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Commentary: Innovation Makes Cigars Unique (and Uniquely Vulnerable)

21 Aug 2014

tobacco-sort

On Monday my colleague used a recent review and an old cigar assesment to highlight how individual cigar preferences can change over time. It’s something I suspect all seasoned cigar smokers have experienced.

Individual tastes change, but there are also larger trends among smokers (think Nicaraguan-heavy blends, larger ring gauges, Ecuadorian wrappers, etc.). Fortunately, the cigar industry is well-positioned to respond to smokers’ demands, even if this often goes unappreciated by those of who benefit.

Looking back over the past decade and you’ll see a pattern. One or two cigar makers find a hit with a certain blend, and soon after you see the market flooded with similar blends. The best (both in overall quality and in bang for the buck) stick around, while others fade away into online discount obscurity or are simply discontinued.

Some people might knock this follow-the-leader cycle, but it’s not a bad thing for the consumers who get the benefits of innovation and plenty of competition. Good marketing and brand loyalty only go so far, as eventually the cream rises to the top.

Contrast this with American whiskey, another industry I follow closely. Unlike cigars, the aging necessary for a fine bourbon or rye (four to six years at minimum, but sometimes multiple decades), means that it’s not possible to ramp up supply or introduce a new whiskey with only months or a year of planning.

The result is, for bourbon and rye, demand has recently overwhelmed supply (even the mainstream media has caught on) and brands that were recently staples on every liquor store shelf are now difficult to find, while limited releases are nearly impossible to track down unless you’re willing to pay exorbitant prices on the illegal secondary market. This is compounded by he fact that, unlike a box of cigars, a bottle of bourbon will remain unchanged in perpetuity (at least unopened), which leads people to horde their favorite brands in a way that you would never do with cigars. Plus you can have a decent amount of confidence buying a sealed bottle of bourbon from a relative stranger in a way you never could for cigars due to the importance of storage for cigars. (Consider this: There are brands of bourbon which I would buy a case of if I could find it at regular retail price, but I can’t come up with a single cigar, even those I’d like to find but can’t, that I’d buy more than a few boxes of.)

All of which is to say that cigar smokers have it pretty good. We have a vibrant free market that can relatively quickly produce new cigars to meet demand, with the largest multinational companies competing with small start-up brands on relatively even footing, each with its own competitive advantages.

All this is at risk from FDA regulations.

Pre-approval of new cigars means the introduction of new cigars would grind to a halt. Any cigar that doesn’t meet the FDA’s exemption for premium cigars (and this takes the optimistic view that the FDA will even adopt an exemption) would suddenly require years of work, and likely tens of thousands of dollars or more, to receive approval.

With all the comments now under review, the FDA could issue its final rule in as soon as a few months, though more likely they will take a bit longer than that. And since the regulations will likely retroactively apply to cigars introduced in the past few years, it’s not just future brands that are at risk, but also many of the newer cigars you enjoy today.

There was a time when a cigar smoker smoked one or two brands their entire life. (Think about the elderly guy at your local shop who still buys a box of Punch or La Glorias every month like clockwork, always the same cigar.) If FDA regulations hit in a way similar to how they were proposed, we may return to those days, but not because smokers are loyal to a brand out of choice, but because there are virtually no new cigars (at least those under $10 or some other arbitrary amount) to try.

It’s a scary thought and unfortunately one that probably won’t worry the bureaucrats at the FDA. Let’s just hope enough cigar smokers weighed in to let them know they care.

-Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Changing (Cigar) Tastes

18 Aug 2014

I was struck by my colleague’s recent review of the Paul Garmirian Reserva Exclusiva Churchill. And it wasn’t the rare five-stogies-out-of-five rating that caught me off guard.

IMG_4400Rather, it was a link he provided in his review to a Quick Smoke I had written over seven years ago. Amazingly, I actually remember smoking that Reserva Exclusiva Robusto and composing my short assessment. It was my first cigar from Paul Garmirian (PG). I purchased it from a tobacconist in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, and I smoked it while my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I were wasting time before a movie.

As I recall, the cigar was somewhat disappointing, especially considering the lofty price and my high expectations. At the time, I had a small budget for cigars, and I had been hearing good things about PG smokes, which came from a small boutique in nearby McLean, Virginia. So when I found the cigar to be less than exceptional, it was a letdown.

I’ve since grown to love almost all PG cigars, including the Reserva Exclusiva Robusto, and they’ve generally rated very highly on this site among my colleagues and me. Of the nearly 1,000 full cigar reviews we’ve published over the years, only about 40 have earned a perfect rating—and 3 of those have been of the PG variety. I lament not living near the PG shop in McLean anymore, where it’s not only possible to peruse an extensive collection of PG smokes, but you can also find PGs that have been aging for 15 years or more. These days, if I were asked to compose a short list of my favorite smokes, that list would almost certainly include a PG or two.

So it’s amazing to think a cigar I now revere like the Reserva Exclusiva Robusto was once a disappointment to me. It just goes to show how an individual’s preferences for cigars can change with time.

I’m sure you can think of examples of smokes you now like that you once didn’t, as well as cigars you used to love but no longer do. If I were to try to put a finger on how my own preferences have changed in the past seven or eight years, I’d cite the following: less interest in maduros, more emphasis on balance over strength, more importance placed on the ease of draw and smoke production, and more attention to texture.

In thinking about these changes, I can see how a younger me might not appreciate the Reserva Exclusiva Robusto. Like many PG smokes, the focus of this cigar is balance, harmony, and subtlety—desirable characteristics that can be lost on a fresh-faced cigar smoker.

I propose that, in some ways, we’re all dynamic cigar smokers with preferences that shift over time. Take note of how your preferences have changed to better understand your own cigar journey. And don’t be afraid to revisit cigars you tried years ago and didn’t care for. You may find them more desirable now.

-Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Our Comment to the FDA on Regulating Cigars

7 Aug 2014

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The deadline for submitting comments on the FDA’s proposed cigar regulations is Friday, August 8 (tomorrow). If you haven’t yet registered your opinion to help protect handmade cigars, please do so. (See our tip for what to tell the FDA here.)

As you might expect, here at StogieGuys.com we’re registering our comment, and we wanted to share with you what we told the FDA:

We strongly oppose the FDA extending its jurisdiction as proposed in the Deeming Document, and specifically oppose any attempt by the FDA to regulate handmade cigars. However, if the FDA moves forward with the regulations proposed in the deeming document, it should employ the exemption proposed under Option 2, with the following changes: (1) any reference to cigar pricing ($10 or otherwise) should be eliminated from the definition of cigars exempt under Option 2, and (2) the requirement that cigars not have characterizing flavors should be eliminated.

In support of this position, we submit the following points:

Cigars are fundamentally different from cigarettes and most other types of tobacco.

As the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, respectively, of StogieGuys.com we have been writing about handmade cigars since 2006 and have published thousands of articles and over 750 reviews of handmade cigars. The very nature of our site shows why FDA regulation of handmade, or “premium,” cigars is unwarranted.

A similar site about cigarettes would never exist and could not generate the readership that our site has because cigarettes are a nicotine delivery device, while cigars are a handmade product which exists completely independent of its ability—or more realistically, relative lack of ability—to deliver nicotine. What makes certain cigars good or bad has nothing to do with the nicotine content, and everything to do with the skill that went into making and blending them.

For a person seeking to fulfill their addiction or desire for nicotine, handmade cigars will always be an unappealing and irrational way to attempt to fulfill that desire.  This is particularly true for minors (for whom purchasing tobacco products are already illegal) because they will always have more access to other tobacco products, and will always find that there are easier ways to obtain nicotine through products that are already approved under existing tobacco regulations.

The FDA should not extend authority at all, and certainly not to handmade cigars, because it lacks the ability to do so.

The FDA, like all government agencies, has a limited budget (our national debt is currently increasing at over $2 billion every day), which is why the real question the FDA should be evaluating is not “Should the FDA should regulate cigars?” but “Should the FDA divert resources from its other activities, including existing tobacco regulations, to regulate cigars?” The answer clearly is no.

The FDA has not shown it has the capacity to carry out its existing tobacco regulations. Of the thousands of new products waiting for approval, only a few dozen have been ruled on so far. This demonstrates the FDA does not have the capacity to extend its regulations to handmade cigars. The FDA is specifically not authorized by Congress to ban cigars or other types of tobacco, and given the inability to handle existing pending approvals, expanding jurisdiction to handmade cigars would result in a de facto ban on new cigars because the agency has not demonstrated the ability to approve additional tobacco products at all, let alone in a timely fashion.

Given that Congress mandated that the FDA regulate cigarettes, but left it up to the agency’s discretion whether or not to regulate cigars, the FDA should respect the priorities of Congress and not add cigars to its already overwhelmed regulatory jurisdiction. This is compounded by the number of new cigar products that are introduced every year. While there is no reason to believe that new cigars are at all different in their impact on public health (new products are almost entirely made by changing the blend and ratio of tobaccos used in existing products) every year hundreds or even thousands (if new sizes are each considered a new product) of new cigars are introduced. This would overwhelm existing FDA product approvals and make it more difficult for the agency to fulfill its core mission of regulating cigarettes.

If the FDA erroneously chooses to regulate cigars, it should adopt a premium handmade cigar exemption that doesn’t rely on an arbitrary price, or flavor distinctions.

In the Deeming Document the FDA proposes Option 2, which includes an exemption for premium cigars. This is an important realization of the fact that premium handmade cigars do not pose the same public health concerns that cigarettes do. However, the arbitrary and unscientific $10 price floor should be abandoned.

Simply put, there is no scientific or public health reason for the exemption to rely on a $10 retail price, and the FDA has never demonstrated that one exists. Furthermore, the arbitrary price point doesn’t reflect any reality of the handmade cigar industry. If the FDA insists on a price-based definition of handmade or premium cigars, it should look to Congress to draw the line. To the extent Congress has drawn such a line, it did so in the SCHIP tax rates, which decided to limit taxes to the first 40.26 cents of the wholesale price per cigar. More importantly, any definition that includes production techniques will make it impossible to produce a cigar below a certain price, which sets an organic, as opposed to an arbitrary, price definition.

“Flavored” or infused cigars also represent an arbitrary and unscientific differentiation that should be rejected. No evidence that we know of, or has been presented by the FDA, demonstrates that these cigars pose any additional public health risks.

For these reasons, if the FDA intends to base its regulations on scientific evidence and not on arbitrary standards, it should reject any definition of premium or handmade cigars that includes flavor or a price, while it adopts an exemption for premium handmade cigars.

FDA regulations on premium cigars will cost jobs, both domestically and abroad.

It should also not go unnoticed that aside from the dubious public health justifications for regulating handmade cigars, there are significant human costs to such regulations. Thousands of jobs within the United States would be put at risk if the FDA regulates handmade cigars as proposed, and tens of thousands of individuals in developing countries (particularly the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras) would lose one of their best opportunities for a good job.

The burdens that proposed FDA regulations pose to small businesses—whether cigar shops in this country or cigar factories abroad—would have a huge costs and eliminate countless jobs, especially in places where good jobs are very hard to find. So while regulating cigars would accomplish little if anything in regards to public health here in the United States, it would effectively doom tens of thousands of people to worse lives. Any calculus for public health should not ignore this serious impact.

The FDA should focus on existing regulations, not expanding new regulations to handmade cigars.

Given the existing backload of tobacco products waiting for a ruling from the FDA, it is clear that the agency lacks the resources to regulate cigars. Because diverting limited resources to regulating cigars means less resources for other FDA activities—specifically other tobacco regulations—regulating handmade cigars is not only unnecessary but actually detrimental to the FDA’s public health goals. To the extent there is any doubt on this issue, the FDA should defer any decision on regulating cigars to a later date after it proves capable of fulfilling its existing mandate to regulate cigarettes and other types of tobacco that can have a substantial impact on public health.

As handmade cigar smokers and experts writing about the industry daily since 2006, it is abundantly clear to us that handmade cigars are inherently different from other tobacco products. In proposing an exemption for premium cigars it did just that, but it did so in a clumsy and arbitrary way. If the FDA is serious about fulfilling its Congressionally-authorized mandate, it should not expand its regulations to include handmade cigars. However, if the FDA insists on expanding oversight it should adopt a broad exemption for handmade premium cigars that does not include a characterizing flavor or arbitrary price definition.

Failure to take these suggestions into consideration will make clear to cigar smokers and the premium tobacco industry that the FDA is less interested in public health and more concerned with stifling cigar innovation, eliminating cigar-related jobs, increasing the costs of cigars, and limiting the ability of consenting adults to enjoy premium cigars.

-The Stogie Guys

photo credit: Stogie Guys

 

Commentary: Watching Cigar Trends

31 Jul 2014

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Reading the past weekend’s Wall Street Journal, it was difficult not to think about cigars.

No, I saw no stories about tobacco industry consolidation or the potential dangers of possible spreading FDA regulation. But there were thought-provoking revelations about other pursuits that called cigars to mind.

On the cover of the “Off Duty” section was a major piece delving into big changes in the luxury watch market. The new trend is a shift from big, complex watches to what the author called “simpler models… sleek and elegant timepieces that are smaller than a sundial…”

A Montblanc executive is quoted as saying that a few years ago a watch “couldn’t be bigger. The bigger, the louder, the better.” Now, he said, there’s been a turn toward classic, slimmer models.

Doesn’t that bring to mind the 60, 70, 80, and even larger ring gauges of so many recent cigar releases? Will the smoking world experience a shift similar to that of the watch world?

There might be a faint glimmer of one already, with lots of talk these days on some cigar forums and among some highly dedicated smokers about a preference for lanceros. Don’t take it too far, though. Ask just about any retailer or manufacturer, and they’ll tell you lancero sales remain nearly non-existent, while big ring gauges continue to move off the shelves.

Back to the Journal and a few pages further into the section, William Bostwick reported on popular craft beer brewers coping with greater demand and higher output. Some are opening new plants in response.

As they do, they worry about maintaining quality and retaining their small-brewery image. At the granddaddy of craft operations, Sierra Nevada, a manager confessed his respect for industry giants. “Making sure ever bottle tastes the same—that’s hard to do,” he said.

It’s not a stretch to imagine a boutique cigar manufacturer—whose customers would be no more likely to smoke a Macanudo than a Lips of Faith fan would be to hoist a Miller Lite—commenting similarly about General or Altadis.

The article closed with another observation that seems to mirror what’s happening in parts of the cigar industry: Working to keep innovation and experimentation alive as the operations grow.

Both articles were a stark reminder that in every endeavor there’s change. Sometimes good, sometimes not-so-good, but inevitable. Sometimes there are clues if you can spot them.

-George E

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: Random Thoughts from the Humidor (XVIII)

29 Jul 2014

In this latest segment of Random Thoughts from the Humidor, I examine one of the wonders of cigars, contemplate new releases, and urge action.

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Slow, Steady Burn

It’s easy to ignore the burn of a cigar. After all, that’s what it’s supposed to do, right? But a perfect burn is truly something to behold. I reflected on this the other evening as I was sitting outside and enjoying a My Father. About a quarter of the way in, I became fixated on the absolutely perfect burn. It continued that way right to the end. That’s no simple feat. Combining tobaccos with different burn qualities, thicknesses, moisture levels, and oxygen access to get not only the taste you want but also a consistent, straight burn is the mark of a master at work.

Can New Get Old?

With the recent IPCPR Trade Show just concluding, new cigars are a dominant topic of conversation when smokers gather. Some observers say this year seems to have produced fewer new releases than in the recent past. I can’t say. There are far too many new cigars for me to keep up with them all. But I also can’t help but wonder whether the proliferation of new lines, extensions, limited editions, etc. simply leads to the pie being cut into thinner and thinner slices.

Don’t Leave Your Words Unspoken

The August 8 deadline for submitting your comments to the FDA concerning its proposals to regulate cigars (and other non-cigarette products) is nearly here. If you haven’t sent yours, don’t delay. Just click here. If you need information or suggestions, you’ll find more than a half-dozen pieces explaining the proposals here, and a tip for submitting your comments here. Now is not the time for complacency.

-George E

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: My Personal Blend from Drew Estate’s Cigar Safari 2014

9 Jul 2014

I write this acutely aware that none of you (save for Patrick S) will ever get to try this cigar. In fact, right now I’m smoking the second-to-last of its kind. And the final specimen is resting comfortably in my humidor. It will almost assuredly be smoked by no one other than me, probably in the not-too-distant future with a serving of Four Roses Small Batch.

Cigar Safari 2014

But this is not a cigar review, and I’m definitely not doing this to brag. In the interest of cigar education—and for the benefit of those who have never had the opportunity to blend their own cigar—today I’m bringing you my findings from the blend I chose at Drew Estate’s 2014 Cigar Safari. Only ten of these cigars were made, nine of which I brought back from Nicaragua (the tenth was traded to my colleague for a sample of his blend).

For starters, I’d like to point out this is my third blend from Cigar Safari over the past several years. In each case I chose a different wrapper. I chronicled the results of my Connecticut Ecuador and Brazilian Mata Fina blends here.

Each time I’ve blended a cigar, the process has been similar. I’m presented with a menu of pre-selected, pre-fermented, aged tobaccos (so all the hard work is already done). They are organized by filler, binder, and wrapper. Based on the vitola format of my choosing, I’m told how many filler leaves I’ll need. And while barber poles and double-binders are certainly on the market these days, I’m instructed to select just one wrapper and one binder. I wrote more about this process here.

Fortunately, I don’t have to actually roll my cigars. I’m just selecting the tobaccos, and the professionals do all the actual craftsmanship. A cigar bunched or rolled by my own hands would be unsmokable. But, in true Drew Estate fashion, all of my samples exhibited perfect construction, including a solid ash, smooth draw, even burn, and good smoke production.

Here’s what I chose for the actual blend, for which I elected a Toro format (6 x 50):

• Cameroon wrapper

• Connecticut Habano binder (a leaf grown specifically for Drew Estate in Enfield)

• Four filler tobaccos in equal parts

o Seco Piloto Cubano from the Dominican Republic
o Viso Ometepe from the volcanic island in Nicaragua
o Ligero Estelí
o Ligero Jalapa grown specifically for Drew Estate

My intention was to create a spicy smoke with equal parts saltiness and sweetness. I was aiming for the medium-bodied spectrum, counting on sweetness from the wrapper, coupled with spice and strength from the binder. The Seco was added for its fruitiness and aroma, the Viso for its richness and texture, and the Ligero fillers for their power and sharpness.

Cigar Safari 2014 2

I’m really pleased with the result. The profile tastes of crème brûlée, cinnamon, cedar, black pepper, and coffee. The texture is coarse—almost sandy—and the finish is long and spicy. I’d say the strength is medium to medium-full. My only concern is a creeping sour meatiness that comes and goes if you smoke too quickly.

While I think this is by far my best effort to date, I’m not entertaining any delusions of Drew Estate putting it into regular production. That said, this was one of the most rewarding and educational exercises in my tenure of writing about and studying cigars, and I thank you for indulging my desire to write about the experience.

Tomorrow we’ll get back to writing about cigars you actually have a chance of smoking.

-Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: What I Told the FDA

26 Jun 2014

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Spurred by a recent article from one of my colleagues, I’ve submitted my comments to the FDA on its proposal to regulate cigars.

I tried to follow Patrick’s excellent advice, especially to be brief and focused. I’d add only one suggestion to his—sign your name. A signed comment is worth dozens of anonymous ones.

I took a somewhat different tack than most filers, focusing on suggestions that I believe could increase the likelihood of getting an exemption with minimal impact on the industry.

Since I shared my recent letter to the FDA’s tobacco czar, I thought I’d do the same with these comments:

I am an adult cigar smoker and fully support an FDA exemption for premium, hand-rolled cigars. I’ll let others enumerate the reasons this should be done. Instead, I’ll focus on three areas that I believe both sides could accept and that would facilitate reaching an agreement on an exemption.

- Enact a federal minimum age of 21 for purchasing premium, hand-rolled cigars. This would both demonstrate the industry’s sincerity that it does not market to underage youth and allay fears of tobacco opponents.

- Require officers and directors of cigar companies whose products are exempted to annually attest, under penalty of perjury, that their companies and products adhere to the requirements of the exemption.

- Ensure that the exemption is clear and unambiguous, and does not, under any circumstances, allow creation of other exempted products, such as lower-cost cigarette alternatives.

I do feel compelled to comment on one specific component of the proposal: the $10 price floor. This would be devastating, leaving an industry so diminished as to require no more regulation than luxury-priced dark chocolate truffles. I urge that rules be enacted without an impractical, ruinous price floor.

Thank you for your consideration.

I hope everyone will file their own comments. Feel free to copy, adapt, or use any portion of mine. Read through our (many) previous articles on the subject for other ideas and sources. But don’t miss the opportunity to register your views here.

-George E

photo credit: Stogie Guys