The Cigar Advisor Q&A

Independent cigar advice from one of the World's leading Connoisseurs and Collectors!

Questions:

Q. What would be your top five cigars that one can buy today for the following categories:
1) Short term aging (Cigars that could be appreciated within 1-5 years of aging)
2) Your top 5 - Long-term aging (Cigars that will benefit from over 5 years of aging)


Q. Of all the Havanas, which are the ones which can impress you?

Q. A lot of descriptive terms are used to describe the taste of cigars e.g. vanilla, coffee, spicy etc. According to your opinion, are they real, or are they just illusions?

Q. I heard from C.GARS Ltd. that you possess a box of pre-1982 Diplomatic Cohibas. I am very interested to know how they compare with the ordinary Cohibas. I am also very interested to know how you managed to acquire it and how can you be certain of it's authenticity.

Q. Would you elaborate on Cubans changing the blend in 1995? I am not sure where, but recently I heard this and wonder if cigars of say, '94 would have a different blend than those made in the recent years.

Q. Ramon Allones Specially Selected tastes different these days than the ones I smoked several years ago, is it true that they changed the blend, and if so when this change actually took place. Regarding the RA Gigantes, when was the last time they were produced, and are they officially out of production? And finally, where can I obtain the official Habanos catalogue? (specially the older versions).

Q. It it true that Saint Luis Rey continues to be the only private cigar manufacturer in Cuba?

Q. The inner cedar liner (between the top and bottom row) had an angled cut rather than a half moon on the upper right corner. I had always thought that the absence of a half moon cut was a sure sign of counterfeit cigars... Is this true?

Q. Are all hand made Cuban cigars triple-capped? and what are the other ways to tell a fake from a real Cuban?

Q. Do you know if there are currently any Salamones or Diademas in production in Cuba?

Q. I've heard that the Cuba Tobacco 25th Anniversario Humidor contains cigars with an identical blend to the Montecristo B cabinet is this true?

Q. Can you possibly describe the difference (if any) between the following Romeo y Julieta cigars?

Q. Could you please provide your opinion on the Montecristo A?

Q. Do you know the year which the Cubans started using these codes?

Q. Can you please describe the taste differences between a Claro wrapper and a Maduro or even Oscuro wrapper on a Havana cigar?

Q. What in your opinion is the optimum age for a Havana cigar?

Q. Which cigars do you consider a more worthwhile investment?

Q. What are your opinion on the Millennium cigars?

Q. Which cigars do you consider to age better and to be better in general terms?

Q. Are there any brands of Havanas that you consider would not benefit from aging?



Q. What would be your top five cigars that one can buy today for the following categories:
1) Short term aging (Cigars that could be appreciated within 1-5 years of aging)
2) Your top 5 - Long-term aging (Cigars that will benefit from over 5 years of aging)


A.
I have chosen five each for you with brief comments.

1. Consistent. This is an absolute must!
2. Easily available in UK.
3. Concurs with general opinions. I sometimes have unique opinions which do not serve any useful purpose.
They are listed in order of quality regardless of size.

Top five cigars (short term aging):

1. Partagas Shorts in Cabinets: The Mount Everest of small cigars. Traditional old blend Partagas taste. Very good when new. Superb when one year old. A classic already when two years old. Aging potential unlimited. I am too old to care for that!
2. Bolivar Lonsdales: Best Bolivar in my opinion. Extremely complex but elegant flavours. Tastes very Bolivar but has nuttiness as a bonus. Very good when new. Fantastic when one year old. Another classic when two year old. Unfortunately peaks around five year old because presented in a dressed box.
3. Ramon Allones Small Club Coronas: Sweet complex nutty and earthy flavours Very good when new. Fabulous in one to two years. Peaks in five years. First class.
4. Le Hoyo de Dieux: A cigar with exceedingly complex flavours. No doubt made from the choosiest tobaccos. Extremely good already when new. Attains classic status when two years old. Peaks in around seven years.
5. Saint Luis Rey Londales: A Saint Luis Rey with extremely aromatic and an unique honey taste. Very good when new. Unfortunately peaks in around two years as the aromaticity and honey flavours fade away rather rapidly.

Top five cigars (Long term aging):

1. Partagas Lonsdales in Cabinets: The best Partagas without doubt. A class in its own. Made from the best tobaccos I belief. Already extremely good when eight year old. Peaks in twelve years. Peaks relatively shortly because of too many aromatic flavours which do not last. A dream to smoke.
2. Ramon Allones Specially Selected: Unquestionably the best Robustos. Surpasses the now discontinued Dunhill Cabinettas which is the closest runners-up. Earthy, nutty, decent tobacco taste blended with many other subtle flavours with perfection. Already unbelievably fantastic when ten years old. Peaks in fifteen years.
3. H. Upmann Magnum 46: The best Upmann ever. Strong first class clean tobacco taste. Very Upmann. Very good at eight years. Peaks in fifteen years. Stunning classic Havana taste.
4. Sancho Panza Corona Gigantes: The fact that Sancho Panza have great aging potential is perhaps a best kept secret. The Corona Gigantes is the best. It has a very pleasant grassy flavour that can last for a long time. Getting better and better of course when its harshness is softened with age. Peaks in fifteen years. An absolutely classy elegant smoke.
5. Punch Super Selection No. 2: The best Punch without a doubt. But needs extremely long term aging to reveal its true potential. Barely smokable when ten years old. Peaks in twenty to twenty five years.



Q. Of all the Havanas, which are the ones which can impress you?

A. Oh! There seems to be a too many to name. Please do not get the wrong impression that I am a very choosy man. But if I had to pick a few from my memory, I would say the following are quite unforgettable:  

1. Bolivar Gold Medal: This is certainly the most 'earthy' cigar I have ever smoked, bar none. In fact, the degree of 'earthiness' can only be described as 'shocking'.
2. La Escepcion de Jose Gener Cazadores Miramar: This is definitely the strongest cigar I have ever encountered. It is incredible that just for example a fifteen year old one, aged in the original dressed box only, had not yet been tamed. Smoking one of these can still make my head spin.
3. Casa Partagas: A 91/2 inches x 47rg Gran Corona specially made for the inauguration of the Pacific Cigar Company in 1991. It is so strong that the first puff resembles the butt of a well aged old blend Lusitania, and the cigar is so incredibly well aged that you would rather burn you fingers than to throw away the butt. It is tightly rolled but the draw is just like a robusto. An absolutely stunning experience.
4. Pre-embargo Upmann Noellas glass jars: A very delicate bouquet just like a well aged great Burgundy. Unforgettable. But do not let air fill the empty space left by the smoked cigar. Stuff it with a bubble wrap or something. Otherwise the bouquet will be gone in no time, just like an opened bottle of a very old wine.
5. The Cohiba Esplendido in the good old days (1986 - early '90s): The cocoa flavour was so overwhelming and creamy that you thought you were smoking a chocolate ice-cream.
6. The Diplomatic Cohibas: I am not able to describe the cigar and you have to use your imaginations. "Strolling along a flowery grassy park in a misty summer evening sipping a vanilla milk shake" might remotely convey the impressions.
 



Q. A lot of descriptive terms are used to describe the taste of cigars e.g. vanilla, coffee, spicy etc. According to your opinion, are they real, or are they just illusions?

A. Yes, they are real and the most common ones have been identified chemically.

The human olfactory sense is capable to identify numerous chemical molecules with exact precision. Prove this by trying to do something you have taken for granted as very easy. Say describing the taste of an orange or banana. You will be amazed you cannot. You can only say an orange tastes like an orange and a banana tastes like a banana. Why? Because the odour for both of them is detected by the nose as a single chemical molecule and the nose is so brilliant that there will be no confusion with other molecules. For oranges, it is octyl acetate. For bananas, it is n-pentyl acetate.

I do not want to bore you with those lousy organic chemistry and I shall give a few examples only. Almond taste is an aldehyde called benzaldehyde. Hay is a lactone called coumarin. Peanuts is a ketone called 2-methoxy-5-methypyrazine. Vanilla is an aromatic phenol called vanillin. Cocoa and coffee are various combinations of vanillin and a ketone called diacetyl. In fact the subject is so complicated that the Scotch Whiskey Research Institute in Edinburgh have identified over two hundred volatile oils in a new cask wood.

The most interesting is the unique 'tobacco' flavour, it is an aromatic phenol which people who are unfamiliar with it describes as 'old English leather'. Of course there is none, unless Havanas are smuggled into America inside leather sofas. The harsh tannic taste of young cigars is natural phenol polymers which will break down with time into more amicable simple aromatic phenol molecules.

The tobacco plant is unique in that it contains nicotine (C6H4NC4H7NCH3 or in short C10H14N2) in the form of malate or citrates in natural state. They constitute 5% of weight and tobacco leaves (Encyclopaedia Brittanica) or more specifically 2% to 8% of dried tobacco leaves (Martindale's Extra Pharmacopedia) and have a very unpleasant pungent odour and a sharp persistent taste. It is totally different from the young tannic taste but is often confused. They can ferment on its own and generate a lot of aromatic organic compounds and release ammonia. The end products then interact within themselves and other substances to form more aromatic compounds. Oxygen is required in tiny amount to form some and can destroy some in large amount. The Cubans have probably noticed this. That is probably why dressed boxes cigars are usually boxed pressed and plain wooden boxes and cabinets cigars are always round.

The tobacco taste is actually a combination of various different groups of aromatic organic compounds, like aldehydes, higher alcohols, organic acids, ketones, phenols and terpenes. It is interesting that compounds belonging to different chemical groups have distinctly different rate of formation and half-lifes in a cigar (half-life could mean rate of attrition, if you like). If you know the individual flavour's chemical behaviour well, you can date a cigar with remarkable accuracy if further information on package form and storage conditions are provided. You can even 'manipulate' the cigar according to its stage of maturation with different temperatures, humidity, and exposure to oxygen to achieved optimum results in the shortest time.



Q. I heard from C.GARS Ltd. that you possess a box of pre-1982 Diplomatic Cohibas. I am very interested to know how they compare with the ordinary Cohibas. I am also very interested to know how you managed to acquire it and how can you be certain of it's authenticity.

A. Diplomatic Cohibas were Montecristo Especiale No.1 sized cigars given as diplomatic gifts before they were massively produced and available to the public in 1982. They look exactly like an old Lancero except that they are not cellophaned and presented in an unvarnished cedar chest of 100 cigars.

That is the end of the comparison. Without a single doubt, the Diplomatic Cohibas are the best cigars I have smoked this life time. Mr. Castro surely has fine taste (they were actually surpluses of his private stock).

My box was obtained first hand from Habano S.A. strictly officially through the importer in Hong Kong. How could I managed to get one? I just happened to ask and got one. Of course luck, patience, respect and long time good relationship certainly helped.

How can I be certain the box is authentic? Habano S.A. had never sold one single fake cigar through authorised importers. Official documentation is provided for the box. They have also passed my 'examination tricks' for aged cigars with no problem. But the most important thing is, after you have tried one, you will understand what is meant by the phraser : "They don't make them no more".



Q. Would you elaborate on Cubans changing the blend in 1995? I am not sure where, but recently I heard this and wonder if cigars of say, '94 would have a different blend than those made in the recent years?

A. In 1994 and 1995, there was a very serious shortage of cigars due to poor weather and lack of resources following the collapse of the former USSR. But the Cubans were quite adamant to adhere to quality rather than to compromise. In the end of 1995, many cigars slowly reappeared in decent quantities. But a lot of the hot items were noticed to have a distinct change in flavours. It is impossible to list all of them but in general the trend is towards a milder flavour. It is in my opinion a wise market decision. There is a lot of new cigar smokers appearing in the 'cigar boom', they typically cannot handle the tradition robust flavours. And also the old-timers have nothing left in their inventory to age.
 



Q. Ramon Allones Specially Selected tastes different these days than the ones I smoked several years ago, is it true that they changed the blend, and if so when this change actually took place. Regarding the RA Gigantes, when was the last time they were produced, and are they officially out of production? And finally, where can I obtain the official Habanos catalogue? (specially the older versions).

A. In my opinion, the Ramon Allones Specially Selected is one of the few cigars which has not changed its blend. My opinion concurs with a lot of veteran smokers. They surely taste very young nowadays which might contribute to the difference in taste you noticed. Also beware of numerous counterfeits which happen to be more in quantities than the real thing.
 
There were only 10 boxes of Ramon Allones Gigantes imported to Hong Kong in 1996 by the Pacific Cigar Company since its establishment in 1991. According to reliable source, it has not been deleted from productions.
 
Official cigar catalogues are available to authorised importers only and not to the general public. My catalogues from the eighties and nineties are lent from the importers in Hong Kong. Older catalogues are much more difficult to find. I have catalogues from the sixties and seventies which are lent by a gentleman and which I shall take this opportunity to thank him again.



Q. It it true that Saint Luis Rey continues to be the only private cigar manufacturer in Cuba? If so, how did they manage to avoid Castro's nationalisation? How does the marque relate to the rest of the industry as a whole? In short, what is the Saint Luis Rey story?

A. The fact that Saint Luis Rey is a private manufacture in Cuba is unheard of by anybody I know of. If you can provide more details I can ask Habano S.A. further. Or perhaps you are referring to the San Luis Rey brand which is currently owned by Villiger Tobacco Company and which is currently manufacturing machine made cigars using Cuban tobaccos in Germany?

Saint Luis Rey is a brand of very limited production using first class tobaccos. All vitolas are hand-made (except the cigarillos). It has a unique taste which suggests that the cigar is made from tobaccos from a unique area.

The name Saint Luis Rey first appeared in the 19th Century but did not last long. It was re-registered in the year 1940 in the name of Zamora y Guerro, a British Company. Productions were always of very limited quantities. It vanished along with all other great marques after the Revolution. It re-emerged in the early eighties and slowly built it's present fame. It is always produced in limited quantities and is regarded as a connoisseur's
brand.



Q. My father was recently in Paris, and purchased a box of R&J Exhib. No.4 at the La Casa de Habanos. The inner cedar liner (between the top and bottom row) had an angled cut rather than a half moon on the upper right corner. I had always thought that the absence of a half moon cut was a sure sign of counterfeit cigars... Is this true, or are there legitimate cuban cigars with the appearance as I have described?

A. A straight cut rather then a circular cut in the right upper corner of the cedar sheet has long been accepted as an occasional anomaly in authentic Havanas. 

In recent three months, a new type of Cuban official green seal was introduced. It has a more glossy kind of paper with self adhesive glue. All these seals come with a red coloured individual number with two letters in front.

I have found that all the cigars I recently purchased with these new green seals have a straight cut. One single box had no cut at all.

I have also asked the official importer of Havanas in Hong Kong this morning. Their reply was that the new type of green seal appeared late last year and now they co-exist with the old seals. For cigars having new seals, a minority, mostly expensive ones, have circular cuts, the majority have straight cuts and some have no cut.

It is too early to tell whether all these changes are permanent but don't worry, in any case your box of cigars cannot be labelled as a fake just because of this.



Q. Are all hand made Cuban cigars triple-capped? And what are the other ways to tell a fake from a real Cuban?

A. I have never heard of the term 'triple cap'.  So I asked the Cubans this morning. Their reply is that only the small circular piece of leaf covering the head is called the cap. For them, the pyramids and cigars with twisted pigtails do not have a cap. I am afraid I cannot comment on the 'triple cap' but I would dearly like you to email me further details on this.

The counterfeit cigar industry on new Havanas is now a big plague and I am afraid there is no way to authenticate a Havana with 100% accuracy without smoking them.  The only thing you can do seems to be comparing the sample with the real thing.

You can compare the box, the official Cuban green seal, the slanted Habanos S.A. Band, the silk ribbon, the cigar band, the cross sectional appearance at the foot, the ink and letters of the factory code. If anything looks dubious, you have the option not to buy.

But even if everything looks absolutely authentic, that does not automatically mean that the cigars are not fakes.  There are absolutely authentic cigars being made at the factories in Havana but the factories have no record of ever making these cigars. Whether you call that a fake is quite an academic discussion in its own right.

To make matters worse, things that look dubious do not mean that the cigar is necessarily fake, every kind of anomaly has been seen in cigars that you know are 100% genuine.

At the moment, the only thing apparently you can do is to buy from reputable merchants which offer a no quibble guarantee.

For collectable cigars, fakes are usually totally different. These are usually done by unscrupulous cigar merchants trying to fool knowledgeable collectors. Usually a genuine box of very valuable cigars, being damaged for whatever reason (infestation etc.) are swapped with a box of similar aged cigars of lesser value of the same vitola and similar appearance. A very good example is that a Davidoff Dom Perignon can be swapped with a Quai D'Orsay Imperiales, which is quite similar in wrapper appearance.

With at least five simple tricks you can tell the fake from the real thing in less than half a minute. So far no aged fake cigars have been able to pass through these tests.

Unfortunately these tricks are based on of the lack of knowledge of professional counterfeiters. So I am afraid I cannot disclose further as I do not rule out that some of these lousy people are watching this site and 'learning'.

Nevertheless I have shown the Editor of the Newsletter all these tricks while he was in Hong Kong. I guess if he knows that you are a gentleman, he has no problem discussing with you direct.



Q. Do you know if there are currently any Salamones or Diademas in production in Cuba? I was offered these cigars with a band that I did not recognise "Casa del Habanos Partagas", I suspect it may be a fake. Perhaps rolled by a Cuban roller but not a current production vitola?

A. Salamons and Diademas are no longer in commercial production. The Cuaba Distinguidos Millennium Jars are probably Salamons, but I am not absolutely sure about this. Salamons are a discontinued production vitola from the pre-Revolutionary era. But due to lack of information I cannot be certain of the exact dimension of this vitola.  
There were two batches of Salamons Limited Edition Humidors produced by the Partagas Factory on behalf of a German cigar merchant in 1995 and 1996. There was a one-off humidor of 55 Hoyo de Monterrey Monterreyes (a Diadema) 'specially made for the vendor in 1998' for sale in the December 1999 Christie's Auction. I also happened to have come across an internet retailer in December 1998 saying that they had 50 specially made 'replica' Punch Diademas in single wooden boxes for 'Christmas Presents' at around US$200. When I enquired the reply was that they were all sold out. That is all that I know.

I have never heard of 'Casa del Habanos Partagas', but you cannot say it is a fake just because of that. Numerous one-off funny things were produced over the years and it is impossible to know them all. But it is not a current production vitola, and that is for certain.  

I have used the weekend to compare the Salamon I and Salamon II, manufactured for the said German cigar merchant, against the Cuaba Distinguidos. The Salamons are one inch longer and are also symmetrically tapered in both ends. The Cuaba has a thicker foot and a more tapered end. I have changed my mind, the Distinguidos is not a Salomon. It is also interesting that they are both included in the Siglo XXI Humidor, which contains 2,000 cigars including many discontinued ones. All discontinued ones still have their production vitola number listed. But in case of the Salamons and the Distinguidos they are
missing. This indicates that both are never production vitolas.  I would like to use this opportunity to apologise to my readers in advance for any errors. Whilst I would like to answer questions as soon as possible, my inventory of cigars is in a mess and I need some time to sort things out!



Q. I've heard that the Cuba Tobacco 25th Anniversario Humidor contains cigars with an identical blend to the Montecristo B cabinet is this true? Further, do you know if Montecristo B are still in production? If not, when were they produced? How is the Montecristo B cigar different to a regular Montecristo No. 3?

A. Cubatobacco 25th Anniversarios is identical to Montecristo B, I have that confirmed from a senior Cuban Official. Unfortunately I cannot disclose his identity without his permission.   

A box of Cubatobacco 25th Anniversarios (front) and a box of Montecristo B (back) A stick of Cubatobacco 25th Anniversarios and a stick of Montecristo B

Whether a commercial vitola is still in production is almost impossible to know. For example, the Punch Monarcas and the Ramon Allones 898 Varnished have not been produced for a long time and everyone thought they were discontinued. But they reappeared last year, albeit in small quantities. The only channel to know whether something is officially discontinued is to compare the Cubatabacco brochures against the Habano S.A. brochures. For example, the Cohiba Coronas are deleted from the Habano S.A. brochures so you can safely say that it has been officially discontinued.  For your information, the Montecristo B is still listed in the Habano S.A. brochure.

Nonetheless, all known examples of Montecristo B in Hong Kong are all from the 1980's. But interestingly, a 1996 full box was offered in the May 1999 Christie's Auction. It was withdrawn after being displayed for view on the day of the auction, for a non-officially disclosed reason.

I do not have the habit of giving opinions on extremely rare commercial vitolas, except with very special reasons. Fair opinions about a certain commercial vitola can only be acquired by tasting from a number of boxes from different years purchased first hand and matured under your own control of storage environments. I am sorry I am not able to help you out further.



Q. Can you possibly describe the difference (if any) between the following Romeo y Julieta cigars?

Romeo y Julieta Tubed Churchill
Romeo y Julieta Untubed Churchill
Romeo y Julieta Prince of Wales
Romeo y Julieta Clemenceaus

Are they really different or is it just the brand?


A. Romeo Clemenceaus have not been seen since late eighties and are probably discontinued. They were mainly exported to France but never to Hong Kong. The Clemenceaus in my collections are purchased second-hand and I believe I have not smoked enough to qualify for giving any opinions.

Recent productions of Romeo Churchills are very good and consistent. There is not much difference between plain boxes and tubed cigars. They are robust cigars and have very complex flavours of every kind imaginable. Curiously they are very amicable even when new and will certainly age very well. Tubed ones are of course slower in maturation but I do think they will mature better as the tubes prevent leakage of flavours. They are one of my favourite cigars.

The Prince of Wales have roughly the same flavours but diluted about 4 times. This statement might sound outrageous but there is at least one connoisseur who agrees with me.

Over the years, the Romeo Churchills seem to remain unchanged but the Prince of Wales seem to be becoming milder and milder. The Prince of Wales also do not age well and the peak is less than three years.

If the two cigars were whiskeys, then the Romeo Churchill is whiskey served straight and the Prince of Wales is a whiskey soda. Of course drinking whiskey straight or with soda water is strictly a personal preference. Try it for yourself to decide.



Q. Could you please provide your opinion on the Montecristo A? Perhaps some general tasting notes for my guidance would be very helpful.

A.
In my opinion, recent examples of the Montecristo A taste very much like a Montecristo No. 1, but typically a trifle milder. You can try for yourself to see whether you agree with me. Most people think that a long cigar means a stronger or more flavoursome cigar but the truth is that a long cigar simply means that the cigar is rolled with big pieces of leaves, period. There is nothing really wrong with the taste of the Montecristo A except you cannot honestly say it is first class. The big problem is, if you smoke them young, when you get to the middle of the cigar, you are already smoking the butt of a Montecristo No.1, which is quite unbearable if you insist to continue.

The Montecristo A is designed to be smoked when very aged, that is probably why they come with a fully varnished box. The peak is around 15 years. In case you are having a very decently aged one, you still have to draw extremely slowly to prevent the cigar to becoming hot and harsh and if you do so very carefully, you end up with a very pleasant but not particular strong taste in the last part. This typically takes over two hours. How would I describe the taste of the last third of a well aged Montecristo A? The first third of a 5 year old Montecristo No.2 Torpedo, thank you very much! Again, I am not the only person who has this opinion.

A leading cigar connoisseur guide (you know which one I am talking about) provides the best conclusion: A cigar for experienced smokers as this size may fatigue rapidly, even to the point of making the smoke dizzy. I agree 100%. If I had to sit for over two hours, puffing very slowly and worrying all the time that the cigar might go out, I certainly will become fatigued and dizzy when the ordeal ends. Inexperienced smokers might even become moribund!

Montecristo No.1 is a very 'difficult' cigar to write tasting notes. It has a lot of flavours but they are just there, and they have nothing particular to impress. There are of course some unpleasant flavours but they are too mild to bother you. They are not that good but they are not bad at all, they are neither mild or strong. In short, if you want to write something, there is nothing to write at all. They are just a Cuban cigar that you will forget everything as soon as you finished smoking. In fact the Montecristo No. 1, 3, 4 and 5 are all like that.



Q. I recently acquired a box of Havana cigars dated mid 70's (from Christie's auction last March). Noted there were no box codes or any such stamps on the bottom of the box. Therefore it seems that box and date codes are relatively new to Habanos. Do you know the year which the Cubans started using these codes? Do you also have any suggestions regarding good references (via internet or books) regarding vintage Havana cigars (how to identify them, date them, vitolas no longer in production and such).

A.
Date codes began to appear in 1985 but you might be interested to know that the majority of Cuban Davidoffs and Dunhills have no factory date codes even after 1985. Some authentic ones do have a date code, mostly dating 1986 and 1992. The situation regarding this is quite confusing.

I have quite decent personal collection of cigar books but I have never come across one dealing specifically with the subject. I do not know of any internet source either. I must say I do not surf the net very often.

Knowledge regarding vintage cigars is at the moment self taught from studying old books and catalogues, seeing fellow collector's collections, discussions among fellow cigar enthusiasts and correspondence with veteran cigar merchants and Cubans involved with the production and sale of Havanas.



Q. Can you please describe the taste differences between a Claro wrapper and a Maduro or even Oscuro wrapper on a Havana cigar? How much in percentage terms of flavour would you attribute to the wrapper?

A. This is currently the hottest debate subject among cigar enthusiasts so I shall provide my answer in a little more detail. Oscuro is the name reserved for a kind of specifically treated wrapper which appears to be nearly black in colour. They are not currently produced in Havanas and therefore will not be discussed.

How much does the wrapper contribute to the overall taste in a cigar? There seems to be two schools of thought at the moment.

The first school believes that wrappers account for 3% to a maximum 7% of taste. This is probably based on the fact that wrappers account for 2%-5% of weight in a cigar, depending on the thickness of the wrapper and the ring gauge of the cigar.  The most beautiful wrappers are typically fine in texture and very thin with large vitolas like churchills or robustos they may even account for less than 2%.

The second school believes that wrappers account for a large proportion of taste, most would put it at around 60%. This is perhaps based on the fact that if you remove the wrapper, you will notice a 60% reduction of flavour and the remaining taste is not as good.

Curiously, there seems to be no school of thought in between but if you think carefully, both schools are flawed in their arguments.

To say that a wrapper accounts for 5% of flavour is wishful thinking and has never been proven scientifically. I do not believe the human olfactory and taste sensations are keen enough to detect a 5% difference in flavour.

To say that a wrapper accounts for 60% of flavour is even more illogical.  As a typically good wrapper accounts for a maximum of 3% of weight, if it can contribute to 60% of flavour, it has to generate 20 times more flavour than the rest of the cigar per weight basis, which is chemically quite impossible.  There is indeed a huge change in flavour when the wrapper is removed, but it is very probably due to the tiny air leakage through the non air tight binder, which hinders proper combustion of the tobacco at the foot.  This has nothing to do with the flavour of the wrapper.

The best way to find out the truth is to find out yourself.

Buy loose sticks of the same cigars from different boxes from the same batch of production.  Ask your tobacconist and he will tell you.  Make sure that you choose completely different colours and oiliness.  Label them with a number.  Wear an eye mask (a handkerchief will do as well!).  Ask someone to light the cigar for you.  Smoke carefully and give your scores.  Throw away the butts before you can see them.  Remember, do not cheat.  There is nothing worse than cheating yourself.

Once you have completed the blind tasting, compare the scores of different colours and oiliness of wrappers and see whether you can detect a difference.  You might wish to know that you may need to try more than 50 cigars to declare the result as statistically sound.  I do not know the correct number but do ask a mathematician if in doubt.

To be honest I can never tell any difference at all.  Some say that dark wrappers give a sweeter taste on the tongue.  I can never detect this either.

What about the effect on aging? I can never tell any difference either.

If you can, congratulations! You are the first person I know who can do so.  But I must say very few people have ever tried.

The bottom line is, whatever the percentage of flavour a wrapper can contribute to a cigar, if you cannot tell, why worry!

The colour and oiliness of the wrapper are not to be confused with those from the binder and filler, which can be 'seen through' if you know how to.  The darker and more oily the binder and filler, the more flavour the cigar has, for better or worse.  And that is for sure.



Q. What in your opinion is the optimum age for a Havana cigar? and at what stage does improvement through aging stop?

A. Havana cigars are very much like wine, there is definately an optimum age for a particular cigar, for better or worse, the aging process never ceases but unfortunately the optimum age is affected by too many factors including personal preferences which makes a simple generalisation impossible.

To avoid disappointing you, I can give a few recommended examples to you according to my personal preference.

Since a lot of cigars have changed their blends precisely at the year 1995, examples are only given for cigars purchased after 1995 in order to serve any useful purpose.

They are not the best, but I believe they are in optimum time for smoking and are starting to deteriorate at a very slow pace. The examples are given assuming the cigars have been stored at the biblical 70-70 "ideal storage environment". (I personally do not agree with these figures)

1. 1997 El Rey del Mundo Choix Supreme in dress boxes
2. 1996 Hoyo Epicure No. 2 in 25's cabinet selection
3. 1996 Hoyo Double Coronas in dress boxes
4. 1995 Cohiba Robusto in cabinet selection
5. 1995 Montecristo No. 2 pyramids

Most Punch, Upmann, Romeos, Bolivar, Saint Luis Rey are not yet ready.

You might note that they are mostly thick ring gauge cigars. Contrary to conventional wisdom, thick ring gauges expire earlier as they are actually more 'diluted' due to the high proportion of flavourless volado leaves in the blend.

You may also be surprised that the Montecristo No. 2 and Cohiba Robusto expire early, as they are supposed to be 'strong' cigars. This is due to the fact that the majority of their flavours consist of bean flavours (vanilla, cocoa, coffee etc.) and these flavours typically start to fade away in 5-7 years.



Q. Which cigars do you consider a more worthwhile investment? Limited Edition Havana Cigar Humidors, such as 1492 or 1994 or boxes of discontinued cigars such as Davidoff or Dunhill?

I am never a good investor and so you should not take my opinions too seriously. Nonetheless I do think that all collectable cigars are good investments as supply is strictly limited and buyers can only increase in number.  The only down side is that you have to resist the temptation to smoke them!

If I had to choose, I think all Cuban Davidoffs and Dunhills are overpriced due to lack of knowledge on other brilliant rare cigars on the market, the Limited Edition Humidors are currently underpriced as they are not in vogue at the moment.

I think the greatest bargains are the discontinued great commercial vitolas which have not yet been realised by too many people of their true value. I must apologise for refraining from mentioning any of them as I am still buying for myself.



Q. What are your opinion on the Millennium cigars? (Cohiba Piramides, Montecristo Robustos and Cuaba Distinguido), I have been very disappointed, but is this simply due to the youth of the cigar?

A. In my opinion, the Millennium cigars are better than the average Havanas if you see things in the long term. They surely taste very young and tannic but I do think they are designed as such.


Millennium cigars, from above downwards: Montecristo Robusto, Cuaba Distinguido, Cohiba Piramides

Cigars in air tight jars mature far more slowly than cigars in plain boxes or cabinets.  It may take more than 20 years for them to mature.  But when they eventually do, they are the best versus other forms of packaging.

If you cannot wait, you can remove the cigars and place them in your humidor.  Also beware of counterfeits which have  recently been discovered.



Q. Which cigars do you consider to age better and to be better in general terms? Dress boxes or cabinet selection and why?

A. The aging process is more complicated than most people think.  There seem to be at least 3 totally different processes going on when a cigar is lying in its box.

1. Fermentation
2. Aging similar to spirits in wooden casks
3. Aging similar to wine in a bottle

Dress boxes have the advantage of quicker fermentation but not good for No. 2 and No. 3.

Cabinet selection is slower in fermentation but provides a better environment for aging process No. 2.  Unfortunately oxygen which passes through the box seems to destroy the delicate bouquet generated by aging process No. 3

In my opinion, the best is the varnished box, or even better, a glass jar with cedar lining. The maturing may be excruciatingly slow, sometimes 15 to 25 years, but you end up with the best results. Glass jars are no longer available but you now have the Millennium porcelain jars or you can improvise your own.

It is a great shame that cigars are not generally available with 10 or 20 years of age, as whiskeys and wines are but there is nothing that you can do except create your own inventory and live long enough to enjoy the final products!

A piece of warning, poor cigars never age, no matter how hard you try or how long you age them for.



Q. Are there any brands of Havanas that you consider would not benefit from aging? I have heard that Hoyos do not age as well as Partagas, is this correct?

All brands of Havanas will benefit from aging, although differently with the optimum time and results.

Hoyo Double Coronas in dress boxes are quite amicable even when fresh out of the factory. It is no surprise that they score consistently high marks in Cigar Aficionados blind tasting tests, which typically only taste new cigars but they indeed do not age as well as the average Partagas and start to deteriorate as early as 4 to 5 years.

Most Partagas age well, the 898 varnished and the Lonsdales cabinets are the best. The Partagas de Partagas No. 1, the Seleccion Privada No. 1 and the Presidentes also age extremely well but it is a shame that they are only presented in dress boxes. The worst is unquestionably the 898 unvarnished, they never age.

 

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This article was originally published in 2000.