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Commentary: Moving Forward in a New Era of U.S.-Cuban Relations

16 Apr 2015

castro-obama

At this point there isn’t much doubt that we are seeing a new era in relations between Cuba and the United States. I was reminded of this when I received the latest issue of Cigar Aficionado featuring “Welcome to Cuba” on the cover, and a nearly 40-page guide (not including the over 20 pages of ads) written for Americans visiting Cuba.

After President Obama’s recent executive order making legal travel to Cuba easier (and making it legal for visitors to import $100 worth of Cuban cigars), he attended the Organization of American States meeting last week and even had a photo-op and chat with Raúl Castro. Obama’s handshake meeting with the head of the Cuban regime was followed up this week with a recommendation to Congress that Cuba be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Despite Cuban cigars not being legal in the United States for half a century, Cuba’s influence on American cigar culture is indisputable. It is impossible to smoke a premium cigar today sold in the United States that doesn’t have a direct or indirect connection to a Cuban.

Make no mistake, much of that influence is because many Cubans had to flee the brutal communist revolution during and after which many lost virtually all of what they had and found themselves having to start over in a foreign country. Out of that, the premium cigar industry began to grow independent of Cuba, but under the deep influence of Cubans living abroad.

So how do we reconcile that history with an evolving relationship with an island country just 90 miles from Florida?

My own view is there is nothing wrong with embracing a new era of Cuban-American relations. The embargo hasn’t succeeded in toppling the most repressive aspects of the Castro regime. Maybe a new policy can have better results.

But we should not move forward with a blind spot about the deep flaws of the Cuban government. Nor should we pretend those flaws are just a thing of the past. (Read this article from last year for a picture of what Cuba is like for most Cubans.)

It may be time to normalize relations with Cuba, just like we have with many other governments that have poor records when it comes to human rights, and we should hope more interactions with Americans will lead to more freedom for the Cuban people. We just shouldn’t do so naively thinking that the new era has come because the Cuban government has fundamentally changed, but rather with hope that someday soon change will come to Cuba.

Patrick S

photo credit: Whitehouse.gov

Commentary: Opening Day for Baseball and Cigars

7 Apr 2015

tampa-smokers

Last evening was the finals of the NCAA tournament (a good game, too; I’m watching while I finalize this article). But that wasn’t the sporting event of the day that I was most looking forward to. For me, yesterday was about Opening Day for Major League Baseball.

Like much of America, I like watching my sports teams (New York Mets, Rangers, and Giants). I also, obviously, enjoy smoking cigars. So I naturally pair the two frequently.

We’ve written before about the wonderful pairing of baseball and cigars. We’ve interviewed legendary Cuban pitcher and cigar smoker Luis Tiant. My colleague and I even petitioned to allow cigar smoking in the old Nationals RFK Stadium.

At the time of our petition, there were frequently completely empty sections in the upper deck of the huge multi-purpose stadium. So why not allow cigar smoking in one of them for just one night? What would be the harm? We even got a local cigar shop to provide cigars for a giveaway. As you might have guessed, the Nationals disagreed.

A few Major League ballparks do allow cigar smoking in special cigar bars. Comerica Park in Detroit has the Asylum Cigar Bar. Tropicana Field in Tampa has the Cuesta Rey Cigar Bar. Pittsburgh’s PNC Park used to have a cigar section.

But a few cigar bars in the ballpark aren’t why baseball and cigars are a natural pairing. I have two theories for the connection. First, baseball season is also cigar season. Running April to October, it’s prime cigar smoking time, in a way that no other major sports season is. Opening Day signals spring is officially here and summer isn’t far off either. Some days may be uncomfortably hot, depending on where you are, but the cooler evenings, when most MLB games are played, are prime cigar time.

The other aspect of baseball that’s so perfect for cigars is the pace. Some people complain that baseball is too slow. When you’re following a game you care about, though, it isn’t slow or boring. Just deliberate. Take a draw between batters or pitches, then sit back, exhale, and watch the action. Need to freshen your drink, check your email, or use the facilities? Put your cigar down and take care of business. Your cigar will still be lit when you get back for the first pitch of the next half inning.

So here’s to another baseball (and cigar) season, full of lots of wins and fine smokes.

Patrick S

photo credit: Tampa Baseball Museum

Commentary: Cigar Renaissance or Unhealthy Bubble?

5 Mar 2015

tobacco-overheated

Discerning cigar smokers still flinch at memories of the cigar boom of the mid ’90s. From 1993 to 1997, annual handmade cigar imports skyrocketed from under 100 million to well over 400 million.

The result wasn’t good for consumers. Many established manufacturers couldn’t ramp up production while still meeting quality standards, and lesser quality “Don Nobody” brands flooded the market.

Good cigars were suddenly difficult or sometimes impossible to find, while poor and mediocre cigars were being sold for high prices. From the perspective of consumers for whom cigar smoking was more than a fad, the bursting of this cigar bubble was a good thing, even if it took a few years for things to stabilize.

For the industry, the boom wasn’t so bad. First off, they sold a lot of cigars in the peak of the boom, and the smart ones had enough foresight to be ready to weather the coming bust.

The longer-term benefits to the industry were the lessons learned. Cigar makers are rightfully weary of sacrificing quality for quantity, even as total handmade cigar production has crept up towards mid-boom numbers.

So, at some point, the question has to be asked: Are handmade cigars approaching another bubble that’s about to burst? There are good reasons to think not, but maybe some warning signs too. First off, the growth has been far more steady this time. Also, you don’t hear as much from industry types about a coming end to boom times, which I’m told was seen by many as almost inevitable during the mid ’90s, even if the exact timing or speed of the collapse were largely unanticipated. The counter is that it’s hardly unusual for bursting bubbles to not be anticipated by most people in them, otherwise people wouldn’t lose so much money in those bubbles.

One of the things that worries me is the ever-increasing price of new cigars, especially the increasing number of cigars sold by companies that aren’t themselves cigar makers. Many of these cigars are of good quality, but they don’t always offer particularly good value for smokers, in part because they have to buy their cigars before they sell them to retailers.

Then there are the pending potential shocks to the established cigar industry. FDA regulation has the potential to wipe out numerous brands introduced in the past few years. Other possible market-shattering events include the full end of the Cuban Embargo, or a natural disaster striking a major growing region.

I don’t want to bum anyone out here, but cautious optimism is usually a more intelligent outlook than unrestrained exuberance. While a collapse like the cigar industry saw after the peak of the ’90s cigar boom seems unlikely, industries don’t usually grow forever.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Yes, It Was Time to Smoke THAT Cigar

23 Feb 2015

Opus 2

Many of you, I’m guessing, suffer from the same malady afflicting me: You are less and less likely to smoke a cigar as it gets older and older.

I’ve recognized my affliction for quite some time, but efforts to combat it never worked. It was just too easy to convince myself that, for whatever reason, the time simply wasn’t right to justify burning a special cigar.

Recently, though, I made a breakthrough. I decided a couple of months beforehand that my 65th birthday would be the perfect occasion to light up the oldest cigar in my humidor.

That cigar is—or, rather, was—a nearly ten-year-old OpusX bought at a now-shuttered Clearwater, Florida, shop not long after we moved down here. From the below photo, you can see that the cellophane had yellowed; what you can’t see is the extraordinary plume covering the wrapper.

Opus

Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve smoked a few Opus cigars, but none with that much age. I needn’t have worried. It was truly an extraordinary experience. Even at almost a decade, it still kicked off with some strength. That dissipated early on as the nutty, warm, and creamy flavors ramped up.

It was as complex and smooth as any cigar I can recall. The white ash hung on tightly as the stick burned ever so slowly, producing thick, rich smoke.

All in all, this Opus was everything a cigar should be. Oh, that I had bought a box back then…

Well, I can’t change what I did, or didn’t, do ten years ago. But I can change my behavior going forward and make sure I enjoy the cigars I have in my humidor.

To that end, I recently opened a box of 2011 My Father Limited Edition Toros to share. The cigars were tasty and extraordinarily smooth. Frankly, I can’t imagine them improving with further age, so I plan to smoke the remaining stash in the coming months.

I’ve also identified my next event and event cigar: a Cuban Cohiba Behike I’ll ignite to celebrate the occasion when a friend and former colleague signs her book contract.

Several years ago, my colleague wrote about this very issue, warning readers against “waiting for a perfect cigar moment that may never come.” He was exactly right, and I’m trying to heed his advice.

After all, there’s no shortage of things to celebrate. And no better way to celebrate than with a great cigar.

George E

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Ring-a-Ding-Ding

16 Feb 2015

Cigar

First, I have to say I have nothing against cigars with big ring gauges. I’ve smoked quite a few I’ve enjoyed. I’m sure I’ll smoke more.

But as the ring gauge explosion continues, it seems a good time to reflect on what makes smaller sizes special, too.

For example, consider the blend. In a smaller cigar, the wrapper—the most expensive and often most desirable leaf—exerts a greater influence on the overall taste because there is proportionally less filler. This doesn’t make it better. But it does often mean the filler in a large cigar tends to dominate. That’s good if you like the filler. Sometimes, though, to my mind it’s not so good if you’re looking for the greater subtlety and complexity that can come from the mixing of tobacco types.

Then there is the matter of lighting. Big ring gauge cigars can be difficult to light evenly and to keep burning evenly along the way. An uneven burn disrupts the blender’s concoction because the components aren’t working harmoniously the way they were intended.

Another factor that plays a role is the act of smoking itself. As the tobacco burns at the foot and you draw smoke down the body of the cigar, the unignited tobacco traps some of the tar and other byproducts of combustion. They can build up and be unpleasant.

When it comes to bigger ring gauges, it helps to remember some of that high school geometry you probably haven’t used in years. Ring gauge measures a circle, and the area of a circle increases with the square of the radius. That means when you double the ring size you’re increasing the area by four. (It’s the same reason that buying a bigger pizza is almost always a bargain based on what you pay and what you get.)

In the case of cigars, the result is much more tobacco burning and more tobacco trapping, which could lead to bitterness in the final third or so.

Again, I’m not attacking big ring gauges. You should smoke what you enjoy. I’d just urge you to remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A great man is always willing to be little.”

George E

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: Good, Great, and Not-So-Hot Cigars (Part 2)

4 Feb 2015

Cigars

One of the most difficult distinctions in judging a cigar is separating the cigar from the cigar experience.

For example, the other day I spent several hours on the phone with an insurance company trying to straighten out my Medicare application. I was smoking a cigar but I can’t even recall what it was. But I assure you it could have been a $500 Davidoff Oro Blanco and I wouldn’t have enjoyed it.

On the other hand, I’m confident most of us can recall a smoke in a great environment that seemed wonderful, only to disappoint when returned to less stellar conditions.

That is one reason why, when reviewing a cigar, we smoke more than one, and why we often remark on the circumstances if they’re anything out of the ordinary.

Speaking of our reviews, you’ll find an explanation of the StogieGuys.com system here and an archive of those cigars we’ve judged to be the best here.

When assessing a cigar, one of the most difficult things to do is to recognize your personal preferences. Not eliminate them, because that’s impossible. But you need to be aware of them.

The poster child for this is, of course, Macanudo. There’s no shortage of smokers who’ll tell you what a lousy cigar Macanudo is. Of course, it’s nothing of the sort. You may not enjoy it—you may not be able to stand it—but it’s by no stretch of the imagination a bad cigar. It’s a mild stick with remarkable consistency, excellent construction, and a nearly unparalleled sales record.

Since cigars are an object of pleasure and enjoyment, there’s no standardized scale on which they can be measured. Everyone’s tastes are different, and most people’s tastes evolve and change as they continue to smoke cigars. Cigars I once thought extraordinary I now find quite ordinary; if you’ve been smoking a while, I imagine that’s true for you as well.

A truly great cigar, for me, creates an almost transcendent experience, one where you are nearly lost in the act of smoking. I know that sounds pretty highfalutin for burning a bunch of rolled up leaves, but I can feel it when it happens.

But that isn’t all it takes. To be great, a cigar must perform that way consistently. Cigar people will tell you making one great stick isn’t nearly as tough as making them that way again and again and again.

Construction plays a role, too. The draw must be right, the burn even and complete.

Personally, I don’t assign a lot of importance to aesthetics, though they are usually good when the cigar is top-flight. But I wouldn’t let an ugly band—or no band—weigh heavily, just as the choice of a glossy, lacquered box or simple cardboard makes little impression.

When I’m reviewing cigars my goal is simple: provide information and impressions to help you make choices.

I prefer smoking and writing about good cigars far more than dissing bad ones. And when I come across a great one, it’s even more fun. I’m eager to spread the good news. Fortunately, there are more and more opportunities to do just that.

George E

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: Good, Great, and Not-So-Hot Cigars (Part 1)

3 Feb 2015

cigars-neonsign

Who among us does not relish a great cigar? But, then again, who among us can agree on just what makes a cigar great? I started thinking about this several weeks ago, and I’ve been turning it over in my mind ever since.

It started when I lit an Oliva Serie V Toro, a one-time favorite I hadn’t smoked in ages. Less than an inch into it, I thought, “Wow, this is a great cigar. Why haven’t I been smoking more of these?”

As I continued burning it, my enjoyment didn’t diminish. But my assessment did.

Why? Well, I reflected on the circumstances. The Serie V came in the wake of cigars I had smoked the previous two days that I found disappointing. By comparison, the Oliva was wonderful. But trying to approach it a little more objectively, I had to admit that, while the Serie V is a very good cigar, it failed to attain the elite status of great. While the stick’s flavors and performance were excellent, it came up a tad short in complexity and smoothness.

That led me to begin examining what qualities make for a great cigar, what accounts for a bad or mediocre cigar, and which attributes don’t really matter in any judgment.

It is fairly easy, I think, to agree on things that make for a lousy cigar. Descriptions like harsh, plugged, tasteless, bitter, and wildly inconsistent come quickly to mind. Mediocrity is a little tougher to judge, since one man’s bland can be another’s tasty.

Generally, I think, mediocre cigars are those that have nothing special, nothing that stands out. They’re not bad, they’re just not that good.

Judgments also can be clouded by considerations that I would classify as personal preference. These sometimes enter into the discussion, though I believe they often should not.

Size, usually ring gauge, is one of the most common. While many ardent smokers disdain today’s massive ring gauges, there is certainly nothing that makes them inherently bad cigars. Personally, I find myself drawn more and more to smaller sticks these days, both in ring gauge and length. Again, though, that is preference, not a standard by which to establish quality.

Another factor can be price. Too often, I believe, some smokers equate high prices with hype and nothing else. As in, “No cigar is worth (fill in your own price tag).”

Sure, that’s true sometimes. But far from always. Growing tobacco is a costly and risky enterprise, but one that can help ensure high quality and consistency, as well as stimulate creativity. Aging and stockpiling tobacco is an expensive investment, but a necessary one for those who wish to create extraordinary blends. Quality control can boost operational costs without an immediately visible effect on the bottom line. Talented workers command higher wages.

Conversely, it is extremely difficult to produce a great cigar at bundle cigar prices.

There are two common cigar-smoking mantras: “Smoke what you like, like what you smoke” and “If you like it, then it’s a good cigar.” Who could argue with either sentiment? On the other hand, can anyone honestly contend that a Ron Mexico, say, is equal to a Padrón Family Reserve, regardless of personal preferences?

The truth is, in our current Era of Magnificent Cigars we encounter a lot fewer lousy sticks than there were years ago. There are also a lot more good and very good cigars on the shelves, too.

In the second part of this commentary (tomorrow), I’ll discuss what I think makes for a great cigar.

George E

photo credit: Flickr