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
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
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.
|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|
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.