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Cigar Spirits: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon

28 Jul 2015

elijah-craig-bp

The Elijah Craig bourbon brand, made by Heaven Hill distillery, is a perfect example of both the reality and the myth surrounding the bourbon shortage that seems to make national news every few months. That the regular 12 year old small batch version is consistently on shelves demonstrates that at least for the largest distilleries – Heaven Hill also makes Evan Williams and a host of other bourbons – their standard release versions don’t seem to be suffering too much from the aforementioned shortage.

However, more limited offerings – especially older ones – is where the shortage is most evident. Only a few years ago I could walk into a Virginia state liquor store and grab an Elijah Craig 18 year single barrel bourbon for around $45. That release has since been discontinued and instead 20-23 year old versions of Elijah Craig were released that can run you over $200, if you can find them. (Elijah Craig 18 is supposed to be introduced soon, but with an expected price many times what it was only a few years ago.)

Although “only” a 12 year bourbon, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is another example of the booming market for high-end limited release bourbon. A few years ago Heaven Hill began releasing barrel proof versions of the 12 year bourbon and now a small offering hits stores about three times a year. Suggested price is $50 but depending on the store, you may see it selling for twice that much.

Each of eight and counting batches is bottled unfiltered at its natural barrel proof which varies from 128 (the release I sampled for this article) to over 140 proof. I’ve tried a handful of the releases and while there are some variations, they share the most fundamental characteristics.

Even the 128 proof version is a beast of bourbon with a strong nose full of wood, spice and clove with notes of citrus. On the palate the high proof is very apparent, with charred wood, spice, vanilla, more clove, black pepper and dry chocolate. I highly recommend a few drops of water in this, which eliminates the sharpness but leaves behind all the full-flavors of this powerhouse. The finish is long and woody.

The appeal of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is easy to see: Barrel proof bourbons are increasingly in demand, 12 Year barrel proof bourbons are few and far between, and none besides Elijah Craig can be found for $50. Still, I don’t recommend it unless you are certain you like barrel proof bourbons because there isn’t much subtle or gentle about Elijah Craig Barrel Proof bourbon.

As for pairings, rich, robust earthy cigars are needed to stand up to the strong flavors of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. I’d particularly recommend the Tatuaje Havana Verocu, RoMa Craft Cromagnon, or Drew Estate Liga Privada.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Quick Smoke: Drew Estate Undercrown Shade Robusto

25 Jul 2015

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

Undercrown-shade-robusto

My colleague reviewed the Gran Toro size of the new Drew Estate Undercrown Shade (a cigar we exclusively revealed) a few days ago and called it a “well-constructed standout smoke at a reasonable price.” Today, I’m smoking the the Robusto (5 x 54), which also features an Ecuadorian wrapper, Sumatran binder, and Nicaraguan and Domincan filler. The cigar is mild- to medium-bodied with cedar, sweet cream, and just a hint of spice, plus some lingering vegetal notes. It’s not nearly as balanced or complex as the Herrera Estelí, which was also blended by Willy Herrera, but it is still a solid smoke with flawless construction.

Verdict = Hold.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

 

Cigar Tip: Read and Try Before You Buy (Trade Show Edition)

22 Jul 2015

When I first started attending the IPCPR Trade Show in 2008, the primary reason was to get news about new cigars I couldn’t get elsewhere. These days that news isn’t so hard to come by. The basic details of pretty much any new cigar can be found online a few days after the convention starts.

Still, there are good reasons for me to go to the Trade Show. First, walking the floor and speaking with cigar makers  in person gives us a perspective that simply cannot be achieved otherwise and is immensely helpful when writing about cigars for the rest of the year. Second, frankly, it’s the easiest way to get samples of pre-release cigars that in many cases won’t be for sale for weeks or even months. (We don’t go around asking for samples, but they are almost always offered.)

If you regularly read our site and others, you’ll probably read lots of reviews of brand new cigars in the coming months. And while I’m sure we’re all flattered when people go out and buy a box of cigars based on a review without trying them first, my advice is: Don’t!

This is good advice always, but especially noteworthy when there’s a flood of new cigars about to hit the market. Unless you have an unlimited budget and are willing to repeatedly donate the 19 cigars from that box you didn’t really like to the troops, save your hard-earned money and only buy boxes of cigars you are certain you enjoy. Plus, cigars are rarely discounted heavily when they are first available; if you wait a little you might be able to find a better deal.

If you read this site (thanks for that, by the way) and others you probably find reviews a helpful way to decide which new cigars to try. But even so, you should ask yourself a few things. First, is the reviewer truthful and willing to say unflattering things about a cigar if it is warranted? (If not, why are you even reading the review?) Second, do you find you generally enjoy the same things as that reviewer? (A “great cigar” is rarely great for everybody, because everyone’s palate values different qualities.)

Next, wait for the cigar to come out and head to your local tobacconist and buy one or two. (If you can’t find it locally, split a five-pack with a friend.) Because if you can find it for sale one day, you can almost certainly find more next week.

There’s a saying on the Trade Show floor: It’s not hard to to get a retailer to order a new cigar once; the challenge is getting them to reorder it, again and again. The same goes for consumers: Being the answer to the proverbial “What’s New?” question may sell a cigar once, but only your experience with that cigar can get you to buy more.

But don’t just take it from me. Take it from Steve Saka of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust (who in many ways was the original online cigar writer for his site called Cigar Nexus long before he was a cigar maker):

Patrick S

video credit: The Cigar Authority

Commentary: Big Questions for the 2015 Cigar Trade Show

16 Jul 2015

IPCPR15

On Friday I’ll be flying to New Orleans for the annual International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR) Trade Show. It’s always a flurry of activity, not to mention a great way to take the pulse of the cigar industry and see many friends.

We’ll have lots of coverage (check back Saturday for more details). But in preparation I’ve been thinking about the questions that will come up repeatedly. While part of our coverage will, of course, be getting the scoop on the new cigars being introduced, I also anticipate these three questions coming up a lot:

What’s hot?

What’s good? What’s getting the buzz? What new cigar surprised you (in a good way)? After a day or two talking with people you tend to get an idea for which cigars have the most buzz. Two days out, we already know many of the new cigars that will be introduced, but there are still many that won’t be known until the show floor opens Saturday.

Here’s an early prediction for “buzziest” cigar: Padrón’s new Connecticut line. Full new lines are few and far between for Padrón, which makes this one highly anticipated. Until attendees get a chance to smoke it, though, you never know what the reaction will be. Inevitably, at the cigar shops and bars after the show floor closes, when the booze starts flowing, you get the unvarnished opinions about what’s surprisingly good and what’s underwhelming.

When do we go back to Las Vegas?

I’ve attended two previous Trade Shows in New Orleans, one in Orlando, and three in Las Vegas. Every time the show isn’t in Las Vegas, you hear complaints about how it should be. (Not to mention the humidity of New Orleans in the dead of summer.) Invariably, manufacturers say foot traffic and attendance are better in Sin City. Plus, let’s face it: The entire city is built to host such events, with limitless hotels, restaurants, and venues for events large and small.

So why isn’t the Trade Show in Las Vegas every year? IPCPR officials have their reasons. They want the show to be closer to East Coast, and they want to vary the off-site entertainment offerings (not everyone loves Las Vegas) especially since many retail shop owners bring their spouses along who aren’t all that interested in spending every hour of the day negotiating cigar deals.

Still, I think there is an even more fundamental reason why the Trade Show doesn’t just stay in Vegas every year. There are only a few places large enough to host the show that also allow for smoking in the convention center, and moving it around keeps the potential hosts in line. Officials in Las Vegas and New Orleans know their city could be eliminated from consideration if their anti-smoking policies go too far, so keeping multiple places in the mix serves an important purpose. Nevertheless, next year the show will be back in Las Vegas, and I’m sure most manufacturers will be happy to be back.

Ready for the FDA?

As my colleague pointed out last month, FDA regulation is the cloud that hangs over everything at this year’s convention. The regulations were due in June and could drop at any moment. I look forward to asking cigar makers about what preparations they are making. For example: Have they begun to think about which post-2007 cigars they will push for FDA approval if the process costs hundreds of thousands of dollars as expected, and which will they simply just stop selling in the U.S.?

I’ve already noted how prices are likely being impacted by the pending regulations. If the FDA adopts Option Two with an exemption for cigars over $10, it will encourage more $10+ cigars, but at that price consumers expect something special. Every year a significant number of new releases disappear, or are at least relegated to the discount bins before the next show. My biggest worry is that most new cigars from this year’s Trade Show are just walking dead, not because of natural competition, but because even cigars that have limited success won’t be worth the high cost of attempting to seek the FDA approval necessary to keep them on the market under the FDA regime.

Exactly how prepared the industry is remains to be seen. I suspect some companies are flying by the seat of their pants, while others have been working FDA regulation into their plans for years. It is certainly something I look forward to asking cigar makers about. I only hope the answers are comforting about the future of the industry.

Patrick S

photo credit: IPCPR

Quick Smoke: JFR XT Corojo 654

12 Jul 2015

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

JFR-XT-Corojo-654

The 654 (6 x 54)  is the only normal-sized cigar in the JFR (“Just for Retailers”) XT line made by Casa Fernandez; the others are 660 (6 x 60) and 770 (7 x 70). Billed as the most full-bodied JFR, the XT features a Corojo wrapper (there’s also a San Andrés maduro version) around Nicaraguan binder and filler tobaccos. The box-pressed smoke starts out with a surprisingly tame combination of leather, sawdust, and roast nuts. As it progresses, mild spice is added to the medium-bodied smoke. Construction is superb, and the price ($6.92) is reasonable. But that describes many Casa Fernandez smokes. This one, while not unpleasant, isn’t a standout.

Verdict = Hold.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

News: House Appropriations Bill Would Lessen FDA Devastation to Cigar Industry

9 Jul 2015

Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee took an important first step toward fixing one of the most outrageous aspects of the proposed rules to regulate cigars under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Fdaprotect

The appropriations bill passed the Committee yesterday for next year’s funding of the FDA, included a funding rider to stop the FDA from retroactively regulating cigars and other tobacco products introduced since February 2007. Under the legislative fix, the new date existing products would be grandfathered in as exempt from the costly and difficult FDA pre-approval process would change from February 15, 2007 to the date (likely later this year) when the proposed regulations are finalized.

While cigars introduced after the FDA’s cigar regulations go into effect would still be subject to FDA approval before being marketed or sold—a process that likely would take months or years and could cost an estimated $400,000 per each new cigar blend and size—the change would be a significant improvement from the current situation. Absent any change, under current law, most or every cigar introduced since February 15, 2007 would be subject to the FDA pre-approval process, with the likely impact of permanently making illegal most cigars introduced in the past eight years.

The key language in the appropriations bill still has a long way to go before becoming law. Having successfully passed the House Committee, including surviving an amendment vote 23-26 to strip the FDA regulation date change out of the bill, the bill now goes to the House floor for passage.

If it passes the House, the next step would be a companion bill from the Senate Appropriations Committee. There, Kansas Senator Moran, a co-sponsor of the Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act, is chairman of the subcommittee with oversight over the FDA and could be key to ensuring the language eliminating the February 2007 date is included in the Senate bill.

If such language passes out of the full Senate Appropriations Committee, next step would be the full Senate, after which the bill would go to President Obama’s desk to be signed into law or vetoed.

Analysis

With the Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act seemingly stalled for the immediate future, this is a significant and serious attempt to address the devastating impact of the proposed FDA regulations. Still, it faces  major challenges, not the least of which is the fact that the proposed FDA regulations could become finalized any day now—before any appropriations bills are passed.

According to an agenda issued last year, the deadline for the FDA regulations was June 2015, and in Senate testimony in March FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg reiterated that now-passed goal. In addition to time constraints, two other issues complicate the process significantly.

First, while cigar industry representatives work to protect cigars from the damaging impact of the regulations, the elephant in the room is e-cigarettes. A large part of the agitation for these regulations by anti-tobacco activists is because the deeming rule would effectively ban e-cigarettes and vaping devices—which they view, almost certainly incorrectly, as having negative public health implications.

While, in theory, new cigars could be approved by the FDA as “substantially equivalent” to grandfathered cigars, the e-cigarette industry was almost nonexistent in February 2007, meaning approval of e-cigarettes and other vaping products would be even more difficult than the already arduous process that new cigars would face. This hardens the anti-tobacco opposition to a change in the cutoff for grandfathered tobacco products, but it also means the growing e-cigarette industry could be a key ally for cigars in pushing for a change.

The second complication has nothing to do with specific issues of tobacco regulation but is the often dysfunctional federal budget process. While the system is set up for 12 appropriations bills, frequently budget showdowns due to fiscal deadlines lead to continuing budget resolutions and omnibus spending bills that combine various appropriation bills into one large spending bill. To ease passage, appropriations riders, like the one on FDA regulation approved yesterday by the House Appropriations Committee, can get stripped out of the final bill, especially if leadership doesn’t make their inclusion a priority.

Ultimately, while this rider can alleviate some of the damage FDA regulation of cigars will cause, it doesn’t fix the larger issue: The vibrant handmade cigar industry will come to a screeching halt if new cigars are forced to go through an FDA approval process that takes months (or years) and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. To fix this bigger problem, cigar smokers must work towards passage of the Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act to remove the FDA’s authorization to regulate handmade cigars.

Patrick S

photo credit: Best Price Cigars

Exclusive News: Drew Estate Prepares to Release Undercrown Shade, Plus New Cigars from La Palina and A.J. Fernendez

6 Jul 2015

undercrown-shade

Drew Estate is poised to release Undercrown Shade, a new line based on the Undercrown blend featuring a No. 1 grade shade-grown Connecticut wrapper.

Here is Drew Estate’s description of the new line, which StogieGuys.com uncovered in the recently distributed 322-page Tobacco Retailer’s Almanac, sent to members of the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR):

More than just a wrapper swap, this ‘Crown was a three-year process working from the ground up using the finest blend of well-aged, long leaf tobaccos from our vast holdings in Estelí, Nicaragua. Finished with a No. 1 golden shade wrapper, the most sought-after leaf in the world, Undercrown Shade is a naturally sweet, earthy smoke with satisfying body for any time of day.

The line will be available in boxes of 25 in the same six regular production vitolas as the original Undercrown line:

Belicoso 6 x 52
Corona Doble 7 x 54
Corona 5.38 x 46
Gordito 6 x 60
Gran Toro 6 x 52
Robusto 5 x 54

References to “the most sought-after leaf in the world” and “shade” imply the blend uses a Connecticut-grown wrapper leaf, as opposed to an Ecuadorian-grown Connecticut wrapper, which Drew Estate uses on Herrera Estelí. Ecuadorian wrapper isn’t usually grown under shade netting because of the natural cloud cover that produces a similar leaf without it.

Jonathan Drew hinted on Facebook that a Connecticut shade-grown wrapper project was in the works last August when he wrote: “Historically, Drew Estate has always used the Shade Leaf from Ecuador, but this Connecticut leaf is mad juicy and getting me crazy. I mean like… well… what’s a couple thousand pounds of this juicy leaf going to taste like with a tweaked Undercrown Blend…. Oh wait, maybe a tweaked Rustica… Oh shucks, ima get all kind of flack for this post.”

La Palina Introduces Red Label

Also listed in the Tobacco Retailers Almanac is a previously unannounced La Palina Red Label. The line will comes in four sizes: Gordo (6 x 60), Toro (6 x 50), Robusto (5 x 52), and Petit Lancero (6 x 40). All are listed as shipping in boxes of 20. Although no other details are printed, a recent posting announcing the selections for Cigar Dave’s cigar of the month club reveal more details about the Dominican-made blend, which features a Ecuadorian Habano wrapper, Ecuadorian binder, and Nicaraguan and Dominican filler.

AJ Fernandez Enclave

enclave

Although no other details are revealed, we do have artwork (above) to share for the upcoming Enclave cigar by A.J. Fernendez. The ad appears in the Tobacco Retailer’s Almanac. A February article in the publication BayouLife mentioned the project, though the blend was still being tweaked at the time. More details, presumably, will be unveiled between now and the start of the IPCPR Trade Show.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys/Drew Estate/A.J. Fernandez