Archive | Commentary RSS feed for this section

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

5 Apr 2017

wine-cigars

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

Commentary: Take Time to Smoke, Take Time While Smoking

20 Mar 2017

Cigar Watch Time

It’s incredibly cliché but, let’s face it, there just aren’t enough hours in a day—especially if you’re a cigar enthusiast. Between work, commutes, kids, errands, three square meals, taxes, and all the other responsibilities us grown-ups shoulder, how exactly is a human supposed to set aside an hour (more reasonably, 90 minutes) to enjoy some premium tobacco?

The older I get, the harder it gets to find the time. Not only do the days, weeks, months, and years seem to get shorter, but there’s just so much more going on in my life. My job is more demanding. I travel more frequently. And, most importantly, I’m now responsible for the upbringing of two small people I helped make. I would imagine many of you can relate to this (albeit blessed) conundrum.

But we must find the time. We must smoke cigars, even if it means waking up 90 minutes earlier and/or staying up 90 minutes later. We must overcome obstacles like temperature, smoking bans, and—the hardest hurdle of all—the finite number of minutes in each day.

I need my regularly scheduled cigar. Not because I’m addicted to the leaf (unlike cigarettes, I don’t know one cigar smoker who has a physiological dependency on cigars), but because I need to unwind. I need some quiet moments when I can kick my feet up and relish in the aromas, flavors, sights, and sounds of an impeccably made cigar.

I notice many people choose to pair up cigar smoking with another activity, be it golf, driving, walking, or whatever. Some are probably just trying to cram a cigar or two into their busy schedules; others might proactively prefer to not make the cigar the centerpiece of any given experience. Personally, I’ve always found the best way to get the most out of a cigar is to put the rest of the world on hold and just sit down and smoke. Finding the time to do so is the tricky part.

Speaking of time, be sure to take your time while you smoke. Smoke slowly. Cigar enjoyment is not a race, and there’s no prize for finishing first.

Besides, in order to “cook” the tobacco at the right temperature, you should try to limit your puffs to a reasonable pace. When you puff you’re caramelizing the sugars in the tobacco to bring out the flavors. If you puff too often, the temperature will rise, the tobacco will cook too fast, and the smoke may get hot and harsh.

I find this is especially true with full-bodied smokes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone sucking down a ligero-laden cigar like it’s going out of style. I can’t imagine that’s enjoyable. Most things, cigar smoking included, aren’t nearly as pleasant if rushed.

My advice? Carve out some time to smoke a fine cigar and, when you do, make the most of the experience by taking your time.

Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Cigars and Baseball Go Together Like Peanut Butter and Jelly

27 Feb 2017

Wrigley Field

Baseball is back. And not a moment too soon. Sure, the MLB regular season doesn’t officially begin until April 2—highlighted by an Opening Night prime-time battle between my World Series Champion Chicago Cubs and the Cardinals—but, in case you didn’t notice, Spring Training games kicked off this weekend.

This week I’m taking a break from the Chicago winter to attend a few Cubs games in Arizona (in addition to playing a few rounds of golf, soaking up some much-needed sun, and firing up my fair share of cigars). I’m happy to say my family and I will be at Sloan Park to see the Cubs take on the White Sox and Angels. We can’t wait.

Most years, spring is the best time for Cubs fans—when hopes are high, everyone is in first place, and you just can’t help but wonder if “next year” is finally here. The feeling is a lot different this year as the Cubs look to defend their title (though, to be sure, expectations are still incredibly high).

The arrival of Spring Training also serves as an annual signal that a long winter is coming to an end. While here in Chicago we no doubt still have some tough weather ahead, the first sighting of the squad taking the field on TV is a symbol that a corner has finally been turned. They days get longer. The temperatures slowly but surely begin to rise. And, with any luck, those brief glimpses of sun start to become more frequent.

These changes also portend good news for the cigar enthusiast community. Winter’s end brings improved conditions for cigar smoking as well as cigar storage. Whether you like baseball or not, I think we can all get behind the fact that spring should be welcomed with open arms.

If you’re anything like me, though, you’re a devoted baseball fan and an appreciator of the complementary nature of cigars and America’s pastime. Baseball and cigars are such a wonderful pairing. Unlike faster-paced sports and sports that are played indoors or out in the cold, baseball is meant to take place outside under natural summer sunlight. Nowadays, most teams play most games under the lights. But when I think baseball, I think suntan lotion, floppy hats, peanuts, cold beer, and frosty malts at Wrigley.

I also think relaxation. While many criticize baseball for its lazy pauses between pitches, batters, and innings, I’ve always enjoyed those breaks. They give you the opportunity to study the game and have conversations with friends and family. Is this a hit-and-run scenario? Would the opposing manager consider a pitch-out with this count? How does this hitter fare against left-handers? Are they drawing the infield in to guard against a bunt, or are they staying at double-play depth? The answers to such questions are better pondered over premium tobacco.

That’s one of the reasons why, when I can’t be at Wrigley Field, I do most of my baseball watching at home. You’ll find me outside listening to the broadcast on the radio and/or watching the action live on my laptop via MLB TV. The atmosphere is perfect. Cigars are welcome and plentiful, and the beers are more modestly priced. And nothing pairs better with a Cubs win than a fine cigar.

Patrick A

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: Older and (Somewhat) Wiser, At Least When it Comes to Cigars

13 Feb 2017

20170213_053259148_iOS

Over the course of twelve years of serious cigar smoking, I’ve learned a thing or two. True, there’s still so much more cigar knowledge to absorb—that’s one of the beautiful things about this complex, engrossing hobby—but I’ve come a long, long way since my early days as a young brother of the leaf.

I was thinking about this a week ago today, on my 34th birthday. Birthdays are a natural time for reflection, a chance to take stock in what has been accomplished, what is yet to be achieved, and, of course, lessons learned.

My cigar development—and the development of any new cigar smoker, I think—can be broken down into a few different categories of knowledge. First is gaining an understanding of your own palate. What you like, what you don’t like, and which cigars tend to satisfy you the best under different circumstances. This category is incredibly personal. There are no right or wrong answers, and your palate’s preferences may be entirely unique to you. This is why the phrase, “The best cigar in the world is the cigar you like the best,” rings true.

The second category concerns learning how to properly evaluate and taste a cigar. While the outcome of any evaluation might be completely subjective (for reasons mentioned in the preceding paragraph), there are a few criteria that, more or less, are universally applied. Think broad standards for characteristics like appearance, flavor, aroma, balance, burn, draw, smoke production, etc. For any one of these—like flavor, for example—there might be a number of tools that can be employed to assist with a thorough examination, like a tasting wheel or prevailing cigar literature about flavors commonly found in cigars.

Finally, I tend to lump all other cigar knowledge into a catch-all category for cigar-related tips, ritual know-hows, cultural norms, and other miscellaneous items. Here, you’ll find stuff like how to properly cut a cigar, how to store/age cigars, cigar shop etiquette, etc. This final category, I think, is teeming with misinformation—tidbits that 22-year-old me read or heard, accepted at face value since I didn’t know any better, and have since learned were either incorrect or misleading.

Allow me to throw out a few examples. For instance, ever recall learning that only wooden matches or butane lighters were suitable for lighting a cigar? Something about lighter fluid tainting a cigar’s flavor? Well, I’m going to call bullshit on this one. Not only have I used lighter fluid to ignite a cigar many times without noticing any impact to taste, but I have personally witnessed many of the world’s foremost cigar authorities doing the same. If the occasional use of a gas station-bought Bic lighter is good enough for some of the most admired cigar makers/blenders, then it’s good enough for me.

Here’s another load of crap I was taught early on: “To fix an uneven burn, you can rotate the cigar so the slow-burning part is at the bottom of the cigar. Because a fire needs oxygen to burn, the bottom of the cigar will burn faster (as it has access to more oxygen) than the top. This is also why you should rotate your cigar as you smoke.” I’ve tried this technique thousands of times and can’t say I’ve ever seen it work. If your cigar starts to burn unevenly, just touch it up with your lighter and be done with it. Problem solved.

One last example for you. When I was younger, I used to obsess over monitoring the humidity inside my humidors. I had read 72 percent relative humidity was ideal, and I made every effort to achieve and maintain that level. Then I read 69 percent was best. Then I started to pay attention to a crowd that suggested certain types of cigars aged best at one humidity level, and others required different conditions. Enough already. After much trial and error, I don’t think it matters much. Somewhere between 65 and 72 percent is probably best. These days I just get the 69 percent Boveda packs, throw them in my humidors, and don’t even bother to worry about reading and calibrating the hygrometers anymore.

Am I starting to sound like a bitter old man? Maybe. But I think I’ve been around the block enough to form my own cigar-related opinions, however incorrect they may seem to some.

On that topic, if you disagree with anything above, or if you have other cigar myths you’d like to dispel, please let me know in the comments below. I am eager to continue to learn, and I am excited to see what knowledge I can attain over the next twelve years.

Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Going to the Go-To

6 Feb 2017

Perdomo Lot 23

Get a group of passionate cigar smokers together, and it won’t be long before someone starts talking about an incredible cigar they had.

The conversation will then pick up, and you’ll likely hear about some limited edition Davidoff, an aged Cuban Montecristo No. 2, or a rare Padrón.

What you probably won’t hear is anyone singing the praises of their regular go-to selection (unless you’re the sort for whom Opus is just a daily cigar). For most of us, though, the go-to cigar may not be flashy, but it’s the one we smoke more than any other.

When I refer to a go-to cigar, I’m thinking of what you reach for when you don’t really have anything specific in mind, but want an experience you know you’ll enjoy. It’s the cigar you almost always have on hand and are willing to share, secure in the knowledge that it will satisfy just about anyone.

I have two cigars that fall into this category, both traditionally sized (5 x 50) robustos: the regular Perdomo Lot 23 Natural, and the original Old Henry.

Some long-time StogieGuys.com readers (with excellent memories) may recall that my first encounter with the Lot 23, a Toro that time, was less than stellar. But some years later I revisited the line and the Robusto made me a believer.

It’s not an expensive cigar. A box of 20 is around $90, and you’ll often spot price reductions online for five-packs and boxes. Construction and performance are consistent. It’s medium in strength with some spice, some sweetness, and a satisfying finish.

Old Henry is a house blend for Holt’s Cigar Co. rolled at the My Father Cigars factory in Nicaragua. A StogieGuys.com colleague reviewed the Robusto in 2008, and the following year I reviewed the Corona. At that point, I favored the Corona marginally over the Robusto, and I’ve since gone back and forth as to which is my favorite.

Like Lot 23, Old Henry is modestly priced. The Robusto comes in a cardboard box of 25 for about $100; the corona runs about $5 less. In addition, Holt’s almost always offers some sort of swag—an extra five-pack, a lighter, an ashtray—with a box purchase.

I try to keep a box of one or the other—sometimes both—in my humidor. And they often don’t last long.

George E

photo credit: Perdomo

Commentary: Random Thoughts from the Humidor (XXIV)

12 Dec 2016

capture

This special winter edition of Random Thoughts from the Humidor is dedicated to the snowstorm that blew through my hometown of Chicago this weekend. I know many of you are also dealing with ice, snow, and plummeting temperatures, so I thought today we’d dig into our extensive archives to find some tips that are especially relevant in these cold months.

Take a Year-End Inventory

In a perfect world, I would only have one very large humidor to worry about, not a handful of medium- to small-sized humidors. But because my many humidors carry sentimental value, I can’t bring myself to consolidate. Plus, given the space I have in our condo in Chicago, one very large humidor would be a lot tougher to make space for. One challenge with this setup is monitoring the humidification levels of each individual humidor. Another challenge is understanding what I have and where it’s located. For this reason, every so often I’ll empty the humidors out, get the stock re-organized, remind myself what cigars I have (and what I’m missing), and “re-charge” the humidors. It takes some time, but I find the process enjoyable and valuable. I suggest you do the same, especially as you prepare your own humidor(s) for the winter. If you can, take your time while you work, and enjoy an excellent cigar you’re sure to be surprised to find at the bottom of your stash.

Re-Acquaint Yourself with a Good Tobacconist

In the winter, a good tobacconist that provides a comfortable, warm place to smoke is worth its weight in gold. As you search for a home base from which to conduct your winter cigar operations, feel free to use this article as a helpful decision-making framework. It lists criteria for consideration, like a good selection, fair prices, hours of operation, WiFi, cleanliness, beverage options, and more.

Brave the Cold

If you don’t have an indoor cigar sanctuary in or near your home, you’ll want to start smoking shorter, smaller cigars to minimize your time outdoors. Other than gloves, space-heaters, hats, and long underwear, that’s probably the best advice I can give you. Remember: That 7-inch, 50-ring gauge Churchill you’ve been eyeing in your humidor is a serious investment in time. If you smoke slowly—as you should to maximize enjoyment—it could take two or more hours to complete. Also, keep these words of wisdom from my colleague in mind; they might help you muster the strength to endure the elements: “To brave inclement weather shows true dedication to the wonderful hobby that is cigars… The cold weather smoker need not smile while he bundles up for a sub-freezing stogie session, but he does. When many might close up the humidor until late spring, the cold weather smoker bravely smokes on.”

Drink Well

While you’re out in the snow, warm your bones with some of our favorite winter libations. The Stonewall Jackson has been a favorite of mine for years. You also can’t go wrong with a hot buttered rum. And don’t forget that winter beers can definitely make solid cigar accompaniments.

Patrick A

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: How Will Castro’s Death Impact Cigars?

28 Nov 2016

fidel

By now you most assuredly know that Fidel Castro—the communist revolutionary who overthrew Cuban President Fulgencio Batista via guerrilla warfare in 1959 and ruled the island nation as a totalitarian dictator until 2006, when he installed his brother at the helm—died on Friday, November 25. He was 90 years old.

Castro’s legacy will be a complicated one. The myriad narratives will be shaped by the biases of the authors who document his life, and by the millions of people who will either mourn or celebrate his demise. These threads of opinion will not abide national boundaries, either; consider that, even among Cubans themselves, there will be those who benefited from Castro’s socialist state, while others did not fare so well.

Those who lost their businesses, land, homes, and even family members will not remember El Presidente fondly. I don’t need to remind you that human rights violations were—and still are—not uncommon under the Castro regime. Consider the following summary of Fidel’s time in power, courtesy of the Washington Post: “It began with mass summary executions of Batista officials and soon progressed to internment of thousands of gay men and lesbians; systematic, block-by-block surveillance of the entire citizenry; repeated purges, complete with show trials and executions, of the ruling party; and punishment for dissident artists, writers, and journalists. Mr. Castro’s regime learned from the totalitarian patron he chose to offset the U.S. adversary—the Soviet Union, whose offensive nuclear missiles he welcomed, bringing the world to the brink of armageddon. Mr. Castro sponsored violent subversive movements in half a dozen Latin American countries and even in his dotage helped steer Venezuela to economic and political catastrophe through his patronage of Hugo Chávez.”

I have my own biases about Fidel Castro. While I do not harbor any personal connection to Cuba, I believe humans flourish in free societies, and the proper role of government is to be limited in power and scope, enabling individuals and businesses to interact with one another on voluntary terms. Cuba lies but 90 miles from America’s shores, yet it serves as a tragic example of the impacts of a politically and economically overarching government. You will not count me among those mourning Castro.

My opinion of the late dictator hardly matters, though. If you’re reading this, you might be wondering what Castro’s death means for your future ability to acquire Cuban cigars—or, perhaps more interestingly, if this event will somehow expedite the ability of non-Cuban cigar makers to start including Cuban tobacco in their blends (assuming this isn’t already happening under-the-radar). Crass as it may seem to think of cigars at a time like this, StogieGuys.com is, after all, a cigar website.

On one hand, perhaps not much will change. Fidel Castro hasn’t been officially running the country for a decade (his brother, Raúl Castro, was appointed presidential powers in 2006). And even though Congress is unlikely to change its tune on the longstanding embargo, recall that President Obama—via executive order—has made it legal to bring back cigars purchased in Cuba or elsewhere, as long as the cigars are for personal consumption. This was the latest step in the gradual progress of diplomatic normalization that also included the reestablishment of embassies in Havana and Washington.

That said, President-elect Trump made promises to reverse the wheels Obama set in motion. “The death of Fidel Castro is putting unexpected pressure on [Trump] to follow through on earlier promises,” reports the Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Trump’s top aides said Sunday that he would demand the release of political prisoners held in Cuba and push the government to allow more religious and economic freedoms. Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump’s incoming White House chief of staff, said the president-elect ‘absolutely’ would reverse Mr. Obama’s policies if he didn’t get what he wanted from Cuba.” Still, Trump “could face pushback from U.S. companies now deeply invested in Cuba under the current administration’s policy. Those companies include major airlines, hotel operators, and technology providers, while big U.S. phone carriers have signed roaming agreements on the island.”

Time will tell how the new administration in Washington reacts to the various competing interests related to Cuba. There are plenty of issues and conflicts at play, and cigars are unlikely to be top of the agenda. For now, what seems certain is that the people of Cuba will continue to live under a regime whose main business is the promulgation of extreme political and economic repression. There was a one-party, socialist state during Fidel Castro’s reign; there is a one-party, socialist state with his brother at the helm; and, barring a new revolution, there will likely be a one-party, socialist state long after the 85-year-old Raúl Castro is gone.

Patrick A

 

photo credit: Flickr