Cigar Aficionado

Part Two: Las Vegas Big Smoke Saturday Seminars

Ask the Experts
The final Saturday Big Smoke seminar was reserved for the audience to ask questions of the editors of Cigar Aficionado magazine. The panel of experts comprised executive editor Gordon Mott, European editor James Suckling, senior editor David Savona and senior features editor Jack Bettridge. Mott introduced the panel, calling particular attention to Bettridge's knowledge of fine spirits, and then turned the session over to the audience.

The microphone first went to an Arkansas native who prefaced his statement by saying, "Some of our residents have done some pretty crazy things with cigars." Warmed by the humor of the morning's previous seminars, everyone, including the panel, laughed, until things took an emotional turn. This audience member went on to say that he has been active in raising money for diabetes research and education, and has received $8,000 from the Fuente family to support his cause.

"When I buy cigars, I think about that kind of thing," he explained, near tears. He stood up and presented a symbolic red band to Carlos Fuente Jr. for "the great things that he did." After the applause, Mott reminded everyone of the overwhelming philanthropy from the cigar industry in general. "The cigars you smoke, yeah, they're for your pleasure, but there's a true attitude of giving back that runs throughout the industry," he said.

Questions for the panel ranged from automation in the tobacco fields to the Cuban economy and the collecting of antique cigar molds and wood forms. Some inquiries were basic cigar fundamentals, while others were simply jocular comments by the Big Smoke's thrilled participants.

When asked about the validity of the 70/70 rule, which refers to storing cigars at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 percent humidification, Suckling answered: "That sort of mantra was brought in by Davidoff years ago." Suckling, who prefers his cigars at 65 percent humidity, explained how slightly drier tobacco imparts more tobacco flavor and an easier draw. "If they're too wet, you're really smoking a lot of water. That's just my personal opinion, and I think that most of the English cigar merchants would also agree -- also those in Geneva who have a long tradition of aging and selling tobacco."

Mott disagreed. "Now, see, I prefer a 70 percent humidity on my cigars. When it gets below 65 percent, to me, to my taste, it burns a little bit hotter and I don't appreciate that as much…again, that's my personal preference." Mott went into an anecdote about how he lost about 30 cigars to tobacco beetles this summer when the temperature reached 76 degrees while he was away on vacation.

Attendees stood and inquired of the panel about everything grown under the sun.
The audience expressed concern for a possible spike in tobacco prices due to the recent hurricanes, but in between puffs of his Rising X cigar, Savona quickly reassured them that the hurricanes did not hit during the growing periods. Fortunately, planters know better than to grow in the middle of hurricane season, Savona said. The real potential for danger, however, was damage to tobacco barns from the high winds, as well as stem rot that can be caused by excessive moisture of unmitigated rain after a tobacco harvest.

The panel was asked to comment on market trends towards larger cigars. "There was a time five years ago [in Cuba] when everyone wanted to buy double coronas and Churchills," recalled Suckling, "and particularly in about 1995-'96, there was a real shortage, and if Hoyo de Monterrey or Punch Double Coronas came in, they would be bought up right away. I know there was some billionaire from Canada who would send his private jet down to Havana to load up when he heard that they were available." The high demand led to overproduction in Cuba and a subsequent overstock.

Mott spoke of cigar trends not only in terms of size, but also in terms of flavor. "Cigars certainly over the last 10 years, many have gotten a lot stronger, a lot fuller bodied. There've been changes in sizes people tried; many [companies] put out large ring gauge cigars. I think what that illustrates very clearly is that the cigar manufacturers are listening to the people in the market."

Suckling shifted the subject to smoking bans in Europe and in general. "I think it's interesting that there's a decline of places to smoke in America, yet the industry continues to speak about a mini-boom going on right now, more people are smoking cigars, and I think that's really the spirit of America. In the end, we're going to do what we enjoy and the government can't stop us."

The issues of ashing a cigar and frequent puffing were raised. "If you're going to draw a cigar every five seconds and put up huge clouds of smoke off the end, and really get the ash and embers hot, that will change the nature of the cigar," offered Mott. The panel unanimously agreed that smoking slowly and leaving the ash on for as long as possible will cause the cigar to burn cooler and taste better.

Does size equal strength and flavor? Not necessarily. It depends on the leaf blend, as some cigars can be surprisingly powerful and tasty despite their small size. "Often a smaller cigar can be a lot stronger than a bigger cigar. You don't really know what's inside," warned Savona. "One of the stronger Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars is among the smallest. You don't know how much ligero is in there until you smoke it."

It wasn't all business though, as taunts regarding hometown baseball teams often entered the discussion.
A question about spirits finally came Bettridge's way. One cigar enthusiast sought advice on pairing cigars with the appropriate drink. "Basically, the main rule is to try to match the body of the cigar with the body of the spirit you're drinking it with," said Bettridge. "However, that's not always true. A thing that I've sort of discovered lately is that if you match sweetness with saltiness, you get a pretty sublime mixture. It's kind of like a Snickers bar -- peanuts and chocolate kind of thing. If you're drinking a very smoky Scotch, try to get a sweeter cigar to go with it." Implicitly sweet drinks like rum are well paired with salty or austere cigars, Bettridge said. The fun is in the experimentation.

On a more serious note, audience members were encouraged by the panel to get as involved in local politics as possible to resist proposed smoking bans and other legislation that is sweeping America city by city. "Today, certainly the technology exists so that in public places like bars and restaurants, you can put in ventilation systems that in some cases the air quality is actually better than restaurants that don't have any kind of specific ventilation system," said Mott. "So I think that is incumbent on all of us who enjoy this pleasure that we have to talk to [our] local politicians. Be sure that they understand that you as a voter want that right preserved for yourself."

One participant decided to join the discussion by taking a poll of his own, asking the audience by show of hands how many men are forced to smoke outside "because their wives make them." Many raised their hands and chuckled, bringing a little levity back to the forum. Suckling took a deep puff of his cigar, blew the smoke and answered, "My wife used to do that, so I divorced her." The room exploded with laughter. "It was expensive, though, I can tell you."

Photos by Camilla Sjodin Hadowanetz