into people’s inner jacket pockets. Perhaps in 20 years, they’ll resurface at some other vintage tasting in some other part of the world. I can only hope I’m invited.