Best of the Best 2008: Cigars

  • Richard Carleton Hacker and Brent Butterworth

Although zino cigars are typically made in Honduras, the Platinum Scepter Series is handcrafted by Davidoff master blender Hendrik Kelner in his Tabadom factory in the Dominican Republic. The new, limited Zino Platinum Scepter Series Master Edition 2007 (www.zinoplatinum.com, $13 each) has a flavor that is at once spicy and aromatic, the result of a specially fermented Ecuadoran wrapper combined with three Dominican tobaccos and a noticeable touch of sweet Peruvian leaf in the filler. Though many tasters found its notes intriguing, one called it "floral and un-cigarlike." rel="nofollow" Medium in strength, it may not be the optimum after-dinner cigar, although one panelist felt it would be ideal with Cognac. Either way, everyone concentrated intently on this cigar, a sure sign of an intriguing smoke. —R.C.H.

Cuban Imports specializes in rejuvenating venerable yet neglected brands. From a flavor standpoint, at least, the Por Larrañaga Cuban Grade (866.731.2822, $5.50 to $8 each) is its most successful project yet. Constructed with tobaccos from Honduras, Ecuador, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, this cigar exhibits a fascinating flavor. Panelists found it tantalizingly spicy yet surprisingly smooth, and all considered it the mildest smoke of any in our tasting. "Women would like this cigar," one judge noted, "and because the nose is so exquisite and hospitable, it would also be a good cigar to smoke around women." Others considered the Cuban Grade’s creamy, light taste ideal for a morning or midday smoke. One panelist commented paradoxically that it can be "a little rough for all its mildness." We sampled the version with a natural wrapper, which we preferred to the maduro-wrapped version. —B.B.

It is only fitting that a super-premium cigar should be named after Antonio Stradivari, the revered 17th- and 18th-century craftsman who worked with spruce and maple to create masterful violins. In a similar way, General Cigar master Daniel Núñez has combined a silky, 15-year-old Connecticut Shade wrapper with a spicy, Cuban-seed Dominican binder and rich Dominican, Nicaraguan, and Mexican filler tobaccos that have been aged in tercios (bales sealed in royal palm leaves that allow the tobaccos to ferment in their own oils). The result is the Stradivarius?? de los Maestros (www.cigarworld.com, $300 to $340 for 10, depending on size), whose name refers not only to the violin maker but also to the craftsmen who cultivated, aged, and hand-rolled each of the three shapes—Robusto Major (5½ x 50), Lonsdale (6¾ x 43), and Churchill (7½ x 49). The flavor is deep and mellow and, at our tasting, it resonated even more when paired with a vintage port. —R.C.H.

The Romeo y Julieta Edición Limitada (www.altadisusa.com, $21 to $25 each) may rank as this brand’s finest cigar—a notable achievement, considering that the marque dates back almost to the American Civil War. The cigar earned raves from some of our panelists and respect from the others. Everyone found its flavor concentrated and complex. One panelist, noting flavors of chocolate and spice, likened the taste to mole sauce. The Edición Limitada’s medium-heavy palate made such an impression on one panelist that he compared it—favorably and with a wry smile—to a concussion. Other panelists generally agreed that this cigar is a "heavyweight with elegance." rel="nofollow" Parent company Altadis packs each Edición Limitada in a metal tubo finished with glistening red metallic paint, one of the year’s most distinctive cigar packages. —B.B.

For its popularity, the Davidoff Royal Salomones (www.davidoff.com, $2,250 for a box of 50, $45 each) is a rarity. That is because this 8¼ x 57 giant perfecto is only available for purchase in limited quantities, through Davidoff’s 53 company stores worldwide. Its Ecuadoran wrapper provides a creamy, nutlike flavor enhanced by a rich blend of Piloto Seco filler tobaccos from two different areas of the Dominican Republic—San Vicente Seco and Corojo Seco. "We often recommend pairing it with a big Bordeaux," says Matthew Arcella, managing partner of Davidoff Las Vegas. "The taste evolves as it is smoked and, similar to a great novel, the last half is completely different than the first, yet the style remains." rel="nofollow" The Royal Salomones can take as long as two hours to smoke. Many of our panelists opted to save the remainder of this cigar for later, to enjoy after the tasting session was over. —R.C.H.

Master blender Carlos Fuente Jr.—better known as Carlito—is a consistent overachiever. While managing his own Arturo Fuente and OpusX brands, Fuente Jr. also works for a variety of other manufacturers. Among his "outside" projects is God of Fire by Carlito, Double Robusto 2005 (www.godoffire.com, $200 for a box of 10), a smooth yet complex 5¾ x 52 cigar packed in a serial-numbered box and distributed by accessory manufacturer Prometheus. Some of our panelists considered the double robusto close to perfection; one stated, "This is what I think of when I smoke a nice cigar." rel="nofollow" Robust, peppery notes make the latest God of Fire an ideal after-dinner smoke that will complement potently flavored food and drink but will not overpower subtler tastes. —B.B.

When the jefe who once managed Habanos factories such as Partagás and El Laguito left Cuba to start making cigars in Nicaragua, cigar smokers around the world took notice. It was only natural that José "Pepín" Garcia should settle in Nicaragua, for the Estelí and Jalapa valleys have soils very similar to those in the Vuelta Abajo, the only area in Cuba where all three of a cigar’s components—wrapper, binder, and filler—can be grown. Garcia’s San Cristobal for Ashton Cigars (www.ashtoncigar.com, $160 to $264 for a box of 22, $7.25 to $12.00 each), a Nicaraguan puro, is notable for its beefy flavor. True to? its Cuban/Nicaraguan heritage, San Cristobal is rough, ready, and robust, packed full of muscular ligero, the strongest leaf on the plant. As one of our tasters remarked, "I think we’ve found the WMDs." rel="nofollow" —R.C.H.

You probably could count the number of Dominican puros—cigars made entirely from Dominican tobacco—on a single hand. The Arganese Uno (www.arganesecigars.com, $80 for a box of five) easily overpowers other members of this elite group. The samples we received for Best of the Best testing were rather loosely rolled, which resulted in a hotter, more intense smoke than the samples we originally received. The powerful flavor of the 6 x 60 giant prompted one panelist to exclaim, "Light the fuse and stand back!" Fortunately, the Uno mellows as you consume it, and a subtle infusion of Cognac adds complexity to the blend’s flavor. Another panelist compared the Uno to James Bond, saying, "It’s strong and refined and can hold its own in any situation." rel="nofollow" Arganese Cigars packages each Uno in a decoratively painted cedar box, making the cigar an ideal gift for an experienced smoker. —B.B.

The 601 Serie is a Nicaraguan cigar from acclaimed cigar master José "Pepín" Garcia, made exclusively for United Tobacco. The smoke comes in four color-banded variations—each denoting a different wrapper—all of which feature Nicaraguan fillers and binders. The 601 Black sports an Ecuadoran wrapper, the 601 Red has a natural Nicaraguan maduro wrapper, and the 601 Green features a dark Habano Oscuro leaf. The 601 Blue (www.unitedtobaccoinc.com, $162 to $186 for a box of 20, roughly $10 each), Garcia’s only box-pressed Nicaraguan maduro, is our favorite. The blend of this puro has been honed to a meaty, medium-full-strength finesse that inspired one of our panelists to remark that it is not for occasional smokers. We found our test cigars to be too tightly rolled, which resulted in a hard draw. Still, the taste was so rich with chocolate and espresso overtones that, as a taster remarked, it "would be overwhelming in the afternoon." rel="nofollow" —R.C.H.

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