A curious delivery came to me in the mail the other day. Cigars. Nothing strange in that respect, but when I opened it, I was struck by the packaging. To be honest, I was more than struck. I was impressed.
Now, anytime you talk about packaging in the cigar world, you often get a knee-jerk uproar of dismissive barking from the righteous and the skeptical: "I don't care about packaging, I just care about the cigar," or "You don't smoke the box, you smoke the tobacco," or "You're just paying for the packaging. It's all—" Let me stop you right there.
The thing is, you do care about packaging. Either you don't know it or you won't admit it. And there's nothing wrong with appreciating or even wanting smart design in your cigar boxes and bands. It doesn't mean that you're some rube whose fallen prey to a marketing gimmick or the victim of well-planned psychological warfare. Packaging is there to foreshadow and address the upcoming experience.
But like it or not, packaging is part of the entire experience. If you have a quality product, you want it to be confirmed by a tactile and visually appealing exterior. Good cigars deserve good, conscientious packaging. That's where it starts. And not everyone can do it effectively. Most cigarmakers know this.
Nelson Alfonso knows this. You might not know the name, but many in the industry do. He's the imagery and creative director for the Golden Age design firm. They handle most of the major branding for Habanos S.A. and Alfonso has been instrumental on the Cuban Cohiba design since 1999. While he didn't design the original logo, he has developed it over time and brought it to where it is today. And Nelson Alfonso also designed Padron's 50th Anniversary humidor.
So when I opened the curious package, the first thing I thought was "Cohiba." But not today's Cohiba. Not even the Cohiba of the last two decades. I was thinking the old Cohiba logos with the tobacco leaf and black Taino head and no trace of yellow. Remember those?
I held the new, mysterious box. The texture has a lovely matte finish and is protected by an outer shell clasped shut by a beautiful and ornate "sello de Garantita," or guarantee seal. The seal really has the look and artistry of well-minted, old-world stock certificates, not just some lame attempt at the vintage look. Once you break the seal of the outer shell, an inner box slides out nicely.
The bottom half of the box is a pleasant shade of off-white; the top, a grid of dots. A black line divides the two and there's a tribal-looking head in the middle over a mysterious word in blocky letters: Atabey. It's a strange and simple word. Kind of like Cohiba. Same amount of syllables. Same amount of letters.
Atabey, in Cuban mythology, was a female goddess of the Taino tribe. Makes sense. If Habanos is going to claim a Taino as their own with Cohiba—and also take ownership of the Taino head priest (Bejique. Or Behike), then I guess Atabey is up for grabs.
Alfonso, however, wasn't the first person in the cigar world to think of using Atabey. It's also the name of the holding company behind the little known, Miami-made Canimao brand owned by Mel Gonzalez. No relation. But back to Alfonso.
On top of being a designer, Alfonso is a cigarmaker as well. Or, more appropriately, cigar blender. I don't think he actually rolls anything. I'm not clear on whether or not he's ever actually rolled cigars or has any formal factory training. All I know is that Atabey is his brand.
And once you slide the inner box out of the protective shell, what you get is a curious sampler of five different Atabey cigars. They are individually packaged in humidified glass tubes. The humidifying element is on the bottom, and there's even a punch cutter on top. It even comes with a little bottle of humidification fluid. Smart Nelson. Very smart.
If you've never heard of Atabey, let me acquaint you as best I can. They're made in Costa Rica. The blend is one that's pretty popular these days in premium cigars: Ecuador Havana wrapper and mostly Nicaraguan guts. And they're distributed by a company called United Cigar Group, which is owned and operated by David Garofalo. You know Dave. He also owns Two Guys Smoke shop in New Hampshire. Atabey cigars have been around for a few years, but distribution is now in United's hands.
So how's the cigar? I chose the Divinos size because it's the smallest of the five (4 1/2 inches by 50 ring), and I tend to gravitate towards smaller cigars. I was impressed by its ability to produce fairly sophisticated flavor, but at the same time stay in the mild to medium-bodied range. It had an easygoing floral quality with some very light sweet-and-salty underpinnings, kind of like a salted caramel. So many times a mild cigar ends up being a smoke that tastes like straw hay, grass and a bit of paper. Not so here.
But here's another notable fact. The Atabey Divinos retails for $19.99 each. And that's the smallest size. The largest size, Delerios (5 3/4 by 55) retails for $29.99 each. And now the question I'm often asked about any cigar that retails for more than $10: Is it worth it? That question is impossible to answer. Budgets are varied, personal and arbitrary. Value calls are even more personal and arbitrary, so I can't answer it definitively. What I can say about this cigar is that it's interesting, enjoyable and definitely worth trying. But only you can make the value call.
I wonder if Alfonso had a particular Cuban cigar in mind when he came up with Atabey. Was he chasing the Cuban ghost like so many other cigarmakers have in the passed, or did he just intuitively blend to personal taste. Maybe he created a packaging concept first, and then sought a cigar that lived up to the design. It's difficult for me to tell just by smoking and I'm not presumptuous enough to hazard a guess. Either way, the cigar lived up to its packaging. And if the packaging is the culmination of Alfonso's life in design, then it probably isn't too out of line to say that cigar blend is a sincere culmination of his life as a cigar smoker.