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Cigar Spirits: Four Tips for Better Whiskey Drinking

22 Feb 2017

whiskey

Last week, my colleague dispensed with some myths about cigars. This week, I’m taking a torch to some whiskey myths and offering my best advice for enjoying whiskey.

Vanishing Value Whiskeys

Only a few years ago, I would easily say that, when it comes to value, bourbon and rye were a far better bargain than single malt scotch. I hate to say it, but that’s no longer the case. With rising prices and vanishing age statements prompted by high demand, American whiskey is no longer full of great value. Single malt has started to catch up to demand, at least at the entry level, but bourbon is a few years behind. Yes, you can still get a very decent, drinkable bottle for around $20, but if truly great value is what you seek, you are better off trying aged rum.

Proper Glassware

Want to improve your whiskey drinking experience? There are lots of silly gadgets out there. Whiskey stones, for example, don’t work all that well; I’m convinced people like them because they look cool. However, one whiskey accessory well worth the investment is a proper glass. There are quite a few specially-made glasses, and anything relatively small in size with a shape that concentrates aromas on the nose will work. My favorite, and the standard, is the Glencairn.

Ice, Cocktails… Whatever

There are some circles where adding anything more than a drop of pure spring water is sacrilege. On one hand, I mostly drink whiskey this way, and I do think you will get the truest sense of the spirit (the good and bad) by tasting neat. Still, never forget fine spirits are meant to be enjoyed, not merely sampled. So don’t be wasteful (for example, mixing Pappy Van Winkle with Coke). However, feel free to mix up a fine cocktail with a special whiskey or a few ice cubes if that’s how you’ll enjoy it the most. The type of people who hate on folks for enjoying their Booker’s with plenty of ice are they same folks who have a cabinet full of expensive bottles they collect and never drink.

Don’t Chase Unicorns

Speaking of Pappy, don’t go crazy searching for rare whiskey. The days are over when you could walk into an out-of-the-way liquor store and potentially find a bottle of Pappy or another rare, sought-after bourbon at or below retail price. Compared to what you can get for $50, I don’t see how you can justify spending five, ten, or twenty times that based on drinking experience alone, and I’ve opened more than a few bottles that are regularly bought and sold for that much. When it comes to finding the rare bourbons, you can spend hours and hundreds of dollars hoping and searching with no guarantee. If you really want to try them, though, your best bet is to find a well-stocked bar and just buy an ounce or two (albeit at the inflated prices) so you can say you’ve tried them, then go back to your bottle of Blanton’s.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Quick Smoke: Drew Estate Undercrown Shade Robusto

19 Feb 2017

Each Saturday and Sunday we’ll post a Quick Smoke: not quite a full review, just our brief take on a single cigar.

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My first experience with Undercrown Shade was a bit of a mixed bag: well-made, promising flavors, but marred by a hint of bitterness and an unpleasant grassy element. This more recent experience was markedly better. With an Ecuadorian wrapper, Sumatra binder, and Nicaraguan and Domincan fillers, this cigar was well-balanced and medium bodied. Flavors included roasted cashews, cafe-au-lait, and cedar. With Drew Estate’s characteristic excellent construction, it is an excellent smoke anytime of day.

Verdict = Buy.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Photo Essay: Water, the Secret Ingredient to a Fine Cigar

8 Feb 2017

Ask any cigar smoker what are the ingredients in a handmade cigar, and the answer will probably be something along the lines of this: 100% tobacco leaves (maybe they’ll also note vegetable glue, a small amount of which is used to attach the wrapper). This is without a doubt true, and let’s hope the FDA agrees, but when it comes to making cigars arguably the most critical ingredient is water, or more specifically moisture.

You don’t have to be an expert in cigars to know humidity matters. A cigar that is too dry loses flavor and burns too hot, while a cigar kept in too much humidity may be bitter, burn poorly, and risks mold in storage.

But the importance of water and moisture starts long before the cigar is rolled or ready to be smoked. Last week, I spent a few days visiting General Cigar’s facilities in the Dominican Republic. (Each of the photographs comes from the visit.)

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I’ve visited cigar factories many times but, by starting this tour on the farm before going to the leaf processing facility and then finally the factory, it drove home the importance of controlling moisture to make an enjoyable final product. From seedling until harvest, of course, a tobacco plant needs water.

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After leaves are primed (removed one leaf at a time, first from the bottom of the plant then, over time, upwards to the top) the work of preparing the tobacco begins. After harvest, green tobacco leaves go into curing barns where the the goal is removing the moisture, as well as the chlorophyll that makes leaves green. (Candela wrappers use a different curing process that locks in the green color.)

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When tobacco enters the curing barn, its moisture content is around 85%. After hanging upside down for four to six weeks (either sewn onto a rope or fastened to a wooden pole), the moisture level drops to around 30%. Some producers will use small fires in the barn to bring down humidity levels in what are generally high humidity tropical climates. At this point, the leaves are ready to be sorted and prepared for fermentation.

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After curing, the tobacco leaves begin to look like the tobacco you’ll find in the cigars in your humidor. It isn’t ready to made into handmade cigars yet, though. The critical next step is fermentation, sometimes referred to as “sweating” the tobacco.

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In fermentation, tobacco “cooks” by being stacked in a way that pressure, along with natural microbes, break down the tobacco and generate heat. Hands (a bunch of four to six leaves) of tobacco leaves are stacked in piles, often as high as six feet, where the middle particularly begins to rise in temperature.

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Temperature is closely monitored. If the tobacco gets too hot (140 °F, perhaps lower depending on the type of leaf) it will overcook. Over time, the tobacco is rotated to ensure even fermentation. By the time fermentation is completed, taste, aroma, and combustion are improved, while the harshness of nicotine, sugar, and ammonia are reduced as proteins breakdown.

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True maduro wrappers, as opposed to those that rely on artificial coloring, come from a longer, more intense fermentation process that creates a darker, richer color. At this point, the tobaccos are ready to be rolled into cigars. That said, some companies will age their tobaccos further (one to three years is not abnormal), the especially wrappers. This can be described as low level fermentation. For select tobaccos, aging in barrels (especially rum barrels) is another common technique to add even more complex and rich flavors.

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Even as cigars are being rolled, proper moisture is key. Wrappers, in particular, are frequently moistened to make them more pliable and durable. Later, after the cigars are bunched and rolled, they go into aging rooms where moisture is again key. In the aging room, cigars release excess ammonia and equalize moisture levels between the filler, binder, and wrapper tobaccos.

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After at least a few weeks in the aging room, cigars are ready to smoke. But, in order to remain ready to smoke weeks later, moisture content must remain stable between 65% and 70% relative humidity throughout shipping to your cigar shop and, eventually, to your home humidor, where Boveda packs or your humidification device of choice keeps humidity stable.

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As you can see, controlling moisture from start to finish may be the single most important aspect to cigar production. The best tobacco without proper curing and fermentation will produce bad cigars. Only time, tobacco, and proper moisture control can produce a fine cigar.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Quick Smoke: Benji Menendez Partagas Master Series Prominentes

5 Feb 2017

Each Saturday and Sunday we’ll post a Quick Smoke: not quite a full review, just our brief verdict on a single cigar of “buy,” “hold,” or “sell.”

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Of all the many cigars made by General Cigar in Dominican Republic (think Cohiba, Partagas, Macanudo, most La Gloria Cubanas, and quite a few others), perhaps my favorite was the original Partagas Benji Master Series Majestuoso, something I mentioned last week while visiting General’s facilities in and around Santiago. No sooner than that evening, some of the 2013 release Partagas Benji Master Series Prominentes (7 x 49) were procured. The cigar features an oily wrapper (for a Cameroon) that came out of yellow-stained cellophane, paired with a Connecticut-grown Havana-seed binder, and Dominican and Nicaraguan filler tobacco. The Prominentes features light wood spice, coffee, and bread presented in a harmoniously-balanced, medium-bodied blend. The Majestuoso size (especially in the original 2009 edition) may still be better, but that’s no knock on the excellent 2013 Prominentes, which is definitely a cigar smoker’s cigar.

Verdict = Buy.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

News: Regulatory ‘Game Changer’ Creates New Opening to Repeal FDA Cigar Rules

30 Jan 2017

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Almost certainly, the timing of the FDA’s long-awaited deeming rule regulating cigars was influenced by a law passed two decades earlier called the Congressional Review Act. That legislation has long been interpreted to allow Congress to overturn agency rules and regulations within 60 legislative days of their enactment.

The Review Act works like this: If simple majorities of both the House and Senate vote in favor of a resolution to overturn an agency regulation, it then goes to the president’s desk. Unless the president vetoes the resolution, the regulation is not only overturned, but the agency is barred from enacting a similar rule again unless Congress specifically authorizes it to do so.

Because of the way the Congressional legislative calendar works, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published the rule on May 10, 2016, the 60 legislative days were then guaranteed to pass in a way where even if Congress used the Congressional Review Act to attempt to overturn the regulation, such an action would land on President Obama’s desk. Given that the Obama Administration had initiated the new rule and that Obama had signed the Tobacco Control Act into law that authorized the cigar rules, a veto was guaranteed.

Had the FDA waited until later (June 13 turned out to be the cutoff, although the exact date wasn’t known until later), the Congressional Review Act action might have ended up on the next president’s desk. Thus, by getting the cigar deeming rule published in early May 2016, it appeared it was insulated from being overturned by the Congressional Review Act by a waiting Obama veto threat.

However, as detailed in a Wall Street Journal article published last week, one of the original drafters of the Congressional Review Act says that’s not how the 60-day clock was intended to work and, in fact, numerous regulations going back years could still be overturned using the Congressional Review Act:

Here’s how it works: It turns out that the first line of the CRA requires any federal agency promulgating a rule to submit a “report” on it to the House and Senate. The 60-day clock starts either when the rule is published or when Congress receives the report—whichever comes later.

“There was always intended to be consequences if agencies didn’t deliver these reports,” Mr. Gaziano [who was involved in drafting and passing the law] tells me. “And while some Obama agencies may have been better at sending reports, others, through incompetence or spite, likely didn’t.” Bottom line: There are rules for which there are no reports. And if the Trump administration were now to submit those reports—for rules implemented long ago—Congress would be free to vote the regulations down.

There’s more. It turns out the CRA has a expansive definition of what counts as a “rule”—and it isn’t limited to those published in the Federal Register. The CRA also applies to “guidance” that agencies issue.

If this interpretation of the Congressional Review Act is correct, could it be used to repeal the FDA’s cigar rules? Opponents of the regualtuons say they are looking into the possibility. Inquiries to the FDA’s media office were directed to the agency’s Freedom of Information Act contact, but the FDA’s Tobacco Products’ page listing reports to Congress shows no reports on implementation of the Tobacco Control Act since 2013. (Even if a timely report was submitted, guidance documents necessary for enforcing the FDA cigar rules could still be challenged under Gaziano’s interpretation.)

For opponents of the FDA’s cigar regulations, the benefits of this line of attack are two-fold. First, it would eliminate the Senate filibuster as a means of stopping Congress from sending the repeal to President Trump. And second, unlike new agency rule-making to undo the regulation, using the Congressional Review Act would bar the FDA from reissuing the rule (or something similar under a different administration).

Of course, it’s hardly a given that the Republicans in Congress will try this strategy, which even its proponents admit is “aggressive” and would require significant “intestinal fortitude.” Still, an alternative pathway to permanent repeal of the FDA cigar rules has presented itself, if those who say they oppose out-of-control regulation are willing to back up their words with actions.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Quick Smoke: Charter Oak CT Shade Rothchild

29 Jan 2017

Each Saturday and Sunday we’ll post a Quick Smoke: not quite a full review, just our brief verdict on a single cigar of “buy,” “hold,” or “sell.”

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In 2016, Nicholas Melillo’s Foundation Cigar Co. expanded beyond its debut offering. Of the new releases, most of the attention (predictably, given Melillo’s history with Drew Estate) was paid to the Broadleaf-wrapped offerings, particularly the premium-priced Tabernacle. More under-the-radar was the Connecticut shade-wrapped version of the value-oriented Charter Oak brand. The Rothchild (4.5 x 50) features classic medium-bodied flavors with cream and roasted notes. Maybe not the most complex cigar, but it’s well-constructed, balanced, and priced right ($4.50).

Verdict = Buy.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Quick Smoke: Drew Estate Herrera Estelí TAA Exclusive

22 Jan 2017

Each Saturday and Sunday we’ll post a Quick Smoke: not quite a full review, just our brief verdict on a single cigar of “buy,” “hold,” or “sell.”

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This is a cigar I’ve wanted to try long before it was for sale or even announced. The combination of Herrera Estelí with a Broadleaf wrapper from the Liga No. 9 that made Drew Estate’s name among premium cigar smokers seems like an obvious win. Finally, last year such a blend was released as a limited edition available only to members of the Tobacconists’ Association of America (TAA). The well-constructed toro features a tasty medium- to full-bodied combination of dry, bittersweet chocolate, toasted wood, coffee, and light spice.

Verdict = Buy.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys