I am writing this column as I smoke a box-pressed petit corona from the Padrón family. It's a prototype that Jorge Padrón, whose family makes wonderful cigars in Nicaragua, made for his new superpremium blend, the Anniversario 1926. While it is not the finished product, it was all he had in his suitcase when I saw him in early September in Brussels at a dinner to celebrate the 125th anniversary in the industry of the Meerapfel family, who, by the way, are some of the greatest tobacco (read wrapper) people on earth.
The prototype has all the flavor a serious cigar smoker could hope for. Sure, it's strong, but it doesn't deliver strength by giving up anything in flavor, which is the crux of the problem when making a big, ass- kicking smoke. Many full-bodied cigars are just too strong. They numb your palate. A full-bodied cigar with an excellent blend, such as the Padrón I am smoking, shouldn't be overpowering. For example, with each puff, the Padrón cigar delivers masses of coffee, cedar and an almost earthy flavor, yet it caresses your palate, bringing you back for another puff. It's not exactly like an opulent Cuban cigar, but it follows the same flavor profile.
Comparing a great Cuban cigar with something like the Padrón is like drinking side by side a rich California Cabernet or Merlot with a top-class Bordeaux from the areas of Pauillac or Pomerol. All the wines in exceptional vintages give you the most in flavor and complexity, but they are structurally different due to the differences in the soil and climate that make them intrinsically unique.
Full-flavored, or as some incorrectly say, strong, is apparently what more of us want in cigars these days, according to the various cigar manufacturers I spoke with in August while I was attending the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America trade show in Tampa, Florida. Many of the cigar manufacturers are delivering the goods. Smokes the likes of Padrón Anniversario, Ashton VSG, Altadis Montecristo Series 5, El Rico Habano, Graycliff red label and Davidoff Millenium, just to name a few. Many of these well-known cigarmakers still make extremely mild, papery smokes, but some are now making richer smokes that promise to give the discerning smoker something to think about when he puts a match to those preciously rolled leaves.
The only hope I have is that these cigar companies don't overdo it. The temptation is to make strong cigars instead of flavorful ones, and that is a big mistake. Anyone with some skill in making cigars can roll something that is going to blow your head off, the kind of smoke that makes your palms sweat and your head spin after a few minutes of smoking. That is not a great cigar. It only distorts, even destroys, your pleasure. It's like turning up the volume on your car stereo so loud that you really can't hear the melody of the music. If you're slightly deaf, it might be necessary (or you're an adolescent trying to impress someone), but for the rest of us, there's no pleasure in that. Gigantic, mind-numbing cigars are not the way forward.
I remember the days of blockbuster Cuban cigars. I remember taking a train down from the Midlands in England with a tobacco merchant about six or seven years ago and we lit up a couple of Bolivar Belicosos. They were so strong that we both had to put them out. The bloke I was with smoked about five cigars a day. I was a debutant by comparison. However, we both agreed that those Belis were just too much. Five years later they finally came around as more balanced, refined smokes, but they were never great cigars.
The flip side is what I smoked from a cabinet of 25 Bolivar Belicosos recently released on the market. They were a good smoke (and yes, they did draw properly) but they were boring, almost neutral in character. They had none of the spicy, earthy and coffee character the Bolivars of yesteryear had. This I assume was because the blend lacked the proper quality of ligero, the strong leaves needed in the blend for a full-bodied smoke.
For the past three or four years there has been a shortage of ligero, despite the denials of many tobacco officials in Cuba. Talk to people in the factories, particularly the rollers and leaf processors, and they all say the same thing. There still isn't top-grade ligero available. A lot of this stems from less than good weather during the tobacco-growing season, but you also have to wonder how much this is a result of the change in the tobacco types now planted in the Vuelta Abajo, the key tobacco growing region for premium cigars. The main hybrid tobacco now used for sun-grown tobacco is Habanos 92, which just doesn't give you the same quality as the late and great Criollo. In addition, the tobacco is seldom cured, fermented or aged the same way it was years ago.
The Cubans can't possibly process or age their tobacco properly when they have set unrealistic export targets for this year, as they have for the past two or three years. The country does not have supplies of aged tobacco to meet such quotas; so it has to rush the production from the plantations to the factories. According to Habanos S.A., the distribution organization for Cuban cigars, the country hopes to export between 140 million and 150 million cigars in 2001, not the 170 million as first reported, which included the new machine-made mini cigars. However, 140 million or 150 million is still a hell of a lot, and the Cubans have not made more than 40 million or 50 million top-quality cigars in one year in recent memory.
Such quality issues with Cuban cigars, as well as with making full-bodied cigars, all boil down to the concept of flavor. Those premium cigar manufacturers who understand the subtleties of flavors, whether it's excellent cuisine, fine wines or great cigars, understand the complexity of making robust yet sophisticated cigars. It's no wonder that the Padróns, Fuentes, José Seijas of Altadis and a number of others are also keen wine lovers, as well as serious cigarmakers -- I often find myself speaking about wine with them as well as about cigars.
I wish the same could be said about the few Cubans in the cigar business I have spoken to about flavor. This summer I was in the quality-control tasting room of the La Corona factory in Havana and I began speaking to one of the "tasters." When I spoke about flavor and richness, he thought I was "poco loco." He had no idea what the concept meant. As long as he could smoke the cigar he was testing, it was all that mattered. Worse, some in the Cuban cigar business either don't smoke cigars or are cigarette smokers parading as cigar smokers. I will never forget visiting one of the tobacco research centers in the Vuelta Abajo a few years ago where none of the center's technicians smoked cigars. I had brought a box of Partagas Serie D No. 4s to share with them after lunch and they all turned me down.
"If you don't smoke cigars, how can you know that the new varieties of tobacco you are growing make good cigars?" I asked them.
"We have technicians in Havana who test the varieties of tobacco and they say they are fine," one of them answered.
"Well, that's like a chef who makes some of the greatest food on earth but he doesn't eat it," I answered. They thought it was funny, but I wasn't joking.
Making good-quality, full-flavored cigars is no joking matter. If cigar manufacturers, regardless of their country of origin, want to make inroads into the superpremium segment of the market, they are going to have to understand the concept of flavor. Serious cigar smokers today are no longer willing to pay $6, $8 or even $20 for a smoke, if it doesn't have any character or flavor.