We've all seen the warnings from the surgeon general: Americans are getting dangerously fatter. The expanding waistlines of U.S. citizens match the explosion in the size of consumer goods -- we now supersize our French fries, double-stuff our Oreos and call small coffees "tall." Stores that once catered to the petite among us are reinventing themselves as Big & Tall boutiques. And, never far removed from American trends, cigars are getting fatter as well.
Barely 10 years ago, a cigar with a 60 ring gauge would have looked absurd alongside the popular sizes of the day. For decades, one of America's most popular cigar sizes was the 42-ring-gauge lonsdale, a vitola extolled for its elegance, and smokers eschewed thicker sizes for the manageable pleasure of a thin cigar. But as the cigar boom dawned in the 1990s, American smokers moved away from traditionally popular sizes in search of thicker cigars with more complexity and cooler smoke. By the early 1990s the robusto was the country's most popular size, and thinner cigars had begun to be relegated to the back of the cigar-smoking consciousness.
Today, fat cigars are becoming even more popular. Every month another new cigar smashes through the 54-ring-gauge barrier, and some lines of cigars consist entirely of sizes approaching or even exceeding a 60 ring gauge -- or nearly one inch in diameter. La Gloria Cubana Serie R. Indian Tabac Cameroon Legend Gorilla. Perdomo Cuban Parejo. Partagas Black Label. León Jimenes Sumo. Several brands have been launched without corona or lonsdale sizes, something that was unthinkable only 10 years ago. Some of these monsters are too big for guillotine cutters, don't fit easily inside cigar cases and make packing a humidor quite the challenge.
The Casa Blanca Jeroboam, long the Orson Welles of the cigar world due to its hefty 66 ring gauge, no longer stands alone as the big stick on the shelf. Today, fat cigars have graduated from being niche players to significant performers in the American cigar market.
Nearly every non-Cuban cigar manufacturer, both large and small, has caught on to the fat cigar trend, and each Cigar Aficionado taste test includes more of these large-ring behemoths. Take, for example, corona gorda ratings, which include cigars as thin as a Cuban Punch Punch, with a 46 ring gauge, and as fat as a La Gloria Cubana Serie R No. 6, a 5 7/8 inch, 60-ring-gauge monster. In February 2001 (the last issue in which Cigar Aficionado tasted only one cigar size), 96 corona gordas were rated, not one of which had a ring gauge of more than 54. Just over a year later, the April 2002 issue contained 10 non-Cuban corona gordas, and half had ring gauges that exceeded 54. In the June 2002 figurado tasting, five of the 11 non-Cuban cigars had ring gauges of 54 or greater.
The increase of fat cigars in Cigar Aficionado ratings is reflective of the trend at shops across the United States, where thinner sizes are increasingly taking a back seat to weighty cigars. With every passing issue, it becomes more difficult to find enough cigars to fill the lonsdale and corona tastings, while a glut of corona gordas and robustos makes including every brand on the market impossible.
The emergence of thick cigar brands can trace its genesis to 1995, when J.C. Newman brought to market a new brand of all-54-ring-gauge cigars called Diamond Crown. "I wanted to come out with the thickest cigar. All sizes, but with the largest ring gauge," says Stanford Newman, patriarch of the 107-year-old company. "At that time, the largest ring gauge was 52, so we came out with 54." Newman explains that in a thinner cigar, the wrapper and binder account for a majority of the cigar's flavor, often muting the flavor of the filler tobaccos. He created the thick Diamond Crowns because he wanted the taste of his filler tobacco to shine through the cigar. At the time of the cigar's release, very few manufacturers were thinking that way. "In 1995, Diamond Crown was one of the largest cigars," he says. "People said, 'What will you do if someone wants a thinner cigar?' I said, 'Go smoke someone else's.'"
According to Newman, the ring gauge of the cigar correlates directly with the capability of making a complex blend. "With a thicker ring gauge, you can make a better cigar because you can blend in five or six different leaves." It's a matter of physics: a thick cigar has room for more tobacco leaves than a thin one, and more leaves can create a complexity impossible in a thinner smoke.
Newman's idea wasn't roundly applauded. His contemporaries were unsure how the public would respond to such a thick cigar. "When we first made it, I had a lot of opposition. But I was the boss," says Newman. "I said that before I die, I wanted to come out with something extremely special."
Diamond Crowns helped open the eyes of manufacturers to the idea of thicker cigars, and to the options for blending that are available in a thicker ring gauge. Most cigarmakers that sell an unusually thick cigar cite the ability to blend a wide variety of tobaccos as the reason they've chosen to bring a fat cigar to market.
"Given the diameter of the cigar, you're afforded a very strong blend," says Michael Argenti, vice president of Tabacalera Perdomo S.A., which released Perdomo Cuban Parejo in 2001, a brand with ring gauges from 56 to 62. "On our Cuban Parejo, we're using a blend of five different tobaccos."
Argenti says Tabacalera Perdomo had a good reason for releasing an all-fat cigar brand: the company's thickest cigars are also its best sellers.
Some cigarmakers feel the thick cigar trend is a passing one. Several believe that juiced-up ring gauges will eventually amount to nothing more than a blip on the cigar world's radar screen. "I don't think this trend is going to continue," says Cooper Gardiner, director of marketing for General Cigar Co., which recently released Partagas Black Label, a brand whose thinnest ring gauge is 54 and largest is 60. "But I do think there are consumers out there that prefer that size."
Rakesh "Rocky" Patel, president of Indian Tabac Cigar Co., agrees. Last year he created a whopper: the Indian Tabac Cameroon Legend Gorilla, a 6 inch by 58 ring cigar. "These shapes are hot now; we'll see how long it lasts until the new thing comes around," Patel says. He'll be surprised if, 10 years from now, there is still a demand for his Gorilla. He personally isn't a fan of such fat cigars, and he has noticed a difference between Gorilla smokers and those who prefer traditional cigar sizes such as coronas, lonsdales and Churchills. "They're two totally different individuals," he says. "Maybe it's something to do with manly arrogance, but it usually is the bigger guys who are smoking [the fat cigars]. It has something to do with stature, with the way the cigar feels in your hand."
Consumers have mixed feelings as well. "Thicker cigars burn cooler and deliver a bigger bang for the buck," wrote one reader on cigaraficionado.com, the Web site of Cigar Aficionado magazine, in a recent poll on fat cigars. "I don't want to smoke a tree trunk -- that's too much work," said another. "Every once and a while they are a treat/meal, but I wouldn't make a steady diet of them," wrote a third.
The majority of smokers who answered the poll, 73 percent, smoke fat cigars, but they seem to do it more as a novelty. Only 1 percent said they smoke fat cigars exclusively, and only 18 percent said most of the cigars they smoke are fat.
Although fat cigars sell well for Tabacalera Perdomo, Argenti isn't ready to proclaim the death of the more traditional cigar sizes. "There's always a place for a corona," he says.
Regardless of the size of the smoker, Patel believes that many cigar aficionados will always be keen to try something new, even if that product never becomes their go-to smoke. "People are always looking for that hot new cigar," he says. Even if that cigar is too big for an ashtray.