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Commentary: It’s Hard to Break the Rules When There Aren’t Any

11 Oct 2017

One of the great things about smoking cigars is that there are virtually no rules.

Consider for a moment one of the most-asked, most-discussed questions on cigar forums: Cello on or off?

The simple answer: Who cares?

Sure, there are some axioms. Like: Dispose of ashes and butts when you’re finished smoking unless you like the early morning aroma of a 1950s barroom. Or: Don’t bring your own cigars to smoke at a B&M unless you want to display a lack of class and reflect poorly on your upbringing.

But these tend to be more common sense than dictum.

Generally, cigar smoking is an individual activity with each of us free to pursue it as we see fit. Some build vast collections with rare and aged releases, while others simply appreciate an occasional Macanudo. Some are passionate devotees who take trips to fields and factories in their quest for cigar knowledge. Others, though, have little interest beyond lighting up and relaxing.

This lack of rules is, I think, one of the major reasons cigar smoking is a generally egalitarian pastime, attracting participants from nearly every social strata.

This was all sorely stressed during the cigar boom of the mid-1990s when poseurs and affected smokers overran the marketplace. Fortunately, that bubble deflated, taking the air out of those who tried to inject snobbery into the cigar world.

Yes, I know there are still cigar snobs and cigar shops where you’re made to feel a lesser species if you pick up a stick for under $20. Fortunately, though, that’s much the minority among cigar smokers.

And at least part of that seems to be because it’s not nearly as easy to belittle someone or pump up yourself when there are no rules that can be held against those who don’t follow them or are simply unaware they exist.

For me, there’s really only one cigar rule: Enjoy yourself.

George E

photo credit: Creative Commons

Photo Essay: A Visit to the Connecticut River Valley

30 Aug 2017

Growing up in New York and going to college in Maine, I have many friends from Connecticut. Cigar geeks aside, few realize that not only does Connecticut grow tobacco, but some of the most expensive and sought-after premium cigar wrapper is grown in the Nutmeg State. Recently I visited the Connecticut River Valley (north of Hartford) to see the farms there during the growing season, which runs from summer to early fall. Below are some of the photos from the trip.

One of the most notable things you quickly see is how each type of tobacco is grown differently to maximize qualities sought in the wrapper they hope it will become. (Inevitably, some leaves will end up as binder or filler; that said, leaves are grown with the intention and hope that they become wrapper, which commands the highest price.)

 

Sun-grown tobacco is topped (the flower at the top is removed) and lower leaves are removed early to maximize the nutrients that reach the leaves intended for tobacco. (Yes, the photo at the top is of the Habano leaf that will eventually become the Partagas Black.)

Increasingly, the leaves are then stalk-cured (the ones I saw were speared through the center of the stalk to kick-start curing) so the flavor of the nicotine in the stalk can continue to move into the leaves.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Connecticut Shade tobacco, which is processed to keep the leaf thin and light. In addition to netting, flowers remain and all the leaves are left on so they don’t get too thick.

Leaves are sewn individually for curing, instead of being left on the stalk.

In addition, fields are left to fallow one year out of three, and rye is frequently grown (then plowed over) in the off-season to replenish nutrients in the soil.

This is big business for Connecticut farmers, with each curing barn holding up to half a million dollars worth of tobacco, depending on the leaf type. Connecticut Shade is still the most expensive leaf grown in Connecticut, but Broadleaf and Habano are also grown in ample quantities.

If you are in the area in the late summer, drive around and you shouldn’t have too much trouble spotting tobacco fields. For those not lucky enough to visit foreign tobacco growing regions, Connecticut is the most accessible place to see the tobacco that ends up as a key component of the handmade cigars we enjoy.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Three Takeaways from Friday’s FDA Regulation News

2 Aug 2017

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Last week I noted a concrete reason for hope in the ongoing battle against overbearing FDA cigar regulations. Just over two days later, the FDA announced a “new comprehensive plan” for tobacco regulations, including cigars.

As part of the rollout, the FDA delayed pending deadlines for cigars to be submitted to the agency for the agency’s approval. Critically, the agency noted that cigars with a pending application can be marketed and sold while waiting for the agency’s response. Motions to stay two legal challenges were quickly filed in court supported by attorneys representing the FDA.

The new deadline for pre-market approval is August 2021. So far, other deadlines (for example, warning labels) haven’t been changed as a result of the announcement. However, they still could be changed or delayed in the coming months.

Here are three important takeaways from the announcement:

FDA’s New Approach to Tobacco Regulation Could Benefit Cigars

Premium handmade cigars may have never been the primary target of FDA regulation, but they certainly were collateral damage. By targeting new tobacco products and making them run the gauntlet of the approval process, the FDA would make it exceedingly difficult and costly to introduce new products.

Because the market for cigars (unlike cigarettes and other traditional tobacco products) is vibrant and competitive with hundreds of new products introduced every year, cigars were hardest hit by the requirement for approval of new products. A new policy focused on “harm reduction” could mean major changes for cigarettes. But for handmade cigars, which have never been particularly attractive to youth and are used by adults in moderation, it could mean less regulation.

In the past, while communicating with the FDA, agency officials repeatedly insisted their position is all tobacco is harmful. Further, they insisted they wouldn’t acknowledge (even though everyone knew it) that some tobacco products are significantly less harmful than others. Any doctor not on the FDA payroll would tell you you’re far better off being the average cigar smoker than the average cigarette smoker. But the prior FDA regime refused to utter this truth.

On the other hand, the new focus on harm reduction would be a more scientific approach, which, if followed through, would greatly benefit handmade cigars. It will take a long process, including rule making, to see the ramifications of this new focus, but cigar smokers should welcome it.

Only Congress Can Fix This For Good

While a change in direction at the FDA is certainly welcome, don’t think for a second it is a permanent solution. Even if the FDA does everything the cigar industry hopes, a new administration or head of the FDA could start rule making and undo it all within a year.

Congress gave the FDA the power to regulate the cigar industry to a standstill, and ultimately only Congress can undo it. A bill to repeal to FDA’s jurisdiction over cigars is still needed. The only downside of the current rules being delayed and likely rolled back is that it gives Congress a reason to delay fixing the problem it created, since the worst consequences seem further down the road.

The FDA Leaks to Anti-Tobacco Groups

It may seem small and unsurprising, but it’s worth noting: The move by anti-tobacco groups preceded the FDA’s announcement by just days, which almost certainly happened because news of the upcoming announcement was leaked by insiders to the groups. This is a reminder that while the leadership at FDA may be embracing a new approach, many mid-level and lower FDA officials may not be on board with scrapping the old approach and delaying their enforcement.

This bureaucratic resistance (and their leaks to anti-tobacco advocacy groups) versus the new, more scientific approach of FDA Director Gottlieb will be something worth watching. You can be sure many people in the agency aren’t happy that their focus and work over the past few years has been scrapped, even though their new boss has initiated a new direction for the FDA’s regulation of tobacco.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Commentary: A Good Omen in Fight Against FDA Cigar Rules?

26 Jul 2017

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For the first time in a while, there is reason for real optimism about the fight to overturn the onerous FDA cigar regulations. Living and working in Washington, I’ve learned to take optimistic reports from advocates about forthcoming progress on an issue with a grain of salt, since people often mistake their own enthusiasm and passion for confidence in the impact they are having.

Frequently, a better measure of progress is what those on the other side of the issue are saying and, most critically, doing. That’s why the actions of a group of anti-tobacco organizations this week should give those opposed to the FDA rules some hope.

On Monday, six so-called “public health” organizations filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit filed by the Cigar Association of America (CAA), International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR), and Cigar Rights of America (CRA) challenging the FDA’s rules that cover cigars.

The cigar groups’ lawsuit, filed in the DC Circuit Court a year ago, challenges the rules on various grounds that the regulations were enacted improperly and exceed the authority granted to the FDA by Congress when it passed the Tobacco Control Act in 2009. A similar lawsuit was filed weeks earlier by cigar-specializing Florida attorney Frank Herrera on behalf of Global Premium Cigars, maker of the the 1502 cigar line.

According to attorneys who have been on both ends of such challenges to agency regulations—both challenging government regulations and defending them on behalf of government agencies—the uphill battle the cigar industry faces in its lawsuits is that courts generally give agencies deference when it comes to exercising rulemaking authority. Under a controversial judicial doctrine known as “Chevron deference” (established in a 1984 Supreme Court decision), judges give administrative agencies a wide berth to interpret the scope of the authority granted to them by Congress.

The reason the anti-tobacco groups motion to intervene can be seen as good news is the groups cite the FDA’s delays and apparent reluctance to defend the rule in court as reasons they should be allowed to become a party in the case. They want to join the lawsuit to defend the rule because they don’t think the new Trump-appointed leadership at the FDA will vigorously do so.

If the FDA does eventually tell the court to hold proceedings while they contemplate new rulemaking to pare back the regulations, suddenly the challenge of administrative deference becomes a strength for cigar groups opposed to the rules. The fact that the Tobacco Control Act gave the FDA the option, but not the obligation, to regulate cigars and other tobacco products (beyond cigarettes and smokeless tobacco) would suddenly be the biggest weapon against anti-tobacco groups seeking to keep the rule in place.

So while Monday’s motion to intervene isn’t proof the FDA is going to reconsider the FDA rule, and ultimately only an act of Congress can provide more definitive protection for the industry against overbearing regulations, it is surely a good sign. Let’s hope theses anti-tobacco zealots are correct, and the FDA is preparing to roll back FDA regulations that threaten the innovation, competition, and creativity that makes handmade cigars so interesting and enjoyable.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Five New Cigars I’m Looking Forward to Trying

12 Jul 2017

The IPCPR Trade Show’s first full day was yesterday. By now, information about many of the new cigars expected to hit retailers’ shelves in 2017 has already been released and widely reported. From what I’ve learned so far, here are five new cigars I’m most looking forward to trying. (Of note: This list does not include any cigars of which I’ve already smoked pre-release samples.)

Winston Churchill the Late Hour Davidoff of Geneva

In my experience, Davidoff doesn’t make a lot duds. When they put the Davidoff name on a cigar, it carries a lot of weight with me. (Not to mention the Churchill name, which might be the historial figure most associated with premium cigars.) I very much enjoyed the original Winston Churchill cigar, in addition to the revamped Davidoff-branded blend, so consider me interested in this new cigar with filler aged in single malt scotch casks.

Undercrown Sun Grown Drew Estate

I’m not a huge fan of Mexican San Andrés-wrapped cigars, which makes my enjoyment of the original Undercrown something of a rarity. The later Undercrown Shade is a very well-made cigar too, but the new Sun Grown blend sounds particularly inviting. The combination of an Ecuadorian Sumatra wrapper and a Habano stalk-cut binder with Nicaraguan filler has excellent potential.

Todos Las Dias  Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust

I haven’t yet had a Steve Saka cigar I didn’t enjoy. True, I may not have loved Sobremesa as much as its many sky-high reviews, but it’s still undoubtedly a very fine cigar. And, for my taste, Mi Querida was the best Broadleaf cigar introduced last year, and I think Umbagog is one of the best values on the market. With that pedigree, I’m looking forward to trying Todos Las Dias, Saka’s new Nicaraguan puro made at Joya de Nicaragua.

Navetta Fratello Cigars

By delivering on an excellent combination of value, branding (one of the best bands around), and flavor, I’ve really come to appreciate Omar de Frias’ Fratello Cigars. Navetta features an Oscuro Habano wrapper and plays into Frias’ NASA roots.

1932 Millisime Padilla Cigars

Even though I smoked my last one over five years ago, the original 1932 Padilla (made by Don José “Pepin” Garcia at El Rey de los Habanos) rates among my all-time favorite cigars. That means my ears always perk up when a new Padilla 1932 is introduced. The price of the Millisime ($47) is more that a little off-putting, but I’ll admit I’m intrigued to try it, even if I’m only smoking one before buying a second.

What new cigars are you most interested in trying?

Patrick S

photo credit: Padilla Cigars

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

5 Apr 2017

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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