Cigar sizes and shapes—or vitolas as the Cubans call them—are a very personal thing. It's sort of like saying you prefer blondes, brunettes or redheads. And it may even be more personal than that.
My bread-and-butter cigar is a robusto. I have been into robustos for a long, long time. When I go down to my wine cellar in Italy to find a cigar or take a quick look in my Dunhill humidor for something to smoke, nine times out of 10 I grab a robusto. It's normally a Partagas Serie D No. 4 or a Ramon Allones Specially Selected. Occasionally I light up a Cohiba. I am also fond of the Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Robusto and the Bolivar Royal Corona, which was Cigar Aficionado's Cigar of the Year in 2006.
In the last couple of years, I have become a big fan of Montecristo Edmundos. Although they are slightly thicker than the standard robusto, at 52 ring gauge instead of 50, I think they still fit into the robusto category. Relatively short and fat, the cigar delivers a lot of flavor and pleasure in a short time. It's been a great addition to the Montecristo line and may one day become a classic like the legendary Montecristo No. 2, or torpedo, as cigar aficionados call it. The other great robusto is the Cohiba Siglo VI. This may be the most serious new cigar the Cubans have produced in the last 20 years. It is a blockbuster, with loads of spicy, cedar, tobacco character yet balanced and refined. It's expensive, but I have a small stash in the cellar for special occasions.
The introduction this year of the Montecristo Petit Edmundo significantly affected my addiction to classic robustos. I now can't get enough of the 4 1/3-inch smoke. It's a powerhouse of a cigar, with loads of spicy, coffee and tobacco character. It's also quick to smoke, which is important if you don't have time for something longer.
Robustos are a recent phenomenon. I remember a well-researched speech that English cigar maven Simon Chase gave a couple of years ago during the annual cigar festival in Havana. Chase is one of the world's most knowledgeable guys on Cuban cigars and he's been in the British cigar trade for decades. He is the marketing director for Hunter's & Frankau, the British agent for Cuban cigars.
In the speech, Simon rightly referred to the current popularity of robustos as the "robusto revolution." But I wonder if maybe he should have called it the "robusto generation." I think that most people who started smoking cigars seriously in the last 15 years are robusto lovers. I deliberately use the time frame of the last 15 years because it coincides with the creation of this magazine, in 1992. No one can deny that Cigar Aficionado created a massive consumer base around the world for great cigars, as well as educated and upgraded the tastes of established cigar lovers.
But it's fascinating to think that when Chase entered the cigar trade back in the late 1970s, he says "the word robusto did not exist. In fact, it did not make its first public appearance until 1989."
This doesn't mean that robustos were not made in Cuba before the late 1980s. The Partagas Serie D No. 4 apparently made its public debut sometime in the 1930s, while other popular robustos such as Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, Bolivar Royal Corona and Ramon Allones Specially Selected date back to the 1950s and 1960s. But these smokes were not widely available and only the most select connoisseurs bought them, particularly in the U.K. market.
At the time, Chase said, most premium cigars were thinner and longer than robustos. "It started with the new 38-gauge sizes created at El Laguito for Cohiba in 1966. Known at the factory as Laguito No. 1 and No. 2 [now the Lanceros and Coronas Especiales] and measuring 192mm [7 1/2 inches] and 152mm [6 inches] in length, respectively, they were first introduced to the public around 1970 as Montecristo Especial No. 1 and Especial No. 2 and also as the Davidoff Nos. 1 and 2."
He said that Hoyo de Monterrey also had its Le Hoyo Series range and Partagas had its Serie du Connaissuer. "Even Dunhill, when they launched their short-lived Cuban brand in 1984 [production ceased in 1991], they chose to include the 175mm [6 7/8-inch], 28-gauge Atado in their lineup."
I personally think that Zino Davidoff had a lot to do with this trend as well. The late, great cigar merchant was the first to really make cigars a fashion statement, sort of like fine watches are today, and he did so through selling cigars as well as writing books. He was not one for big, bold cigars, but rather for elegant and refined-looking ones like his Davidoff No. 1 and No. 2. I remember having lunch with him a couple of times back in the early 1990s and it was more like hanging out with a jeweler than a cigar merchant. He was always talking about how a cigar should fit the personality of the particular smoker. And how it was important to look refined and elegant when smoking a cigar.
Prior to the thin-cigar period, most of the smokes sold for close to 50 years, according to Chase, were straight 42 to 40 ring gauge cigars, from lonsdales to tres petit coronas. This was basically the range of cigars under the Montecristo label, from No. 1, which is a lonsdale measuring 42 by 6 1/2 inches, to a No. 5 tres petit corona, which is 40 by 4 inches. In fact, Chase believes that the creation of Montecristo firmly established the trend of straight-sided cigars, parejos, in the market, following the centuries-old tradition of smoking double-tapered smokes, or figurados.
Of course, he would have to say that. His company, Hunters & Frankau, sold the creators of Montecristo, Alfonso Menendez and Pepe Garcia, their Havana factory in 1937: H. Upmann. And the production of Montecristo was primarily based there until a couple of years ago. With a few exceptions, such as the No. 2 torpedo and thin Especiales, Montecristo was always limited to five sizes. "They could have chosen five double figurados," Chase said. "If they had, would Montecristo have enjoyed the success it has? I doubt it."
I remember when I first started going to Cuba for this magazine in the early 1990s, most of the cigars Cubans themselves smoked were lonsdales and coronas. I always remember the first time I met Havana's best cigar merchant, Enrique Mons, in 1991, and he told me that the lonsdale was the perfect shape for the cigar, giving you all the flavor you need for all the time you had to smoke.
At the time, Mons probably would have never believed how popular the robusto would become. A few months ago in Havana when I was with him in his shop, he said that most people were buying the Partagas Serie D No. 4. "That's clearly our most popular cigar at the moment," he said.
And it all started with Cohiba Robusto. As Chase explained, the Cubans believed that their flagship brand needed an upgrade after close to two decades of the same thing, so they came up with the new sizes in 1989: the Esplendido, the Exquisito and the Robusto. They certainly never realized at the time that they were about to revolutionize the cigar industry with the robusto.
"It was the robusto that caught everyone's imagination," said Chase. "The name described the cigar's comparatively short, stubby shape perfectly, not only in Spanish but also in English and most other European languages."
Interestingly, the name robusto was not the brainchild of some marketing wizard in Spain, France or even Cuba. It was simply the name the rollers used to describe the shape in the factory, or vitola de galera. For example, rollers call the double corona a prominente, and a torpedo a pirámide. The robusto was one of the first times a vitola de galera became a big success as a vitola de salida, or the name given a shape in the marketplace.
And most of us have been smoking and enjoying robustos ever since.
Click here to read more Cigar Diaries from James Suckling.