Havana Corner: Aged Cigars and Sandinistas

Reports from a trip to cigar country in Central America

I am surprised how often I hear that cigars do not improve with age. This is complete nonsense. I have smoked many, many aged cigars and I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that they get better with age, whether a 20-year-old Cuban Davidoff No. 1 or a 1995 Fuente Fuente Opus X Double Corona.

Cigars with age get mellower, more refined. They lose some of their edginess, like fine wines. It's not that I don't like the cigars when they are young. The bold and rich flavors of some well-made cigars, with well-processed and aged tobacco, are wonderful. But I enjoy them even more with a few years of box age.

These thoughts occurred to me yesterday while hanging out with brothers Gilberto and Jose Oliva of Tabacalera Oliva Tabolisa. David Savona and I visited their entire operation in Estelí and Condega and were blown away with all the excellent tobacco they have slowly fermenting in piles or aging in bales. And we smoked some aged cigars, in particular one of their Master Blend No. 1 Robustos while sitting in the rolling room of their factory. Most of their cigars are sold under their name, Oliva.

Jose Oliva looks at aging stocks of cigars in their factory in Estelí. Some go back to 2003.
It was from 2003. The cigar reminded me of some Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 cigars from 1995 that I smoked last summer in Italy. The Oliva was rich and powerful with loads of tobacco, coffee and cedar character. It was powerful and rich from start to finish, but fresh and clean in the aftertaste. I scored it 92 points. It kept your palate moist and satisfied. The last point is very important. THERE IS NOTHING WORSE THAN CIGARS THAT DRY YOUR PALATE.

Jose said that Oliva was considering rereleasing the aged Master Blend No. 1 on the market. It consisted of three sizes: Torpedo (52 ring gauge by 6 inches), Churchill (50 by 7 inches) and the Robusto (50 by 5 inches). Jose was concerned about selling the cigars again because he thought that age designations mean very little to the consumer. "If we sell them as 2003, then inevitably somebody else will sell the same thing, even if it isn't true," he said. "Then we get trumped."

Dave Savona (right) and the Oliva brothers in the rolling room of Oliva's factory in Estelí.
Maybe he is exaggerating a bit. But I do feel for him and think of the poor consumer. I see many cigars in the States with vintage and age designations that mean very little. Maybe the wrapper is from 1999 or the binder has five years of age or a there's a sprinkling of "Cuban tobacco" inside. Or someone's 90-year-old Cuban grandmother sneezed on the tobacco before it was rolled. But there is a lot of silly, even fraudulent stuff going on with cigars and age designations.

A lot of cigarmakers don't have aged tobacco. It's as simple as that. If you don't have good aged tobacco in your warehouse and factories, you can't make aged cigars. It's sort of obvious. I can say that the Olivas have masses of the stuff.

We didn't have time to see the stocks of tobacco at the factory of Joya de Nicaragua, but we hung with Mario Perez and Leonel Raudez. The latter has been working at the factory since 1998. Joya is the oldest Nicaraguan cigar brand, trademarked in 1970 with sales in United States beginning the same year. Unfortunately, the Estelí factory was burned down during the civil war between Anastasio Somoza and the Sandinistas and had to be rebuilt.

James Suckling hangs with Mario Perez (right) and Leonel Raudez (left) makers of Joya de Nicaragua.
I felt sort of nervous being in the factory and thinking that it was burned to the ground and riddled with bullet holes the last time the Sandinistas were in power. Leonel calmed me down, saying that they had good contacts in the government. Moreover, "Everyone here is Sandinista, so it should be even better than before," he said. I hope he is right.

Anyway, we kicked back in Leonel's office and spoke about cigars, politics and life. I had a Lanceros-sized (7 1/2 by 38) Joya de Nicaragua Antaño 1970. I love this size. It's elegant and refined-looking. And it delivered loads of character, rich and satisfying, like a great cup of Nicaraguan coffee.

Nicaraguan cigars, like the country's coffee, are some of the best in the world.

Click here to read James Suckling's fourth day from his Central America trip.

Click here to go back to the first day.

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