They are appearing in unexpected places, in tabacaleras that specialize only in hand-rolled cigars and on the shelves of some of the best tobacconists. Yes, they may be cloistered away in their own case, but flavored products are taking a market position that is quite unheard of in their long history: the premium cigar segment.
New flavoring methods, novel tastes and marketing concepts, and the use of hand rollers to construct the cigars, have put flavored products in an unlikely arena. Yet, instead of developing leathery, earthy or creamy notes from blends of premium tobacco, these cigars are directly flavored with syrups, liquors and food products. They are steeped, soaked or infused with vanilla, rum, honey and dozens of other flavors. The result is a taste and aroma quite foreign to the traditional smoker. And while they make purists squirm, it is hard to deny their presence.
Consumers are buying them. "They have been doing so well that we have no cigars," Nick Perdomo, owner of Tabacalera Perdomo, says about his Mr. Hyde's. Says Jose Blanco, marketing director of La Aurora S.A., "I would say it's the fastest-growing segment of the industry."
Some of the biggest names in the cigar business sell or make flavored cigars, many of which are made by hand. As this article went to press, Altadis U.S.A. Inc. was putting the final touches on its entry into the handmade flavored cigar market, Havana Sweets, cigars that are being made in a separate area of the Tabacalera de Garcia factory by José Seijas. General Cigar Co. markets a Kahlúa cigar made by Drew Estate, which makes Acid cigars in Nicaragua. (Drew Estate also makes a cigar flavored with Sauza Tequila.) The Frey brothers of Las Vegas (known as the Freyboys) created a line of flavored cigars called Sweet Daddies, Dominican smokes in a variety of flavors, including grape and chocolate, that feature a sweetened tip. Perdomo makes a line of flavored cigars called Mr. Hyde's Monstrous Flavors, handmade smokes made with Connecticut wrappers laced with honey, cherry, vanilla and other flavors. Gurkha Cigars has some varieties flavored with Cognac, and there's even a Maker's Mark cigar, infused with the world-famous Bourbon and packaged in a glass tube complete with the brand's signature wax.
Still, it is at best an uneasy peace that exists between the two worlds. Cigar shops typically present flavored cigars in their own case, which keeps their distinctive aromas from affecting the unflavored cigars. (The nature of tobacco is that it readily and heartily absorbs aromas.) For the same reasons, flavored cigars are also made in their own sections of cigar factories, and sometimes in factories dedicated solely to their production.
But the segregation isn't solely physical. There's also an image problem. "Before there was a concept in people's minds: flavored cigars equals cheap cigars," says Tim Ozgener, vice president of C.A.O. International Inc., who takes a gourmet approach in the marketing of his flavored cigars. "The biggest hurdle to overcome is that people think flavored cigars are bad cigars."
Despite their robust sales, these cigars aren't rated in Cigar Aficionado. First, it would be an unfair comparison. The tobaccos used in premium, handmade cigars are typically well aged. When they're properly blended, they develop flavors that hint at notes other than tobacco: cream, spice, leather, coffee, orange peel, etc. A flavored cigar, however, develops its taste from being steeped in a foreign agent, and it is rarely subtle. Applying the same rating criteria to each type would be somewhat like comparing a piece of Vahlrona chocolate to an artificially flavored candy bar.
Second, a flavored cigar has no place in a humidor that contains premium smokes—its aroma would permeate the other cigars. Because ours are blind taste tests, neither can we separate the cigars—that would make their identity obvious to the tasters.
Third, after smoking a flavored cigar, it's hard to move on to an unflavored one without hearty cleansing of the palate—the flavoring process leaves a much more aggressive taste in the mouth. Many have a sweetener applied directly to the tip along with whatever flavoring is added to the tobacco blend, giving them a cloying flavor.
Some premium cigar smokers dabble in flavored cigars: 17 percent of respondents to a poll on www.cigaraficionado.com said they smoked flavored cigars. "I have one every once in a while with strong black coffee," wrote a poster named Bronson.
While some enjoy the experience, others abhor it. "Any cigar that needs to be flavored is pure, unadulterated horse manure to begin with," wrote Dr. Barry Kamen, a regular poster who goes by the name Doc Barry. A poster named Karajan who unknowingly tried a flavored smoke wrote that he would be "forever scarred" by the memory.
More likely, flavored cigars serve as a bridge to premium cigars for the uninitiated, something to be smoked as an entryway into the world of cigar smoking. For the novice, a simple, sweet and easily identifiable flavor (honey or cherry, for example) is an easier step than moving into a box marked Cuban-seed Corojo. "I started with flavored cigars," wrote a poster named Jadawin, "but don't smoke them at all anymore."
Flavoring a cigar is anything but a new process. The majority of cigars sold in America are flavored, even if they aren't necessarily marketed that way. Nearly all machine-made cigars rely on some type of agent to boost their less naturally flavorful blend of short, chopped, value-priced tobacco. Flavoring is especially important in the cheapest segment of the industry, which features cigars wrapped in brown, extruded sheets of homogenized wrappers. In one machine-made cigar factory, beer is an essential part of the tobacco blend.
But the flavored cigars making headway today are handmade, a fairly new trend. During the cigar boom of the mid-1990s, the flavored handmade cigar was a rarity, and the flavor was typically some liquor.
Diana Silvius-Gits, owner of Chicago's hip Up/Down Cigars, has a personal distaste for flavored cigars. "It's like putting sugar on a steak," she says. But she allows that today's varieties are an improvement. Previously, she says, flavored cigars were trumped-up factory rejects. "When they couldn't sell something, they poured booze on it," she says. "We started getting some good flavored cigars recently."
Tobacco can be flavored in a variety of ways, some more preferable than others. First is the choice of flavor. As with food, one can go natural, which is more expensive, or choose something artificial, which is cheaper. Second is the flavoring process. The flavors are sometimes sprayed onto the tobacco, or the absorbent tobaccos can simply sit in an area permeated by aromas. The crudest method involves syrups that are mopped onto tobacco.
Flavoring is a major part of the cigarette production process, and Aurora, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes for the Dominican Republic, has used its experience in that area to efficiently flavor cigar tobacco. In a special room separated from the main cigar-producing areas in its sprawling Santiago facility, Aurora makes flavored cigars for C.A.O. and Miami Cigar & Co., to the tune of 11 million a year.
"Most people spray onto the filler and make a cigar, or inject it with a syringe," says Blanco. "Because we have that [cigarette] technology, we're about 20 years ahead of everybody else."
Blanco shows off a machine that he says costs millions. It's a metal drum with various ports that has been converted from the cigarette division. Filler tobacco (Aurora flavors only the filler) goes into the drum, and tobacco is sprayed with the flavoring as the drum turns.
"The flavoring is applied in a very subtle way," says C.A.O.'s Ozgener. "It's not painted on the tobacco, there's no syrup, there's no direct contact with liquid."
Ozgener (who markets his cigars using the word "Flavours") tried to make the flavored cigars in his company's factories in Honduras and Nicaragua, but didn't like the results. "It's not so easy to make flavored cigars," he says, explaining that different flavors and sizes of cigars require different formulae that must be worked out separately.
Instead of simply calling the smokes "honey" or "rum," C.A.O. has come up with memorable brand names for its flavored smokes. EarthNectar is infused with Chianti, Eileen's Dream has the flavor of white chocolate and Irish Cream, and its most popular flavor, Moontrance, contains Bourbon and vanilla. Its newest cigar line, KarmaSutraSplash, smacks of mango and chocolate mint ice cream.
Whatever they're called and whatever they're thought of, flavored smokes are likely to grow in the market for years to come.
"Flavor is not a fad," says Blanco. "It's a fact."
Photo by Bill Milne