Montecristo is one of the world's most famous cigar brands, a marque that was created 80 years ago by Alonso Menendez. Emblazoned by a logo of a proud fleur-de-lis surrounded by a sextet of crossed rapiers, the cigar is smoked and enjoyed around the world.
Like many cigar brands that were born in Cuba, there is a non-Cuban version of Montecristo as well. The first non-Cuban Montes were rolled in the Dominican Republic, and today there is also a version rolled in Nicaragua.
Laws forbid the sale of Cuban and non-Cuban Montecristos side-by-side in any market, but the TAA show offered a rare opportunity to taste these three varieties side-by-side at Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd., one of the largest handmade cigar factories in the world, and the home of the Dominican Montecristo cigar brand.
Tabacalera de Garcia is owned by Altadis U.S.A. Inc., which is a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco PLC. Imperial also owns Altadis S.A., a Spanish/French company that itself owns half of Cuba's Habanos S.A.
A bit confusing, as Altadis U.S.A. has nothing to do with Habanos and vice versa. But, loosely speaking, all of these Montecristos can be ultimately traced back to one corporation.
I arrived at Tabacalera de Garcia (along with several retailers from the TAA trade show) to sit in on a special tasting of all three versions. At my station were three Montecristos-a Montecristo Epic from the Dominican Republic, rolled right at the factory hosting the tasting; a Montecristo Edmundo from Cuba, and a Montecristo Espada, the newest of the trio, a Nicaraguan smoke released last summer.
Not only were there three cigars, but three rums as well, a quaff of Dominican Atlantico, some Cuban Havana Club and Nicaragua's Flor de Caña.
Each cigar was presented by an expert. First up was Siegfried P. Maruschke of Jose Mendez & Co. SRL, one of the major suppliers of tobacco to Tabacalera de Garcia. I lit up my Montecristo Epic as he spoke about the Cibao Valley of the Dominican Republic, lush acreage that makes up only 1 percent of the land mass in the Dominican but produces most of its fine cigar tobacco. The cigar, which is made with a mix of Dominican, Nicaraguan and Ecuadoran tobaccos, had a robust and leathery flavor with some coffee notes. The Atlantico rum was very sweet, with a note of coconut and vanilla. Good pairing.
Next up was Oscar Ricote Jorge, director of quality control for Habanos S.A., and the Montecristo Edmundo. Ricote showed the growing regions of Cuba, focusing on the best areas out to Cuba's west, and remarked how less than one-quarter of Cuba's tobacco growing land enjoys first-class status. The Edmundo has that signature tangy wood note found in most Cuban Montecristos, toasted vanilla notes and a late round of sweet flavors. The Havana Club (it was the 7-year-old variety) was far more austere than Atlantico, with a drier finish, and I found it paired well with the Monte.
The last speaker was Larry Palombo, Altadis U.S.A.'s vice president of tobacco. Palombo has been around the tobacco world, and has bought tobacco for 44 years. As he spoke, we lit up the Montecristo Espadas, rolled in Nicaragua by the Plasencia Family for Altadis. Palombo pointed out the key differences between Nicaragua's main growing regions, moving in strength from the milder Jalapa to the stronger Condega and the truly bold Estelí, and showcasing the oddity that is Ometepe. Ometepe is a volcanic island where you can grow multiple crops per year due to the superb drainage, but using too much of its tobacco will overwhelm a blend.
The Espada had a salty, wheaty flavor around a powerful woody core, with a dry finish.
What to make of this tasting? It showcased how different each cigar can be, and dispelled some popular notions. Most people think Cuban cigars are the most powerful, but I found the Dominican Montecristo Epic to be the boldest of the bunch. All of them showed well.
With politics changing as they are, with President Obama meeting with Raúl Castro this past weekend and negotiations between the two countries moving faster than ever before, who knows? Perhaps one day a buyer in a cigar store will be presented with the same trio that stood before me here at the TAA show, and be able to choose for himself. If the buyer is like me, one day his choice will be Cuban, one day Dominican, another day Nicaraguan. That's my vision of the cigar shopping experience of the future.