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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.


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


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.


— 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.


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


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

Commentary: Why I (Sort Of) Gave Up Cigars

7 Oct 2015

With a medical procedure looming, my doctor insisted I give up cigars for several weeks to clear nicotine from my system. I don’t really know how serious the risk is. All the material she gave me seemed to focus on the impacts of cigarette smoking.

Still, I trust her skills, she’s an excellent surgeon, and I knew I’d have no difficulty complying. And I do want to recover as quickly as possible. If that means a few weeks without cigars, so be it. What I didn’t fully count on, though, was how much I’d miss my cigar time.

Sitting on the back deck in the afternoon reading the papers or having one in the evening and listening to a baseball game. Dropping by the local B&M on Sundays and lighting up while watching an NFL game.

Sure, I can still read, listen, and watch. But, for me, these activities lose something without an accompanying cigar. Rarely do I ever smoke more than one cigar a day, so it’s purely pleasure, not a habit.

And I know about tobacco habit and addiction. I started smoking cigarettes as a teenager. Back then, I think the minimum smoking age was 16, though no one hesitated to sell a pack to someone much younger (who was just assumed to be buying them for their mother or father). My high school had a student smoking area and, when I went to work, every desk came with an ashtray. Cigarette advertisements were everywhere.

I smoked steadily for decades and quit about 30 years ago. It was about the time the anti-smoking movement was beginning to take hold. Employers were doing things like banning smoking in the open and creating smoking rooms. I could see all that wasn’t going to end well for cigarette smokers.

But that didn’t make it any easier to quit. I struggled for months, maybe years, before I didn’t want another cigarette. Part of that was because I truly enjoyed smoking cigarettes. Well, some of them, anyway.

I used to joke that I’d take up cigarettes again when I retired. I didn’t but instead became attracted to cigars. Why, I’m still not exactly sure, though I don’t think it really had anything to do with cigarettes.

Lighting up a cigarette was a reaction, a release, a trigger. A way to focus, a signal to perform, a reward. Cigars are much more about relaxation and pleasure, a complement to enjoyable activities.

So, I’m looking forward to getting done with the operation, recovering, and, once again, hitting the humidor.

George E

photo credit: N/A

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

21 Jul 2015 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


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