Smoke ‘Em (If You Can Get ‘Em)
The cigar industry, like so many other businesses, has been completely transformed over the past two years—it’s also facing nearly unprecedented demand. At the beginning of 2020, tobacco stores and cigar lounges were forced to shutter nationwide, yet for many cigar enthusiasts that actually meant more opportunities to enjoy a smoke than ever before. Today, surging online sales, along with the reopening of established brick-and-mortar locations as pandemic restrictions loosen, have resulted in the greatest uptick in cigar purchases since the boom of the 1990s.
“When it comes to premium cigars, we saw a 25 percent increase in 2021 sales,” says David M. Ozgo, president of the Cigar Association of America, Inc. In that year, he says, “we imported 400 million cigars for the first time since 1997.” While Ozgo admits “it isn’t clear that there’s been an increase in the number of new cigar smokers,” he seems confident that all the extra downtime played a significant role. “With so many people working from home, without a commute, without getting dressed up, many cigar smokers suddenly found an extra two hours or more in their day,” he says. “A good cigar has always been a personal indulgence for many people. More people are simply taking the time to enjoy life’s pleasures.”
Yet the current rise in cigar consumption is not without its complications, with fewer workers in some factories due to the pandemic, which in turn has affected production. “Let’s not forget that premium cigars are hand-rolled,” Ozgo says. “That human element makes cigars special, but it also acts as a constraint. There’s a limit to the number of cigars anyone can produce in a day.”
Such unexpected demand has also created a shortage of certain tobaccos, such as high-grade Pennsylvania broadleaf wrapper and long-leaf fillers from Mexico and some Central American countries. This is more of a concern for boutique cigar manufacturers, which often outsource their tobaccos, than for major companies such as Altadis, General Cigar and Arturo Fuente, which grow much of their own. Still, the distribution snafus that have plagued other industries have also impacted the cigar marketplace.
“From a manufacturing standpoint, we had to manage longer lead times with vendors of non-tobacco materials, given that [shipping] containers are in short supply, freight costs have skyrocketed and shipping speeds are languishing,” says Sarah Santos, president of Scandinavian Tobacco Group and senior vice president for the brand’s North America online and retail division, which, in spite of those setbacks, plans to open another 20 to 25 “superstores” in the US over the next five years, joining the eight currently spread throughout Pennsylvania and Texas. “At the moment, the supply chain has generally stabilized; however, we are keeping our eye on broad inflation in the US, recent factory shutdowns in China and unrest in Eastern Europe.”
And yet, despite certain smaller brands feeling the pinch, the industry has done a remarkable job of meeting demand with supply—for the most part, the cigars are out there, including this year’s Best of the Best winners.
The Best Anniversary Edition, Medium-Bodied, Variation on a Theme and Powerhouse
Anniversary Edition: HVC Cigars, 10th Anniversary
Master blender Reinier Lorenzo started HVC Cigars back in 2011 as a way of paying tribute to Havana City and especially to his old neighborhood of El Cerro, where he was raised in post-revolutionary Cuba. This 6 1⁄2 x 50 Toro, a Nicaraguan puro, is a fitting homage; the soil of that country resembles the rich earth of Cuba’s Vuelta Abajo region. Made in the Tabacos Valle de Jalapa factory in Estelí—as are all HVC cigars today—its beautifully aged Corojo 99 wrapper is fully complemented by a Nicaraguan filler that incorporates a previously experimental tobacco known as Corojo 2012. Together with Corojo 99 and Criollo 98 leaves, the resulting flavor is full and rich, providing a worthy celebration of HVC’s 10th anniversary. $15
Medium-Bodied: Espada by Montecristo, Signature
This is the third year running that Montecristo has made our Best of the Best list, although this year it achieved the distinction with its mildest cigar yet in the Espada series, which debuted in 2014 with Montecristo’s first Nicaraguan puro. The new Espada (Spanish terminology for “sword,” six of which form Montecristo’s signature logo) actually comes in two other versions—the Jalapa Habano-wrapped Espada and the stronger Espada Oscuro Maduro—but it was the scarcer Signature edition, with its oily and silky-smooth Nicaraguan Colorado Claro wrapper, that captured our attention and palates. The hefty 6 x 55 size has been dubbed the Valiente, denoting the cigar’s “valiant character” according to the company, offering a smooth creaminess that remains to the last puff. $15
Variation on a Theme: EPC Robusto, Short Run Retro 2022 Maduro
This medium-full-strength smoke is a follow-up to master blender Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Jr.’s bestseller from last year, the Short Run Retro 2021. The “short run” name stems from the fact that the meticulous Perez-Carrillo can’t always get enough of the prized tobaccos he needs to produce a regular line, making these cigars, by definition, limited editions. But unlike last year’s cigar, our Best of the Best winner uses entirely different tobaccos, starting with a Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper with sweet-grass and saddle-leather aromas that segue into an Ecuadorian binder wrapped around Nicaraguan, Mexican and Honduran filler. It has a touch of ginger and cocoa, and a candy-coated spiciness lingers after each puff. With three sizes, each inspired by vinyl-record terminology—Short Play, Extended Play and Long Play—this is the ideal cigar for a cold pint of Guinness or a stiff shot of smoky mezcal such as Bosscal Pechuga De Conejo. $8.50 to $10.50
Powerhouse: Plasencia, Year of the Tiger
This is but one of many Year of the Tiger editions to emerge in 2022, but it’s by far the strongest smoke we’ve encountered in the past 12 months. It’s only appropriate for a triple-banded 6 1⁄2 x 54 Nicaraguan puro inspired by the bold and powerful apex predator, the third sign of the Chinese zodiac. Made with tobaccos aged for 10 years, its smoke emits aromas of moist rain forests and wild roses, culminating in a heavy artillery of rich flavors deserving of a complex spirit such as a Richard Hennessy Cognac or a Stagg Jr. Barrel Proof Bourbon. Due to the scarcity of the tobaccos involved, only 2,500 boxes, each containing eight cigars, have been shipped to the US. $40 each
The Best American-Made “Cuban”, Connecticut-Shade Wrapped, Hybrid and Reinvention
American-Made “Cuban”: Cohiba, Serie M
For the first time, cigars from this storied Cuban brand are being made in America, after previously being given a new identity—and new tobaccos—by General Cigar in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. Now, recalling an era when cigars were being hand-rolled in factories across the US, the Cohiba Serie M is being produced by the family-owned El Titan de Bronze Cigar Factory in Miami’s Little Havana district. Following last year’s 6 x 52 Toro Serie M is a 6 1⁄2 x 48 Corona Gorda for 2022, of which only 5,000 boxes will be available, all made by expatriate torcedores, with one roller crafting an entire cigar and then having his or her name affixed to every box they create. Featuring a double Nicaraguan binder, closed foot and a triple fan-tailed cap, this medium-to-full-bodied smoke, with its lustrous Nicaraguan Corojo wrapper and Nicaraguan and Dominican filler, exhibits subtle spice notes and nuances of roasted coffee beans. $29.99
Connecticut-Shade Wrapped: Rocky Patel, White Label
The first thing to grab your attention will be the stunning, hefty presentation box of white leather and rose-gold-colored metallic accents, but it’s the exquisitely made cigars inside that garnered our Best of the Best nod. Unfortunately, their large one-piece bands cover nearly a third of the cigar’s handsome golden wrapper—a true US-grown Connecticut shade leaf. The Nicaraguan fillers (along with one other “undisclosed” leaf ) work in tandem with the costly wrapper to produce a sweet and mellow medium-strength smoke touched with a hint of cedar, thanks to the cigars being rolled with 10-year-old tobaccos before being aged for an additional two years. Made in Rocky Patel’s Tabacalera Villa Cuba factory in Estelí, Nicaragua, four sizes are produced, with the 6 1⁄2 x 52 Toro being a perfect pairing for an easy-drinking bourbon such as I. W. Harper Cabernet Cask Reserve. $19
Hybrid: La Gloria Cubana, Criollo de Oro
There’s something enduringly mysterious about hybrid tobaccos, even though the practice of combining various seeds to produce a new strain has been around for years. Yet only recently has the technique gained prominence, with this year’s Best of the Best being a prime, flavor-packed example of the craft. The Criollo de Oro wrapper is a crossbred combination of Criollo 98 and Pelo de Oro, the former being a relatively disease-resistant tobacco while the latter is more difficult to work with—and subject to blue mold, which is why it was banned in Cuba; that expulsion has created a certain allure for the leaf, now grown on the volcanic Nicaraguan island of Ometepe. A hearty Connecticut Broadleaf binder and a blend of Nicaraguan and Honduran filler round out the recipe, with the result being a sweet, earthy mixture of cedar and citrus and a medium strength suitable both for lengthy afternoon walks and early evening cocktails. Just two shapes are made, a Toro and a Churchill, with a total of just 3,100 boxes, each containing 20 cigars, produced. $10.49 to $10.99 each
Reinvention: Villiger Cigars, La Libertad
When we first profiled this cigar back in 2018, it was produced in the Dominican Republic and sported a new box and band highlighting its red and black colors, with an embossed gold logo. This year marks a new beginning—and a new base of operations—for La Libertad as part of the 134-year-old family-owned Villiger brand. The cigar still sports a bold red-and-black band and retains its medium-plus strength but is now made with a totally new blend in Villiger’s recently opened factory in Estelí, Nicaragua, giving it an entirely different flavor profile that has earned its way into our Best of the Best spotlight. With its aromatic Nicaraguan Criollo wrapper, Dominican binder and Nicaraguan fillers from Jalapa and Estelí, there’s an underlying roughness to the finish of cedar and dark chocolate, but in a pleasing way, reminiscent of the spicy char on a filet mignon. $7.50 to $8.50
Best Line Extension and Gourmet-Themed
Line Extension: La Aroma de Cuba, Pasión
Forget the saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”—when you’ve got a great thing going, why not expand upon it? That was clearly the thought behind La Aroma de Cuba’s introduction of Pasión last year, the first time a new cigar has been added to this popular brand’s line-up since 2014, when La Aroma de Cuba Noblesse—a 2015 Best of the Best winner in its own right—was introduced. And like that cigar, the new Pasión is produced by the noted cigar-making team of José “Pepin” Garcia and his son, Jaime, in their My Father Cigars factory. All the tobaccos used here were grown on the family’s Nicaraguan farms in Estelí, Jalapa or the microclimate of Namanji, where Pasión’s oily, shade-grown wrapper was cultivated. A meticulous triple fermentation results in a medium-full-bodied smoke filled with flavors of cashew, leather and molasses-soaked cedar. Six sizes are offered, with the box-pressed 6 1⁄4 x 54 Torpedo being a favorite. $10.25 to $12.50
Gourmet-Themed: Davidoff, Chefs Edition
There are few professionals as exacting and individualistic as chefs, which is why a kitchen can’t accommodate more than one head cook at a time. Yet to create this third edition of its Chefs Cigar series, Davidoff managed to get four internationally celebrated toques—Masa Takayama, of New York City’s Masa; Norbert Niederkofler, of Alpinn Food Space & Restaurant in the Italian Dolomites; Juan Amador, of Amador, in Vienna; and Mexico City’s Jorge Vallejo, of Quintonil—to combine their culinary skills into creating a single masterful smoke. Naturally, all four chefs are avid cigar enthusiasts, and the result of their collaboration is a 7 x 48 Churchill consisting of an Ecuadorian Hybrid 238 wrapper, a San Andrés Negro Seco binder and four different Dominican fillers, including a Hybrid 192 Seco leaf. That means creamy cedar and floral notes intermingling with cacao and caramel to produce a medium-strength smoke with a complexity of flavor worthy of its own Michelin star. Appropriately, the cigars are presented in a wood-and-ceramic box that can be separated and used as individual serving trays. Only 9,700 boxes, containing 10 cigars each, have been produced, of which 5,000 have been allocated to the US. $390 per box
Lifetime Achievement: Néstor Plasencia Sr.
The story of fourth-generation tobacco grower Néstor Plasencia Sr. is one of resilience. In 1963, when Néstor was 14, Fidel Castro confiscated the Plasencia family farms, along with so many others. The clan fled to Nicaragua with what few belongings they could carry. By that time, Cuban tobacco was already growing in the neighboring country, and so the family found work on a farm there. But after regrowing their business in a new land, in 1978 the family saw its tobacco farms and crops burned by the Sandinistas during the Nicaraguan Revolution. They escaped once again, this time across the border to Honduras, where in 1981 they lost 90 percent of their crops due to blue mold before losing Néstor’s father two years later. A succession of poor harvests added to the misery, all of which combined to leave Plasencia many millions of dollars in debt.
But in 1985 Néstor capitalized on his expertise by making hand-rolled cigars for other companies and was soon producing a million cigars per year in his Honduran factory. Five years later, he opened a second factory in Honduras and moved his family back to Nicaragua, establishing additional tobacco farms and cigar factories in Estelí and Ocotal.
In an industry wedded to tradition, Néstor developed new techniques in fermentation and drip irrigation and was one of the first to successfully grow Connecticut seed tobaccos in Honduras and Nicaragua, as well as being the first—and still only—person to grow organic tobacco certified by the Organic Crop Improvement Association. He also began experimenting with disease-resistant hybrid tobacco strains and helped pioneer the modern-day planting of tobacco on Nicaragua’s volcanic island of Ometepe, creating a strain of sweet filler tobacco that has been enthusiastically embraced by the industry.
Today, with more than 6,000 employees, Plasencia produces over 35 million cigars a year for more than 30 different brands—Néstor also launched his own brand in 2017 with his three sons—and is the largest family-owned tobacco-growing enterprise in the world, honoring a legacy that began five generations ago with his skill, determination, savvy business sense and unparalleled success.