Cigars for the Troops

It has been ten years since the United States suffered the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. And ten years later we are still fighting. Let’s not forget the brave soldiers who are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and in many other places around the world, doing their jobs and risking their lives for the security of Americans and free people everywhere.

I am putting together a shipment of cigars for some soldiers deployed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It’s scheduled to go out about ten days from now, around September 21 or so. If you would like to contribute, or if  you would like more info on how you can help, please leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

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Best Cigars of 2010

2010 was a pretty good year for cigars, and I’m going to fall in line with my annual tradition and post my “Best Of” list on New Year’s Eve.  As in previous years, this list is a snapshot of my thoughts as I look back on the cigars I reviewed in 2010 and omits many of the cigars I enjoyed but didn’t review.

You may notice that the ratings I gave them are not necessarily in line with the ranking here. One of the problems with assigning a quantitative grade to an essentially qualitative assessment — a ruthlessly subjective one — is that it interferes with my right to be inconsistent and capricious. So I pretty much ignored the rating and ranked them in the order that I see them now. Inconsistency aside, I liked all of these cigars a lot.

10. Romeo y Julieta Museum Edition – $$$

9. Rocky Patel Renaissance – $$

8. Don Diego Fuerte by Omar Ortez – $

7. Mi Barrio – $$

6. Cuba Aliados Miami Edition – $$

5. Declaration by Jameson – $$

4. La Traviata by CAO - $

3. Esencia by Palio – $$

2. Berger & Argenti Entubar – $$

1. Benji Menendez Partagas Master Series Majestuoso – $$

$$$ – Over $10 USD

$$ – $5 to $10 USD

$ – Under $5 USD

That said, there are many cigars not in the above list that should appear but do not because they weren’t reviewed this year. Some of them are perennial favorites that are always in my rotation, or at least as much as my cigar budget allows. I am designating them “Hall of Fame Cigars,” soon to appear in a sidebar near you:

Allow me to introduce the first inductees to the

Cigarfan Cigar Hall of Fame:

Padron Anniversary 1964 Series

Arturo Fuente Hemingway Series

Rocky Patel Sun Grown

Every year I think about including these blends in the Best Of list, but since they can’t appear every year, it serves just as well to retire their numbers.

 

Have a Happy 2011, everyone!

Fun with Numbers

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After careful consideration (actually about three years of hand-wringing) I’ve decided to start publishing the Almighty Numeral with my reviews.  After writing this year’s “Best Of 2008″ post I had second thoughts about my resistance to rating and ranking: I had about 25 cigars that I thought were worthy of being “Bests” and found the selection and ordering process excruciating. A numerical score might have helped me to rank them.

And while a numerical rating is no more objective for this purpose, using a consistent method of evaluation levels the playing field, making qualitative comparisons between blends a little less arbitrary. I hope.

Quantifying quality is a complex matter. Perhaps it shouldn’t be done at all. I will never feel totally comfortable with either my rationale or my evalution method, but I’m going to publish the rating numbers anyway with the understanding that they are not to be taken all that seriously. I have considered moving to a standard format as well, but unlike the White Queen I can only have one impossible thought before breakfast.

To describe my rating system a little:

I subscribe to the notion that the construction of a cigar is just as important as its flavor — for me a Flor de Oliva bundle cigar that burns well and tastes good is going to win over a plugged Cohiba Esplendido. So in my scheme construction and flavor are assigned equal weights.

Construction

Within the category of Construction, equal weights are assigned to four factors:

  • Wrapper (evaluated for appearance, texture and consistency)
  • Roll or Bunch (Density and uniformity)
  • Draw
  • Burn (Speed, regularity/evenness and burn zone definition)

Lesser weight is given to cap quality (evaluated for appearance and integrity) and ash (density and integrity.)

Flavor

My scoring sheet is a modified version of the one used by John Vogel’s Tabacos de la Cordillera — over the years I’ve looked at  several different evaluation methods and this one impressed me the most in terms of its detail. For one thing, it places the smoothness (or in his terms, aggressiveness) of a blend in a position of great importance, and I agree with this wholeheartedly. For me it is equally as important as taste, which is why in my scheme they share equal weight.

  • Agressiveness (smoothness) defined as tongue bite and/or throat burn, or preferably lack thereof, in the first and second halves of the cigar, with more leniency given for bite in the second half.
  • Taste: Greatest weight is placed on balance. Points are deducted for excessive sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, or sharpness (metallic flavors.)

Lesser but substantial weight is given to aromatic qualities (judged for complexity) and aftertaste:

  • Complexity (evaluated for distinctive aromas/flavors and transitions in flavor from start to finish.)
  • Aftertaste (simply agreeable… or not, during the first half and then again in the second half of the cigar.)

The picture above is an example — if it can be seen clearly enough — of the first sheet for an evaluation of the Gran Habano No. 5 rothschild. Typically I would try to do at least two, preferably three of these and then average the numbers before publishing a review. The total points awarded the Gran Habano Corojo was 81 — a five point correction is added to the total, otherwise I would almost never rate a cigar over 90 points — giving the Gran Habano rothschild an 86 in this instance. That seems about right to me.

A numerical rating is never going to take the place of a considered review — with angelic flights of questionable description and history lessons where available — so my blathering will continue in its customarily undisciplined fashion. But now with an easily ignored numerical rating pinned to the donkey’s ass.

Caveat lector.

-cigarfan

A Worthy Cause

Matt (of Matt’s Cigar Journal) is raising money for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation through this year’s Triangle Ride for Kids, and he’s asking us stogie fanatics for a little help. As a tempting incentive, he’s raffling off some great smokes:

1 box of Fuente Opus X Petit Lanceros from CigarsDirect.com
1 Box of Hoyo de Monterey Dark Sumatra Noches from Tobacconists of Cary, NC
1 Box of Perdomo Habano Corojo Robustos from Tabacalera Perdomo
1 Box of Camacho Corojo Monarcas from Camacho Cigars

The raffle is only ten dollars a throw and so far there aren’t that many contestants. Your chances of winning right now are pretty good, and your chances of making a contribution to a great cause are assured.

And to sweeten the pot a little, the most generous contributor will get a handful of my goto smokes. Just make sure to leave a comment below this post saying that you made a contribution so I can contact you when it’s through.

Go to Matt’s Ride For Kids post to enter NOW! There are only a few weeks left!

I just noticed there are a couple of tying entries right now — $100.00 is the price to beat for my free smokes. In the event of a tie, the winner will be decided by our new puppy, Chip. My wife found Chip abandoned on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Northern Arizona a few weeks ago, and he’s going to be a great dog.

If a tie breaker is necessary, two or more new tennis balls with the contestants’ names written on them will be launched simultaneously in my back yard, and the one Chip retrieves will be the winner. Now what could be more random than that?

Meet the Referee

 

Cigar Wrapper Issues: Mold, Bloom, and Spots

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We are approaching that time of year when conscientious cigar collectors look to their humidors with concern and trepidation. Well, concern anyway. I’ll reserve the trepidation for myself. Tobacco beetles, mold, the perfect RH and temp for aging my precious smokes — all these worries infect my otherwise pacific pastime.

And I know I’m not alone. I’m always surprised when I look at the hit counts for this blog and see that our All Time Most Popular Post is not a remarkably incisive review of the hottest new release from Pepin. It’s a short throwaway post about mold on cigars. (See this post for pictures of the afflicted.)

“Is it mold or plume?”

That is the question. The cigar is fuzzier than a two week old kitten, but Polonious behind the register is telling you it’s “aging very nicely.” Fuzz factor aside, it normally takes years to develop bloom on a cigar. Unless your shop sells vintage cigars, it is unlikely to be plume.

But it’s not often easy to tell the difference between mold and bloom if you don’t know what to look for. The most common type of cigar mold, in my experience, is the white variety that occurs in small patches on the wrapper. Unfortunately I don’t have as much experience with plume (aka bloom) but the distinguishing characteristic is that plume is not patchy like mold is.

Pictured above is a four year old cigar with a very light dusting of plume. It’s really hard to photograph, but it sparkles if turned at the right angle in the light. I adjusted the saturation in an attempt to highlight the crystals. It is far less dramatic, but oh so much more delightful than patches of mold. Vitolas.net has a much better photo of a blooming ’95 Opus X here.


Plume is a crystallization of oils from the cigar wrapper, and it appears as a fine spray of sugar, more or less evenly distributed across the surface of the stick. Mold, on the other hand, is a living and social creature that likes to gather in colonies. Well, maybe not social, but you get the point — it shows up in discrete separate spots, making your cigar look like a petri dish.

Green patches

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Getting tobacco to grow is not hard. Tobacco is a weed (and I like it, to quote the verse) and it will grow wild, unsupervised, with heartfelt abandon. But growing attractive, flavorful tobacco, particularly wrapper leaf for cigars, is not easy. It is hard. Very hard.

Something as uneventful as the fall of a tiny pink blossom from the top of the plant onto the leaf below can damage the leaf, resulting in a blemish, or worse, “blossom rot.”

“If you can’t get to the tobacco on time,” explains Lawrence Palombo (of General Cigar) on a tour of the fields, “it starts flowering, the blossoms drop off onto the leaves below and rot, damaging the leaf.”¹

Years and years of breeding and experimentation have gone into the methods used to produce the golden leaf we love, much of it in an effort to dodge the diseases tobacco is heir to and the pests who would like to beat smokers to the Punch. But it isn’t a perfect science. There is one factor that agronomists and vegueros will never be able to control with precision — the weather.

Nearly all the wrapper anomalies that aren’t attributable to mold or plume are caused by water appearing at inopportune times on the leaf. Most leaves that are damaged in this way never make it to the roller’s table, but occasionally they do. Often the resulting cigars are sold as seconds. Or Havanas.

Controlling moisture is essential. If a curing barn is too humid, there is a danger that the tobacco leaf will become mottled or will rot before drying. On the other hand, overly dry air inhibits the chemical transformations that are necessary for the tobacco to dry properly, leaving green traces of cholorophyll on the leaf. For these reasons, the veguero must open or close the casa’s doors accordingly, carefully maintaining a constant temperature and relative humidity inside.²

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Green patches caused by imperfect curing are most commonly found on the delicate claro shade wrappers of Cuba and the Connecticut River Valley. They’re sometimes called “frog eyes” (not to be confused with the more damaging tobacco fungus called “frog-eye leafspot.”) They usually show up as small, relatively minor blemishes like those pictured here. They are clearly discolorations and not growths like mold.

It isn’t clear to me exactly what causes these green spots, but it appears that excess moisture at some point in the process causes patches or streaks in the leaf to resist curing.

“The rain prevented the tobacco from maturing the way it should,” says David Perez (of ASP in Ecuador.) “We had a lot of green spots, a lot less yield per acre…”

Tobacco grown during the El Niño years is easy to spot. Some is subtly marred, with a few green spots on the wrapper known as frog eyes. These spots usually aren’t detectable in the fields, but the eyes blossom in the curing barn as the moisture is drawn from the tobacco.³

While there doesn’t appear to be a singular cause of green spots, the important thing is that they really are harmless. They detract from the overall appearance of the wrapper, but they don’t affect the flavor or burning quality of an otherwise perfect cigar.

Water Spots

The other common imperfection of the harmless type is the water spot. These usually occur as very light yellowish-white circular patches that stand out against the light brown of a shade grown wrapper.

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It is commonly believed that drops of rain water sitting on the leaf cause damage to the chlorophyll in the leaf, eventually affecting the curing process so that instead of degrading from green to brown, the pigment in the spot turns lighter than normal.

Spots are about the size of a pinhead, random, and generally lighter than the wrapper. Althrough there has been some debate about what causes the spots, the general concensus is that these are just splashes of water that have marred the leaf.

Remember that wrapper leaf is very delicate, and can be bruised by something as seemingly harmless as a steady pelting of rain. The spots of water then act as lenses to focus sunlight on these points and slightly discolor the leaf.4

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The causes of wrapper imperfections are varied, and in the final analysis not all that important. What is important is to be able to differentiate between mold and harmless flaws. Mold can destroy a cigar, whereas small leaf spots are almost always harmless. And if you are lucky enough to have a blooming, pluming box of vintage smokes — then, my friend, you have done very well for yourself indeed.

NOTES

  1. Wrapped Up: Some of the World’s Best Cigars Use Connecticut Tobacco Wrapper Leaves” Cigar Aficionado, Winter 1992
  2. The Havana Cigar: Cuba’s Finest, Charles Del Tedesco. Abbeville Press, 1997
  3. Land of Fire: Ecuadoran Cigar Wrapper Tobacco Thrives in a World of Volcanoes and Perpetual Cloud Cover” Cigar Aficionado, March/April 2000
  4. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars, Ted Gage. Alpha, 1997

Review Contest at Cigar Inspector

Just a quick reminder to cigar reviewers everywhere: Cigar Inspector is holding a cigar review contest. The prize is an ST Dupont X-Tend lighter, which must be a fine piece of equipment because the retail price is astronomical. Cigar Jack, myself, and of course the Inspector himself will be judging submissions to bestow the laurels, and the lighter, upon the most excellent scribe of the smoke.

So far there are only a few reviews in the bag, and the level of competition has been a bit sleepy, so sharpen your pencil or fire up your laptop or wipe down your slate and get smoking. Give it up for the Inspector and walk away with a lighter worth more than my car. Well, almost.

Check out the details here. And good luck!

-cigarfan

Introducing A New Reviewer: lucky7

My name is Dennis, a cigar enthusiast currently residing in Bowie, Maryland, part of the Washington, D.C. Metro area. I smoked cigarettes for many years until about 10 years ago when I finally mustered the will to quit for good but couldn’t shake the hankerin’ for tobacco. Almost three years ago now, I began enjoying cigars and my love for them has grown exponentially. My taste leans toward full bodied – full flavored cigars like the Ashton VSG or Rocky Patel Edge but I do like to experiment and have found it doesn’t always take power to satisfy.

Beyond my love for cigars, I work as a technologist for DoD and my interests outside work include music (I play acoustic guitar and sing) and family.

As I have come to respect and enjoy the writings offered here on KOTF, I am humbled by Cigarfan’s offer the allow my contribution and hope to carry on the tradition of quality and excellence. Feel free to honestly let me know what you think.

Counterblaste to Tobacco

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In the early seventeenth century Scotland’s King James came to power, succeeding Elizabeth I to the crown of England. James was a great moralist and high on his list of Things to Purge were the Antichrist, Witches, their assorted demonic consorts, and henbane of Peru, otherwise known as tobacco. Witches could be tortured, tried, and burnt. Demons and tobacco posed a slightly greater challenge, so James began his campaign with a war of words. In 1604 his Counterblaste to Tobacco was published and became one of the world’s first diatribes against the gentle art of smoking.

It didn’t work. Whether it was a witch or a fine pipe of Virginia leaf, Englishmen continued to light ‘em up. So James took the next inevitable step: taxation. Maybe it was a shrewd play for more revenue, or perhaps a legitimate concern for the souls of his subjects. In any case, the duty on tobacco was raised 4000 percent.

4000 percent, you say? Holy smokes! That’s a rather extravagant raise, if I do say so myself.

And yet that’s nothing compared to what the United States Congress is preparing to do to cigar enthusiasts in 2008.

What would you say to an increase of 20,000 percent? That is the cap on the tax that lawmakers are considering placing on sales of cigars to United States citizens. The current federal excise tax is about a nickel per cigar. The proposed increase is to 53% of the manufacturer’s sales price, with a cap of 10 dollars per cigar. (In addition to state tobacco taxes, sales taxes, tax taxes, etc.)

This isn’t the first time that Congress has threatened the cigar industry (remember the American Jobs Creation Act?) but this new thing looks even more dangerous – and likely – because those who will supposedly benefit are poor kids. The revenues from this gargantuan tax increase are slated for the renewal and expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, a program which has in the past received largely bipartisan support. Let’s face it: as an elected representative from either side it’s going to be hard to vote down benefits for children.

And look. I’m not a hard-hearted guy. I’ll take a hit for the kids. Hell, raise the tax to a quarter. That’s a 500 percent increase, and based on my consumption it would make my annual contribution about a hundred bucks. I don’t mind a reasonable tax on my hobby for a good cause, but is 50% of the wholesale price a reasonable tax? King James didn’t go that far and he was chasing the Antichrist and his pipe puffing minions!

Cigar sales make up 8 percent of total tobacco expenditure in the United States. 90 percent of total sales are of cigarettes. Under this plan cigarette taxes will increase as well, but only by a “modest” 61 cents per pack, an increase of less than 200 percent. Meanwhile taxes on premium cigars will go up by 2 or 3 dollars on average, with the super premiums getting totally clobbered. Why is this tax so disproportionate? Why are cigar smokers getting the shaft?

And there are other considerations, aside from the basic unfairness of the tax:

  • Cigar shops, especially small mom and pop establishments, will be put out of business with a floor tax that will require them to pay this tax up front on all their current stock when the law goes into effect.
  • More than likely a new black market will emerge, and what will be the costs of policing that?
  • Struggling economies in Central America and the Carribbean that are just now recovering from years of political repression and the effects of hurricanes will be adversely affected when cigar exports are curtailed.
  • What happens to the revenues for SCHIP when the industry being taxed shrivels up or goes underground? How wise is it to rely on a moribund industry to fund health insurance for the youth of America?

A lot of the commentary on the cigar boards has had a political bent blaming the democrats for this proposal, but the only way this bill will pass is if republicans join in with the democrats to override a Bush veto. A majority of republicans on the Senate Finance Committee voted with the democrats today to send this proposal to the full Senate. If successful this will be a bipartisan screwing. Regardless of where you or your representatives stand politically, let them know your opinion on this twenty first century Counterblaste.

You can contact your Senator by clicking here.

The Best Cigars of 2006

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It was about a year ago when I first started posting reviews on this blog, so it’s a good time to look back and remember the great cigars of 2006. But first a couple words about the reviews that have appeared here for the last year or so…

The reason why my reviews are straight narrative without a number or grade rating is that I have a really hard time committing to a number. I just can’t smoke a Punch Gran Puro and say, hmmm… you are an 89. Or maybe I can, but I know that in a week or two, under different conditions, I’m going to say about the same cigar, hmmm… you are an 85, or you are a 91. And more often than not, it isn’t because the cigar is inconsistent. It’s because I am inconsistent.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t keep records for myself. I actually do assign a number to the cigars I rate, but I keep it private for the above stated reason. I also tend to rate cigars low for some reason, which might lead someone to the wrong conclusion. Only one cigar made it above a 90 this year, and that was a Bolivar Royal Corona from the Island That Dare Not Speak Its Name. (Which scored a 92, incidentally. Man, that’s a great cigar.) But I’ve kept this blog to cigars available in the United States, and I plan to keep it that way.

So in the spirit of “Auld Lang Syne” I have gone through the ratings in my cigar journal and with some difficulty I have narrowed down the top ten cigars of 2006. Again, I find this sort of thing capricious at best, but it’s New Year’s Eve, so what the hell. Here goes.

10. Camacho Corojo Monarca

9. Rocky Patel Sungrown Petite Corona

8. La Aurora Cien Años Corona

7. Torano 1916 Cameroon Robusto

6. Havana Soul El Mundo

5. Ashton Virgin Sungrown Belicoso

4. Punch Gran Puro Libertad

3. Sancti Spiritus Toro

2. Ashton Heritage Puro Sol Robusto

and finally, the Number One Cigar of 2006…

1. Padron 1964 Anniversary Imperial

I haven’t reviewed the Havana Soul yet, but you can be sure that at some point I will. (The rest in the list have been linked to the reviews.)

And now for a prediction: 2007. What will it be for the stogie fanatic? Where will the new year take us? I can see a glimmer on the horizon, a twinkling beacon that is calling out the name of Jose “Don Pepin” Garcia. I predict great things this year for Don Pepin. If the quality of his cigars can withstand his growing popularity, if quality isn’t sacrificed for quantity, I think some of the best cigars available in the U.S. will be coming from El Rey de los Habanos.

Happy New Year Everyone!!

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Vick’s Nyquil Cherry Flavor

A slight departure from our regular fare here at Keepers of the Flame…

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On the nose, Nyquil Cherry is a bountiful cascade of rich Washington cherry flavors. Despite having a somewhat impaired olfactory organ I am able to sense the richness of the Lambert, the delicate nuance of the Rainier, and the Bada of the Bing in this heady concoction. I’m taken back by a wave of nostalgia to my younger years in the Midwest where we would often snatch these tasty morsels directly from the tree and wash them down with flagons of Boone’s.

On the tongue, Vick’s Nyquil leaps like a moose into the river of my throat. (For you stogie chompers out there who wouldn’t know a verse from a vise, that’s called poetry.) It enters with a bombastic flourish of sweetness, followed by an alcohol tang. With some dismay I must add, however, that an obtrusively metallic, somewhat mentholated note strikes deep within the first swallow of this sweet liqueur. And while certainly expected, I can’t say I entirely appreciated the lengthy and unpleasantly medicinal finish.

This year’s vintage is not among the best, I must say. And yet it’s a vast improvement over the disastrous 1998. Pair this with a nice souffle or cough au vin.

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Salud!

(Needless to say… the cigar reviews are on hold for a while.)