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Commentary: A Cigar State of the Union

13 Jan 2016

SOTU

Last night President Obama delivered his final State of the Union address. In that spirit, I offer my thoughts on the state of the cigar industry as we enter 2016.

In many ways, the state of cigars is as strong as it has ever been. This is our tenth year publishing StogieGuys.com, and the cigars being released today are of highest quality they have ever been.

Consumers are better educated, and they demand more of their cigars. Cigar companies have largely delivered better quality and more interesting flavors. One of the best trends is that new competition continues to challenge the status quo, which drives up quality.

Take a look at various top cigar lists and you’ll see lots of newer companies represented. Fortunately, their success isn’t a result of more established companies slacking off. Rather, the bar is continually rising. I honestly believe the tenth-rated cigar on most “Best of 2015” lists would have beat the number one cigar five or ten years ago.

Another sign of the health of the state of cigars is the fact that even those who have achieved the financial success to walk away rarely do. Statistically, when someone announces they are stepping down or retiring from a job in cigars, it most likely just means they are planning their return, armed with the lessons of their experience.

At the cigar shops you can see how all this benefits cigar smokers. The days where the vast majority of cigars for sale in most shops are made by a handful of the largest companies are increasingly in the past. Cigars have to earn shelf space more than ever, and companies large and small are upping their game to compete for that valuable space.

In short, cigar smokers have more and better choices than ever before. That’s the good news. But there are dark clouds on the horizon.

Impending FDA regulation continues to hover over the cigar industry with the potential to devastate the thriving competition that we’re enjoying. The fact that we enter 2016 without those regulations is a good sign, but literally any day regulations could be finalized. One cigar company executive told me not long ago that he expected many smaller cigar companies couldn’t survive FDA regulations, and I’m afraid that’s probably true.

The delay in the finalized FDA rules shows there is division within the executive branch over the extent of the need for regulation over cigars. While that’s a testament to the work of organizations that lobby for cigar rights, it doesn’t change the fact that the only way to fully stop FDA regulation would take an act of Congress. Going forward, cigar rights groups would benefit from more long-term strategy, instead of pinning their hopes to last-minute Hail Mary attempts to slip riders into massive appropriations bills.

Elsewhere, cigar rights are on defense, too. Smoking bans are not being repealed anywhere, while proposals for expanded bans and increased tobacco taxes continue to flourish.

We have work to do. There may never have been a better time to be a cigar smoker. Keeping it that way, though, won’t be easy. The old saying is eternal vigilance is the price of freedom; when it comes to the freedom to enjoy cigars, that has never been more true.

Patrick S

photo credit: Wikipedia

Commentary: Checking the Year-End Cigar Lists

11 Jan 2016

For one cigar company, the biggest gift of the year doesn’t come under the Christmas tree but at the top of Cigar Aficionado’s annual Top 25. This year, the legendary García family scored the win with their My Father Le Bijou 1922 Box-Pressed Torpedo.

Interestingly, My Father also took the top spot on Cigar Snob’s list, but it was the El Centurion H-2K-CT Toro that landed there. Cigar Journal’s number one choice was the Eiroa Classic Prensado, which did not appear on the other two lists.

As sure as winter brings cold weather, year’s end brings a seemingly endless array of rankings of cigars from magazines, blogs, and podcasts. Smokers argue about their value and validity, but you can’t deny the lists can make a difference in sales.

StogieGuys.com, by the way, doesn’t do a best-of list. Even with three regular smokers, we know it’s possible to evaluate only so many cigars, so we opt to present, without ranking, what we found to be the best we had during the year, and those that came very close.

Unquestionably, the most discussion of lists centers on the industry’s 800-pound gorilla, Cigar Aficionado. Love it, hate it, follow it, or ignore it, there’s no denying that a top rating by the slick publication moves the market like no other. Just ask Alec Bradley or Oliva. This year, perhaps CA’s most controversial topic of conversation was choosing General’s CAO Flathead V660 Carb at the number three spot.

I spent some time going through a number of the lists, especially those from CA, Snob, and Journal, as well as looking at some past rankings.

The first thing that jumped out at me was CA’s 2013 list. There at number nineteen was that same My Father Le Bijou 1922 Box-Pressed Torpedo that was tops this time. Last year, the highest a Pepín/My Father-branded smoke made it was seventeen. Of course, the My Father crew works with numerous brand owners, such as Tatuaje and Ashton, which often rank highly, and García’s Flor de las Antillas Toro was the top pick of 2012.

A noticeable oddity: Bringing up the rear of both CA and Journal’s Top 25 lists was the same boutique cigar: Sublimes Robusto Extra. Almost as close were the magazines’ rankings for La Boheme Pittore. Journal put it at eleven, CA one notch lower.

One of the most anticipated cigars of 2015—Steve Saka’s Sobremesa—didn’t place on any of the three lists. Another hot debut smoke, El Güegüense, from Saka’s fellow former Drew Estate colleague Nick Melillo, was only on Snob’s list, at twelve.

On the other hand, the blog Blind Man’s Puff had El Güegüense first and Sobremesa second. And Stogie Review’s Ben Lee rated them fourth (Sobremesa) and third (El Güegüense).

But just to show how much cigar preferences are a matter of personal taste, Lee’s top smoke was the Avo Syncro Nicaragua Toro. That same smoke was sixteen on CA’s list and didn’t show at all on the Snob or Journal selections.

Padrón, the brand cited often by many tobacconists as their best seller, had a cigar on each of the three magazine lists. Again, though, the ratings illustrate the variations in taste. CA rated the Padrón Family Reserve 50 Years Natural at five, Journal put the Maduro version at two, and Snob went for the Padrón Damaso No. 8 at fifteen.

Whatever your feelings about year-end lists, they are invariably a good place to start when you’re looking for new smokes. At the least, you know someone thought they were good.

George E

photo credit: N/A

Commentary: Random Thoughts from the Humidor (XXIII)

19 Nov 2015

In this edition of Random Thoughts from the Humidor, I look at Steve Saka’s radical transparency, the origins of the word “herf,” and suggestions for finding value cigars.

saka

The Original Cigar Blogger Pulls Back the Curtain

You don’t have to talk very long with Steve Saka to realize he isn’t the type to BS you. In fact, after sitting down with him during a couple of trips to Drew Estate while he was still with the company, I came to appreciate you could ask him just about anything, as long as you were prepared to hear an unvarnished, candid answer. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me to see his openness (especially on Facebook) about the process, including the challenges and anxiety, of creating his own cigar brand and bringing it to market. Even the info sheet that came with the samples he recently sent for review came with a leaf-by-leaf breakdown of the Sobremesa blend, something many established brands are still unwilling to provide (in part for fear of someone copying their blend). It’s a level of transparency you don’t often see. And yet maybe his candor shouldn’t come as a surprise. Before Saka was the driving force behind the creation of Liga Privada, he was the editor of what was essentially the first cigar blog, (before the word blog even existed). While the original Cigar Nexus domain is no longer online, you can still read the archive here, including the Monthly Officious Taste Test or M.O.T.T. (a not-so-subtle jab at then Cigar Aficionado executive editor Gordon Mott).

Herf, Established November 21, 1996

Speaking of Cigar Nexus, here’s a gem about the origin of the the word herf, which originated on the alt.smokers.cigars (ACS) newsgroup in 1996: “The un-official word of ASC is herf. Herf is a unique part of speech. It can be correctly used as a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, an infinitive, a prefix, a suffix, and an explicative. The arcane word ‘herf’ first entered the ASC lexicon on November 21, 1996, and was quickly elevated to frenetic and common use by ASCers… Herf is now virulently spreading to worldwide common use as hip cigar parlance.”

Which Wrappers Are Most Likely to Produce Value?

Finding a good cigar isn’t all that hard these days. Finding a good cigar at a price that offers excellent value is harder. But if good values are what you are after, one thing to think about is wrappers. Connecticut wrappers, both shade-grown and broadleaf, are hardest to do on a budget, in part because good Connecticut-grown wrappers are increasingly in demand. So if you’re the type of person who seeks out that elusive bundle cigar that smokes like a pricier stick, you’ll improve your odds by sticking to Nicaraguan-grown Habano and Mexican wrappers.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Why ‘What’s New?’ Is Here to Stay

5 Nov 2015

cigars-new

One of the common themes on forums, blogs, and podcasts these days is dissatisfaction with the seemingly endless number of limited and special edition cigars. “I’m through chasing them,” is a typical complaint.

Tiring it may be, but don’t expect the trend to go away anytime soon (barring, of course, some U.S. Food and Drug Administration intervention). Ongoing changes in the cigar industry—from sales to buying habits—are likely to lead to more small releases.

I’m no industry insider, and I have no special knowledge. My conclusions are drawn from conversations with a few manufacturers and retailers, as well as keeping up with and observing the industry for quite a few years.

Consider:

— The premium cigar industry is not growing much, if at all, in terms of sales. Imports for 2014 were essentially the same as for the previous year. At least some manufacturers don’t anticipate 2015 to be much different.

— Much of the growth comes from new smokers, who are apt to be younger and not nearly as tied to a brand as are many older smokers. Retailers of yesteryear can tell you of the many, many customers who’d stop by once a week or month and pick up a box or two of the same cigar like clockwork. These days, customers are much more likely to be looking for what’s new and their repeat box purchases occur far less frequently, if at all.

— Events are driving a higher and higher chunk of sales. Whether a single store/brand affair or massive productions like Big Smoke or Smoke Inn’s Great Smoke, customers expect to be entertained and enticed, as well as given a bargain. Without something new to offer, vendors can find themselves at a disadvantage.

— The growing cigar production industry, especially in Nicaragua, has created bigger factories and more trained workers, both resulting in increased capacity. Those who want to create their own brand can find tobacco and facilities to do it.

Of course, none of this means every company’s success is dependent on novelty or constantly introducing new cigars. Dominant brands such as Padrón and Arturo Fuente continue to be industry leaders and seem virtually unaffected by trends or fads.

But for smaller, newer brands it becomes tougher to break out of the pack and that leads to efforts to distinguish yourself, whether that’s a massive ring gauge, a shop exclusive, a limited run, outrageous packaging, or something else.

I can’t say what lies ahead. But I wouldn’t look for the rate of releases to slow down anytime soon.

George E

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: Random Thoughts from the Humidor (XXII)

4 Nov 2015

In this edition of Random Thoughts from the Humidor, I ponder what is meant by “flavored” cigars, keeping the palate fresh with milder smokes, and using cigars as currency for wagers.

KFC

Food for Thought on Flavoring

On Saturday I published a Quick Smoke of the Drew Estate MUWAT Kentucky Fire Cured (KFC) in the Just a Friend size. As I understand it, KFC is crafted at Joya de Nicaragua using tobaccos that are cured in a barn under fires of hickory and maple. The smoke from these fires imparts (in the case of Just a Friend, according to my palate) notes of barbeque sauce, chewy meat, hickory, leather, sweet tobacco, and peat. It’s an interesting product and process, though the cigars aren’t my cup of tea. In any event, some readers got me thinking with their comments. I hadn’t previously considered KFC to be flavored. Regarding cigars, I take “flavored” to mean infused with artificial flavors that are not naturally inherent in the tobacco leaves as a result of growing, cultivation, curing, fermentation, etc. So, in my eyes, fire-curing tobaccos—or barrel-aging them, for instance—does not make them flavored. I still think of these cigars as differentiated from, say, Flavours by CAO or Acid by Drew Estate. Perhaps the distinction is not important and this is simply a matter of semantics. Perhaps, though, as the government gets more and more involved in the regulation of premium cigars, this will become an important issue. Recall that a previous FDA proposal stated that under its option for a premium cigar exemption, a cigar would only qualify if it “does not have a characterizing flavor other than tobacco.” Would using fire-cured tobacco or tobacco aged in rum barrels be a violation? What about aging a finished cigar in cedar? To date, the FDA has not provided answers. And, in a particularly troubling development, we’ve learned it may not matter; an unauthenticated draft of the FDA’s deeming rules submitted to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was recently leaked, and the draft shows no exemption for premium cigars. But ultimately, if OMB reinstates an exemption for premium cigars, the notion of “flavored” may become very important.

Mixing Up the Rotation

I’m guessing most cigar smokers started smoking milder cigars, graduated to medium-bodied sticks somewhere along the way, and these days tend to focus on smokes with full body and strength. These seasoned cigar veterans may avoid mild cigars entirely, or they may relegate them to that occasional morning smoke as an accompaniment to a cup of coffee. (I’m basing these broad generalizations off anecdotal evidence, hundreds of conversations, and observations from the ever-expanding world of social media.) To these brothers of the leaf I say this: Don’t be afraid to mix up your rotation with a milder cigar now and then. Not only are these cigars highly enjoyable, but they often provide subtler, more delicate flavors that are harder to find in Nicaraguan powerbombs. Think almond, cream, hay, etc. As an added bonus, you may find your full-bodied favorites taste even better when you sprinkle in a Connecticut Shade smoke from time to time.

Cigars for Friendly Bets

I’m a lifelong Cubs fan and my colleague, Patrick S, is a diehard follower of the Mets (nobody’s perfect, right?). This year, our teams squared up in the National League Championship Series. Before play started—and long before the Mets were eventually vanquished by the Kansas City Royals—we each agreed to send the winner a five-pack of local cigars as a friendly wager. If the Cubs won, he was going to send me hard-to-find smokes from the PG Boutique near his home in Virginia. If the Mets won (as they did), I’d send a sampler of house blends from Tesa here in Chicago. Maybe it’s just me, but for friendly wagers—especially those that are sports-related—cigars just seem to be a more fitting form of payment than money, not to mention a chance to acquire smokes that can’t easily be bought locally.

Patrick A

photo credit: Drew Estate

Commentary: Bacon, Tobacco, Cancer, and Politicized Science

27 Oct 2015

bacon

If you’re like me, the last few days on Facebook you’ve seen a lot online about how bacon can cause cancer and is just as dangerous as smoking. (Maybe it’s just that a lot of my friends are fans of bacon, tobacco, or both.)

It’s a perfect story to go viral with a headline designed to scare. A modern version of: “It kills thousands of people every year, and you give it to your children every day… tonight at 10.” (It’s just water.)

Unfortunately, it’s a also a perfect example of bad government science and the bad journalism that perpetuates it. Like stories that deal with cancer and tobacco, it leaves out critical context.

The gist of the story is that smoked meats, like bacon and hot dogs, can be carcinogenic, meaning they can cause cancer in humans. That may be true in a technical sense, but it tells readers almost nothing about the risk that bacon poses, or the risk they actually face from eating bacon.

In truth, while bacon may be carcinogenic, eating lots of bacon adds only very slightly to someone’s overall risk of cancer. Drill down on the “bacon causes cancer” headline and you’ll find that if you eat a serving of smoked meat (one hot dog or two strips of bacon, for example) daily over your lifetime (which is quite a lot), the odds of you getting colorectal cancer, which bacon contributes to, goes up only 0.8 percent.

But “daily bacon increases relative risk of cancer by slightly less than one percent” doesn’t quite have a ring to it. Instead, we’re simply told bacon can cause cancer, which while literally perhaps true is also pretty much meaningless as a statement. It does nothing to help consenting adults decide for themselves whether or not to order a side of bacon since it simplifies, and probably over-amplifies, the risk.

Unfortunately, when it comes to tobacco, and especially cigars, the critical issue of relative risk is ignored even more often. It remains the position of the U.S. government that “cigars contain the same toxic and carcinogenic compounds found in cigarettes and are not a safe alternative to cigarettes.”

Once again, that may be true in a technical sense. But the statement is also meaningless. Saying cigars contain the same chemicals as cigarettes doesn’t say anything about the relative risk of smoking cigars compared to smoking cigarettes, or how much of those chemicals each activity delivers in a way that can increase your risk. It’s the equivalent of saying driving the speed limit is not a safe alternative to speeding drunk because you can crash either way. (You can, of course, get in an accident either way, but obviously the risk of that happening isn’t the same in both cases.)

The fact is, the average cigar smoker who smokes cigars properly (without inhaling) is way better off than the average cigarette smoke, but our government can’t bring itself to say that because doing so would admit that with normal use cigar smoking is in fact less risky than smoking cigarettes. It would be nice if our government would be honest enough with us to say so. At least for now, though, Uncle Sam is unwilling to admit what we all know to be true.

Patrick S

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: When You Think Cigars, Think… New Hampshire?

20 Oct 2015

When you think about cigars, the first state that probably comes to mind is Florida. The Sunshine State was—and to a much lesser extent, still is—a place where cigars are made. Cigar culture is inextricably linked to Miami (especially Calle Ocho) and Tampa (especially Ybor City). Many cigar makers live and base their operations there. The absence of a state cigar tax means larger online retailers, and a plethora of brick-and-mortar shops and lounges, call Florida home. And now, for the first time since 1977, a small amount of long-filler cigar tobacco is actually being grown on Florida soil.

NH FlagAnother state that might come to mind is Connecticut. According to a recent article, “tobacco is Connecticut’s fifth largest agriculture product by market value, at $35.7 million… The crop is grown on 49 farms and accounts for 6.5 percent of total agricultural product sales in the state.” Connecticut broadleaf is highly prized and expensive.

Finally, you’d probably also consider Pennsylvania. Again, thanks to zero state cigar tax, the Keystone State is home to some of the country’s largest online retailers, including Famous Smoke Shop, Holts, and Cigars International. In addition, Pennsylvania is also a premium cigar producer. Decades ago, the Amish of Lancaster County supplied a significant amount of premium filler tobacco to the industry. These days, Pennsylvania cigar tobacco is less abundantly used but still important (see yesterday’s review, for example).

The more I travel to New Hampshire, though, the more I think the Granite State is too often overlooked as an important contributor to the premium cigar industry (I fly into Manchester from Chicago about a half-dozen times a year for work). Consider, for instance, the plethora of great cigar shops and lounges in southern New Hampshire alone. David Garofalo’s Two Guys Smoke Shop has three locations and calls itself New England’s largest retailer by volume (did I mention New Hampshire also has no state cigar tax?). The shop is affiliated with the Nashua-based United Cigar Group, as well as cigar media extraordinaire Barry Stein and his new (and excellent) Kilo cigar brand.

Not to be outdone is Twins Smoke Shop with its two locations (one recently remodeled and fantastic). Twins is owned by Kurt A. Kendall, perhaps best known as the purveyor of the 7-20-4 brand. That fine brand, by the way, pays homage to New Hampshire’s cigar history. 7-20-4 was originally produced in Manchester between 1874 and 1963. At one time, over 50 million cigars were made in the state annually.

Last but not least is Steve Saka’s new Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust, which is named for, and based in, Dunbarton, New Hampshire. Saka’s first Dunbarton line, Sobremesa, will be appearing at select retailers shortly. To say Sobremesa is highly anticipated would be a gross understatement. Of course, before launching his own company, Saka, a New Hampshire resident, played a critical role in growing Drew Estate from an operation known mostly for its unorthodox infused cigars to a Nicaraguan juggernaut that makes some of the most sought-after non-infused cigars, including Liga Privada.

If all goes according to plan, I should be landing in Manchester today around 4:50 PM. I’ll have no shortage of choice when it comes to selecting what, and where, to smoke. For that I’m grateful.

Patrick A

photo credit: Wikipedia