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Part Two: Las Vegas Big Smoke Saturday Seminars

Unusual Tobacco Leaves
Nov 8, 2006 | By Michael Moretti
Part Two: Las Vegas Big Smoke Saturday Seminars

For the final session of the Saturday Big Smoke seminars, some of the believers in pushing the boundaries of cigar blends explored the advantages to tinkering with unusual tobaccos.

Oddly enough, these believers were some of the usual suspects in the cigar industry. David Savona and James Suckling of Cigar Aficionado took the stage to moderate, and welcomed Jose Blanco of La Aurora S.A., Alan Rubin of Alec Bradley Cigar Co., Tim Ozgener of C.A.O. International Inc. and Charlie Toraño of Toraño Cigars.

"If you looked at the industry in 1992," said Savona, "you saw tobaccos mostly from typical countries, these being the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras." The men who were taking the stage make their cigars now with tobacco from countries such as Peru, Brazil, Costa Rica, Panama and Italy.

Tim Ozgener (left) and Jose Blanco exchange playful jibes during the session.
The discussion began with Suckling, who described a recent trip he made with Ozgener and Toraño to Central America, where he tasted puros made with tobaccos of nontraditional origins. The tasting was blind, dubbed the United Nations of Tobacco by Ozgener. It ended up with 41 tobaccos in all from 15 to 20 countries. This was a large expansion over the small amount of tobaccos represented in the tobacco world circa 1992.

"What is interesting," Suckling said, "is that each tobacco gives off different flavors, different acidity." He asked, where does this end in terms of tasting for a blend? Ozgener admitted that many of the nontraditional tobaccos do not taste good on their own, but can add a different aspect to the taste of the smoke when combined in a blend.

"A little bit here, a little bit there, and it can be good," said Ozgener.

Charlie Toraño
Toraño expanded on this notion, saying that he does not want people to think of the cigars he makes by their tobaccos, but as parts of a whole. "We're not using nontraditional tobaccos," he said. "We are using subtle aspects of the tobaccos to make a complex blend, dynamic blends."

"Brazilian tobaccos add a certain sweetness to a blend," said Blanco, noting that there are different subtleties to that sweetness depending on the area in Brazil where a particular strain of tobacco is grown. He also described how Peruvian tobacco can add a lot of flavor to a blend if mixed in small doses.

Toraño described how the flavor of these tobaccos are often unfairly labeled when people know what they are smoking. He described an incident during the blind tasting in which he gave Suckling, Ozgener and a few others 10 cigars from various places to taste and guess their origins. He said that at the end of the tasting, eight or nine out of the 10 they all guessed wrong.

Alan Rubin
Rubin reinforced this notion by talking about the misconceptions of flavor. "When I travel, one of the first questions I get is, 'Where is this cigar from?'" he said. This forms a preconception of what the cigar tastes like. But even if a cigar is rolled in Honduras, it is not necessarily a Honduran cigar. Where it's rolled is secondary.

"The best cigar is just around the corner, if you are willing to put the time in," said Rubin. He described how in his operations, and in those of his fellow panelists, they looked at different seeds from different countries and at growing them in another country and in various parts of those countries in varying climates. Suckling acknowledged that when he walks into a cigarmaker's office, cigars and bunches of different tobaccos are always lying around. The manufacturers are always tinkering, he said. "Ten years ago it was just 'Let's make a consistent smoke.'"

James Suckling
The role of the growers was also examined during the discussion. Growers are starting to recognize that cigarmakers are experimenting with various tobaccos, so the growers are testing new strains as well. "Eight out of ten of them don't work," said Toraño, describing the result of growers' experiments. "But they are trying, and a lot of credit has to go to them."

"People said we were crazy for making Brazilia," said Ozgener. "But I give a lot of credit to you guys [in the audience] for your palates and giving the blend a chance. You guys drive the market. We don't care if the tobacco is from southeast Jerusalem. If you like it, it's going to sell."

Savona asked the panelists if there are some tobaccos that just do not work in a blend. Rubin said, almost right away, that he could not make Argentine tobacco work in a blend. Blanco mentioned that he was sent South African tobacco that did not fit the bill. They added, however, that no door is absolutely closed. On that note, Ozgener said he just received tobacco from Germany, and has not written it off as a potential element in a future blend.

They took it seriously, but it wasn't all business when panelists answered questions.
An audience member asked the panel what Cuban tobacco would bring to the mix. Blanco said that Cuban tobacco would probably make excellent filler. "Personally, I like it," he said. "I think it's out of this world."

Toraño pointed out that today's Cuban cigars are entirely Cuban, and the function and flavor of Cuban tobacco in a blend is therefore difficult to predict. "What will happen when we add Cuban tobacco to the U.N. of tobacco?" he asked. "We look forward to the day when we can do that."

"As manufacturers," said Rubin, "you have to understand what Cuban tobacco is, and what it will bring to the blend."

"There's different regions and microclimates as well," said Suckling. "It's going to be a learning curve."

Photos by Camilla Sjodin