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

Drew Estate

Cigar Review: Flores y Rodriguez Habano Magicos

20 Aug 2014

I often get asked by occasional cigar smokers something along these lines: “What’s a good, respectable brand that isn’t too expensive but delivers on quality?” In these situations, Pinar del Rio (PDR) invariably comes to mind.

FyR Habano Magicos 1Consider the many blends in the PDR portfolio (kudos, by the way, to PDR for maintaining an attractive, easily navigable website to help you peruse these offerings). There are many winners—Classico Exclusivo, 1878 Cubano Especial Capa Natural, Habano Sun Grown, etc.—and almost all compete in the affordable $5-6 range.

Another example is Flores y Rodriguez, the first PDR to bear a different name (it’s named for partners Abe Flores and Juan Rodriguez). Handmade at the Pinar del Rio factory in Santiago, Dominican Republic, Flores y Rodriguez comes in three varieties: Maduro, Habano, and an Exclusivo that’s only available at a handful of tobacconists. The latter is essentially the same blend as the Maduro, but the binder is swapped for a Nicaraguan Criollo ’98 leaf and the filler includes Ligero from Estelí.

The Flores y Rodriguez Habano is made entirely from Dominican Habano Vuelta Abajo leaves. The available sizes include Magicos (5 x 52), Genios (6 x 52), Unicos (6.5 x 52), and Canonazo (6.75 x 58). The cigar is described as mild- to medium-bodied with “a touch of sweetness and a soft cedar flavor.”

I sampled three Habano Magicos cigars for this review, all of which had been resting in my possession for two years. The robusto-sized smoke—which can be found for as little as $4 if bought online—has a clean, oily wrapper, a firm packing of tobaccos, a neat cap, and pre-light notes of sweet hay off the foot.

After setting an even light, the Magicos introduces itself with a spicy detonation more characteristic of a Nicaraguan-heavy cigar than a Dominican puro. The spice is dry, salty, and there’s an abrasiveness that lingers on the lips. Rather quickly, though, the spice settles and a more balanced profile takes shape that includes cream and cinnamon.

At the midway point and beyond, the Magicos is even more subdued as the spice seems to fade with each puff. Floral notes and a taste of leather come and go. All the while, the construction is excellent, including a straight burn and a solid gray ash. And, due at least in part to the entubado fashion in which the cigar is rolled, the draw is clear and the smoke production above average.

If you’re looking for a medium-bodied cigar with a dry, cedary spice and an approachable price tag, the Flores y Rodriguez Habano Magicos is a solid choice. This PDR creation earns three and a half stogies out of five.

[To read more StogieGuys.com cigar reviews, please click here.]

-Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Willett Family Estate Rye

19 Aug 2014

I’m getting close to wrapping up our series of rye write-ups so we can put together a Guide to Rye, similar to our Stogie Guys A-Z Guide to Bourbon. This new Willett Family Estate Rye is one I definitely wanted to include.

willett-estate-family-ryeWillett has been bottling good rye for a while now, but up until a few years ago they didn’t distill any of it (at least since the 1970s). Companies, especially new ones, that bottle and brand whiskey made elsewhere are a dime a dozen (and that’s not a knock as some of it is quite good). Though Willett isn’t a new name in the whiskey game.

On the bourbon side, Willett has a history of aging and bottling excellent bourbon, including Noah’s Mill, Pure Kentucky, Johnny Drum, and a series of very small, very old, limited bourbons under the Willett name. For rye, they’ve been doing similar things with super limited, old ryes along with a barrel-proof four-year-old rye distilled from the 95% rye mashbill at the Indiana-based MGPI distillery (with a few things in between), all under the Willett name. In other words, Willett knows how to find good whiskey distilled by others.

What sets this Willet Family Estate Rye apart is it’s the first Willett product to be released that was distilled by Willett. Given that the company has only been distilling for a little over two years, the Willet Family Estate Rye features an age statement of just two years. Like the four year Willett rye distilled in Indiana, it’s barrel-proof (my bottle was 108.1-proof).

The rye pours a nice golden color, although the nose is slightly less inviting with a combination of nail polish with more pleasant butterscotch and orange peel. On the palate it shows a nice combination of toffee, mint, and citrus.

It has surprisingly little spice and a decent amount of alcohol burn, but there’s also a syrupy intensity to its flavors. The finish is long with burnt orange and floral sweetness. I tried to find a particular style of cigar that best complements the Willett Family Estate Rye, but ultimately I think any good cigar that’s medium- or full-bodied is going to work.

Barrel-proof rye isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, even if you are a fan of other ryes. But this is really quite good, especially at $35-45 a bottle.

Mostly, though, it makes me look forward to seeing what comes next from Willett’s stills. If this is what their rye tastes like at two years, I can’t wait until it gets a few more years in the barrel. So while big rye fans shouldn’t hesitate to scoop up a bottle, if you’re more of a dabbler in rye just wait until this gets even better in a few years.

-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

Quick Smoke: George A. Rico Barracuda Robusto

17 Aug 2014

Each Saturday and Sunday we’ll post a Quick Smoke: not quite a full review, just our brief verdict on a single cigar of “buy,” “hold,” or “sell.”

barracuda-gar

Gran Habano/George A. Rico’s branding can be a bit confusing, but when you get past that you find a company that provides quality cigars at lots of price points. This offering (initially under the Gran Habano line, but now known as Barracuda by George A. Rico) is a great example of what it can provide in the $7-9 range. With an Ecuadorian Habano wrapper and Nicaraguan binder and filler, it it a savory cigar with leather, earth, and cream flavors. There’s a subtle, mouthwatering saltiness from start to finish. It’s medium-bodied and full on flavor. All that plus excellent construction makes it easy to recommend this $8 Robusto.

Verdict = Buy.

-Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Quick Smoke: Illusione Epernay L’Excellence

16 Aug 2014

Each Saturday and Sunday we’ll post a Quick Smoke: not quite a full review, just our brief verdict on a single cigar of “buy,” “hold,” or “sell.”

Epernay1

Dion Giolito’s Illusione Cigars makes some fine smokes, but this might be the pinnacle of Illusione achievement. The Epernay L’Excellence (6.75 x 48) is a fantastic Churchill with floral notes and core tastes of coffee, honey, white pepper, and apple. The absence of Ligero tobacco (the recipe is Nicaraguan Corojo and Criollo tobaccos surrounded by a Café Rosado wrapper) results in a smooth, mild- to medium-bodied experience that’s balanced and creamy. Construction is excellent. This is a fine way to spend about $10.

Verdict = Buy.

-Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Stogie Guys Friday Sampler No. 395

15 Aug 2014

As we have since July 2006, each Friday we’ll post a mixed bag of quick cigar news and other items of interest. Below is our latest Friday Sampler.

Capitol Building1) One week ago, the public comment period was closed on the FDA’s attempt to effectively regulate new handamde cigars out of existence. Before that deadline passed, though, eight U.S. senators—Bill Nelson (D-FL), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), David Vitter (R-LA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), and Joe Manchin (D-WV)—wrote their own letter to the FDA, urging the agency to exempt premium cigars, and to eliminate the retail price requirement for that exemption. “A premium cigar should be defined as any roll of tobacco that is wrapped in 100% leaf tobacco, bunched with 100% tobacco filler, contains no filter, tip, or non-tobacco mouthpiece, and weighs at least 6 pounds per 1,000 count,” they said. “It also must either have a 100% leaf tobacco binder and be hand-rolled, or have a homogenized tobacco leaf binder and be made in the United States using human hands to lay the 100% leaf tobacco wrapper onto only one machine that bunches, wraps, and caps each individual cigar.” While there is no deadline for the FDA to act, some expect the FDA to issue its regulations next summer, with legal challenges sure to follow.

2) Officials in Charlotte have proposed the criminalization of smoking cigars in parks, greenways, and golf courses, in addition to a separate ordinance that would ban smoking on the grounds of government buildings. A public hearing has been scheduled for September 2, with a vote expected on September 17.

3) Contest: StogieGuys.com readers who register at CigarsFor.Me this week will once again be registered to win a free five-pack of cigars. CigarsFor.me specializes in recommending customers the perfect premium cigars without having to go through endless hours of research. Users simply fill out their quick Palate Profile and instantly they’re shown cigars that they’ll love. It’s fun, easy, and this week you can win free smokes. Click here. Congrats to last week’s winner: Jay Dolas from West Henrietta, NY.

4) Inside the Industry: A.J. Fernandez released an online mini-documentary. Despite its gratuitous and slightly stereotypical use of images of Fernandez walking (and riding a horse) through his fields to Buena Vista Social Club music, the 12-minute video does a good job of capturing the process of making cigars and providing some insights into A.J. Fernandez’s background. Watch the whole thing here.

5) Deal of the Week: Looking to try what Sindicato Cigars has to offer? This sampler is way to do it. Just $40 ($4 per cigar) gets you two each of all four Sindicato lines: Hex, Casa Bella, Affinity, and Sindicato.

-The Stogie Guys

photo credit: Flickr