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Commentary: Impressions from the 2015 Premium Cigar Trade Show in New Orleans

21 Jul 2015

StogieGuys.com has been covering the annual International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR) Trade Show for nearly ten years now. To kick off our post-convention coverage—which will certainly include lots of details, commentary, and reviews—I wanted to first provide my high-level impressions. So I’m summarizing some of those today. (I chose the word summarizing carefully here; we’ll likely expand on some or all of these topics in future articles.)

IPCPR 2015

Before I get started, though, I’d like to make a few comments. First, this year my colleague and I chose to simply share brief Facebook updates (which were embedded here live). We wanted to keep our hands as free as possible for note-taking, picture-taking, materials-gathering, walking the huge floor, networking, and—of course—smoking. So while we’ll concede our coverage thus far is less than comprehensive, we feel this strategy will result in you getting the complete picture over time, rather than a regurgitation of everything all at once. Besides, let’s face it: These days there’s no shortage of cigar information websites, many of whom do a good job getting all the new release info out there quickly. We encourage you to read widely and patronize our peers.

Second, bear in mind I’m organizing my thoughts while on a plane home to Chicago from balmy New Orleans. I haven’t yet had time to read the coverage and commentary from other media outlets. For all I know, what I have to say today may already have been written and published elsewhere. Maybe not. But please do not mistake any consistency in my impressions with plagiarism; if today’s commentary is very similar to other thoughts you’ve already seen, that really wouldn’t surprise me. After all, we all attended the same show.

UF-13 on Bourbon Street

Overall Attendance Seemed Down

The New Orleans setup is more spread out (and rectangular) than the Las Vegas site, which seems square and more compact. Even so, it’s safe to say attendance seemed lacking this year. Several cigar makers lamented this off the record, while many others claimed their sales were higher than anticipated (a running theme: “Yes, attendance is lower, but the serious buyers are here.”). A few hypotheses for the lower numbers include higher costs to attend, a feeling that attendance is less necessary than it used to be given how quickly info spreads via the web, and the oft-heard claim that New Orleans is a less exciting, less accessible venue than Vegas. Word is the next three Trade Shows will be held in Vegas. My take? Aside from the humidity, New Orleans is a fine host city with ample convention space, easy access to lodging, great cuisine, and no shortage of nightlife.

The Sheer Number of Exhibitors Was Staggering

I heard the number of exhibitor booths was up to nearly 350 this year. I couldn’t help but have the thought that looking at the floor directory map was almost like peering directly into the cigar bubble. For an industry facing a tremendously perilous political climate it’s surprising to see the volume of new releases, new manufacturers, and elaborate booths (the most expensive of which were upwards of $300,000). If any single person can claim they visited every booth, I’d be surprised and impressed.

Cautious Optimism Concerning the FDA

Our comparative advantage in the cigar media space is thorough, well-informed coverage of the political challenges facing premium cigars. So we went out of our way to ask as many cigar makers as possible what their thoughts are, how they’re preparing, and what they think the most likely outcomes are. With the very real possibility of every cigar introduced after February 15, 2007 being made illegal by the U.S. government, it was interesting to hear so much cautious optimism. Major themes from cigar makers include: operating business as usual until the new regulations are announced; confidence that an exemption for premium cigars over $10 (or a similar price) will be adopted; and confidence that the date will be moved to the date the regulations are announced or enacted. Fun fact: IPCPR estimates 85% of cigars currently held in humidors were introduced after February 15, 2007.

Little Talk About U.S.-Cuban Relations

This was the first Trade Show since officials in Washington and Havana have made strides toward normalized diplomatic relations, yet few seemed interested in discussing the topic. I don’t expect anything to change vis-à-vis the embargo anytime soon. Still, I was anticipating more hype about the possibility of Cuban cigars in the U.S. (or Cuban tobacco within cigars imported into the U.S.). Again, the common theme among cigar makers was business as usual until otherwise notified. But I have to think some outfits are excited about the possibilities, while others are likely lamenting the escalation of trademark wars, new competition, and added complexities.

Most Exciting Cigars

Sobremesa

I’d prefer to not speculate about which new releases will be the hot best-sellers. If you want this kind of analysis, I suspect you won’t have trouble finding all sorts of opinions. But at the expense of almost certainly failing to mention several cigars that will likely wow me, I can share with you the new smokes I’m personally most excited to try. They include Sobremesa from Steve Saka’s new Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust (pictured above), Henry Clay Tattoo, CAO Pilón, Kilo, Neanderthal SGP, Partagas Aniversario, Padrón Dámaso, Undercrown Shade, AVO Synchro Nicaragua, Pinar del Rio’s Connecticut Valley Reserve, and El Güegüense from Nicholas Melillo’s new Foundation Cigar Co.

Stay tuned for lots more from the IPCPR Trade Show, plus a flurry of reviews.

Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

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

Commentary: When More Can Be Too Much

14 Jul 2015

IPCPR15

If there’s one word that seems to unite most cigar makers, it’s “new.”

The seemingly irresistible urge to introduce new blends, new line extensions, new brands, new tobaccos, new curing methods, and on and on reaches its annual pinnacle at the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR) Trade Show, which starts this weekend in New Orleans.

Ironically, though, if you ask most cigar retailers to name their top-selling brand, the answer you’ll likely get is Padrón, a manufacturer that rarely introduces anything new. The old-school company isn’t particularly invested in social media, either, but it burned up the online cigar community with its recent announcement of a new Connecticut line.

Of course, if you’re a cigar manufacturer competing for shelf space with companies like Padrón, Altadis, General, Fuente, and others, having something new might seem like your safest bet. But is there a risk in going too far in that direction?

I thought about this the other day when I was smoking a Kristoff Galerones Intensivo. I picked it up for about $9 at a shop I visit occasionally because it was a chance to try a stick I hadn’t had, and one about which I’d heard good things.

It was a very enjoyable smoke, combining solid strength with spice, cedar, and coffee. The three-country filler blend (Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, and Honduras) worked well with the Brazilian Arapiraca wrapper.

So, I wondered, how come I’ve smoked so few Kristoff cigars?

The answer, I’ve surmised, is the same as for some other brands I rarely light up, such as Rocky Patel or Ghurka. It’s not that I have anything against them or their cigars. In fact, I’ve smoked some that I liked a lot.

But, overall, brands that have so many lines and so many new entries lose my attention and focus. Even when I smoke something I like from them, it tends to get lost in their plethora of cigars.

Truth be told, even someone like me who spends quite a bit of time reading about cigars and the industry, as well as listening to podcasts, just can’t keep up with everything.

With IPCPR, there’ll be a raft of new releases. I’d like to try them all. That, of course, isn’t possible, so I’ll smoke the ones I can find, try to remember the ones I don’t, and possibly add one or two discoveries to my list of favorites.

And I’m sure there’ll be quite a few that I miss.

George E

photo credit: IPCPR

Commentary: Prediction for IPCPR 2015 — $10 Cigars

2 Jul 2015

Ten-dollar-cigars

The annual International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR) Trade Show opens just two weeks from tomorrow in New Orleans. Many new cigars that will debut at the show have already been announced, with even more to come in the next two weeks.

Looking at the trends among new cigars is always interesting because it tells you the answer to this question: What do cigar makers think cigar smokers will buy? Many cigar makers are very passionate about their craft, but they are still businessmen (and women) and, ultimately, the idea is to make cigars that will sell.

Steve Saka, formerly of Drew Estate, who will be launching his new cigar venture called Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust, recently kicked off a discussion about the trends expected at the show with a question on Facebook about what cigar smokers want to see, and what they expect to see.

My colleague responded to the latter question with the following: “More San Andrés, less Conn. Broadleaf. More thick cigars, but also a few lanceros too. More cigars packaged in 5- or 10-count boxes, rather than 20+.”

In terms of the cigars we’ll see, I agree. But I would add another prediction, this one about price: Get ready for lots of cigars with a retail price of $10 or more.

This prediction isn’t about what cigar makers think cigar consumers want (although the trend towards higher-priced cigars has been going for a while now) but rather a reaction to the pending FDA regulation of cigars.

As we’ve explained, under the regulations which may go into effect any day now, every new cigar will be subject to FDA pre-approval before it can be brought to market. The only possible exception is under “Option 2″ of the proposed regulation which calls for an exemption for cigars with a retail price of $10 or more. (Although, I’ve spoken with people familiar with the federal rulemaking process who say a small change to that number could be implemented without the need for an additional comment period, such as a change from a retail price limit to an equivalent wholesale price of, for example, $5.)

Still, right now the best hope of escaping a costly and time-consuming FDA pre-approval process—assuming most cigars could get through it at all before going bankrupt—is to set your retail price at $10. It’s as natural as it is depressing, and it will especially impact cigars that might otherwise sell for a few dollars under the $10 cap.

So while other new cigar trends, whether we like them or not, are a natural response to what consumers want and what cigar makers can make with the tobacco they have available, maybe the most distinctive trend from the 2015 IPCPR Trade Show will be overpriced cigars. Not because cigar makers want to gouge their customers; because of the inevitable response to FDA regulations that haven’t yet gone into effect.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Looking Ahead to the Big Cigar Show in New Orleans

24 Jun 2015

In less than a month, the 83rd International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR) Trade Show will commence in New Orleans. StogieGuys.com will be on hand to cover the biggest cigar event of the year, as we have for seven of the last eight years.

2015 IPCPR Trade Show

In preparation of our coverage, today I wanted to list some of the key trends, issues, concerns, etc. I’ve been thinking about. These are just a few of the topics I’d like to learn more about. Following the Trade Show, I expect to be able to report back to you with my findings and impressions, and I hope you’ll share your thoughts as well.

The Impending FDA Threat

First and foremost, I’m anxious to hear what all the cigar makers—both big and small—have to say about the expected regulations from the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA threat has been looming for some time, but now it feels as though the guillotine blade is in position and ready to fall at moment’s notice. These days the peril is more focused and more concrete. As we reported on June 2, every cigar introduced after February 15, 2007 could soon be made illegal by the U.S. government. This would be devastating for consumers, tobacconists, and manufacturers alike. How is the industry preparing for the FDA to hand down its regulations? How much better positioned are bigger manufacturers than smaller boutiques who may not have launched any cigars before February 2007?

Former Drew Estate Executives Back in the Ring

There will be no new releases I’m personally more eager to try than the cigars from Nicholas Melillo and Steve Saka. Both were instrumental to Drew Estate’s immensely successful transition into the non-infused premium cigar market. Melillo has already announced the formation of the Foundation Cigar Company. His cigars will be made at the TABSA (Tobaccos Valle de Jalapa) factory in Nicaragua, using Aganorsa tobacco, which is also extensively used in Drew Estate blends. Former Drew Estate president and CEO Steve Saka is also expected to launch his new cigar outfit at the Trade Show, though there aren’t many details available just yet. You can bet the cigars from both Melillo and Saka will be highly sought-after—and the expectations couldn’t be much higher. How will their cigars perform? On the flip side of the coin, given the FDA threat, can you imagine a worse time to launch a new boutique cigar company? How are they dealing with that?

Size Matters

For what seems like years I’ve been lamenting the trend toward bigger, thicker smokes. I’m not sure you can even call this an emerging trend anymore. Monstrous smokes with 60-ring gauge (and bigger) proportions seem to be the status quo now. Virtually every new cigar line has at least one 6 x 60 behemoth. Yet the more I smoke cigars—and I think this is fairly consistent among dedicated cigar enthusiasts—the more I appreciate narrower formats (like lanceros) or smaller sizes (like robustos or coronas). I appreciate the focus, complexity, and concentration of a smaller format. In the past, when I’ve spoken to cigar makers on the subject, they all seem to lament this trend too. Generally speaking, they’d prefer to not smoke (or make) these huge sizes. The problem is they sell. How do they feel about these giant frontmarks now? Do they see the trend reversing?

Cuban Communiqué

President Obama’s recent executive order making legal travel to Cuba easier (and making it legal for visitors to import $100 worth of Cuban cigars) must have the industry buzzing with possibilities. Are we getting closer to the legalization of Cuban cigars in the U.S.? Would Cuban factories even be able to meet the new U.S. demand? Or are we all so enamored with Nicaraguan tobacco that nobody cares? The trademark disputes alone are enough to make your head spin (think of all the brand names owned by Altadis and General Cigar that are the same as Cuban brands). I’d like to hear what the various cigar makers have to think on the subject. And even though an outright end to the trade embargo is likely a long way off, it doesn’t hurt to consider the possibility of my favorite cigar makers in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, etc. getting access to Cuban tobacco to use in their blends.

Patrick A

photo credit: IPCPR

Commentary: In Praise of Cigar Copycats

23 Jun 2015

FirecrackerOrigsake-bomb-teaserviaje-romancandle

David Garafalo, owner of Two Guys Smoke Shop in New Hampshire, recently posted an interesting editorial entitled “Here Come the Copy Cats.” He writes about the longstanding practice in the cigar industry of copying the successful innovations of others.

The case Garafalo lays out is indisputably true. If you create something successful in the cigar industry, someone else will come along and knock it off. Whether it is the marketing of a certain production technique (barrel-aging tobacco), the use of a certain tobacco in a blend (double Ligero or double Corojo), or a cigar shape (the fuse-style cap), if it helps sell cigars you can expect others to come along and copy it.

Garafalo, a brand owner and seller of cigars, is understandably frustrated by this. He correctly points out that when it comes to trademarks, people are often over-litigious and in such trademark disputes often deeper pockets will prevail, regardless of merit.

Still, I want to push back against the idea that the copycat nature of the cigar industry is a bad thing. Of course a cigar brand owner doesn’t like that his innovation will get copied by the less original, but overall I think it is a good thing for cigar consumers.

What is so great about the non-Cuban cigar industry is the competition. (Cuban cigar brands are centrally controlled, which is why you don’t see nearly as much innovation there, and why there is no true boutique Cuban cigar.) When one cigar company comes out with a new hit cigar, other companies soon follow with their own version of what they think makes that cigar a hit. If barrel-aged tobacco sells a lot of cigars for Camacho, expect more companies to be experimenting with barrel-aged tobacco.

For consumers, this is a great thing. If Camacho does it the best, their cigars will sell the best. But if next year Altadis or someone else comes out with an even better cigar highlighting its use of barrel-aged tobacco, then consumers will have another excellent cigar to buy. Quality and value will drive out those that can’t compete on either.

If a copycat can create the same experience at a lower price, cigar smokers should be thankful. The alternative, which Garafalo seems to concede is just not feasible, would be a legal prohibition to the free market forces that give consumers maximum choice.

Should the Opus X be the only cigar with a Dominican wrapper because Fuente was the first to successfully grow and market a Domincan wrapper? Should Joya de Nicaragua be the only producers of Nicaraguan puros because they did it first? Of course not. Even though it would be a benefit to the innovators, it would stifle consumer choice and all the innovations that follow.

This is true of any competitive industry. Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada may have been among the first to realize American consumers would pay a premium for flavorful beer. Think of the loss to the beer-drinking world had others not been allowed to follow. The same could be said of cellphones. Think of the loss if Apple and Android hadn’t been allowed to improve upon Blackberry’s innovations.

We should be thankful cigar innovations are, except for a few small exceptions, not subject to patent laws preventing competitors from building on the innovations of others. Trademarks do prevent consumers from being confused about brand names, but they don’t stop competitors from creating a cigar that tastes similar or looks similar to a highly sought-after cigar.

This competition (and, yes, even copycat behavior) is an unmitigated win for consumers who get more variety at a better price than would ever be possible if such activity were prevented. We should be thankful for it, and we should fight efforts by the FDA and others to stifle such competition and innovation.

Patrick S

photo credit: Two Guys/Espinosa/Viaje

Commentary: My Cigar Safari Blends Revisited (Part Two)

10 Jun 2015

After realizing I had one stick left of each of the two cigars I blended in May 2012, I decided this week—almost exactly three years after the Cigar Safari trip—would be a fitting time to fire them up. This little experiment, after all, offers a somewhat unique opportunity to see how time impacts a cigar.

I say “unique” because it isn’t often I smoke a cigar right after it’s rolled, log its impressions, wait three years, then smoke another sample that was rolled on the same day by the same person with the same tobaccos. But that’s the case here. Virtually the only variable is age. In addition, I get to do the same experiment twice: once with a milder Connecticut Ecuador-wrapped cigar made at Joya de Nicaragua (see my article from Monday), and once with a bolder Brazilian Mata Fina Oscuro-wrapped cigar made at Drew Estate.

As a reminder, please note I did not grow, cultivate, ferment, or actually roll any of my cigars. All the hard work was done by the fine folks at Joya de Nicaragua and Drew Estate, respectively. My role simply consisted of some educated guessing, a little trial-and-error, and selecting a wrapper, a binder, and a filler blend from available tobaccos.

Here’s what I had to say about the Drew Estate blend back in 2012:

Drew Estate Blend
Wrapper: Brazilian mata fina oscuro
Binder: Habano Ecuador
Filler: Estelí Seco (33%), Jalapa Ligero (33%), Brazilian Mata Fina (33%)
Size: 5.25 x 42

My objective here was to get a medium-bodied smoke that’s low on spice but big on dark chocolate flavors—something that would pair nicely with a glass of red wine. That’s why I loaded it up with Mata Fina, a tobacco that’s typically sweet and chocolaty. In my blend, though, the Habano Ecuador binder and Seco and Ligero fillers unexpectedly shine though. The result is a profile devoid of chocolate or any sweetness. Instead, the flavor packs dry spice, leather, and oak. I like this cigar, and it is getting a little better each month, but it isn’t at all what I had intended.

Much like the Joya de Nicaragua blend, I smoked through nine of the ten samples of this Drew Estate-made cigar pretty quickly. In fact, I’d wager I (somewhat carelessly) smoked all nine before the end of 2012. So, when I recently lit the tenth and final cigar, I didn’t really know what to expect from a smoke that’s been off my radar for two and a half years.

What I found was a dry, familiar profile of oak, leather, and spice. This trio of flavors was punctuated by significant cayenne heat on the tip of the tongue, especially in the aftertaste. While the cayenne seemed new, a pair of unfortunate traits were consistent with my earlier samples of the blend: an occasional (but brash) bitterness, and a shortage of sweetness to balance out the spice.

Looking back, instead of writing “I like this cigar,” I should have conceded that this blend not only misses its intended mark, but it’s also incomplete, unbalanced, and slightly abrasive. Three years of age have not yielded the improvements the cigar desperately needed.

Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys