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Cuban Small Vitola Anthology

by Constantin

I have been very enthusiastic about the smaller Vitolas over the last months. After having smoked mainly Robusto sized Cubans in my beginnings, I have found the Perla, Mareva and other smaller-sized long fillers a good introduction into new brands.

Their especially appealing trait is the straightforward aroma and flavour delivery, albeit they often do not lack a certain complexity and evolution. It is hard to say in how far they may represent their brands in comparison to their larger relatives. In connexion with my slow smoking habits, almost every of these contestants gave me around one hour of well-spent indulgence. These tasting notes may give you a hint at the smaller format Cuban range. All tastings were performed under comparable circumstances. They represent some of the well known brands, but some potentially benchmark cigars like the Ramon Allones Small Club Corona or the Por Larranaga Petit Coronas are hardly available in Germany.

The Por Larranaga will be added soon since I managed to order some sticks at the Casa del Habano in Cologne. The Trinidad Reye is another candidate. Tastings were performed mainly within May and June 2006.

You should note that all of these are based on the official German importers "5th Avenue" cigars, so no English Market Selection ones. Differences are probably marginal, for examples colour grading of the wrappers. As far as smoking is concerned, I am an absolute Purist. Although I like the idea of an after-dinner-cigar, I often find my senses too saturated to appreciate a cigar's complexity after a meal. My normal setting for a cigar is in the early afternoon, without having had too much of a breakfast and not having lunch. One result may be that I am more aware of a cigar's nicotine strength, however, I never experienced problems with that as I know where to stop.

Now meet the contestants:

Hoyo de Monterrey Petit Robusto, Cabinet boxed October 2004
This is a young, modern and market-based approach to the smaller Vitolas. As larger ring gauges are very popular, Robusto being an all-time standard, an equivalent for the smoker lacking time was presented with this Petit Robusto by Hoyo de Monterrey.

Slightly longer than four inches, a massive 50 ring gauge - reminiscent of its larger sister, the Epicure No2. It has also been announced that this new release is very close to the old-day Havana blends. Of course it is very young, but offers a rich typical Hoyo taste with a striking development.

Quite a light-coloured Colorado Claro wrapper with visible veining's, yet sleek and oily. Medium firm and elastically rolled, with a comfortable medium draw. Cold draw exhibits a typical raisin aroma with hints of leather. The smoke itself is cool and mellow, full bodied with hints of the typical "Hoyo" sweetness, dense yet not really creamy.

The first third gives a cool introduction with light and sweetish aromas of cream and fresh vanilla bean slowly giving way to oak with remaining floral and almost exotic fruit nuances. Slowly but surely roast aspects intermingle, milk coffee turning into delicate coffee and cocoa bean flavours. The Hoyo mineral/ chalky character remains as an overtone. By passage through the second third, smoke becomes dryer and warmer, stronger earthy tones start to dominate: cedar and roasts, becoming more mellow again with white chocolate, honey and almond character; shortly: cream nougat! All in all a smooth power, caressing and uncomplicated, supple.

Beginning of the last third exhibits classical Hoyo de Monterrey minerality with a more roasty character, all the previous melts together.
It also reaches maximum strength, which is not more than medium at all. The warm smoke starts to show chilli-like acerbity, acidity and tannins with hints of saltiness. Time to stop at slightly less than one inch, a smoking delight of 55 minutes with a good quality and very good combustion and ash for a Cuban at its age.

A satisfying yet not saturating smoke, sort of an aperitif. It seems to be a bit closed still - or it is a perfectly mellow blend. Very mature for its age. May be described as "easy smoking" - it can be combined with various drinks. Even a fancy cocktail like a "Strawberry Daiquiri" is perfectly suitable: it emphasizes the subliminal roast aromas. Perfect daytime Cuban cigar, classic Hoyo de Monterrey. However there is the price tag. An Epicure No. 2, a solid Robusto, just costs a few cents more, but is lighter in its aromas and I have not found such an ongoing development in it. An Asian cigar-blogger once wrote "the Petit Robusto is like an Epicure No. 2 on steroids". I would totally subscribe to that.

Remark: I rated this one from 2004 to be at maximum medium in strength. The 2005 vintage cigars have shown to be much stronger in their nicotine punch in all categories. May affect the 2005 Petit Robustos as well. A bit more strength would not be negative for it.

Hoyo de Monterrey - Le Hoyo du Maire, Cabinet boxed December 2005
On an occasion with shortened time, I decided to get into the richer Le Hoyo series by trying the smallest lady, the du Maire (the Major's). This one is an "Entreacto" format and considerably young. It is that petty and meagre it could be mistaken for a simple cigarillo, however it is a real Cuban long filler.  Length around 4 inch and a 30 ring. Exhibits a very elastic filling. An oily and fleshy wrapper that is close to Maduro. Intense cold aromas of dark honey and leather along the stick, the loose cold draw is much lighter with apricot and white chocolate hints. Good combustion, strong whitish ash with fish scale grain. While the first draw is pungent and woody, the burn is very slow. Very cautious draws and long pauses are rewarded with medium-dense yet full bodied smoke that offers wooden/ nutty spiciness to the palate.  Certain acerbity remains - it is very young still, indeed. It is spicy with coffee beans and herbal honey as well as a noticeable sweetness. From the second third it becomes more woody while sweetness and honeyed aromas remain. It offers a very full down-to-earth tobacco flavour in its second half. A 35 minute smoke through a bit more than two thirds just to the point where one's finger burn. Even to a sober stomach it is unremarkable in strength.

I have to admit I am not a fan of the Entreacto format. It is too small for the relaxed and complex smoke I desire. As one of only two non-Cuban cigars I have had up to now, one was the Davidoff Entreacto when it was released. It was more rounded and intense in its aroma, but offered a resinous aroma which I did not like. It also costs a 170% of the not really cheap "du Maire". For my personal liking, they both are not worth their price.

Diplomaticos No. 5, boxes of 25, one boxing date unknown, one from November 2005
The somewhat unknown relatives of the famous Montecristo are the Diplomaticos with a range very similar to the classic Montecristo range from No. 1 to No. 6, originally. Tastes are said to be very similar, but the quality of Diplomaticos is often estimated higher due to its niche image. I have sampled two different ones of the No. 5 Perla-sized Diplomaticos before moving to the No. 2 Pyramide. Both of them came in standard boxes of 25.

The first one was the last remaining No. 5 my dealer had, so I suppose it could have been a late 2003 or early 2004 boxing code.
That first one was perfectly constructed and gave me a refined and full, dry walnut character based on dry woods. I have not smoked more than one half of this one, however, and it was considerably stronger than the second one.

It took my local Habanos Specialist exactly half a year to receive a new box of them. They were November 2005 this time, and had brighter, yellowish Wrapper not perfectly affixed to the filling. Construction-wise a mediocre cigar, but showing a beautiful white ash. Burns very quickly and can also be smoked quickly. One draw every thirty seconds was a perfect proportion. Decent cold aroma of fresh leather, no ammonia scent however, very animal in the cold draw. Medium-dense smoke, not a single hint of sweetness, a bit tarry from time to time, relatively warm with a wooden spiciness, however not very lasting at all.

It starts of with a strong and intensely animal aroma with loads of dried plum and coffee. The strength subsides and gives way to a little dull strong espresso taste, typical Cuban native taste. Sadly, I could not smoke it more than half-way: The band was so tightly glued to the cigar it could not be removed. What a pity.

It is easy to find the "austere" traits attributive to Montecristos in Diplomaticos as well. However, this Perla is an invigorating smoke overall.  I have found it especially refreshing combined with a malt beer. This combination is nothing complex, but harmonious and spicy. The malt sweetness is a perfect addition, but the beer itself should not be too bitter.

Finally, the Diplomaticos No. 5 has been described to age very well. They may increase in strength, which would meet my impression, and become a more intense, musky smoke, very similar to my experiences during the first two dozens of draws.

San Cristobal de la Habana "El Principe", box of 25, August 2003
The smallest cigar of a young brand, "Minuto"-sized, 4 1/3 inches short, 42 ring. General impressions include the presumption that the used tobaccos are particularly mature. I was lucky finding these two and a half year old stogies.

They are rather box pressed, so more squared than rounded, with beautifully dark, silky and vein free wrappers that show a little bloom. A medium firm draw that suits this cigar perfectly, unlit impressions include woody spiciness on the palate and animal-raisin aroma. Perfect combustion with firm, bright grey ash over a perfect blaze cone. Medium-dense smoke, draw frequency needs some attention. Smoke volume increases in second third.

This cigar is present at once when lit. Dry and full smoke with an intense aroma of cedar, clay/ adobe and nutty flavours like hazelnut and yeasts. Quickly evolving into coffee beans shifting into white coffee sensations. Steadily growing more intense, but also getting a little more dull, earthy tastes and toasted oak.

Over the second third two elements build up paralleled and support the delight of this development: a slowly increasing acridity which does not become unpleasing until far into the last third and a parallel delivery of an attractive light sweetness. In the end it is meaty and earthy, matching the aroma of a freshly brewed Espresso ristretto. All in all only medium in strength, but not an invigorating smoke. A really nice and ripe small cigar, wonderful in the afternoon or after a very light meal. This one was the most convincing in the class of earthy small cigars up to now, due to its perfect ripeness and balance. I would also offer this one to the novice who wants to encounter the typical "old Cuban" earthiness without excessive strength. Can also be combined with many classic cigar companions.

Cohiba Siglo I, Cabinet approximately boxed May 2005
The most "affordable" of the mythical Cohiba brand - and my first one. Cohiba has both the image of a show-off or a connoisseur's brand. It also holds some very strong cigars that forbid themselves to the novice. Last but not least, they are perhaps the best-known cigar brand. Owing to these circumstances, they are sought-after and high-priced. This Perla-sized Cohiba of the lighter "Siglo"-line already costs a 150% of most other Cuban Perlas.

Four inches in length and a 40 ring. Came from a fresh cabinet. I could only read the letters "MAY" since the year of boxing was covered with a "Smoking kills" sticker. The dealer guessed at 2005 since it is a popular Cohiba.

This cigar is literally built to collect top grades. Construction, Combustion, and even taste wise it has convinced me. But let us start from the top: Very nice medium brown Colorado Claro wrapper with just one minor vein. It is so oily that one's fingers are getting a bit sticky. Although it is not differently sized, this Cohiba seems to be tinier than other Perlas. The Cohiba band looks marvellous and by far not too pretentious on this one in comparison to the larger Cohibas.

The cold aroma offers everything that one expects when having read about Cohiba. Very intense and animal with mineral scents and the "Cohiba-grassiness". Draw is rather firm but proves itself to be perfectly suitable for this cigar. Cold draw offers very intense animal characters and also hints spiciness on the tongue.

Perfectly circled, slow combustion. Pauses of one and a half minute between the draws are no problem at all. Even the initial draw is already gorgeous. I have only once before encountered such a dense and almost creamy smoke volume - in a Vegas Robaina Famosos. That one is close to a Robusto in size, but the Siglo I is rather small! Full-bodied, fleshy smoke that offers a delicate spiciness on the palate. This builds constantly into very light and still delicate bitterness, chilli-acerbity and hints of sweetness.

A very full aroma of dried flowers, oak and clay. Coffee rises as an additional dimension in the background. The typical Cohiba freshness, often described as grassiness, comes in during the second third, where earthiness and nutty tones prevail. The smoke becomes warmer and even fat in consistence, every draw is an unequalled delight. The line has to be drawn after the entire second third. Smoke becomes rather hot at that point and the acridity is quite harsh. I do not regret to put it down at that point.

Aftertaste is agreeably decent and spicy. It is a stronger cigar, however I can imagine that it was the 2005 vintage nicotine strength again. After all, it is not overly strong. I broke my rule of purist-smoking habits for this one: I had it after a dinner: Beef filet and prawns, a variation over Southern States Surf&Turf dishes. The Cohiba finished this meal perfectly like a strong espresso, a decadent evening indeed. But if one seldom smokes a cigar, this small Cohiba may be worth its price tag.

As this cigar is very full, an ideal drink pairing will be a strong yet down-to-earth one. An aged rich Rum may be suitable, but I had an ideal Cigar cocktail with it: Two thirds of red Port and one part of Cognac on ice. It is rich and almost refreshing with this cigar, the creamy port sweetness caressing one's peppered tongue and taste buds. Outstanding!

Romeo y Julieta Petit Pyramides Ediccion Limitada 2005, box of 25 from mid-2005
Well, this limited edition Romeo y Julieta cannot be called small any more, actually, measuring 5 inches with a massive 47 ring.

This limited edition seems not to have been very popular. For me however, as Romeo y Julieta cigars were those that led me into the world of Habanos, this one was eagerly anticipated. I managed to find a box of them in the beginning of this year at a local dealer that is somewhat more remote than the others. Together with a Hoyo Epicure Especial EL 2004 I saved two stick of these small Pyramides.

No cigar has given me such an ambiguous experience: The construction and quality of the maduro wrapper is excellent, the head is beautifully crafted, and the cold scent is overwhelmingly complex. An archetypical Romeo y Julieta aroma, very much like a fine red wine. Cedar, mahogany, animal aromas and a dimension of reddish dried fruits. Delicious. I once had it on my desk in order to take a photo, and the scent started filling the room... Very nice, indeed.

The other side of this cigar disclosed itself to me when smoking it: In a few words: needs ageing. I have never before experienced a cigar this sick. It lit badly, combustion was poor, and it had only less than an inch of aroma! These aromas were balanced and Romeo y Julieta again, distinctively woody with sweetish aspects, also becoming nutty with time. But after this first half of the initial third, the aroma totally faded out. I smoked the cigar through two thirds with just warm air coming out of it. Not a hint of aroma, the smoke building up very tannic over the time. It also lacked a noticeable strength.

To cut things short: I will let the second one mature for at least one year, if not more. This first one was a disappointment which I do not want the second to be alike.

Summary: Small vitolas are by far more interesting than their image. Smoked in a relaxed manner, they offer up to one hour of rather uncomplicated yet beneficial smoking delight. They are stronger than some of their larger relatives, but still they are a wonderful daytime treat. Choosing a "winner" out of these described here would be very hard for me. The Hoyo is unique due to its special new format. There are rumours that a similar "short version" of the Montecristo Edmundo may be released by the end of this year. The typical Hoyo character is very pleasing and refreshing, so ideal to the novice or as a nice aperitif.

Among the woody and earthy cigar, the San Cristobal would be my favourite: Mature tobaccos and a very nice taste spectrum with attractive development. More a relaxing after-lunch cigar than an appetizer. The Cohiba is the powerhouse among all these and earns a sort of benchmark position due to its richness and strength. A decadent delight.

I will go on trying other highly estimated cigars like the Trinidad Reyes, which may be close to the Cohiba, or the sought-after Por Larranaga Petit Coronas and Ramon Allones Small Club Coronas, not to forget the rare Bolivar Petit Coronas. In the low price range, a machine-made Los Statos de Luxe Cremas from a box of 1998 will be my next tasting object; it is a bit larger, however, about the size of a Corona.

My impressions are certain to end up in this collection!

Cigars and Drink Pairings
You cannot smoke certain cigars without a drink companion. Some are too harsh or dry, especially young cigars tend to be very tannic, so at least a glass of fresh water at hand is never wrong. Another nice option is a freshly-brewed, strong coffee or espresso, or a not too bitter fresh Darjeeling with lighter cigars. Sugar is beneficial, too. However, the most delightful pairings involve wines and fine spirits. With all of these, everybody has to choose for oneself if one likes harmony or contrasts - both are very attractive.

Wines should generally be riper ones, since the smoke of a cigar tends to make wines seem younger. They should also have very rounded acidity or tannin as these can easily get harsh with a smoke. A certain sweetness is always helpful. Generally, sweeter wines are easier to combine. A decadent, rich and mature 1985 Chateau d'Yquem will match many medium to strong cigars perfectly. Fortified wines like all-time classics Sherry and Port are also very nice choices. They should not be too dry and be very mellow. Madeira, except the dry Sercial, will do very well, too. Coming to fine spirits, there are two main classes one can easily think of: Cognac and Whisky. Cognac will need an extensive ageing process to match a cigar. Also, many strong character eau-de-vie that explain their provenance will be too unique. An old Grande Champagne Cognac is considerably flowery and will be hard to combine. There are several Cigar blend Cognac available, but also very rare. I have tasted the Davidoff Extra, an extremely mellow blend of old spirits dominated by typical rancio, tones of nuts and woods. This one makes an harmonious companion with many cigars.

When liking Cognac, Armagnac may be an interesting alternative. These spirits are more independent and do not solely rely on long ageing. They are often very grapy and rich. After all, I like the contrasts much more. Whisky with its wide range of tastes and influences is perfect with that. But a strong, peat and iodine Islay Whisky will only match very few cigars. You can find very harmonious combinations with the lighter and malty variations as well.

For the extra suspense, different wood finishes are a perfect basis. Glenmorangie's 15 year old Burgundy Wood, which has been finished in Cate d'Or red wine casks, may be worth a try, but it is a powerful whisky. Artisan Cask by the same distillery is by far lighter and more subtle with an highly interesting wood structure. The very fruity standard Macallan could be a basic choice as well.

For the easy-drinking Whisky experience, blended standard brands may be right. Taken with some ice, unthinkable with rare Single Malts, they are fresh and uncomplicated. The very light "Famous Grouse" becomes exotic with woody cigars, as well as Ballantine's or Chivas Regal, all of them very malty and sweetish.

My two favourites come from Islay, however. The first one is a blend of ten year old malts from all the Islay distilleries: Black Bottle. It is a typical peat and iodine character which may be too strong for many cigars - but perhaps gorgeous with the little powerhouse Cohiba. The second one is an all-rounder with considerable freshness. It comes from Islay, but since it is produced by Jim McEwen, it is innovative: Bruichladdich 15 year old, second Edition.

A medium to light, delicate Whisky. The second edition has been finished in Sauternes sweet wine casks of Chateau d'Yquem. The sweet, candied and exotic fruit aromas give this whisky its freshness and delicacy, the casks also add considerable sweetness to the palate. It also shows a background of sea breeze. When left in the glass, it oxidises to a strong heather/ Erica character. It is mellow yet warm and invigorating in itself. Just right to add some freshness to an earthy cigar! Both live up in this contrast!

Over the last years, some cigar whiskies have been released. The range to choose from is virtually infinite. Enough to entertain an entire life of cigar pleasures!