Rich was in trouble. A casual cigar smoker, he had only minutes before put a match to his first real flavor bomb. The small cigar was far stronger than he expected. He stood in the smoking lounge of Morton's Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan, puffing away with three friends, as beads of sweat sprouted to life on his forehead. The beads then assembled into rivulets, and the pink of his flesh was completely replaced by white. He was about to collapse.
He ran to the bathroom.
Not a pleasant first experience with strong tobacco, but a fairly common one. People used to puffing on Macanudos or Davidoffs are frequently overwhelmed by the taste of a Cuban. The difference is that this macho cigar hailed not from Havana but from a factory in the Dominican Republic. Cigars with muscle are what Americans, who once preferred a mild smoke, now want, according to an October 2001 poll on cigaraficionado.com in which 75 percent responded that they enjoy smoking strong cigars. And the industry has delivered, catering to the new breed of smoker with cigar names that suggest the intended power of the cigars: Cohiba Extra Vigoroso. C.A.O. eXtreme. Indian Tabac Super Fuerte. Advertisers used to promise their cigars would be "smooth"; now they trumpet such qualities as "rich" and "full."
Read the ad touting Ashton Virgin Sun Grown cigars. "Explosive undertones," the copy warns. An earlier version even depicted a leather chair, advising smokers daring enough to try the cigars to sit down before taking a puff.
Many advertisements tend toward hyperbole, but in the case of the Ashton, the warning is valid. The VSG is one of the strongest non-Cubans sold today.
The cigars' Ecuadoran wrappers are grown on hilly plots in the foothills of the Andes mountains by Oliva Tobacco Co., a specialist in Sumatra-seed leaves. When John Oliva Jr. and Angel Oliva III smoked the finished cigars for the first time, some five years had passed since their company had actually grown the tobacco leaves.
The lit ends glowed as the Olivas took their first puffs. Eyebrows lifted as the intense spice of the cigars blasted the insides of their nostrils. "Whew!" said Oliva Jr. "Whew!" He shook his head, said "Whew!" again, then took a chair.
It's not every day that a cigar is strong enough to bench a professional tobacco grower. VSGs are a lot stronger than many modern Cuban cigars, which many experts are now claiming are devoid of ligero, the most potent of filler tobacco. (A grade, not a species of tobacco, ligero is taken in the primings of the tops of the plants.) Nowadays, you're more likely to be bowled over by the strength of a non-Cuban.
Take the El Rico Habano, recently reintroduced by Ernesto Perez-Carrillo of La Gloria Cubana fame. Think La Glorias are strong? If La Glorias pack the strength of a silverback gorilla, El Ricos are King Kong.
Carrillo has always been known for his strong smokes, and in the mid-1990s his El Rico was an anomaly, a non-Cuban cigar that could outmuscle a Havana. Today, it has plenty of company.
José Seijas of Tabacalera de Garica Ltd., the Dominican cigar factory owned by Altadis U.S.A., has created beefed-up versions of Altadis's mild Montecristo and H. Upmann brands. He recently made H. Upmann 2000, a strong cigar with a Nicaraguan wrapper, and Montecristo Serie V, a powerful smoke wrapped in Cameroon. They are some of the fullest-flavored cigars to come out of an Altadis factory.
Angel Daniel Núñez, the man in charge of making Macanudos, has done the same for his employer, General Cigar Co. He recently created Partagas Black and Cohiba Extra Vigoroso, stronger versions of the two brands.
Caribe Imported Cigars, the company behind mild mainstays Baccarat and La Fontana, has come to market with a powerful pair of Honduran puros called Camacho Havana and Camacho Corojo. They're full-bodied cigars built in the style of the Cubans of old.
Even Davidoff of Geneva has joined the strong-cigar bandwagon. A stalwart devotee to the temple of mild cigars, Davidoff finally acknowledged the strong-cigar trend by releasing the Davidoff Millennium Series last summer.
Carlos Fuente Jr., the creator of the Fuente Fuente OpusX and Ashton VSG, is one of the biggest believers in full-flavored cigars. He and his father, Carlos Sr., who run one of the world's biggest handmade cigar operations, have built their formidable reputation on a portfolio of stronger cigars. But in 1980 strong cigars were a problem for the company.
"People started complaining that our cigars were too heavy, too rich. We had a lot of complaints," says Fuente Jr. "It was a time, an era, where we had to adjust. And we had to survive."
Fuente made milder blends, and began using Connecticut-shade tobacco for the first time in the company's history to appeal to the tastes of the time.
"There was a trend towards light -- light beer, light Coke, light, light, light. The big companies in the cigar industry determined what taste was, because they determined the [advertising] campaigns. And there was a whole campaign about mild," says Fuente Jr. "I always hated that word -- 'mild.' 'Smooth,' I like, but not 'mild.' So every ad in every trade magazine, every ad that you would see, was always 'mild,' 'sweet.' And that really bothered me. We didn't want that; I didn't want to smoke that."
As recently as the early 1990s, Dominican cigars were pigeonholed as mild smokes. That's no longer true. If the VSG and Fuente Fuente OpusX aren't convincing enough, take a puff of the latest cigar to come from the Tamboril factory of La Flor Dominicana. Aptly named the Ligero, the cigar is strong enough to weaken the knees of even a seasoned smoker.
"It's giving me a headache right now," says Litto Gomez, chuckling as he puffs away on a Ligero. "I made the mistake of smoking it this morning."
Gomez, who co-owns the La Flor Dominicana brand with his wife, Ines Lorenzo-Gomez, admits that the Ligero is not for everyone. He uses a liberal dose of ligero from his tobacco farm in La Canella, a windswept part of the Dominican Republic known for producing strong tobacco, to make the cigar.
The Ligero is the latest step in Gomez's transformation as a cigarmaker. When he first began making cigars under the Los Libertadores name in 1994, the cigars were typical of the time: they sported pale, Connecticut-shade wrappers and unaggressive Dominican filler and binder tobacco. They weren't bad, but they weren't distinctive.
Gomez, a driven innovator, kept working at his blends. Now using the brand name La Flor Dominicana, he created a powerful little sparkplug called the El Jocko Perfecto No. 1. Wrapped in Connecticut broadleaf and powered with a hearty dose of Nicaraguan tobacco, the cigar (a bulbous perfecto then unique to the market) was a huge success. He later created a strong line of tubos, using his farm tobacco and Ecuadoran wrapper, and now he's introduced the Ligero, his strongest cigar yet, wrapped in Ecuadoran Sumatra.
"Normally, to make a fuller-bodied blend you need tobacco from Nicaragua or Honduras, but we've been able to do without it," says Gomez. "If somebody thinks Dominican cigars are mild, think again."
Strength was one of the primary reasons why Gomez invested in a tobacco farm. Tobacco brokers consistently disappointed Gomez with the quality of their Dominican product; much of their purported ligero didn't have the kick he was seeking.
"We were looking for more power in the cigar," he says. "I found the only way to do that was to go into farming."
Growing strong tobacco is not in the best interests of farmers, especially in the Dominican Republic. One of the country's best cigar tobaccos is piloto Cubano, a smallish plant that grows few leaves but delivers maximum flavor. However, farmers prefer to grow a hybrid known as San Vicente. The plants grow larger and have more leaves, increasing a farmer's yield per acre.
The harvesting method also determines the strength of tobacco. Getting it right can be time-consuming. Leaves ripen from the bottom of the plant up, and good farmers allow each row to become fully ripe before harvesting. The higher a leaf grows on a plant, the stronger the taste. The upper leaves take the longest to ripen. Some farmers speed the process by picking leaves before they are ready.
It takes a patient farmer and ugly leaves to make the strongest cigar tobacco. Picture the tobacco plant, almost entirely harvested. The flower has been pruned long before to force the plant to concentrate power in the leaves. The plant is now nothing more than a ravaged stem, scars pocking the entire length where leaves have been removed, one by one. But there, at the very top, sits a small, withered, thick leaf, wrinkling like a raisin in the tropical sun. Growing stronger. More flavorful.
"In the old Cuban style, the top leaves are left to overripen, and it looks ugly as hell," says Fuente Jr. "That's the medio tiempo, the maduro, your heavy leaves. And that's what gives you your baritone, heavy flavor, more body. It gives you more complexity." But many contract farmers opt to skip that final, time-consuming step. "The farming techniques in the Dominican Republic changed. It did a lot of damage to the Dominican Republic," says Fuente Jr. "Instead of leaving those last few leaves until they are ripe, once farmers got to the fourth priming they would just pick the whole thing."
Fuente Jr. also says that the manner in which most wrapper leaves are cut at the rolling table eliminates much of the flavor of a tobacco leaf. When a wrapper leaf is prepared for rolling, a cigar roller takes a chaveta and slices a crescent-shaped piece of tobacco from half a leaf. In most factories, says Fuente Jr., the roller simply cuts at will. In his factories, he instructs his workers to cut right at the edge; he says flavors and power are concentrated there.
"It's very, very easy to make a strong cigar, and it's very, very easy to make a mild cigar," says Fuente Jr. "What's very, very difficult is to make a rich, complex, balanced cigar consistently."
Fuente Jr. is an unabashed lover of powerful smokes, what he likes to call high-octane cigars. Able to smoke a fresh, supercharged cigar right off the rolling table on an empty stomach, he possesses tastes that are certainly not shared by the average Joe cigar smoker.
"People see the band on the Fuente Fuente OpusX and their eyes gleam, but I know that's not their choice to smoke all the time. That's for a certain smoker," he says. He calls his milder offerings his company's "bread and butter."
And despite Fuente Jr.'s reputation for making powerful cigars, he's no fan of the word "strong."
"Honestly, I prefer not to use the word 'strong,' because when I think of something strong, I think of something that intimidates you, or is overaggressive. And I think ideally, a cigar should be intense, complex with a lot of flavor," he says. "The sense that I get is that there's a lot of cigars out there now that are taking advantage of people who want more flavor. It's something that's a fad now, that's fashionable."
"There's a big difference between strength and complexity. Anybody can make a cigar that can blow your head off, but can you smoke it?" asks Jose Orlando Padrón, patriarch of the Padrón family. Like many cigarmakers, his company is introducing a stronger blend, the Padrón Serie 1926 cigar, but he wants the cigar to still have the finesse and complexity for which his brand is known. Padrón believes that some brands sacrifice flavor and balance to achieve strength.
"I have gotten sick from smoking tobacco that's not fermented," says the 75-year-old Padrón, a lifelong smoker who still puffs around 10 Padróns every day. His son Jorge agrees. "The challenge is not to make a strong cigar, it's to make it balanced," he says. "What's the point of making a cigar you can't smoke to the end?"
But makers of strong cigars feel there is a place for their powerhouses, even if they can't be smoked one after the other. Frank Llaneza, a pioneer of the strong-cigar business, can't smoke his strongest blends back-to-back. "The heavy cigar is a good cigar, but you can't smoke too many," he says. The former co-owner of Villazon & Co. is still involved in the production of Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey cigars from Honduras. Llaneza went to Central America after the United States imposed its embargo on Cuba, seeking to duplicate the strength of Cuban tobacco with Cuban seeds cultivated in Nicaragua and Honduras.
Llaneza has been in the cigar business for decades, and he's not easily swayed by new events. He thinks the strong-cigar trend is faddish and will not last.
"One time it was green wrappers, then it was real light wrappers -- these trends come and go," he says. "I think a lot of people that are buying a cigar because it's strong will go back to smoking their normal blend."
Rich is the perfect example. He lived to tell the tale of his first power-cigar experience, and he still enjoys smoking the occasional cigar. But today, his favored cigar is one that is mild.