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Commentary: Older and (Somewhat) Wiser, At Least When it Comes to Cigars

13 Feb 2017

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Over the course of twelve years of serious cigar smoking, I’ve learned a thing or two. True, there’s still so much more cigar knowledge to absorb—that’s one of the beautiful things about this complex, engrossing hobby—but I’ve come a long, long way since my early days as a young brother of the leaf.

I was thinking about this a week ago today, on my 34th birthday. Birthdays are a natural time for reflection, a chance to take stock in what has been accomplished, what is yet to be achieved, and, of course, lessons learned.

My cigar development—and the development of any new cigar smoker, I think—can be broken down into a few different categories of knowledge. First is gaining an understanding of your own palate. What you like, what you don’t like, and which cigars tend to satisfy you the best under different circumstances. This category is incredibly personal. There are no right or wrong answers, and your palate’s preferences may be entirely unique to you. This is why the phrase, “The best cigar in the world is the cigar you like the best,” rings true.

The second category concerns learning how to properly evaluate and taste a cigar. While the outcome of any evaluation might be completely subjective (for reasons mentioned in the preceding paragraph), there are a few criteria that, more or less, are universally applied. Think broad standards for characteristics like appearance, flavor, aroma, balance, burn, draw, smoke production, etc. For any one of these—like flavor, for example—there might be a number of tools that can be employed to assist with a thorough examination, like a tasting wheel or prevailing cigar literature about flavors commonly found in cigars.

Finally, I tend to lump all other cigar knowledge into a catch-all category for cigar-related tips, ritual know-hows, cultural norms, and other miscellaneous items. Here, you’ll find stuff like how to properly cut a cigar, how to store/age cigars, cigar shop etiquette, etc. This final category, I think, is teeming with misinformation—tidbits that 22-year-old me read or heard, accepted at face value since I didn’t know any better, and have since learned were either incorrect or misleading.

Allow me to throw out a few examples. For instance, ever recall learning that only wooden matches or butane lighters were suitable for lighting a cigar? Something about lighter fluid tainting a cigar’s flavor? Well, I’m going to call bullshit on this one. Not only have I used lighter fluid to ignite a cigar many times without noticing any impact to taste, but I have personally witnessed many of the world’s foremost cigar authorities doing the same. If the occasional use of a gas station-bought Bic lighter is good enough for some of the most admired cigar makers/blenders, then it’s good enough for me.

Here’s another load of crap I was taught early on: “To fix an uneven burn, you can rotate the cigar so the slow-burning part is at the bottom of the cigar. Because a fire needs oxygen to burn, the bottom of the cigar will burn faster (as it has access to more oxygen) than the top. This is also why you should rotate your cigar as you smoke.” I’ve tried this technique thousands of times and can’t say I’ve ever seen it work. If your cigar starts to burn unevenly, just touch it up with your lighter and be done with it. Problem solved.

One last example for you. When I was younger, I used to obsess over monitoring the humidity inside my humidors. I had read 72 percent relative humidity was ideal, and I made every effort to achieve and maintain that level. Then I read 69 percent was best. Then I started to pay attention to a crowd that suggested certain types of cigars aged best at one humidity level, and others required different conditions. Enough already. After much trial and error, I don’t think it matters much. Somewhere between 65 and 72 percent is probably best. These days I just get the 69 percent Boveda packs, throw them in my humidors, and don’t even bother to worry about reading and calibrating the hygrometers anymore.

Am I starting to sound like a bitter old man? Maybe. But I think I’ve been around the block enough to form my own cigar-related opinions, however incorrect they may seem to some.

On that topic, if you disagree with anything above, or if you have other cigar myths you’d like to dispel, please let me know in the comments below. I am eager to continue to learn, and I am excited to see what knowledge I can attain over the next twelve years.

Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Going to the Go-To

6 Feb 2017

Perdomo Lot 23

Get a group of passionate cigar smokers together, and it won’t be long before someone starts talking about an incredible cigar they had.

The conversation will then pick up, and you’ll likely hear about some limited edition Davidoff, an aged Cuban Montecristo No. 2, or a rare Padrón.

What you probably won’t hear is anyone singing the praises of their regular go-to selection (unless you’re the sort for whom Opus is just a daily cigar). For most of us, though, the go-to cigar may not be flashy, but it’s the one we smoke more than any other.

When I refer to a go-to cigar, I’m thinking of what you reach for when you don’t really have anything specific in mind, but want an experience you know you’ll enjoy. It’s the cigar you almost always have on hand and are willing to share, secure in the knowledge that it will satisfy just about anyone.

I have two cigars that fall into this category, both traditionally sized (5 x 50) robustos: the regular Perdomo Lot 23 Natural, and the original Old Henry.

Some long-time StogieGuys.com readers (with excellent memories) may recall that my first encounter with the Lot 23, a Toro that time, was less than stellar. But some years later I revisited the line and the Robusto made me a believer.

It’s not an expensive cigar. A box of 20 is around $90, and you’ll often spot price reductions online for five-packs and boxes. Construction and performance are consistent. It’s medium in strength with some spice, some sweetness, and a satisfying finish.

Old Henry is a house blend for Holt’s Cigar Co. rolled at the My Father Cigars factory in Nicaragua. A StogieGuys.com colleague reviewed the Robusto in 2008, and the following year I reviewed the Corona. At that point, I favored the Corona marginally over the Robusto, and I’ve since gone back and forth as to which is my favorite.

Like Lot 23, Old Henry is modestly priced. The Robusto comes in a cardboard box of 25 for about $100; the corona runs about $5 less. In addition, Holt’s almost always offers some sort of swag—an extra five-pack, a lighter, an ashtray—with a box purchase.

I try to keep a box of one or the other—sometimes both—in my humidor. And they often don’t last long.

George E

photo credit: Perdomo

Commentary: Random Thoughts from the Humidor (XXIV)

12 Dec 2016

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This special winter edition of Random Thoughts from the Humidor is dedicated to the snowstorm that blew through my hometown of Chicago this weekend. I know many of you are also dealing with ice, snow, and plummeting temperatures, so I thought today we’d dig into our extensive archives to find some tips that are especially relevant in these cold months.

Take a Year-End Inventory

In a perfect world, I would only have one very large humidor to worry about, not a handful of medium- to small-sized humidors. But because my many humidors carry sentimental value, I can’t bring myself to consolidate. Plus, given the space I have in our condo in Chicago, one very large humidor would be a lot tougher to make space for. One challenge with this setup is monitoring the humidification levels of each individual humidor. Another challenge is understanding what I have and where it’s located. For this reason, every so often I’ll empty the humidors out, get the stock re-organized, remind myself what cigars I have (and what I’m missing), and “re-charge” the humidors. It takes some time, but I find the process enjoyable and valuable. I suggest you do the same, especially as you prepare your own humidor(s) for the winter. If you can, take your time while you work, and enjoy an excellent cigar you’re sure to be surprised to find at the bottom of your stash.

Re-Acquaint Yourself with a Good Tobacconist

In the winter, a good tobacconist that provides a comfortable, warm place to smoke is worth its weight in gold. As you search for a home base from which to conduct your winter cigar operations, feel free to use this article as a helpful decision-making framework. It lists criteria for consideration, like a good selection, fair prices, hours of operation, WiFi, cleanliness, beverage options, and more.

Brave the Cold

If you don’t have an indoor cigar sanctuary in or near your home, you’ll want to start smoking shorter, smaller cigars to minimize your time outdoors. Other than gloves, space-heaters, hats, and long underwear, that’s probably the best advice I can give you. Remember: That 7-inch, 50-ring gauge Churchill you’ve been eyeing in your humidor is a serious investment in time. If you smoke slowly—as you should to maximize enjoyment—it could take two or more hours to complete. Also, keep these words of wisdom from my colleague in mind; they might help you muster the strength to endure the elements: “To brave inclement weather shows true dedication to the wonderful hobby that is cigars… The cold weather smoker need not smile while he bundles up for a sub-freezing stogie session, but he does. When many might close up the humidor until late spring, the cold weather smoker bravely smokes on.”

Drink Well

While you’re out in the snow, warm your bones with some of our favorite winter libations. The Stonewall Jackson has been a favorite of mine for years. You also can’t go wrong with a hot buttered rum. And don’t forget that winter beers can definitely make solid cigar accompaniments.

Patrick A

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: How Will Castro’s Death Impact Cigars?

28 Nov 2016

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By now you most assuredly know that Fidel Castro—the communist revolutionary who overthrew Cuban President Fulgencio Batista via guerrilla warfare in 1959 and ruled the island nation as a totalitarian dictator until 2006, when he installed his brother at the helm—died on Friday, November 25. He was 90 years old.

Castro’s legacy will be a complicated one. The myriad narratives will be shaped by the biases of the authors who document his life, and by the millions of people who will either mourn or celebrate his demise. These threads of opinion will not abide national boundaries, either; consider that, even among Cubans themselves, there will be those who benefited from Castro’s socialist state, while others did not fare so well.

Those who lost their businesses, land, homes, and even family members will not remember El Presidente fondly. I don’t need to remind you that human rights violations were—and still are—not uncommon under the Castro regime. Consider the following summary of Fidel’s time in power, courtesy of the Washington Post: “It began with mass summary executions of Batista officials and soon progressed to internment of thousands of gay men and lesbians; systematic, block-by-block surveillance of the entire citizenry; repeated purges, complete with show trials and executions, of the ruling party; and punishment for dissident artists, writers, and journalists. Mr. Castro’s regime learned from the totalitarian patron he chose to offset the U.S. adversary—the Soviet Union, whose offensive nuclear missiles he welcomed, bringing the world to the brink of armageddon. Mr. Castro sponsored violent subversive movements in half a dozen Latin American countries and even in his dotage helped steer Venezuela to economic and political catastrophe through his patronage of Hugo Chávez.”

I have my own biases about Fidel Castro. While I do not harbor any personal connection to Cuba, I believe humans flourish in free societies, and the proper role of government is to be limited in power and scope, enabling individuals and businesses to interact with one another on voluntary terms. Cuba lies but 90 miles from America’s shores, yet it serves as a tragic example of the impacts of a politically and economically overarching government. You will not count me among those mourning Castro.

My opinion of the late dictator hardly matters, though. If you’re reading this, you might be wondering what Castro’s death means for your future ability to acquire Cuban cigars—or, perhaps more interestingly, if this event will somehow expedite the ability of non-Cuban cigar makers to start including Cuban tobacco in their blends (assuming this isn’t already happening under-the-radar). Crass as it may seem to think of cigars at a time like this, StogieGuys.com is, after all, a cigar website.

On one hand, perhaps not much will change. Fidel Castro hasn’t been officially running the country for a decade (his brother, Raúl Castro, was appointed presidential powers in 2006). And even though Congress is unlikely to change its tune on the longstanding embargo, recall that President Obama—via executive order—has made it legal to bring back cigars purchased in Cuba or elsewhere, as long as the cigars are for personal consumption. This was the latest step in the gradual progress of diplomatic normalization that also included the reestablishment of embassies in Havana and Washington.

That said, President-elect Trump made promises to reverse the wheels Obama set in motion. “The death of Fidel Castro is putting unexpected pressure on [Trump] to follow through on earlier promises,” reports the Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Trump’s top aides said Sunday that he would demand the release of political prisoners held in Cuba and push the government to allow more religious and economic freedoms. Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump’s incoming White House chief of staff, said the president-elect ‘absolutely’ would reverse Mr. Obama’s policies if he didn’t get what he wanted from Cuba.” Still, Trump “could face pushback from U.S. companies now deeply invested in Cuba under the current administration’s policy. Those companies include major airlines, hotel operators, and technology providers, while big U.S. phone carriers have signed roaming agreements on the island.”

Time will tell how the new administration in Washington reacts to the various competing interests related to Cuba. There are plenty of issues and conflicts at play, and cigars are unlikely to be top of the agenda. For now, what seems certain is that the people of Cuba will continue to live under a regime whose main business is the promulgation of extreme political and economic repression. There was a one-party, socialist state during Fidel Castro’s reign; there is a one-party, socialist state with his brother at the helm; and, barring a new revolution, there will likely be a one-party, socialist state long after the 85-year-old Raúl Castro is gone.

Patrick A

 

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: The Smoky Calm After the Storm — A Post-Election Dinner with PG Cigars at Morton’s Steakhouse

16 Nov 2016

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National elections are always a big deal in Washington, where politics is the largest “industry.” It is safe to say this latest presidential election, however, was watched with even more interest with emotions stronger than usual on both sides.

In that context, I was particularly excited when I found out about plans for a cigar dinner the night after the election (November 9) organized by Paul Garmirian Cigars, which has its headquarters inside the Beltway in nearby McLean, Virginia. The dinner was fittingly hosted by Morton’s The Steakhouse at the downtown location just blocks from the White House.

The event was the first seated PG dinner hosted in Washington in a decade, which isn’t a coincidence since the city’s smoking ban went into effect in 2007. Fortunately, Morton’s has a covered balcony which, no matter the weather (it can be enclosed and heated), is without a doubt one of the best places in the city to enjoy a cigar with a fine meal.

Fittingly, the dinner was neither a celebration of the previous night’s election results nor a consolation. Except for a handful of walk-ins, most of the nearly 50 guests had made plans to attend long before the election was settled early that morning.

Over four courses of excellent food, drink, and four PG cigars, guests bonded over their shared enjoyment of fine cigars and food. Politics came up, of course, as not discussing the biggest news of the day wasn’t an option. But the conversation was never heated nor angry.

Cigar smokers can attest that when you’re enjoying a cigar at your local cigar shop, you tend to run into a diverse group. In the chair next to you could be a retiree, a lawyer, a college student, a small business owner, etc.

The same dynamic made the PG dinner so enjoyable, especially after an exhausting, seemingly never-ending, highly contentious election. Does this mean cats and dogs are at peace, and Democrats and Republicans now agree on politics?

Hardly. Especially when you consider that as we lit our PG 15th Anniversary Belicoso Extras, protesters were lighting candles a few blocks away as part of their vigil in front of the White House. Still, it does remind you that cigars have the unique ability to create camaraderie that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

As the night wrapped up, the question on everyone’s mind was when would Morton’s and PG hold their next dinner. Hopefully soon. Anytime people can put their politics and agendas aside for an evening and come together over premium cigars, it is worth celebrating.

Patrick S

photo credit: PG Cigars

Commentary: Obama No Friend of Cigars

17 Oct 2016

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On Friday, the Obama administration lifted restrictions barring Americans traveling abroad from bringing back Cuban cigars and rum—another step towards further normalizing relations between Washington and Havana.

Since December 2014, American citizens who were officially licensed to visit Cuba (for reasons including religion, journalism, education, visiting family, etc.) were granted the ability to bring back $100 worth of Cuban cigars and/or Cuban rum into the U.S., as part of a $400 total import allowance. This change—which coincided with a prisoner exchange that was brokered with Cuban President Raúl Castro—was a shift from the previous policy, which didn’t allow any Cuban cigars, or other Cuban goods for that matter, to be imported.

Now, travelers to Europe, Canada, Mexico, or other places where Cuban cigars are legally sold (including Cuba) can legally import Cuban cigars and rum without limitation, as long as the importation is for personal consumption only.

While this is a rather significant shift in policy, it’s important to remember the longstanding Cuban embargo is still in effect. Obama can’t reverse the embargo in its entirety; that would take an act of Congress. So don’t expect to suddenly find Cuban smokes at your local tobacconist, or a way to order them online from U.S. sellers. (Whether or not cigars can now be legally purchased by consumers from online retailers in other countries is not clear.)

Still, this is a major win for cigar enthusiasts who enjoy Cuban cigars and regularly travel abroad. It’s also a step in the right direction. The Cuban embargo has been a massive failure when you consider the objective was (and still is?) to cripple the Castro regime. The island’s totalitarian communist regime has been unbelievably stable for decades, and its economic policies have only recently begun to take small steps towards liberalization. Furthermore, America hypocritically has no qualms trading with many other countries that regularly suppress human rights and political freedoms.

So while it’s appropriate for cigar enthusiasts to cautiously applaud Friday’s announcement, our adulation for the administration should be, at best, very tempered. Recall that, thanks to President Obama and the anti-tobacco policymakers he relies upon to craft and carry out policy, cigars commercially solid in the U.S. at retail shops and online are subject to highly draconian regulations—regulations that will force businesses to close and eliminate an estimated 30,000 jobs in the U.S. and 300,000 jobs abroad.

Setting aside the ban on samples, new warning labels, and the ridiculously arbitrary nature of the February 15, 2007 cutoff date, the lack of clarity about the FDA approval process is the biggest reason why industry experts predict the rule will devastate the industry. What will qualify as “substantially equivalent”? How will the FDA build and maintain the capacity to process approval applications in a timely manner? How will small, family-owned boutique cigar operations pay the outrageously high costs needed to successfully gain FDA approval (estimates for the cost of obtaining FDA permission to sell a cigar vary widely from $20,000 to $100,000 or more for each size and each packaging option within each blend)?

One can see how the elimination of restrictions on importing Cuban cigars for personal consumption—which are not subject to FDA regulations, by the way—coupled with outlandish FDA rules on all other cigars could jeopardize U.S. retailers and manufacturers of non-Cuban cigars in places like Nicaragua, Miami, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic. What’s the message here? Commercial cigar sales in the U.S. have to abide ungodly stringent rules, while Cubans get to flow more freely? Is it not hard to envision a future state where Cuban cigars are exchanged on the black market once they have been legally imported? Won’t these cigar sales cut into the profits of non-Cuban manufacturers and retailers who must comply with the terrible new rules?

Whether or not this was Obama’s intention makes no matter. Good intentions do not always result in good outcomes, especially in matters of public policy. So while we aficionados tip our hats to Friday’s announcement, let’s remember the cigar industry is entering extremely perilous waters thanks to a reckless course set by Obama and misguided, misinformed members of Congress who agreed to grant FDA oversight over premium handmade cigars.

It should go without saying that Obama is no friend of cigars. But you certainly wouldn’t know that from reading the outpouring of support on social media, or the laughably off-target “reporting” from the mainstream media.

Patrick A

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: Cigar Country Power Rankings (5-1)

28 Sep 2016

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While cigars are commonly associated with few countries, at least a dozen countries make significant contributions to handmade cigars. This week, we rank the top ten countries by their importance to the industry. The production of handmade cigars is truly global, as evidenced by the fact that Belgium, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Jamaica, and the Bahamas—each of which grow cigar tobacco or make cigars—missed the top ten.

On Monday we counted down from ten to six. Today we reveal the rest of the top ten.

5) Ecuador Wrapper, wrapper, and more wrapper. That’s why Ecuador is so high on this list. Blessed with powdery, nutrient-rich soil and natural cloud cover, odds are good some of your favorite cigars introduced in recent years use Ecuadorian wrapper, likely grown by the Oliva tobacco family. Not only is Ecuadorian-grown Connecticut (where cloud cover makes netting unnecessary) an alternative to U.S.-Connecticut Shade wrapper, but the country also produces the increasingly popular Ecuadorian Habano leaf, as well as significant amounts of Sumatra-seed wrapper.

4) Honduras Not too long ago, Honduras surpassed Nicaragua when it came to cigar exports to the United States. That’s no longer the case, and it isn’t all that close but the country is still in a tier of its own above all but the top three on this list. Known for bold, flavorful tobaccos, Honduran tobacco continues to be a staple for cigars rolled in Honduras (especially in the country’s cigar epicenter of Danlí) and elsewhere.

3) Dominican Republic Long the number one handmade cigar country for cigars imported into the United States, today the Dominican Republic has a strong claim to our number three spot. Many victims of Cuban revolution ended up in the Dominican Republic, where iconic brands continue to be produced today. Add such classic brands as Davidoff and La Aurora, plus many upstart boutique brands, and it is easy to see why the Dominican Republic continues to be a juggernaut.

2) Nicaragua Both Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic have a strong case to make for second place, but in recent years Nicaragua has surpassed the Dominican Republic in many ways, especially as the social and political instability of the war in the 1980s moved into the rear-view mirror. In terms of handmade cigar output, Nicaragua, with its rich soil, has pulled even with the Dominican Republic in terms of imports to the U.S. in recent years, even though as recently as 2005 the Dominican Republic outproduced Nicaragua almost four to one. Today, many traditionally Dominican blends are coming out with cigars that include Nicaraguan tobacco, a fact that ultimately pulls Nicaragua ahead.

1) Cuba Although held back because Cuba’s cigar industry is state-controlled, Cuba still has some of the best tobacco-growing regions in the world, which results in many of the finest cigars. Plus, no country is as closely identified with cigars as Cuba. If ever we could see some of the top-grade Cuban tobacco used in combination with that from other countries, I would expect the result to be spectacular.

There you have it, our top ten. Agree or disagree? Let us know.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys