Our section of the dining room in Delmonico's Restaurant in New Orleans resembled a steam room more than one of the city's best eateries. The room was full of cigar smoke. Five of us sat in a large booth near the bar in the back of the main dining room, each with no less than six cigars burning in large ashtrays on the table. That's 30 cigars. And we were smoking them in public in America.
Smoking is allowed everywhere in New Orleans. Even a top-rank restaurant like Delmonico's allows cigar smoking. Moreover, this upscale steak house encourages it with a list of cigars for sale in the back pages of its impressive wine list. It may be some time before you can confidently go back to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but count on it. The city will be resurrected.
That smoky night in New Orleans was not just for pure pleasure. I had an idea, or perhaps a mission. I wanted to better understand where the best Cuban cigars currently fit in the world of other great cigars, particularly those from Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. I wanted to compare them qualitatively as well as stylistically.
So I invited Litto Gomez, one of the owners of La Flor Dominicana, from the Dominican Republic, and Jorge Padrón of Padrón Cigars, from Nicaragua, to join me and two colleagues for dinner and a cigar tasting. I asked the cigarmakers to bring two of their best cigars (robusto and torpedo size) to smoke with two of the best from Cuba. They were more than happy to attend the dinner. Agreeing to come showed their open-mindedness as well as self-confidence in their cigars' quality. Many other cigar manufacturers would have declined to come because of their bias against Cuba or their insecurity with the quality of their own cigars.
Both Gomez and Padrón admitted that they had never smoked, or tasted, so many cigars during one sitting. Moreover, they confessed that they didn't smoke many Cuban cigars. "I am not used to tasting a bunch of cigars at the same time," said Padrón. "I like smoking my cigars. Like I always say, 'we sell what we don't smoke.'"
Even Padrón and his large family couldn't possibly smoke the close to six million cigars they make every year in Estelí, Nicaragua, I thought to myself. But, of course, he was joking. And Padrón hadn't come to Delmonico's to sell cigars anyway.
Gomez makes about half the annual production of Padrón at his small factory in Santiago, Dominican Republic. Both companies' output is tiny compared to the Cubans, who produce for export about 160 million sticks each year.
Gomez looked rather serene and cool as we started smoking. He seemed to know that his cigars would compare well to the Cubans. "I haven't smoked a Cohiba Siglo VI before," he said, picking up the cigar. The other Cuban I had brought was a Hoyo de Monterrey Pyramide Limitada 2004. "This should be interesting," said Gomez.
My fellow editors, David Savona and Gordon Mott, also looked very keen to smoke all the cigars. "This should be more than interesting," Savona said, in between mouthfuls of charred beef and creamed spinach about a half hour before we lit up. He was obviously looking for reinforcement to smoke his way through the half dozen cigars.
We lit up the first three cigars: the two robusto vitolas and the slightly smaller smoke from Padrón. All the cigars looked good, with high-quality wrappers. Padrón's was darker than the others and box-pressed. In fact, the Cohiba had the lightest wrapper. They also all drew perfectly as we puffed. We smoked for about 10 or 15 minutes, talking about the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America trade show that had gone on during the day. The room was quickly saturated with cigar smoke.
What struck me very quickly was that all the cigars were distinctly different. The Padrón (Anniversary 1926 No. 6) was big, rich and round like an espresso. The Flor Dominicana (Ligero 400) was powerful and long with lots of spicy character, while the Cohiba had wonderful finesse and length with tea, honey and cedar flavors. I mentioned this to the group.
"That's the way it should be," said Gomez. "I say that excellent cigars are unique pieces of work. They reflect the skill of the manufacturer. It's also the quality of the tobacco, of course."
It was hard to say which cigar was better. I had a slight preference that night for Gomez's smoke. It was a rich and powerful cigar with loads of flavor. Padrón's slightly smaller cigar was solid as a rock with good round and balanced flavors. Perhaps the Cohiba was slightly dominated by the other two cigars, although it showed wonderful complexity in flavor.
My fellow cigar hacks preferred the Cohiba, with Mott commenting that "it has the most complexity and length of all the cigars." Added Savona, "But I am surprised the Cohiba is the lightest cigar."
"The Cubans have had a problem with the ligero," concluded Mott, noting that Cuba has not been growing very strong filler tobacco for some time.
No surprise, however, that Gomez and Padrón favored their cigars. "It's hard not to prefer my cigar because that's what I like to smoke every day," said Padrón.
"But you have to hand it to the Cubans to create a product like the Cohiba," said Gomez. "Despite the system over there, they have the passion and love for the product. They may have shortages of food or whatever, but they have a culture for tobacco."
The second group of cigars—all torpedos, or pyramides as the Cubans call them—were a step up in quality. They were richer and more powerful on the whole. The Cuban Hoyo had a distinctively spicy, almost funky character that I assume came from its dark wrapper. It was a limitada, so it was made with a two-year-old wrapper from the top leaves of the plant, which gave it dark color and richness.
La Flor Dominicana's torpedo was equally rich and powerful, but slightly less spicy, while Padrón's cigar was its normal thick, round and rich self, tasting almost like a decadent cup of Turkish coffee.
At one point I noticed Gomez reaching out to smoke one of the three lit torpedos in the ashtray in front of him. His hand hovered over the cigars for about a minute as he tried to decide which to take another puff from. "I can't decide," he said, smiling with great satisfaction. "They are all three excellent cigars."
Indeed, they were all superb, and it was difficult to say which was better. They all delivered fabulous aromas and flavors and smoked with great ease and satisfaction. As Gomez said, "These are cigars for cigar smokers. They have balance and flavor."
Everyone commented on how a lot of new cigars in the U.S. market are focusing too much on strength rather than balance and flavor. They are cigars with no finesse. They hit you over the head with nicotine and deliver very little smoking pleasure. "This search for body and strength often misses balance," added Mott.
While the torpedos we were smoking all had balance and lots of flavor, the Flor Dominicana and Hoyo, interestingly, were closer in style to each other than to the Padrón. The latter was slightly more flavorful, with coffee and earthy notes, while the other two were more spicy and refined. Thinking back to the first three cigars, the Hoyo also had more flavor than the Cohiba.
"The bottom line is that it's all about where the tobacco comes from that is used in the blend," said Padrón. "It gives you that distinctive character."
That was in fact the most fascinating aspect of our evening of excessive cigar smoking in New Orleans. All the cigars were distinctively different in aroma and flavor. Each was a unique smoke with its own character, even though they shared the same level of quality from their excellent construction to well-cured leaf.
Today, it's much less a question of what country makes the best cigars, because a number of places—in particular, Cuba, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic make excellent cigars. Anyone who says that only Cuba makes great cigars is simply wrong.
That may have been the case even 10 years ago. The improvements in tobacco cultivation and cigar making in countries other than Cuba are giving the world more excellent cigars. It's like wine making around the world, an area I know well because I have worked for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister magazine, for 24 years. At one time, only the French made truly world-class wines, but today the same can be said for many countries, including the United States, Italy, Spain and Australia, among others. That's why it's never been a better time to drink great wines, and smoke great cigars.