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News: Thirteen Premium Cigars Gain FDA Grandfather Status, Study Shows Youth Aren’t Smoking Handmade Cigars

26 Apr 2017


Although no one knew it at the time, one of most important dates for cigars sold within the United States would be February 15, 2007. Under the Tobacco Control Act and subsequent rulemaking, cigars marketed before that date are grandfathered in as exempt from FDA regulations, while those introduced afterwards will eventually need FDA approval to be legally sold and marketed within the U.S.

Although a determination of grandfather status isn’t yet needed for a cigar to be sold without going through one of the FDA approval tracks, the FDA has begun accepting submissions requesting a grandfathered status review of a tobacco product regulated under the deeming regulations that went into effect last year. Earlier this month, the FDA issued the first such determinations for 13 handmade cigars.

Two companies had cigar products established as grandfathered and thus exempt from FDA approval rules: Altadis USA, one of the largest sellers of handmade cigars in the United States, and Ortega Premium Cigars, a boutique company.

Altadis submitted five cigars from five different brands, each in a corona format: Montecristo Classic Collection Especial No. 1, Romeo y Julieta 1875 Exhibicion No. 1, H. Upmann Vintage Cameroon Corona, Saint Luis Rey Corona, and Don Mateo Natural No. 5 (a bundle cigar). The approach of establishing one size first may be a legal strategy, with the company likely to next seek to expand grandfather determinations to other formats.

Ortega Premium Cigars received grandfather determinations for four sizes in each of two brands: VIBE and REO. In 2007, VIBE and REO were under EO Brands, then co-owned by current VIBE and REO owner Eddie Ortega with his former business partner Erik Espinoza. Both cigars were collaborations between EO and Rocky Patel.

The Ortega determinations were shepherded through by attorney Frank Herrera, whose boutique law firm specializes in cigar trademark and FDA compliance issues. Ninety-eight other cigars have also received grandfather determinations, but those cigars would not be considered handmade or premium cigars.

FDA-Funded Study Confirms Minors Not Smoking Premium Cigars

One of the main arguments against the deeming rules that regulate premium cigars in a similar manner as cigarettes is that youth smoking of premium cigars is not an issue. This is also a reason frequently cited for the need for legislation exempting handmade cigars from FDA regulations.

Even the studies cited by the FDA when they rejected a proposed exemption for premium cigars over a certain price did not point to handmade cigar usage by minors, but relied on a more nebulous “youth and young adults.” As we noted at the time, that included usage rates for adults as old as 29.

A recent study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine buoys the arguments made by opponents of FDA regulation of traditional cigars. The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Food and Drug Administration and conducted by the Department of Health Behavior of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York.

As reported elsewhere, the study shows extremely low usage rates (2.3%) among those aged between 12 and 18, even with  extremely broad definitions of usage (even just “one or two puffs” ever). Fewer than one percent of the 13,651 youth surveyed said they used a cigar once (even “just one or two puffs”) in the 30 days prior to being surveyed.

A deeper look at the study’s numbers shows even less cause for concern for youth smoking of cigars. Of the tiny percentage of those who claim to use traditional cigars virtually all used other tobacco products too, while the number who exclusively used traditional cigars was so small that “estimates were suppressed” because the number was not statistically significant.

Though the conclusion that youth smoking of traditional cigars is virtually zero came as no surprise to those in the handmade cigar community, having FDA-funded research to back up these claims may prove useful in lobbying for the FDA to ease regulations on handmade cigars and for pushing Congress to pass an exemption.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Quick Smoke: La Gloria Cubana Rabito de Cochino

22 Apr 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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A few years ago, La Gloria Cubana released Rabito de Cochino (6.5 x 46), which was packaged in bundles of three tied together with yellow ribbon. I missed the release when it came out, but recently secured a three-pack. With an Ecuadorian wrapper around Dominican and Nicaraguan filler, Rabito de Cochino seems like a well-aged version of the classic Serie R blend in a lonsdale format with a pigtail cap. The profile is full-bodied with heavy leather flavors and lots of wood spice. Construction and combustion are flawless. This was originally around $15 for a bundle of three; currently, you can find these for around $3 per cigar if you shop around. That’s outstanding value.

Verdict = Buy.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Review: Jaime Garcia Reserva Especial TAA 2017

19 Apr 2017

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Jaime-Garcia-RE-TAA17 - 1 (1)In 2011, My Father Cigars released a Jaime Garcia Reserva Especial in a box-pressed torpedo size exclusive to members of the Tobacconists’ Association of America (TAA). In 2017, the same size is back again for TAA, a small association of 80 or so cigar retailers that includes many of the most prominent U.S. tobacconists. (In case you come across the 2011 version, you can differentiate the two by noting only the 2017 edition has “TAA” printed in gold on the blue foot band.)

I don’t think it’s unfair to say the Jaime Garcia Reserva Especial line is overshadowed by the eponymous My Father lines, much like tobacco patriarch Don José “Pepin” Garcia overshadows the talents his son, Jaime. But my experience smoking four of the Jaime Garcia Reserva Especial TAA 2017 cigars serves as a reminder that Jaime Garcia’s talents aren’t to be overlooked.

Like the entire Jaime Garcia Reserva Especial line, the $9.50 TAA edition (6.125 x 52) features a dark, oily Broadleaf wrapper around Nicaraguan binder and filler tobaccos. The exact differences between the TAA edition and the regular sizes aren’t disclosed, but reports are the TAA blend is tweaked and the 2017 version uses tobaccos that are extra aged (compared to the 2011 TAA).

A savory oak flavor dominates the cigar, which also features an abundance of unsweetened chocolate and black coffee. Other flavors include a subtle syrupy sweetness and pepper that particularly comes through on the retrohale.

Construction on each of the cigars was flawless. The box-pressed torpedo shape concentrates the flavors nicely on the palate. The taste is largely consistent from start to finish, but the chocolate and pepper both build towards the final third as the profile ramps up from medium-bodied to medium- to full-bodied.

The Jaime Garcia Reserva Especial TAA 2017 is a classic Broadleaf maduro smoke. It is rich and balanced with equal parts subtle sweetness and spice. This cigar makes me want to revisit the regular offerings in the Jamie Garcia Reserva Especial line. It earns a rating of four stogies out of five.

[To read more cigar reviews, please click here.]

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Quick Smoke: Viaje Summerfest 2010 Robusto

16 Apr 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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Today I smoked a cigar you could consider a bit of a unicorn. Only 50 boxes of 30 cigars were ever made of the Robusto edition of the debut 2010 Summerfest cigar, which, according to Viaje brand owner Andre Farkas, was a factory mistake. (Other Viaje Summerfest vitolas, including the 2010 Torpedo, which was the non-mistake version of the 2010 release, are known for having a shaggy unfinished foot.) The Nicaraguan puro features sourdough bread notes along with cinnamon, light spice, and buttery notes. It’s well-balanced and medium-bodied, though there is a peppery spice that builds in the final third. Well-constructed, this is an example of a well-made, well-executed smoke that was good when it debuted and has improved with age.

Verdict = Buy.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Quick Smoke: Joya Red Robusto

9 Apr 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.”joya-red-sq


Introduced in 2014, Joya Red represented a new profile for Joya de Nicaragua, and a move away from the longer “Joya de Nicaragua” branding in favor of just “Joya.” The Nicaraguan Habano wrapper has a nice shine that looks good with the gold and red band. Flavor-wise, it’s tasty with toasty wood, cappuccino, and just a touch of pepper. Joya de Nicaragua has always been known for full-bodied Nicaraguan puros, but I’ve always felt their versatility was demonstrated by the mild Cabinetta series. Joya Red continues to show off that versatility with tasty medium-bodied flavors at a fair price.

Verdict = Buy.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Thoughts on Boutique Cigars, Cigar Snobs, and Wine

5 Apr 2017


If you prefer boutique cigar makers, are you an enlightened cigar smoker, or a cigar snob?

A wine column I read in the Wall Street Journal recently reminded me of this debate. Here’s the key passage:

A wine snob’s philosophy might be summed up in six words: Big is bad, small is good. From winemakers who tout the tininess of their yields to retailers, sommeliers, and collectors who wield the “boutique” word, small is a synonym for quality. Big, on the other hand, is almost automatically assumed to be bad. Any wine produced in large quantities by a large winery must surely be the work of a machine and a marketing team and not a sensitive and caring family.

And yet there are plenty of exceptions to this wine snob rule. There are many good, even world famous, wines made by big wineries and some real dreck turned out in tiny amounts by winemakers who are a one-man or one-woman show. What are the real virtues of small versus large?

I’ve always said there are many parallels between wine and cigars, and this is no exception. The personal connection—forged, perhaps, by meeting a cigar maker at an event, or simply because you can more easily identify the single person most responsible for the cigar you’re smoking—is a large part of the propensity towards boutique makers.

But the analogy between wine and cigars isn’t perfect. The smallest winemakers turn their grapes into wine on their own equipment. (I know someone who buys grapes and uses equipment in their own garage to make wine.) Whether a small vineyard or an even smaller garagiste, they make their product on-premises: crushing, pressing, and fermenting.

For cigar makers, “boutique” brands are mostly rolled at someone else’s larger factory. There are, of course, exceptions—RoMa Craft Tobac owns and operates its own factory, Nica Sueño, for example—but most cigars identified with boutiques are actually made at a larger factory owned by someone else.

Bigger cigar makers are more likely to  be involved in growing their own tobacco than smaller ones, but just about everyone is buying some tobacco, especially highly-valued wrapper leaf. When it comes to wine making, some of the best wines are produced from the grapes of a single vineyard, emphasizing the unique characteristics of the terroir. Meanwhile, the best cigars show off the skills of the blender, combining different types and primings of tobacco, and often using multi-country blends. (Puros—cigars made from tobacco entirely from one country—are the exception, not the rule, today.)

A larger-scale wine maker gets economies of scale from larger fermentation tanks and more automated bottling lines. But whether a cigar factory makes 100,000 cigars a month or 100,000 cigars a day, each handmade cigar is made the exact same way. A skilled bunchero and rollero will pretty much have the same output in a large factory as they will in a small operation. Making each cigar is a labor-intensive process that, so far, no technology has been able to reproduce to the quality that premium cigar consumers expect. Marketing can be done at scale, but advertising can only get a consumer to try a cigar once, not go back for another.

Arguably, the biggest advantage smaller companies have is they don’t need a cigar to be sold in large numbers for it to be a success. A cigar line that sells 20,000 units a year may be relatively insignificant for a company that moves millions and millions of units. For a small operation, though, 20,000 units sold can be a huge success. This lets smaller brands appeal to a more niche audience. (Although, increasingly, large companies are making limited-release cigars that use limited tobacco stocks that might not be available for a larger release.)

What does all this mean? Fundamentally, while you can appreciate craft or boutique cigar companies, yes, there is something snobbish about automatically dismissing a cigar because the company behind it is a multi-national corporation. The truth is, cigar makers of all sizes have their advantages.

Small cigar companies make excellent cigars. So do large ones. Ultimately, each cigar must stand on its own and provide the consumer good value. With so many good cigars out there, there’s little reason to smoke mediocre cigars.

Patrick S

photo credit: Flickr

Quick Smoke: Rum Barrel-Aged and Nicaraguan Tobacco Experimental Blend

2 Apr 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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So here’s a cigar you’ll never smoke (since only one was ever made). One of the best parts of the many factory trips I’ve been on is experimenting with blends. Generally, a dozen or more types of tobacco are laid out. You pick out a combination and hopefully a skilled roller is there to turn your concept into a smokable fuma. It’s a humbling experience that gives you real appreciation for the difficulty of creating an enjoyable blend. A few months ago, I did this on a visit to General Cigar’s Dominican factory, which has some of the largest tobacco stocks in the world. One fuma I created used two types of rum barrel-aged tobacco (Dominican Piloto Cubano and Estelí ligero), which I combined with Seco (ASP and Estelí) and Viso tobaccos from Nicaragua. I had the blend draped in an Ecuadorian Sumatra wrapper. The some of the tobaccos from the rum barrels were a little too wet at the time, so I decided to wait to smoke it until now. I’m not going to say the experiment turned out amazing, but with a little sweetness and lots of wood spice, I actually would smoke this again. That’s the low bar against which I judge this experiment a success.

Verdict = Hold.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys