The crack of thunder shook me out of my slumber this morning in New Orleans. It was a line of storms with frequent bolts of lightning and booming retorts, followed by a heavy rain. Welcome to August, storm season in New Orleans.
The previous night was a late one. It began with dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, Cochon, where team Cigar Aficionado was joined by Tim Ozgener and Jon Huber from C.A.O. International and Nish Patel and Sam Phillips from Rocky Patel Premium Cigars. We dined on crisp and flavorful bites of alligator; spicy, roasted oysters; smoked rabbit and cornbread dumplings and roasted red fish. Cochon, which is hip and eclectic, is perfect for trying food you won't find elsewhere and washing it all down with bracing cocktails. It's loud, vibrant and enormous amounts of fun. The good times continued as we made our way to Frenchman Street, which has side-by-side bars featuring live music. We walked into the Spotted Cat Music Club, and were treated to the sweet sounds of Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns. What a great band (there was a guy playing a mean sousaphone) and what a glorious voice on Miss Lake. That woman can sing.
This morning I made it through the rain and into the convention center, where my first visit was Oliva Cigars. I smoked an Oliva Serie V Double Robusto with Gilberto Oliva Jr. and his brother Jose. Gilberto spoke about how difficult it is to get consistency out of cigars, with tobacco crops changing ever year.
"Making cigars is like playing a nice piano-you're always tuning it," he said. "If you want to have consistency, you have to keep tuning it all the time."
His tuning is working out great-the Serie V was exceptional, as always. Lovely smoke.
The talk of the morning was the tropical storm watch-New Orleans was in the bullseye of a storm system that had formed in the gulf, and it was expected to gather strength and hit us on Thursday. People were quite distracted from buying cigars, and many were planning on getting out of Dodge early to avoid getting stuck. (Maybe that's why people usually don't hold conventions in New Orleans in the heart of hurricane season.)
No way for me to leave early, I have too much to cover, so I went back to work, stopping at the Tabacalera Tropical booth for a chat with Paul Palmer and Arsenio Ramos. They're starting to put the words "Aganorsa Leaf" on some of their cigars, promoting their farming side and their superb Nicaraguan tobacco. Smart move.
Next I went to Alec Bradley Cigars for a chat with Alan Rubin and a puff of an Alec Bradley Prensado Robusto. Alan is bringing out a Connecticut-wrapped version of his Alec Bradley Maxx, and it seems more and more companies are going Connecicut. (Oliva did it, so did Camacho.) At my next stop, the Quesada booth, I sat with Manuel Quesada for a little chat and asked him about the Connecticut trend.
"It's never gone away," said Manolo. "Even though smokers are going to the heftier cigars, they always go back to the middle of the road [strengthwise]," he said. He has plans for Connecticut expansion himself, and is tweaking a new Fonseca blend (just for retailers) with a little more spice than the original.
Just for retailers is a buzzword here-lots of companies are coming out with items just for tobacco shops, things that they intend to keep off the Internet and out of catalogs. Another one (two, actually) comes from the newly renamed Toraño Family Cigar Co. They've come out with a cigar called Single Region, made entirely from Nicaraguan Jalapa tobacco (most of it from one farm.) I have to smoke it later.
Speaking of renaming, I spent time with Carlos Diez from the company formerly known as Cuba Aliados, then Reyes Family Cigars. Now they're calling themselves Puros Indios/Cuba Aliados. It's hard to keep up with his name changes, but I really enjoyed his new Cuba Aliados Miami Blend Torpedo, which has an exceptionally long tip and a very rich taste. He told me he's cut the price by almost $1 per stick on his Puros Indios line, making them $3.10 to $6 per cigar. Cigar companies know that smokers are searching for bargains, and they're responding.
Puros Indios was an early pioneer in the cigar world's hot new size, the 6 X 60. Xikar has added a 6 X 60 to each of its three cigar lines, while discontinuing most of its lonsdales. Smokers in America are demanding thick cigars, not thin ones.
My final stop of the day was My Father Cigars, where I sat with Pepin, Jaime and Janny Garcia. They handed me a big, dark cigar that had about five inches of band-the My Father Limited Edition 2010. They are selling only 2,000 boxes of these, each containing 12 cigars, for a total run of 24,000 cigars. The cigars were literally made by the father-and-son team at My Father-Jaime Garcia did all the bunching, and Pepin did the rolling. They literally made the cigars. (No wonder Pepin looked so exhausted!) They worked at night, on Saturdays, whenever they could find the time over a period of months. It's a $20 smoke.
I lit it up, and it was delicious, full of rich, sweet, woody flavor. Pepin said it's very heavy on a Cuban seed called Pelo d'Oro that he grew in Nicaragua. "For me," Pepin said, "it's the best Cuban seed ever—but it's very difficult." He won't grow it again--the yield is too low, the leaf too susceptible to blue mold and other pests.It's somewhat stronger than a typical My Father, but not nearly as strong as the Le Bijou. It was a superb way to end the day. It should be out in September.
I left the convention center and hailed a cab. I asked the driver if the storm would be bad. "Nah," he said. "You just put your rubber ducky up on that roof and you'll be fine."
Looks like he's right-by the time I got back the tropical depression had faded. We're going to get rain, but this won't be a major storm. Tonight, I'm off to Commander's Palace for an old-school New Orleans dining experience, and there will definitely be more cigars.