Feature: Where There’s Smoke

  • Richard Carleton Hacker and Brent Butterworth

After Fidel Castro took control of Cuba in 1959, many of the country’s cigar makers decamped for more favorable political climates. Most settled in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and soon thereafter, each of those countries became known for cigars with a certain taste: Smokers regarded products from the Dominican Republic as mild and often insufficiently flavorful, and those from Honduras and Nicaragua as potent and lacking in subtlety.

These generalizations no longer hold true. While puros—cigars blended with tobacco from a single nation—were common in the 1970s and 1980s, most of today’s cigars contain mixes of tobaccos from various nations, including the three aforementioned countries, Brazil, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and the United States. Blenders have access to countless varieties of tobacco from which the most creative can fashion an infinite number of flavors.

Here, we sample the best of the latest blends from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua, which, Cuba aside, are the leading sources of premium cigars.

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

This country that is roughly the combined size of Vermont and New Hampshire produces approximately 214 million cigars a year and the majority of the world’s
premium smokes. By comparison, Cuba makes an estimated 120 million to 150 million cigars annually. Indeed, Castro’s ascension to power in Cuba and the United States’ subsequent embargo of that country’s exports, including cigars, proved a boon to the Dominican Republic’s cigar industry. Families representing the Partagas, H. Upmann, and Hoyo de Monterrey brands were among the cigar-making clans who fled to this nation just southeast of Cuba shortly after Castro’s takeover. Their arrival dramatically expanded what previously had been a fledgling industry.

In 1492, Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola, which the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti, and among his discoveries were primitive cigars: The native Taino Indians would inhale smoke through rolled-up tobacco leaves that they placed in a fire. Today, most Dominican cigars are produced in factories located in government-established Free Trade Zones near the city of Santiago. An exception is the cigar-making giant Altadis, which has its factory in La Romana, on the east side of the country.

Premium tobacco is grown in the country’s two agriculturally rich areas, the Cibao and the Real valleys. Each contains a wide range of soils that nourish some of the world’s most flavorful fillers and binders. The native Olor Dominicano and the Cuban-seed Piloto Cubano are among the tobaccos grown here. The Dominican Republic originally was not known for wrappers, but General Cigar and the Arturo Fuente family changed that perception with the leaves they began growing in the mid-1990s. Other companies, including Davidoff, now offer cigars made with Dominican Republic wrappers, binders, and fillers, thus enabling the country to join Cuba and Nicaragua as producers of puros.

Turn on the Light
The Avo 787 is the latest creation from Avo Uvezian, a master of the light-bodied cigar. Like many of Uvezian’s blends, it combines a wrapper grown in Ecuador from Connecticut seeds with various mild filler leaves from the Dominican Republic. The name 787 refers to the manner in which the cigars are packaged—a row of seven cigars on the bottom, a row of eight in the middle, and another row of seven on top—which is supposed to help them maintain their draws and their round shapes. The 787’s gentle, subtly leathery taste makes it perfect for any occasion, any time of day, and almost any smoker. (www.avo.com)

Symphony in Smoke
Just as Antonio Stradivari incorporated various woods to achieve the dulcet tones of his masterpieces, the Stradivarius de los Maestros combines intricately honed tobaccos to create a harmony of flavors. The filler is Dominican, Nicaraguan, and Mexican leaf from vintage years, and the binder is Cuban-seed tobacco aged for two years in palm-wrapped bales called tercios. The silky spice of the 15-year-old Connecticut shade wrapper resonates with flavor and background rhythms of spicy earth. The cigars come in three sizes—a 6¾ x 43 lonsdale, a 7½ x 49 Churchill, and our favorite, a 5½ x 50 robusto major—all of which are packaged in boxes that have been painted and lacquered to resemble marble. (www.cigar world.com)

Triple Crown
The J.C. Newman Diamond Crown Holiday Collection is a trio of cigars packaged in a leather case and limited to 1,000 sets. All three are 6¾ x 54 double belicosos. The Connecticut Shade Diamond Crown features a wrapper that has been aged five years; the Maximus previously was available in only a 50-ring size; and the Cameroon Diamond Crown marks the first time this full-bodied cigar has been made with aged West African leaf. (www.cigarfamily.com)

Pure Davidoff
For years, rumors persisted that Hendrik Kelner, Davidoff’s master blender, was conducting secret hybrid tobacco experiments involving perhaps pre-Castro seeds, or maybe alien pods. No one knew, or no one would say, what Kelner was up to. It turns out that he was working on the Davidoff Capa Dominicana (capa is Spanish for wrapper), a Dominican puro. It features a silky wrapper grown in Yamasá, a humid region north of Davidoff’s other farms’ locations. Davidoff ferments the tobaccos in enclosed, Cuban-style curing barns, instead of in the open structures common to the Dominican Republic. The wrapper emits a heavily spiced, grassy flavor. (www.davidoff.com)

Wisdom of Salomon
Cusano recently launched a new brand, Cuvée, to designate its limited-production cigars. The Cuvée Blanc features a light Ecuadoran-grown, Connecticut-seed wrapper shrouding tobaccos from various countries. (Although the cigar is rolled in the Dominican Republic, its blend features only a small amount of that country’s tobacco.) The complexly flavored Cuvée Blanc exhibits a light-to-medium body and a slight tang that complement beers from Central America and the Caribbean. Various sizes are available, but the most impressive by far is the 7¼ x 57 Salomon, a beefy perfecto tapered at both ends. (www.cusanocigars.com)

Enter the Dragon
The boxes containing the Gurkha Black Dragon are lined not with cedar, but rather with an audacious orange suede. The cigar inside the packaging, though, is much more stately. Its deep Cameroon wrapper and rich Nicaraguan and Peruvian filler give this intimidating, dark cigar a surprisingly accessible flavor. It has the body of our other Gurkha favorites, the Titan and the Beast, without those cigars’ peppery zip. The Black Dragon is available in three sizes; the one that best fits the presentation is the 8½ x 52 presidente. Gurkha will produce only 5,000 boxes of the cigars per year. (www.gurkhacigars.com)

HONDURAS

In this country where jagged, jungle-covered mountains rise from undergrowth so thick that it completely entangles Mayan ruins and shields much of the ground from direct sunlight, only 16 percent of the land is cultivated. Yet Honduras is the world’s third-largest producer of premium cigars, exporting about 103 million annually. (Nicaragua is a distant fourth, making some 60 million cigars a year.)

Honduras often is referred to as "the other Cuba," because its soil, particularly in the Jamastran Valley, is similar to that of Cuba’s Vuelta Abajo and Partido regions. Recently, the remote valley of San Agustin began producing Havana-like rosado wrappers; the Punch Gran Puro was the first cigar made with San Agustin
wrapper, and its filler also includes some of the leaf.

The soil in the countryside is rich enough in nutrients to support 6,000 different types of plants, including 630 varieties of orchids and the cedar trees from which cigar boxes are made. This vibrant setting lured a number of Cuban cigar makers, who, upon their arrival, cleared expanses of jungle so that they could plant their Cuban seeds.

One of the most popular cigars in the United States in the years shortly after the U.S. government imposed the embargo on Cuban exports was the Honduran Hoyo de Monterrey, which possessed a meaty heft that reminded many smokers of the outlawed Havanas. Today, Honduran cigars remain a popular choice for smokers seeking legal alter-natives to Cubans. 

Packing a Punch
The Punch Rare Corojo consists of a blend of five tobaccos—an Ecuador-grown Sumatran-seed wrapper, a Connecticut broadleaf binder, and fillers from Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic—and yields a flavor that is powerful yet surprisingly silky and complex, with overtones of spice and nuts. The latest variant of this cigar, the Punch Rare Corojo Crystale, is encased in a glass tube that conforms to the pointed shape of the 5½ x 54 torpedo inside. It is the first pointed glass tubo we have encountered, and it is a fitting package for such a distinctive cigar. (www.cigarworld.com)

Secret Recipe
The Rocky Patel Decade marks that company’s 10th anniversary, but little else has been revealed about the cigar. The company does not divulge any information about the origin of the tobaccos, which levels (or primings) of the tobacco plant they come from, how they are processed, or how long they are aged. However, Patel himself did tell us that the wrapper is grown in Ecuador from Sumatran seeds. Regardless of what it is made from, the Decade is Patel’s most refined blend, with a smoother, subtler flavor than his other cigars. Substantial aging is apparent. Patel offers the Decade in four sizes, including the fashionable 6½ x 44 lonsdale. (www.rockypatel.com)

Breaking with Tradition
Unlike the big, meaty Hoyo de Monterrey, the Hoyo de Tradición has a delicate, almost floral aroma that evokes French-pressed coffee, not espresso. The Spanish box-pressed wrapper is one of the oiliest we have encountered. The finish is dry and lingering and includes a touch of cedar. The Honduran Jamastran Viso Rosado wrapper, combined with Honduran, Dominican, and Nicaraguan filler, lends a taste of caramelized honey. The cigar is available in four sizes, of which the 5¼ x 50 Epicure, with its refined, medium strength, is ideal for a late-afternoon or early-evening smoke. (www.cigarworld.com)

Three is a Magic Number
Maduro leaves normally are reserved for cigar wrappers, and a few manufacturers have used them for binders (the leaf under the wrapper) as well. Camacho might be the first to offer a cigar made entirely from maduro leaf. The Camacho Triple Maduro may seem intimidating given the company’s reputation for producing powerful smokes, but experienced smokers will find it quite smooth. Although the cigar is thoroughly saturated with maduro flavor, the blend is lighter than that of Camacho’s Corojo and Coyolar Puro. For any serious smoker, the Triple Maduro is a must-try. (www.camachocigars.com)

Powerful Art
The four freehand shapes of Felipe Gregorio’s The Art of Power cigars might appear irregular, but creating them requires great skill; the torcedors have to be talented enough to work without molds. The Antonius is a reverse perfecto, the Lord Byron a reverse torpedo. The Goliath has a maduro tip that delivers a hit of sweetness during the first few puffs. The Caesar (above, in the middle) is a triple-wrap featuring Candela, Connecticut, and Costa Rican wrappers. Both the Lord Byron and the Antonius have rings of Connecticut and maduro wrappers. (www.felipegregorio.com)

Re-creating the Past
Illusione No. 2
is a Nicaraguan puro made by the Fernandez y Fernandez factory in Honduras. Packed with 3-year-old Criollo 98 and Corojo 99 filler, and wrapped with dark Rosado Oscuro Corojo, the No. 2 is a commendable re-creation of the Nicaraguan cigars of the 1970s. It even includes the triple cap that is associated with those cigars. The nondescript, black-and-white band belies the powerful complexity that lurks within each cigar. Aged for one to three months after rolling, the cigar can be aged for an additional decade or more before it is lit. (www.illusionecigars.com)

NICARAGUA

Nicaragua’s rich, red soil—remarkably similar to the soil of Cuba’s Vuelta Abajo—has enticed a number of Cuban cigar makers to emigrate across the Caribbean Sea and cultivate land that formerly was jungle.

Nicaragua is bordered by two other cigar-producing countries—Costa Rica to the south and Honduras to the north—yet tobacco is grown only in the northernmost portion of the country, primarily in the Jalapa and Estelí valleys. In addition, General Cigar has been cultivating new strains of filler tobaccos on the island of Ometepe, which was formed 12,000 years ago by two volcanoes (one of which is still active) that rose from Lake Nicaragua.

Although the thick, nutrient-rich soil produces tobaccos for some of the world’s most flavorful cigars, Nicaragua’s cigar industry has been hampered by domestic politics and war. During the 1970s, Nicaraguan cigars, which were dominated by Joya de Nicaragua, were hailed as superior even to some Havanas. However, their quality diminished during the conflict between the contras and the Sandinistas in the early ’80s. Land cultivation and production methods have improved dramatically in recent years, but it remains to be seen how the governance of former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, who became the country’s president earlier this year, ultimately will affect the country’s cigar industry.

Long on Flavor
All of the Oliva cigars we have tried taste exceptionally smooth, but the Oliva Special S Diadema requires a new descriptor. The already-mellow smoke cools and filters as it travels the cigar’s 9-inch length. The tobacco burns into a beautiful white ash and arrives at the tip as a rich flavor with just a trace of pepper. Few blends are so satisfying, though the Special S contains nothing exotic, just Nicaraguan filler and binder tobaccos wrapped in an Ecuadoran leaf. Other Special S sizes are available, but if time permits, light a Diadema. It is by far the most elegant and rewarding of the choices. (www.olivacigar.com)

Close to Cuban
The Ashton San Cristobal is a Nicaraguan puro made by Jose "Pepin" Garcia, who oversaw Cuba’s cigar factories for 30 years. "The tobacco being grown in Nicaragua is very close to that of Cuba," Garcia says. "Estelí is like the Vuelta Arriba, and Jalapa is like Pinar del Río." From these two valleys he selects the tobaccos for San Cristobal. The rich, deep brown wrapper smells of sweet saddle leather: heavy and slightly musty. Of the six shapes, our favorite is the aptly named 6¹/8 x 52 Fabuloso. (www.ashtoncigar.com)

Mellowed with Age
The Toraño family began growing tobacco in Cuba in 1916, and it now operates farms and factories in both Nicaragua and Honduras. The Toraño Noventa 90 is Nicaraguan through and through, with wrapper, binder, and filler tobaccos from four different regions of the country: Condega, Estelí, Jalapa, and Pueblo Nuevo. This cigar will shock smokers who assume all Nicaraguan tobacco is strong; many would peg this mellow, easy-smoking stick as a Dominican blend. It contains just a hint of the peppery character for which Nicaraguan leaves are known, yet its flavor is as mouth-filling and satisfying as that of any of the country’s classic puros. (www.torano.com)

Cigar on Steroids
The Joya de Nicaragua Antaño is a thundering giant with enough muscle to dominate the smokiest Islay single malts. Strong and earthy, this Cuban-seed Nicaraguan puro is pumped up further by a 3-year-old dark and oily Habano Criollo ligero wrapper, a leaf normally reserved for adding heft, in small doses, to the filler. The 6 x 54 belicoso is the most popular size, but three new shapes snagged our attention: the 7½ x 38 lancero, a 6¹ /8 x 58 perfecto, and the 6 x 60 magnum. Do not smoke this cigar on an empty stomach. (www.joyadenicaragua.com.ni)

Mmmm, Chocolate
In the rush to produce extremely heavy-bodied cigars, the art of creating classic maduros seems to have receded. Maduros are wrapped in a dark brown, sun-grown leaf that is harvested later than normal and receives extra fermentation. The classic maduro flavor is full, smooth, and sweet, but not overpowering; many aficionados refer to the taste as chocolaty. All of these traits are present in the Perdomo Habano Maduro, a puro that combines tobaccos from the Condega, Estelí, and Jalapa regions. (www.perdomocigars.com)

Stogie Start-up
Industry veterans founded the new EO Brands, and they have created a great product right out of the gate. The company’s first effort is the EO Brands 601 Serie, three cigars crafted in Nicaragua by the same Jose "Pepin" Garcia who formulated the Ashton San Cristobal. The cigars are named Blue, Black, and Red for the color of their bands. In terms of strength, the Black lies in the middle, with a rich, mellow Connecticut-seed wrapper grown in Ecuador that just barely subdues the powerful Nicaraguan filler and binder leaves. (www.eobrands.com)

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