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Commentary: Looking Back to Appreciate the Present

30 May 2018

We’ve often remarked here at StogieGuys.com about how easy it is to get caught up in the “what’s new” syndrome. Nowadays, though, federal regulations have put something of a crimp in many cigar makers’ releases. Looking for something new isn’t what it once was.

So, it seems like a good time to revisit some cigars that you may have forgotten or, perhaps, never tried. There are many, many good candidates for this exercise, but here are three suggestions I’ve revisited recently:

Sindicato: This blend was introduced about four years ago and garnered numerous positive reviews, including a StogieGuys.com four-stogie rating for the Corona Gorda. After the debut of the Sindicato Maduro, the original line, available in six vitolas, became referred to as the Sindicato Natural. The shade-grown Corojo wrapper and the Nicaraguan binder and filler leaves were blended by Casa Fernandez’s Arsenio Ramos. I smoked several when it came out and was, like most, favorably impressed. But it had been a few years since I picked up one. And when I decided to revisit some smokes from the past, this came quickly to mind. I’m glad it did. I may have enjoyed the Sindicato Natural more now than I did before. I smoked a couple of different sizes, and each was excellent. They offer full flavor, complexity, and near-perfect burn, draw, and smoke production. The flavors are numerous and varied, starting with spice that is soon tinged with a touch of cinnamon. Other flavors include coffee, nuts, and some bold pepper. The Sindicato Natural is definitely worth revisiting.

San Cristobal: The cigar Ashton calls “the cornerstone” of its collaboration with Don José “Pepin” Garcia and his My Father Cigars operation in Nicaragua, the original San Cristobal launched in 2007. Four have been reviewed by StogieGuys.com, and two received four stogies (Fabuloso and Selección del Sol Robusto). It is an incredibly diverse line. The original San Cristobal comes in ten sizes. Currently, the other extensions are Elegancia (Ecuadorian Connecticut wrapper) in six sizes; Quintessence (Ecuadorian Habano wrapper) in five sizes; Revelation (Ecuadorian Sumatra wrapper) in six sizes; and the limited-edition Ovation (San Andrés wrapper) in three sizes. Over the years, I’ve smoked all of these. It was tough to settle on a single one for this project, but I opted for the Revelation. I reviewed the Mystic (5.6 x 48) back in 2014 and was curious how Revelation would stand up now. This time, I lit the longer, fatter Legend (6.25 x 52), which was No. 18 on Cigar Aficionado’s top 25 list for 2014. I’d probably rank it higher. A medium-strength smoke, it is smooth, balanced, and satisfying. There’s an enticing mix of sweetness and spice in a cigar well worth picking up.

Four Kicks: As hard as it might be to believe, it’s been seven years since Crowned Heads’ initial offering launched. One of the most anticipated cigars at the time, Four Kicks was a big success. We reviewed the Corona Gorda twice and rated it highly both times. Since then, Nashville-based Crowned Heads has continued to produce excellent smokes, including several limited releases. Going for those newer smokes might lead some to overlook the cigar that started it all. Not me. I’ve been working my way through a box of the Corona Gordas over the past couple months, and I’ve enjoyed each and every one. Coming out of Ernesto Perez-Carrillo’s shop, Four Kicks is a medium-strength smoke with a blend of spices and sweetness that amps up and down as you progress along the 5.6-inch frame. Each one I’ve smoked performed almost flawlessly: The burn was even, the smoke thick and rich, and the draw smooth.

If there’s one thing of which these three cigars have convinced me, it’s that a look to the past can provide a great addition to the present.

George E

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Cigars and Memorial Day

28 May 2018

[Editor’s Note: Today, for Memorial Day, we are republishing the following commentary written in 2008.]

With today’s celebration of Memorial Day to honor those who died in our nation’s service, I have a proposal: As cigar smokers, let’s extend the recognition of service to a week-long effort to provide cigars for the troops overseas, particularly those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If you win cigars this week, donate them. If you’re planning to send a bomb to a friend or cigar board acquaintance, give the cigars to service men and women instead. If you receive a bomb, pass it along to the men and women in uniform who can’t go out and buy cigars but would truly enjoy the opportunity to smoke one. Stop by a local B&M to see what sort of operation it has for sending cigars to the troops (many shops do) and make a contribution. Check the programs several manufacturers have to give cigars to the troops when you make a purchase.

Choose whatever way you’d like to contribute. Just think how great it would be if everyone who reads this made just a small contribution and got a friend or two to do the same.

I first wrote about making cigar contributions back in November. Then, as now, I said such generosity has nothing to do with support or opposition for the war in Iraq or any governmental policy. It’s simply a good and decent thing to do for the cigar-loving men and women in uniform.

So, make this Memorial Day one to remember – for you and for our heroes overseas. Cigars, after all, are among the most requested items by the troops, and they have earned a well-deserved break.

George E

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: The New Fuente Nicaraguan Cigar Factory is a Big Deal

23 May 2018

When it comes to classic, old-school cigars, few brands come to mind more than Arturo Fuente. In an era of so many brands bringing new cigars to market constantly, Fuente has never given in to that pressure of the new release treadmill, or the need to chase trends. All of which makes their recent announcement particularly noteworthy.

Yes, Fuente had a presence in Nicaragua in the 1970s prior to the Sandinista revolution that wiped out many international investors. But now it is back in a big way. Using land the Fuentes have used to grow Nicaraguan tobacco for a while, the Domincan cigar giant announced recently it is building a new cigar factory in the heart of Estelí with the name “Gran Fabrica de Tabacos La Bella y La Bestia.”

I, for one, am very excited to see what the new Nicaraguan factory can create. Fuente makes cigars that stack up well at every price point, from the bargain bin mixed-filler Curly Head to the ultra-premium limited edition Opus X releases. Fundamentally, though, they’ve always been characterized by Dominican tobaccos, especially fillers.

The prospect of an abundance of Nicaraguan tobacco in new Fuente blends sounds good to me. That Fuente brought in Felix Mesa of El Galan Cigars (maker of the Doña Nieves) to run the Nicaraguan operations is especially promising.

The announcement is also a sign of the emergence of Nicaraguan cigars.

Not that long ago, Nicaragua was third among countries when it came to importing handmade cigars into the United States, behind Honduras and far behind the Dominican Republic. Today, for the second straight year, Nicaragua has edged out the Dominican Republic, with Honduras a distant third.

Put simply: If you were starting a new cigar company today, the most obvious place to build your factory would be Nicaragua. Yes, labor costs that are lower than the Dominican Republic. But the biggest reason would be the access to Nicaraguan tobaccos.

In many ways, Fuente’s announcement is the culmination of Nicaragua’s ascendance. In short, it’s a big deal, and a sign of the where the U.S. cigar market is now.

Patrick S

photo credit: Fuente

Commentary: Time for a Little Cigar Love

14 May 2018

We seem to be living in an age of nearly constant complaint. Dissatisfied with a company? Rip ’em on Yelp. Unhappy with any political situation? Tune in to your favorite cable news channel and watch your adversaries get roasted. Angry with someone? Blast him or her in a Twitter takedown.

Well, I’m here to go in the other direction. Let’s raise a glass to cigar manufacturers and toast the quality of their work. I think the caliber of cigar-making may be the highest it’s been in a long, long time. It’s certainly seems to me to be the best since I began regularly smoking cigars more than 15 years ago.

Back then, it was not all that uncommon to run across a plugged stick. Or one that burned terribly unevenly. Or one that wouldn’t really burn at all. Other problems included things like finding a thick stem rolled in with the filler leaves or a bunch so loose the burn became both ridiculously rapid and disgustingly hot.

Now, frankly, I can’t recall the last time I had a cigar that didn’t perform at least adequately.

Of course, this is just my opinion, based on my experiences. I do smoke a lot of different cigars because of StogieGuys.com, though I have to admit my selections rarely include really cheap smokes, bundles, or bargain-basement house brands.

But even when I do try one of those, I usually find the draw and burn quite acceptable. Case in point was a recent house blend I tried from one of the major mail-order operations.

I thought it was awful. So bad, in fact, that I only smoked about a third before tossing it aside. That was because I didn’t like the flavor, the harshness, and the finish, not because its combustion properties weren’t up to snuff.

There are probably a lot of reasons for the wide-ranging improvements, and those in the trade would obviously be better able to elucidate them than me. But I can say that, to me, it is certainly a positive sign that the industry continues on an upward path.

All in all, a great reason to celebrate with a great cigar.

George E

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Photo Essay: A Visit to El Titan de Bronze

7 May 2018

Even if you’re not familiar with El Titan de Bronze, you likely know some of the cigars made at this small factory in Little Havana, Miami, which crafts cigars for such clients as Drew Estate, Warped Cigars, La Palina, Cornelius & Anthony, Padilla, El Primer Mundo, Cremo, and many others.

From the outside, you could easily mistake El Titan de Bronze as a mere retailer. The whole operation is only 2,200 square feet. But—unlike all the other cigar spots that dot Calle Ocho, many of which employ a window roller or two to lure tourists—El Titan de Bronze is a living, breathing factory full of rich history. It’s a must-visit for any cigar lover visiting Miami.

Once inside, you’ll notice a small display case of cigars at the cash register amidst an eclectic, compact collection of boxes, cigar molds, and rolling tables. If you visit late in the afternoon, you likely won’t see any rollers; they like to arrive early (7 a.m.) and, once they’ve made 100-125 cigars, their day is done. This quota helps with quality control.

Among those 100-125 cigars per day, each roller makes each cigar from start to finish. This is contrasted from many other factories, where teams will focus just on bunching, wrapper application, etc. El Titan de Bronze employs about 8-10 rollers.

El Titan de Bronze does not ferment or age raw tobacco on premises. It acquires ready-to-roll tobacco based on production needs. Here, tobacco from the famed Oliva Tobacco Company awaits its turn to be made into fine cigars.

Once rolled, cigars sit in the El Titan de Bronze aging room for at least two months before being shipped to their respective brand owners’ facilities—where many undergo additional aging.

Master blenders will come to El Titan de Bronze with specific instructions on how to construct their cigars. Willy Herrera is a good example of this. Often, however, brand owners will have a concept and rely on El Titan de Bronze to realize that vision. Here, Cremo Figurados rest in the aging room.

In addition to making cigars for other companies, El Titan de Bronze has a half-dozen house blends (which are the only cigars you can buy on-site, and are also sold on the El Titan de Bronze website). I haven’t tried all of these yet; reviews are forthcoming. What I have tried is both impressive and cost-effective.

There’s a lot more to El Titan de Bronze (especially in terms of history), so I would encourage you to check out their website, try their cigars, and—by all means—pay the factory a visit if you’re in the area. When you walk in the door, don’t be surprised if you’re greeted by a warm smile and a serving of Cuban coffee.

Patrick A

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Commentary: What the FDA’s New Nicotine-Reduction Proposal Could Mean for Cigars

21 Mar 2018

FDA-cigars-large

Last week, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) announced the start of a new comment period on proposed rules regarding how the agency regulates tobacco products, including possibly cigars.

Through June 14, 2018, the FDA is accepting public comments relating to a new proposal for reduced nicotine cigarettes. The strategy is part of the agency’s new harm reduction approach to regulating tobacco products. Cigarette regulations were mandated by the Tobacco Control Act (TCA), which was signed into law by President Obama in June 2009, and the FDA formally expanded tobacco regulations to include cigars in May 2016.

Although the rule largely deals with cigarettes (the primary target of FDA regulation under the TCA), the new rulemaking could have a significant impact on cigars. The Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule Making asks for comments about creating regulations that would reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes on the grounds this would make it easier for those who want to quit smoking.

Harm reduction as a whole has drawn praise from many who see it as a more scientific approach than the FDA under the Obama Administration, which focused on stopping new products from reaching the market. Still, the nicotine reduction approach has its critics, including those who say mandating reduced nicotine cigarettes would result in black markets and international smuggling.

Part of the rulemaking notice addresses the potential impact on premium cigars and how they should be treated under a nicotine reduction approach:

Some suggest that large cigars and those cigars typically referred to as “premium” cigars should be regulated differently from other cigars, asserting that they are used primarily by adults and their patterns of use are different from those of regular cigars (81 FR 28973 at 29024). FDA requests information and data on whether large and/or so-called premium cigars should be excluded from a possible nicotine tobacco product standard based on asserted different patterns of use, and whether large and/or so-called premium cigars would be migration (or dual use) candidates if FDA were to issue a nicotine tobacco product standard that excluded premium cigars from its scope. FDA also requests data and information on whether and how there is a way that, if FDA were to exclude premium cigars from the scope of a nicotine tobacco product standard, FDA could define “premium cigar” to include only unlikely migration or dual use products and thereby minimize such consequences.

In response, Dr. Gaby Kafie, president of Kafie Trading Company, LLC (maker of Kafie 1901 cigars), responded with an open letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, whose appointment by President Trump was supported by many cigar industry groups. Kafie, a physician, addressed the issue of nicotine in handmade cigars and why cigars are fundamentally different from cigarettes and many other tobacco products:

It is known throughout the premium cigar industry (cigar factories) that our tobacco products do not cause addiction. Addiction is directly related to nicotine levels absorbed in the process of smoking. Unlike cigarettes, the tobacco used in premium cigars is fermented for long durations of time (6 – 18 months or longer). The fermentation process is done to specifically remove ammonia from the tobacco. This removal of ammonia from the tobacco reduces nicotine absorption by cigar connoisseurs.

I have always had certain beliefs about premium cigars, tobacco, ammonia, and nicotine absorption and efficacy in humans. I have always known that premium cigars are a poor nicotine delivery method to humans.

The last part of that passage is key to the opportunity this new FDA approach provides to handmade cigars who have been uniquely restricted by FDA regulation, since thousands of new cigars have been introduced every year, unlike cigarettes where new products are relatively rare.

Handmade cigars, because of their artisanal nature, the techniques used to make them, and the costs associated with them, are an inherently inefficient way to deliver nicotine. Unlike cigarettes, traditional cigars are produced to achieve flavor and combustion qualities, not  manipulated for nicotine levels.

While handmade cigars do contain nicotine since they are made of 100% tobacco, adults who choose to smoke handmade cigars do irrespective of their relative nicotine content. In fact, as Dr. Kafie observes, the production techniques that make premium cigars attractive to smokers tend to reduce cigars’ ability to deliver nicotine.

This is compounded by the fact that, when used properly, cigars are not inhaled, which also reduces nicotine absorption.

In the coming weeks, we’ll have more on what consumers should include in their comments to the FDA about this new proposal. In the meantime, know that this new FDA approach represents both a threat and a possible reprieve for handmade premium cigars.

Should the FDA more forward with its nicotine reduction proposal without exempting cigars, it would create massive compliance costs that could further reduce the introduction of new cigars, which largely use the same production techniques as cigars have used for hundreds of years (and therefore effectively the same levels of nicotine). Subjecting handmade cigars to nicotine reduction regulations would crush the creativity that drives the premium cigar industry and leave what little new cigar production that could survive such regulation in the hands of scientists and bureaucrats, rather than master cigar makers with skills handed down through generations.

Meanwhile, the upshot is the new proposed reduced nicotine regulations seem to recognize the regulatory framework that might make sense for cigarettes can’t and won’t work for cigars, especially under an FDA regime focused on harm reduction. The cigar industry should embrace the opportunity to point out again (as it did when the FDA created the current framework for cigar regulation) that cigars are a unique, handmade product, and that cigar smokers don’t smoke cigars for their ability to deliver nicotine but because they appreciate the unique aspects of this artisanal handmade product.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Random Thoughts from the Humidor (XXV)

22 Jan 2018

In this edition of Random Thoughts from the Humidor, I remember an old foe, lament the health of the industry, and ponder how social media is changing cigar marketing.

Actually, It’s CHIP Now, Not SCHIP

Remember SCHIP? All the news about a looming government shutdown—as I am writing this, the House has passed a bill to keep the federal government funded for another four weeks, but the Senate doesn’t look poised to reach an agreement—has brought back memories of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), formerly known as the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Just search “SCHIP” on this site (our search bar is in the upper right-hand corner) and you’ll find dozens of articles, mostly from the period of 2007-2009. This January 2009 article was published and updated on the day the SCHIP tax increase was announced (the cap is, and was, 40 cents per large cigar). As we reminded you on Friday, although CHIP’s “funding” would expire if a government funding deal isn’t struck, the tax on tobacco will remain either way. Fantastic. One silver lining: If and when CHIP’s tobacco tax funding is restored, we can once again claim to be “smoking for the children.”

And the Winner Is… Nobody

As you may have seen at Halfwheel.com, the site is not issuing an award for best new cigar company in 2017 because, well, there really wasn’t one. “We’ve given the award each year since 2013 alongside a host of other awards; that will change this year and there’s a good chance that change will be for good,” wrote Charlie Minato. “Due to a variety of reasons, chief amongst them the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulation of premium cigars, there simply aren’t many new companies that would be eligible for the award.” We should all be alarmed by this. Creation, innovation, and new blood are signs of a rich and vibrant industry. This is evidence that burdensome regulations and taxes are taking their toll. For those who would stroll the aisles of the IPCPR Trade Show and cite the volume of booths and displays as an indication of industry health, I say this: Think about all the booths and displays that aren’t here. Think about all we might be missing, especially in the form of limited edition smokes. Looking to the horizon, absent major policy changes, isn’t it fair to expect more cigar company consolidation and closures, and fewer new operations?

What Is Skip Martin Eating Today?

Thanks to social media, the way in which the cigar smoking public connects with cigar makers has changed drastically in recent years. In the past, if you wanted to converse with your favorite cigar maker, you’d need to attend a huge gathering like Cigar Aficionado’s Big Smoke, or wait until he hosts an event at a retailer in your area. Today, you can simply log on to Facebook to trade comments, messages, photos, etc. Many cigar smokers even tag the cigar maker when they’re enjoying one of his cigars. The savvy cigar makers are embracing this trend, using Facebook to update their many followers about what they’re smoking, blending, working on—even eating and drinking. In this fashion, social media becomes a powerful tool to constantly stay top of mind with your most loyal customers. It also allows the cigar makers to bypass more traditional media options—like industry magazines, press releases, and, yes, blogs—and take messages directly to the masses. If you doubt this trend, just follow Skip Martin of RoMa Craft Tobac and Steve Saka of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust on Facebook; they’re constantly posting (some might say marketing). I am surprised more cigar makers don’t wholeheartedly adopt this approach.

Patrick A

photo credit: Flickr