Friday, April 21, 2006

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Stale Cigars and Aging

From time to time, friends, acquaintances, and customers will state that a cigar is "stale" and therefore not up to par. I usually just shake my head and keep on trucking with whatever I am doing. But enough is enough. Let's set the record straight–there is nothing worse then telling a tobacconist that he is selling "stale" cigars. Cigars are not like bread, pretzels, or potato-chips; they do not go "bad" after a certain amount of time. As a matter of fact, they often improve with age, just like wine, given proper storage. If a cigar is dry, cracked, or falling apart, it is not because of the amount of time elapsed since they were rolled but because it was not properly humidified, were handled carelessly, or swings in humidity have caused the tobaccos to expand and contract repeatedly. If the cellophane covering your cigars has a yellowish tint, be happy, it is likely you have a cigar that has been aging for several years in its box; and if properly humidified, is usually an improved smoke.

Want to know more about how age affects a cigar? Well I've got you covered–follow along and you are on the way to becoming an aficionado. Typically, aging makes a smoother, more pleasant, “round” cigar. Most experts agree that aging does not necessarily make a cigar better, but simply rounder, producing a mellower character with a less sharp tobacco taste. If any of you have smoked a cigar months after the actual purchase date - after they've had some TLC in your humidor, you more than likely noticed a mellower taste and strength. Another characteristic of an aged cigar is typically a more even, gentler burn and draw. A freshly rolled cigar will sometimes be a little too moist and those two characteristics can suffer. Laying them in your humidor can give cigars time to dry out allowing the long-filler tobacco to loosen up considerably. The tobaccos will marry and create a more refined taste. In fact, some cigar enthusiasts buy full boxes or bundles - not to smoke them right away, but to age or “rest” in their humidor. Many have the patience to let them stay for a year or more! Patience is indeed a virtue when it comes to aging your cigars.

Interested in aging your cigars? The amount of time you age cigars is a matter of personal preference. In general, age them at least a year for optimum effect. Of course, some low-quality cigars won't see much improvement with aging - remember "garbage in, garbage out." However, keep in mind that some cigars will have pleasantly rich flavors after aging, even though today they might smell like a dumpster - much the same way that good wines for aging are too tannic to drink when young. Certain cigars are just naturally better suited for aging. An example is larger ring-gauge cigars. The thicker the cigar, the greater the variety of tobacco leaves and hence, the more complex the final flavor of the aged cigar. The extreme insides of larger cigars tend to be somewhat shielded from the outside environment, less affected by fluctuations in humidity and temperature. This added stability is highly desirable for long-term aging. Some cigars, on the other hand, don't benefit from aging. Maduro-wrapped cigars, for example, which are artificially "cooked" or "cured" to achieve the dark coloration of the wrapper, are essentially "fixed," and thus any further benefits of aging have been stunted. It is different with each cigar, but there does come a point when the cigar is optimum and any additional aging simply won’t enhance the cigar any further.

- Big Mike

Thursday, April 20, 2006

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Cigar Bands, On or Off?

Have you been witness to a debate questioning the proper etiquette regarding removal of the vaunted cigar band? Just as there is no complete agreement on the origin of the band, differences of opinion exist on contemporary band manners. Etiquette guides of 19th-century England, the land from which most manners were dictated, insisted that only "lower classes" failed to remove the band. These same guides did approve, however, of turning the face of the band toward one's fellows if "the cigar was of sufficient quality to impress them." Most modern U.S. tobacconists tell customers that band removal is strictly a matter of choice. Interestingly, the majority of tobacconists queried said they personally removed bands so as not to show favoritism, except, predictably, those smoking their own house brands who view the display of the band as inexpensive advertising. Why remove it? The arguments range from the potential of the band damaging the wrapper to the steadfast belief that only the most naive smokers would actually leave the band on. Most experts, including Zino Davidoff, believe that the removal of a cigar band is a "personal choice," claiming that in today's world there is no shame in leaving the band on a cigar, citing references to both practices in literature as evidence. He personally removes his bands, but only after a few puffs, when the cigar is well-lighted and "running." Waiting a few minutes allows the heat of the smoke to make the gum on the band less adhesive and easier to remove without tearing the fragile wrapper. One country does still take a rather strong view with respect to the band - the British. They still consider it "bad form" to advertise the brand you are smoking - as you wouldn't want to embarrass another gentleman smoking an inferior brand. No matter whether you decide to remove the band before, during, or not at all be prepared to support your choice. There have been more than a few stories contemplating the origin of the cigar band - here are three: First is that of the Russian Queen, Catherine the Great who ordered all of her cigars to be wrapped in silk in order to protect her fingers. In an effort to mimic the queen all cigars in Russia eventually had the same bands applied. But, why would Cubans be influenced by the extravagances of a queen over 5,000 miles away? Story #2 stems from the need to keep white gloves in England from being soiled. There are three reasons this most likely is not the origin. For one, a properly rolled and smoked cigar would not stain fingers. Secondly, smokers most often did not wear these gloves while smoking (as shown in photographs of the period). And third, keeping in mind your own experiences, how often have you ever noticed anyone actually holding the cigar by the band while smoking? The third story suggests the most logical development of the cigar band counterfeiting. During the 1800's as the popularity of the cigar was steadily increasing, the demand for Cuban cigars overwhelmed the supply. Don Francisco Cabanas (owner of a prestigious brand of Cuban Cigars) estimated that "for every one of the 2 million Cuban cigars that I ship to Europe, 6 million are being sold there." So in an effort to combat the fake Cuban cigars, a local factory owner named Gustave Bock, a European immigrant well versed in the practices of Old World Merchants, ordered that a paper ring with his signature be placed on every cigar intended for export.

- Big Mike

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

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Flavored Cigars: They ain't what they used to be

Veteran cigar smokers often belly-laugh at the thought of smoking a flavored cigar - or at least snicker. To some, flavored cigars are like wine coolers to wine drinkers. Hell, many look over their shoulder before taking a peek at one in a cigar shop - and probably will even skip this article. But increasingly, there is a sort of flight to quality among flavored cigars, so don't necessarily dismiss them out of hand. Believe me, I was one of them just a short time ago.
I can't tell you how many customers pick up a small flavored cigarillo, smell it, notice it's only 50 cents, and buy it on a whim. More often than not, they can't even finish the damn thing, throw it away, and vow never to try another flavored cigar again. After trying many samples, I don't blame these guys. I have noticed that most flavored cigars are extremely mild, sickeningly sweet, cloying, poorly constructed, and rarely taste like the intended flavor anyway.
Most people think of flavored cigars as small tobacco trimmings soaked in a cherry or vanilla flavored 'brine' and covered in a sugar soaked wrapper leaf. As disgusting as this may sound, it can be true with your lesser-known brands. However, the tides continue to change and the market for flavored cigars has been flourishing at an enormous rate over the past 1-2 years. And with brands like CAO Flavours, the Gurkha Louis XIII, Toraño, ACID, and Alec Bradley entering the 'flavored family', you wouldn't expect anything less. Using new technologies within the curing process, the bar of quality has been raised to new heights. Need some examples? That's why I am writing this article!
Let's talk about the flavoring process. More specifically, let's talk about the new and improved process being used by some of your better known brands. Some brands such as CAO Flavours and the Gurkha Louis XIII line imbue - rather than soak or spray - aromas in the tobacco over time to impart a subtle and pleasant taste. Carlos Toraño has implemented the use of so-called 'reaction flavors' to create their flavored line, Rum Rumba. Reaction flavors are created specifically for tobacco products, causing the blend to gain flavor as the cigar burns. This is an improvement, as many flavored cigars lose their sweetness and flavor only to gain a bitter harshness towards the end. ACID cigars employ a slightly different process: an "aroma room" is lined with over 200 essential herbs, oils and botanicals to infuse a highly aromatic taste.
Alec Bradley - maker of Trilogy and Occidental - has a flavored series called Gourmet Dessert Cigars. These are also created with a unique twist. Using all-natural flavorings frequently used within the baking industry, Alec Bradley significantly improved the flavor of the cigars as well as extended the flavored life of the cigars. Prior to these improvements, some flavored cigars were known to lose their added flavor even as they sat on the shelf waiting to be purchased.
So what's the point of this article you ask? Well, even if it's not your everyday cup of tea, why not try a flavored cigar, or give it another try if your first experience wasn't great? You may actually be impressed, and find a nice 'change of pace smoke' along the way. Even if you have to get your wife to buy it for you and then smoke it in a locked room with the lights out and shades drawn, it's worth a shot.

- Big Mike

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Big Mike

The Process of Cigar Rolling

If you ever get to visit a cigar factory, you’re in for a treat. In fact, you’ll probably leave thinking it’s a minor miracle that cigars don't cost $20 apiece. The manufacture of handmade cigars is a truly extensive process, which includes the growing, harvesting, and curing, to the leaf selection, rolling, and quality control, to the banding, packing, box-making and so on. Fortunately, from time to time, we host “rolling events” at our retail store, and this gives a small glimpse into the art of cigar rolling itself (and you don’t have to travel to Central America to see it!). Each rolling event typically features a master roller from some of the top factories in Central America or the Caribbean. The process is fascinating. At one of our recent events, Roberto, a master roller from Victor Sinclair, gave us a blow by blow description of the rolling process.

First, he prepares the fillers, which you might be tempted to think consisted merely of bunching leaves together. However, Roberto displayed an old method called entubar which originated in Cuba and is performed to achieve superior air flow through the cigar. It entails painstakingly folding each individual leaf onto itself prior to bunching to promote an even burn and draw, then surrounding it with a coarse binder leaf which holds it together. This sounds easy enough, but done by a novice your cigar would look more like a wadded up newspaper than a cigar!

After properly shaping the filler, the bunch is placed into a cedar mold where it will remain for 30 to 45 minutes. During this time, Roberto unfolds a moist towel, uncovering the most expensive part - the high-quality wrapper leaves.

Roberto clears the cedar rolling platform - which is actually a sliver cut from a tree trunk - of any loose tobacco and debris before beginning the important task of applying the wrapper. He takes pride in his rolling platform, as it has been passed down for generations throughout his family. After cautiously inspecting the leaf, Roberto chooses the best part of the leaf and uses his chaveta (roller's knife) to masterfully sculpt it into the optimum shape for wrapping his cigar. Like his platform, the chaveta is also a family heirloom. He applies a small amount of vegetable glue, better known as pectin, to ensure that his wrapper will remain secure.

The wrapper is now primed and Roberto removes a perfectly shaped bunch from the mold. After cutting it to length, he applies the wrapper carefully from foot to head, retracing any ‘mis-rolls’ along the way. With the cigar wrapped, the cap is ready to be applied. Traditionally, caps are formed by using a knife similar to a large punch cutter to cut a circle shape out of the wrapper leaf. This circle is then applied to the head of the cigar. [Roberto has a flair for the dramatic, and decides to create a pigtail at the head of the cigar by holding the cap and spinning the cigar. Using his chaveta, he tucks the end of the pigtail to form a knot, delighting onlookers.]

Finally, the moment we have been waiting for: the application of the cigar band. Again, using the vegetable glue, he applies the band to the cigar and holds it up for the crowd. Almost from seed to smoke, the master roller passes the tradition and pride of his family to a stranger through his hands.

- Big Mike
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The Origin of Bundles

A big part of the cigar business today is that of "bundles." Those newer to the joys of cigars probably don't realize that bundles were, until fairly recently, non-existent. Premium cigars have always been known for their distinctive packaging, including cedar or paper decorated boxes. But today, bundles are a major part of the premium cigar business. Bundles originally appeared in the early 1960s as "value cigars." Most bundles were actually manufacturer's seconds, in that there were small blemishes on what were otherwise good quality wrappers. Originally, cigars within a given bundle often did not match each other in color or in taste. Some were machine-made, some hand-made, and the quality was often inconsistent. The main benefit to bundles was the cost savings in labor and raw materials. Before cigars are boxed, they are sorted by color. Due to slight variations in wrapper colors, after they are rolled, they're individually handled and grouped according to color. This is why, if you look at the cigars within a given box, they should look identical, but if you open 2 different boxes, the wrapper colors may vary slightly from one box to the next. In the beginning, bundles were, by convention, not sorted by color. Therefore, costs could be cut by eliminating the need to hand sort each cigar. Plus, by avoiding the use of a costly cedar box, more savings was passed along. But these days, it's a different story. Today, the word "bundle" is not synonymous with second quality. Bundles have become so popular that manufacturers now plan specifically for that trade. Manufacturers are not just packing seconds in bundles anymore, but are making cigars specifically for the bundle market. In fact, most bundles today have the same consistency as boxed cigars. You're as likely to find a premium cigar packaged in a bundle as a second. As beautiful as most cigar-related packaging usually is, bundles are a wonderful development for those looking to maximize value. After all, you don't smoke the box!

- Big Mike