It was the killer cigar. I didn't really know it until the morning after. Smoking the double corona after a couple of bottles of fine Burgundy at dinner with friends in Hong Kong, the cigar tasted great. It seemed to help me digest all the rich food and opulent wines. But, oh how wrong I was! It was like the old days in Los Angeles when we spoke about someone being "coyote ugly." It's easy to get deceived when you have had one too many. Even a cigar can leave you with the wrong impression late at night and slightly under the influence.
I woke up the next morning with a headache and a drippy sinus. I was clammy and could not breathe properly. I was sure that if I had been passing through the Hong Kong Airport, a health official would have stopped me on suspicion of having some sort of terrible respiratory disease. Luckily, I had no flight plans for a few days.
I should have known better. My friend told me that he was going to offer me "a killer cigar" following our meal at his apartment overlooking the skyline of Hong Kong. He even warned me that it was the strongest cigar he had ever smoked in his life. And he is a cigar merchant, so he should know.
"Bring it on man," I said, with false valor, which was obviously reinforced with ample quantities of fine wine, delicious food and attractive company. "You can't possibly give me anything that could hurt me," I added.
The last thing I really remember was lighting up the 1994 Ramon Allones Gigante, and sitting back and enjoying the rest of the night. The view was beautiful. But the next day I felt like I had a hammer hitting my head, instead of a double corona in my mouth.
Ouch! Was that cigar made from pure ligero-the strongest tobacco in Cuba!?
I couldn't remember the last time I smoked a cigar so powerful. It must have been in the mid-1990s, when I smoked a 1993 Bolivar Belicoso Fino from a cabinet box. If I remember correctly, I was with London cigar merchant Simon Chase and we both turned slightly green as we smoked the small torpedo.
"That's a cigar that is going to need some age," said Simon, looking as if he had been in the gym for a while; a small bead of sweat growing on his upper brow. I think the cigar finally lost some of its rough edges after about five or six years of age in my cellar.
It was about the same time that I saw my other cigar-mad friend, actor Peter Weller, hunch over after smoking a 1993 Cohiba Siglo I. The little cigar was so strong that Peter had to go for a walk "to get some air" one evening in Siena, Italy, smoking outdoors after dinner. I just couldn't believe that such a small Cuban could do in "Robo Cop."
And there was the time when Alejandro Robaina, the famous Cuban tobacco grower, told me about this gringo loco who came to visit his plantation and demanded the strongest cigar Alejandro had in his personal humidor. The tobacco grower wasn't going to argue, but warned the American to go easy on the robusto. Tranquilo amigo, he said. Tranquilo. It was made of pure ligero and the guy ended up losing his lunch in the garden next to the veranda where my Abuelo Cubano sits and smokes in his rocking chair each day.
If you have forgotten, ligero is the strongest tobacco the Cubans use in their cigar blends. I have no idea why they call their most powerful leaf "light" in Spanish, but they are the leaves that are picked from the top of the plants and are the ripest and richest. They also have the highest nicotine content as well as the most pronounced flavor elements in tobacco. They need the most processing to reduce and mellow their impurities.
Cubans traditionally use a half, or quarter, of a leaf of ligero in a cigar that could have as many as three to five filler leaves in the blend. The ligero is the elemental strength and flavor, much like a chef uses black pepper in his, or her, signature dish. It's important not to over use pepper in cooking as well as in a cigar blend. This is why most factories do not make a ligero-only cigar. It's with good reason too because it would blow your head off if they did, as Alejandro's crazy American visitor found out.
Some well-known cigars actually use no ligero in their blends. For instance, I remember years ago dissecting a new-production Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona with the late Rick Meerapfel, and he pointed out that the cigar was almost entirely made of seco with a bit of volado. Rick, whose family still grows most of the cigar tobacco in Cameroon and Central Africa, was one of the best tobacco men I knew in my life. He said that what we found made sense because the Double Corona was so thick and long that it could still deliver refined, yet flavorful character.
Cubans say that the volado tobacco is from the lowest part of the plant and used for combustion of the blend. The seco is for flavor and perfume of the cigar and comes from the mid-part of the plant. Meanwhile, the ligero is for adding spice and strength and is picked from the top.
I couldn't understand why such a famous cigar as a Hoyo Double Corona could not use ligero, even though Rick explained that it was to maintain the balance of the blend. The cigar blender obviously wanted to keep the cigar smooth with rich flavor and didn't want to spice it up too much with ligero. This may be why I always preferred Punch Double Coronas, which have a little more spice than the Hoyo Double Corona.
This same idea was explained to me recently by Dion Giolito of Illusione cigars, which are made in Honduras and Nicaragua. I was hanging with Dion the morning before last year's Big Smoke in Las Vegas drinking an Illy espresso and talking tobacco. Dion is a cool dude and makes some of my favorite non-Cubans at the moment. What I like about Illusione smokes, in particular the Epernay range, is their balance. They have beautiful perfumes and aromas and fresh and clean palates, with just the right amount of rich tobacco, almost cappuccino, flavors. They smell as great as they taste when burning.
Dion uses no ligero in his Epernay line. He said that he uses viso seco and viso ligero (which is far milder than normal ligero as it grows lower on the plant) in varying proportions. I liked the way Dion explained why he doesn't want the powerful ligero in the Epernay blend.
"It just got in the way of the blend," he said bluntly. "I didn't like it. Using the ligero would have been like the drunken guy at the party. When everybody is chilling, the big sweaty drunk takes the vibe out of the party."
I know what he meant. I thought back to that small party in Hong Kong and the killer Ramon Allones Double Corona that I smoked. Maybe some people like getting stoned on cigars, but I can't say I do. I am going to take note the next time a friend tells me "I have a special cigar for you"-even after a few bottles of great wines. I think flavor and balance have more to do with a great cigar than just power.