Smoke: Coming on Strong

  • The Espresso (unbanded with its alligator-skin box) reigns as the undefeated champion, but the reformulated Crystal is no lightweight.
<< Back to Robb Report, April 2004

Not long after Graycliff Cigar Co. introduced the Crystal in 2000, some smokers complained that it was so strong that it was nearly hallucinogenic. Enrico Garzaroli, the company’s president, heeded their requests to tone down the blend, but after a new, milder Crystal was released, negative feedback poured in from connoisseurs demanding a fuller, more complex taste. This time, Garzaroli responded with a Solomon-like solution. Graycliff continued to produce the reblended Crystal, but it also created a more intense cigar, dubbed the Espresso. “I think that people are starting to view the value of cigars like cars: The more powerful and more expensive they are, the better,” says Garzaroli. “Today’s smokers perceive that no matter how elegant their cigars are, they are not worth the price unless they have that extra power.”

With the Crystal, Graycliff was among the first to respond to the current smoking trend. Ashton, too, sensed it early and produced the VSG (Virgin Sun Grown), a wildly popular and hefty smoke with an oily, 5-year-old dark Ecuadoran wrapper. The spicy Joya de Nicaragua Antaño quickly became a favorite of seasoned smokers in 2002. More recently, Tabacalera Perdomo introduced its strongest offering, the Cuban Parejo Maduro, while the revived El Rico Habano made its comeback with a wallop. And although Drew Estate is perhaps best known for its infused and botanical cigars, its new La Vieja Habana, containing natural tobacco, is the company’s most potent cigar to date. Any of these offerings will satisfy the smoker whose palate has evolved to demand something stronger, or who is smoking less frequently and therefore seeks more flavor per puff, or who, for whatever reason, wants a cigar as powerful as a Porsche.

To create these potent smokes, manufacturers continue to refine blending, curing, and growing techniques. Some cigar makers increase the amount of corona leaves, those from the top third of the plant that receive the most sun and nutrients, or replace some of the milder leaf with more full-bodied tobacco. Manuel Quesada achieves the hearty taste of Vegas de Fonseca by sealing the tobacco in palm leaf bales called tercios; the leaves essentially cook in their natural oils and juices. The particular seeds and the soil in which they are grown influence the final product, as well. Tobaccos from Honduras and Nicaragua typically produce stronger cigars than Dominican Republic tobacco; however, Fuente’s Don Carlos and Davidoff’s Millennium are two notable exceptions.

One innovative method for increasing a cigar’s intensity is known as medio tiempo, or half time. The process, perfected by Daniel Nuñez, executive vice president of operations at General Cigar, involves leaving the tobacco on the plant 50 percent longer than usual. “When our workers go into the fields and see that the tobacco is ready, they don’t harvest it,” says Nuñez. Instead, they wait another week or two, during which time the leaf begins curing. Using this technique, Nuñez created the Partagas Black Label.

“With [medio tiempo], you end up with a much richer, thicker, heavier, and more flavorful leaf,” Nuñez says, adding that few companies use the approach because it is expensive and time consuming. “But,” he claims, “the taste is worth it.” 

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