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Commentary: Looking Ahead to the Big Cigar Show in New Orleans

24 Jun 2015

In less than a month, the 83rd International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR) Trade Show will commence in New Orleans. StogieGuys.com will be on hand to cover the biggest cigar event of the year, as we have for seven of the last eight years.

2015 IPCPR Trade Show

In preparation of our coverage, today I wanted to list some of the key trends, issues, concerns, etc. I’ve been thinking about. These are just a few of the topics I’d like to learn more about. Following the Trade Show, I expect to be able to report back to you with my findings and impressions, and I hope you’ll share your thoughts as well.

The Impending FDA Threat

First and foremost, I’m anxious to hear what all the cigar makers—both big and small—have to say about the expected regulations from the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA threat has been looming for some time, but now it feels as though the guillotine blade is in position and ready to fall at moment’s notice. These days the peril is more focused and more concrete. As we reported on June 2, every cigar introduced after February 15, 2007 could soon be made illegal by the U.S. government. This would be devastating for consumers, tobacconists, and manufacturers alike. How is the industry preparing for the FDA to hand down its regulations? How much better positioned are bigger manufacturers than smaller boutiques who may not have launched any cigars before February 2007?

Former Drew Estate Executives Back in the Ring

There will be no new releases I’m personally more eager to try than the cigars from Nicholas Melillo and Steve Saka. Both were instrumental to Drew Estate’s immensely successful transition into the non-infused premium cigar market. Melillo has already announced the formation of the Foundation Cigar Company. His cigars will be made at the TABSA (Tobaccos Valle de Jalapa) factory in Nicaragua, using Aganorsa tobacco, which is also extensively used in Drew Estate blends. Former Drew Estate president and CEO Steve Saka is also expected to launch his new cigar outfit at the Trade Show, though there aren’t many details available just yet. You can bet the cigars from both Melillo and Saka will be highly sought-after—and the expectations couldn’t be much higher. How will their cigars perform? On the flip side of the coin, given the FDA threat, can you imagine a worse time to launch a new boutique cigar company? How are they dealing with that?

Size Matters

For what seems like years I’ve been lamenting the trend toward bigger, thicker smokes. I’m not sure you can even call this an emerging trend anymore. Monstrous smokes with 60-ring gauge (and bigger) proportions seem to be the status quo now. Virtually every new cigar line has at least one 6 x 60 behemoth. Yet the more I smoke cigars—and I think this is fairly consistent among dedicated cigar enthusiasts—the more I appreciate narrower formats (like lanceros) or smaller sizes (like robustos or coronas). I appreciate the focus, complexity, and concentration of a smaller format. In the past, when I’ve spoken to cigar makers on the subject, they all seem to lament this trend too. Generally speaking, they’d prefer to not smoke (or make) these huge sizes. The problem is they sell. How do they feel about these giant frontmarks now? Do they see the trend reversing?

Cuban Communiqué

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) must have the industry buzzing with possibilities. Are we getting closer to the legalization of Cuban cigars in the U.S.? Would Cuban factories even be able to meet the new U.S. demand? Or are we all so enamored with Nicaraguan tobacco that nobody cares? The trademark disputes alone are enough to make your head spin (think of all the brand names owned by Altadis and General Cigar that are the same as Cuban brands). I’d like to hear what the various cigar makers have to think on the subject. And even though an outright end to the trade embargo is likely a long way off, it doesn’t hurt to consider the possibility of my favorite cigar makers in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, etc. getting access to Cuban tobacco to use in their blends.

Patrick A

photo credit: IPCPR

Commentary: In Praise of Cigar Copycats

23 Jun 2015

FirecrackerOrigsake-bomb-teaserviaje-romancandle

David Garafalo, owner of Two Guys Smoke Shop in New Hampshire, recently posted an interesting editorial entitled “Here Come the Copy Cats.” He writes about the longstanding practice in the cigar industry of copying the successful innovations of others.

The case Garafalo lays out is indisputably true. If you create something successful in the cigar industry, someone else will come along and knock it off. Whether it is the marketing of a certain production technique (barrel-aging tobacco), the use of a certain tobacco in a blend (double Ligero or double Corojo), or a cigar shape (the fuse-style cap), if it helps sell cigars you can expect others to come along and copy it.

Garafalo, a brand owner and seller of cigars, is understandably frustrated by this. He correctly points out that when it comes to trademarks, people are often over-litigious and in such trademark disputes often deeper pockets will prevail, regardless of merit.

Still, I want to push back against the idea that the copycat nature of the cigar industry is a bad thing. Of course a cigar brand owner doesn’t like that his innovation will get copied by the less original, but overall I think it is a good thing for cigar consumers.

What is so great about the non-Cuban cigar industry is the competition. (Cuban cigar brands are centrally controlled, which is why you don’t see nearly as much innovation there, and why there is no true boutique Cuban cigar.) When one cigar company comes out with a new hit cigar, other companies soon follow with their own version of what they think makes that cigar a hit. If barrel-aged tobacco sells a lot of cigars for Camacho, expect more companies to be experimenting with barrel-aged tobacco.

For consumers, this is a great thing. If Camacho does it the best, their cigars will sell the best. But if next year Altadis or someone else comes out with an even better cigar highlighting its use of barrel-aged tobacco, then consumers will have another excellent cigar to buy. Quality and value will drive out those that can’t compete on either.

If a copycat can create the same experience at a lower price, cigar smokers should be thankful. The alternative, which Garafalo seems to concede is just not feasible, would be a legal prohibition to the free market forces that give consumers maximum choice.

Should the Opus X be the only cigar with a Dominican wrapper because Fuente was the first to successfully grow and market a Domincan wrapper? Should Joya de Nicaragua be the only producers of Nicaraguan puros because they did it first? Of course not. Even though it would be a benefit to the innovators, it would stifle consumer choice and all the innovations that follow.

This is true of any competitive industry. Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada may have been among the first to realize American consumers would pay a premium for flavorful beer. Think of the loss to the beer-drinking world had others not been allowed to follow. The same could be said of cellphones. Think of the loss if Apple and Android hadn’t been allowed to improve upon Blackberry’s innovations.

We should be thankful cigar innovations are, except for a few small exceptions, not subject to patent laws preventing competitors from building on the innovations of others. Trademarks do prevent consumers from being confused about brand names, but they don’t stop competitors from creating a cigar that tastes similar or looks similar to a highly sought-after cigar.

This competition (and, yes, even copycat behavior) is an unmitigated win for consumers who get more variety at a better price than would ever be possible if such activity were prevented. We should be thankful for it, and we should fight efforts by the FDA and others to stifle such competition and innovation.

Patrick S

photo credit: Two Guys/Espinosa/Viaje

Commentary: My Cigar Safari Blends Revisited (Part Two)

10 Jun 2015

After realizing I had one stick left of each of the two cigars I blended in May 2012, I decided this week—almost exactly three years after the Cigar Safari trip—would be a fitting time to fire them up. This little experiment, after all, offers a somewhat unique opportunity to see how time impacts a cigar.

I say “unique” because it isn’t often I smoke a cigar right after it’s rolled, log its impressions, wait three years, then smoke another sample that was rolled on the same day by the same person with the same tobaccos. But that’s the case here. Virtually the only variable is age. In addition, I get to do the same experiment twice: once with a milder Connecticut Ecuador-wrapped cigar made at Joya de Nicaragua (see my article from Monday), and once with a bolder Brazilian Mata Fina Oscuro-wrapped cigar made at Drew Estate.

As a reminder, please note I did not grow, cultivate, ferment, or actually roll any of my cigars. All the hard work was done by the fine folks at Joya de Nicaragua and Drew Estate, respectively. My role simply consisted of some educated guessing, a little trial-and-error, and selecting a wrapper, a binder, and a filler blend from available tobaccos.

Here’s what I had to say about the Drew Estate blend back in 2012:

Drew Estate Blend
Wrapper: Brazilian mata fina oscuro
Binder: Habano Ecuador
Filler: Estelí Seco (33%), Jalapa Ligero (33%), Brazilian Mata Fina (33%)
Size: 5.25 x 42

My objective here was to get a medium-bodied smoke that’s low on spice but big on dark chocolate flavors—something that would pair nicely with a glass of red wine. That’s why I loaded it up with Mata Fina, a tobacco that’s typically sweet and chocolaty. In my blend, though, the Habano Ecuador binder and Seco and Ligero fillers unexpectedly shine though. The result is a profile devoid of chocolate or any sweetness. Instead, the flavor packs dry spice, leather, and oak. I like this cigar, and it is getting a little better each month, but it isn’t at all what I had intended.

Much like the Joya de Nicaragua blend, I smoked through nine of the ten samples of this Drew Estate-made cigar pretty quickly. In fact, I’d wager I (somewhat carelessly) smoked all nine before the end of 2012. So, when I recently lit the tenth and final cigar, I didn’t really know what to expect from a smoke that’s been off my radar for two and a half years.

What I found was a dry, familiar profile of oak, leather, and spice. This trio of flavors was punctuated by significant cayenne heat on the tip of the tongue, especially in the aftertaste. While the cayenne seemed new, a pair of unfortunate traits were consistent with my earlier samples of the blend: an occasional (but brash) bitterness, and a shortage of sweetness to balance out the spice.

Looking back, instead of writing “I like this cigar,” I should have conceded that this blend not only misses its intended mark, but it’s also incomplete, unbalanced, and slightly abrasive. Three years of age have not yielded the improvements the cigar desperately needed.

Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Random Thoughts from the Humidor (XXI)

9 Jun 2015

In this edition of Random Thoughts from the Humidor, we look at a mind-boggling sale, ponder the annual cigar figures, and examine a pleasant trend.

sale-signs

Amazing Cigar Sale

I’m not sure why my eyes rested on the two-page spread for Fuente cigars in a recent catalogue from one of the big online sellers. But I gave it a glance and was surprised to see the Opus X Lost City listed among those for sale at reduced prices. (It also described them as “mild,” which was another shock.) Since the type is tiny, my eyes are not what they once were, and the line running through the MSRP made it difficult to discern, I reached for a magnifying glass to be certain I was seeing what I thought I was. Sure enough, the Lost City vitolas are marked down. Want to buy a box of 10 Toros? Why, you’ll pay just $298.99 instead of the MSRP of $299. Markdowns are identical throughout the line. As they say, act quickly. At these prices, they won’t last long!

Adding Without Increasing

Is anyone else puzzled by the fact that while a new cigar seemed to be released about every 30 minutes last year, the total number of cigars imported actually fell? Overall imports of premium cigars were down a shade over 1 percent, a negligible decline at a total of about 310 million sticks. For the first time in several years, Nicaragua’s production fell from the previous year, and the Dominican Republic’s total was down a bit as well. How’d that happen? Perhaps all those new lines, limited editions, specials, and extensions are boosting some individual manufacturers, especially boutique ones, but they don’t seem to have had an influence on the market overall.

Ten Is a Good Number

Lately, it seems more and more cigar manufacturers are packaging their sticks in 10-count boxes rather than the more traditional 20 or 24. I find the trend a good one. Shops frequently mark down box prices over the same number of singles, so there’s the likelihood of saving some money. But more important, to me at least, is that ten is a more manageable number. Unless you smoke a lot of cigars or have only a few favorites, it can take a long time to get through a box of 20 or more. With a few exceptions, I usually have a handful left to age for years until I work my way back to them.

George E

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: My Cigar Safari Blends Revisited (Part One)

8 Jun 2015

In the spring of 2012 I journeyed to Estelí, Nicaragua, to participate in Drew Estate’s unforgettable Cigar Safari adventure.

There, in addition to touring the factories where some of the world’s best cigars are made, I got the awesome opportunity to blend two cigars: one at Joya de Nicaragua, and the other at Drew Estate. I chronicled both creations in an article that was published on September 10, 2012. The roll date on both cigars was May 24, 2012. Somewhat miraculously, I have one cigar left from each blend—both of which are just begging to be smoked. So I thought I’d revisit the two cigars to see how almost exactly three years of age have changed them.

Today I’ll examine the Joya de Nicaragua Blend, and later on this week I’ll revisit the Drew Estate Blend. As a reminder, please note I did not grow, cultivate, ferment, or actually roll any of my cigars. All the hard work was done by the fine folks at Joya de Nicaragua and Drew Estate, respectively. My role consisted of selecting a wrapper, a binder, and a filler blend from available tobaccos.

Here’s what I had to say about the Joya de Nicaragua blend back in 2012:

Joya de Nicaragua Blend
Wrapper: Connecticut Ecuador
Binder: Habano Volado
Filler: Condega Seco (30%), Estelí Viso (40%), Condega Ligero (30%)
Size: 5.5 x 48

My objective with this cigar was to produce a mild, creamy smoke that would be excellent with a morning cup of coffee. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result. This beautiful, golden cigar burns like a champ and yields a nice flavor of cream, butter, almond, and just a bit of spice. I got ten of these from Joya de Nicaragua and I’ve almost completely blazed through the entire stash. I may have to fly back down to Nicaragua to see if I can get more. While Joya de Nicaragua isn’t known for making mild smokes, this one turned out wonderfully.

I felt a little queasy setting a wooden match to the foot of this cigar, knowing it was the end of the samples from the first cigar I ever blended—and assuming I’ll never be able to smoke this exact concoction ever again.

Despite the nostalgia, my expectations were rather low. Right out of the gate, this was already a pretty mild creation. I expected three years of time to have mellowed it further, perhaps rendering it papery or (worse) utterly flavorless.

Instead, I was pleased to find a smooth, buttery profile that was mild- to medium-bodied with notes of almond, white pepper, and sweet hay. Perfect construction. And, yes, it still pairs really well with a cup of black coffee.

Again, in case it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, the wonderful qualities of this cigar are completely a testament to the fine folks at Joya de Nicaragua, not my own (somewhat) educated guesses coupled with some trial and error. Joya sourced and cared for the tobacco, and Joya rolled the samples. I’m just thankful for the experience and opportunity to learn.

Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Don’t Underestimate the Enemies of Cigar Freedom

26 May 2015

FDA-cigars-large

As a whole, cigar smokers are an amiable bunch that, with the exception of a few curmudgeons, tend to assume good intentions of others. That’s a good way to deal with most people, and exactly how you’d have most people treat you.

But when it comes to politics, it can be very dangerous to underestimate you opponents. This is very much true with the opponents of cigar freedoms.

There are lots of people with various views on how our laws should deal with tobacco products. When it comes to where smoking is banned or permitted, at what level cigars should be taxed, and to what extent cigars should be treated the same as other tobacco products, there a wide variety of views. A proud, freedom-loving cigar smoker should welcome informed debate.

That said, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact there is a well-funded group of professional anti-tobacco activists for whom any adult choosing to use any tobacco product anywhere is a problem that needs to be solved by a law. Attempts to reason or negotiate with these people are not only a useless; any energy expended on them is counterproductive.

These “tobacco control” activists, as they call themselves, are funded to the tune of billions of dollars a year (much of it by our taxes) and extremely politically connected. Look no further than the U.S. Senate, where a small group of anti-tobacco senators continue to push for more aggressive anti-smoking measures, no matter how hypocritical or illogical.

Earlier this month, Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut called for the FDA to accelerate the rulemaking process to, among other things, regulate cigars. The senator even said if the FDA doesn’t issue a final rule soon enough, he would introduce a law demanding that it rush the final rule. Never mind that anti-smoking activists have called for the FDA process to proceed uninterrupted and without the influence of legislation like the Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act. Suddenly, when the supposedly independent rulemaking process isn’t proceeding fast enough, here is a senator moving to intervene.

Similarly, Blumenthal is one of four senators who recently introduced a bill to increase taxes on most tobacco products, including almost doubling most tobacco taxes. That may be unsurprising, but their reasoning strains reality. According to a press release issued by Senator Dick Durbin, the bill is necessary to stop smuggling and black market tobacco products. Of course, anyone with a basic understanding of how taxes create black markets realizes this bill would be counterproductive to its supposed goal.

But pointing out to Senator Blumenthal and his ilk that it is hypocritical for them to interfere with the FDA process, or that excessive taxes only encourage smuggling, would be a waste of time because their real goal is removing tobacco as a choice that informed adults can make for themselves.

So I’d like to suggest the following: Instead of just focusing narrowly on the text of whatever legislation the anti-tobacco forces are championing next, lets also remind Americans (who I still think are mostly reasonable on these issues) that every time they cast their lot with politicians and professional activists who just want one more tobacco tax or regulation or smoking ban, they are siding with folks who reject the basic American premise that adults can make choices for themselves.

Cigar smokers, and all adults who choose to use tobacco, don’t want children smoking, nor do we demand the right to smoke everywhere whenever we want. Mostly, we just want to be left alone and not picked on for our choices by a powerful special interest group that seeks to control a centuries-old behavior by consenting adults.

Maybe I’m too optimistic about Americans. But I think enough people agree with those basic principles for the underdog (and that’s exactly what we are) to ultimately prevail.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Celebrate Memorial Day by Sending Cigars to the Troops

25 May 2015

Memorial Day is a great for barbeque, relaxation, and smoking a few cigars with family and friends. It’s also an important day to remember the brave men and women who have fought and died for our country. So, if you have the day off, why not use some of the extra time to show your appreciation for the troops by sending them some cigars?

Cigars for Troops

We’ve written about donating cigars to the troops many times before. If you’ve never done it, today’s a great day to start. There are plenty of avenues, but we’d recommend Cigars for Warriors. “Our top priority is collecting then dispersing premium cigars and accessories to troops serving in combat zones, as well as filling requests from United States military personnel on Forces Afloat in Combat Zones,” reads the Cigars for Warriors website. “Our second priority is for long term deployments OCONUS in 3rd world environments and other appropriate Areas of Operations to be dealt with on a case by case basis. It is our way to honor, show respect, and thank those putting it all on the line for us back home. We have received requests from many soldiers who have no one here in the U.S. to send care packages to them, and would otherwise receive nothing.”

To get started, please click here. You can mail cigars, bring your cigars to a donation center, or make a cash donation. Thank you in advance for your support of this important cause.

Patrick A

photo credit: Flickr