Monday, December 31, 2007

Something About a Padron

I have yet to try the expensive, highly-rated Padrons from the 1926 and 1964 series. However, the quality of their cheaper workaday cousins is impressive.

Two examples: The Padron Londres (corona) and the larger Churchill/Presidente size, both available at retail for about 4 dollars (or less in lower-taxed regions). In both cases I was surprised that despite their loose draw, these cigars smoked flavorfully and without any hotness whatsoever. In fact they burned so well that they were smokeable down to the last inch. Like any worthwhile cigar, the flavor was good from the first puff and modulated favorably throughout, getting pleasantly stronger but never bitter.

These bottom-shelf Padrons have a unique body and flavor (medium-bodied and ample in character with hints of powder, molasses, hardwood) that makes them an incredible value for the low price. Visually, they look simple yet trustworthy: Rough, cleanly-hewn wrappers and an unpretentious thin brown band. Despite their lack of flash, they smoke with a refreshing fullness. Like a cold beer at the end of a strenuous workday, they make you feel good about a job well done.

When in doubt and low on cash, smoke a cheap Padron. You will not be disappointed.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Don't Believe the Hype: Nestor Reserve Maduro

Review of Nestor Reserve Maduro Torpedo:

Recently I was able to get my greedy hands on a five-pack of Nestor Reserve Maduro torpedos for only 7 bucks in an online auction. Good thing too, because they're not worth a penny more.

The creative marketers at Cigars International certainly hype up these black beauties, using enticing phrases such as "chocolate thunder" and "rated 93 by Cigar Aficionado." Well, how long ago was that? 1998? And which size was it? Funny how the distributors are always vague about that, as if every size in the whole darned line won the super rating. Could you tell us, please? Pretty please? Cause this Nestor torpedo sure as hell doesn't rate a 93 today.

My first concern was that despite their enormous size, these torpedos weigh little more than a feather. Sometimes that's a good sign, as with Padrons, but usually it just means you're in for a cheap ride.

And cheap it was: I couldn't get this thing to light straight, and it never evened out. The smoke was ample and billowy, but had a nondescript taste. To paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen, I know chocolate. I've eaten chocolate. I'm friends with chocolate. And you, son, don't taste like chocolate.

But then again, what cigar ever does? I wish reviewers would quit using the word chocolate and come up with something more accurate like "dark, billowy, burnt-toasty flavor." That's about what it comes down to. Some people actually like burned toast. Why not let them know about it?

For a cheap cigar, the Nestor Reserve Maduro Torpedo is fine if you're doing something else and not really paying attention. If you're mowing the lawn, or fishing, or golfing, stick one of these feather-lite pylons in your mouth and puff away. But if you're hoping to sit, relax, and enjoy the pleasure of a great cigar that hardly cost you anything, don't bother. With this one, you're only getting what you pay for.

Little Nano, Finger-Burning Good

Review of Maxx by Alec Bradley, Nano (petite corona):

The Maxx by Alec Bradly "Nano" i.e. petite corona is the best-tasting small cigar I've had yet. With a deep, full, crackly flavor and hints of minty caramel, this little minnow holds its own against any bigger fish in the sea. No fancy-schmancy perfecto tapering which wastes a full inch in shorties like the RP Vingage 92 Perfecto and Oliva Series G Special G, no precious real estate burning down while you wait for flavor to kick in: Just a fat, short, juicy, straight-shanked stick that delivers volume and power from the first puff.

The kick-ass little Nano also supports my lately garnered wisdom that a cigar has to be 40-ring size or greater to provide a true connisseur-like experience. This one measures 46 ring in width, and smokes with the excellent billowy puffery that you expect from a premium cigar.

Flavor-wise, I'd rank it in the same brawny category as Rocky Patel Vintage and La Flor Dominicana Chiselito Maduro. And, like these other revered brands, the Maxx Nano is not cheap - $3.75 a pop online and likely $5 or more in a shop. But it's worth every penny. Although only 4 inches long, it provided 45 minutes of supreme quality from the first draw all the way down to a half-inch nub. I would have kept going if it weren't for a peculiar burning sensation in the tips of my fingers: Youch!

Next time I'll have bring along a roach clip or a toothpick. That's what I call a good cigar.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Serviceable Exquisito

Review of Arturo Fuente Exquisito Maduro:

The fact that I'm reviewing several cigars today does NOT mean that I smoked all of them in one day. It's been a few weeks since I hit the keyboards but in the meantime I've had a cigar now and then. So before memory fades, let me comment on the Arturo Fuente Exquisito Maduro.

Truth is, I only bought this little thing (4.5 inches by 38 ring) because I hate laying out 8 or 10 bucks for full-sized stogies at my local cigar shop in this most heavily taxed of states. Instead, I'll often bring in my own bombers from home and buy something short from the shop to smoke later. This seems more respectable than some of the other cigar lizards who actually go straight to the lounge and fire up their own homeys without as much as a glance at the store humidor. Call me a do-gooder, but I call it good citizenship to buy something.

So, this time the shorty that I happened to purchase was an Arturo Fuente Exquisito maduro. Being a Fuente, this dapper twig cost more than some of the cheaper Churchills I've smoked (damned near 4 dollars after taxes). I tucked it away and proceeded to smoke a big fat Omar Ortez, which jangled my nerves and addled my brain.

About a week later I had recovered, and found myself experiencing extreme cigar jones. It was too late to make it to the cigar lounge, so I bundled up, took a beer out to the porch and lit up the Exquisito. Since this is my first experience with the Fuente brand, I can't compare it to any other of the other more fabled lines such as Hemingway or Don Carlos. But I must say it performed mighty well for a thin cigar. Compared to the barren H Upman Demitasse, for example, it was fabulous. A rich, woody smoke that sated my desire for 30 minutes and sent me to bed a happy man, where I proceeded to have dreams of bigger, fatter smokes.

Despite the quality of this little Fuente I must say that I have yet to find a slender cigar with quite as interesting a flavor as the El Rey Del Mundo Cafe au Lait. The Fuente Exquisito burned better and produced fuller smoke, but the El Rey plays something unique and exotic on the taste buds. At nearly half the price, that's a compelling feature.

After having tried three different slender cigars (38 ring or under) my experience has been that no matter how high the quality, you simply cannot experience the mouth feel and fullness that makes a cigar truly rewarding. Even the Fuente Exquisito couldn't overcome this limitation.

Therefore I find it more rewarding to smoke short, fatter-ringed cigars which, althought tending to burn too hot at the start and the finish, nevertheless provide several minutes of full-bodied smoking in the middle. If it's not at least 40 ring, it just won't smoke like a real cigar. If you're pressed for time, short and fat is the way to go.

Not Really Juicy, But Good

Review of Drew Estate Natural Juicy Lucy:

After my staid, not quite invigorating experience with half of an Oliva Series V robusto, I pulled out a teeny cigar named the "Juicy Lucy" in the "Natural" line by Drew Estate, after first making sure with the shop clerk that it was NOT a flavored cigar such as Acids (which I've never tried and don't really hanker to).

The clerk assured me it was a straightforward, not flavored cigar, and that it was pretty durned good. So I bought the thing and smoked it.

For a small cigar (only about 3 inches long) it tasted fine. I was a bit put off at first by some sort of sweet tincture that had been applied to the tip a la the dreaded Swisher Sweets. I don't like flavored tips because they mask the true flavor of the cigar smoke, whatever it happens to be. But the flavored tip soon wore off and it became apparent that this little cigar was tasty on its own. A straight, brawny flavor on a par with Rocky Patel Vintage 92 perfectos. Not sweet, despite whatever was painted on the tip.

The flavored tip really does this cigar a disservice. If not for that, I would buy a few more for those late-night cold winter walks. Instead I'll stick to the RP perfectos, or the occasional Arturo Fuente Exquisito when I'm in the mood to splurge.

Oliva Series V: Good, but Not "Very" Good

Review of Oliva Series V robusto:

I was all excited because a friend of mine gave me an Oliva Series V, which has gotten some attention because a particular size in the series, the torpedo, recently won a 94 rating in Cigar Aficionado.

94... Wow! Hardly any non-Cuban cigar ever gets a 94 from the lucky aesthetes at Cigar Aficionado. So I scurried down to my local cigar shop, bursting with anticipation to try the robusto. If one size gets a 94, my thinking went, the other surely would rate high as well.

Not quite. The Oliva Series V robusto was GOOD, but not VERY good. It burned well, drew fine, blasted out amazing amounts of heavy smoke, and tasted... well... adequate. Heavy flavor mostly smacking of pepper. Not a lot of nuance, no notes of this or hints of that. Not creamy, not tangy, not spicy, just a big fat peppery cigar.

So, due to lack of interesting flavor characteristics, I would not give the series V robusto anything near a 94 rating. The cigar went out on me about halfway through, and I didn't fire it back up. I'd had enough, it was time to move on to something else. Life is too short for a cigar that doesn't taste interesting. Maybe the torpedo is a completely different story, but I'm not sure if I want to lay out 9 bucks to find out.

My favorite Oliva is still the Oliva Series G Cameroon robusto. Loads of flavor, hints of tart sweetness, brawn and oomph. Sometimes it pays to stick with what you already know.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Open Wide and Say "Omar"

Last week I scurried on down to my local cigar shop and settled into the lizard lounge with a huge, bandless and rather course-looking fat boy known as the Omar Ortez Original. Talk about big: This thing was 54-ring thick and at least six inches long. Which meant, I really should have been a sumo wrestler with cheeks the size of grapefruit to properly draw this baby down.

Somehow I managed to smoke this gentle bomber to the last 1.5 inches, and was surprised at its overall mildness, coupled with its brute physiological impact. Like that 4th shot of Tequila, you don't really know the mess you've gotten yourself into until it's too late. Maybe it had something to do with smoking on an empty stomach, but within 30 minutes I was a quivering mass of overelectrified jellyfish. Note to self: Eat a meal next time.

The flavor? A bit too thin for my taste, although quite creamy. In the second half the body picked up, with a warm doughy center rising to the fore. I was really starting to like it just before I put it out. But that's a lot of cigar to wade through just to find a sweet spot at the end of the line. Oops, party over, out of time. Huh?

I see no need to purchase an Omar again. It lacked the strong flavor and body I desire in a smoke, despite the nicotine kick (which is not really what I'm looking for). In fact if someone could just take the pesky nicotine out of cigars, and keep all the flavor and nuance, I'd actually prefer it. But that's just me. I'm sure others must enjoy the sweaty palms, elevated blood pressure, and jittery restlessness that I naively consider an unfortunate side effect of strong cigars, which are the only cigars I find truly tasty, sensually satisfying and freeingly fulsome, alliterative bastard that I am.

Again, the Omar was not powerful-tasting, just ass-kicking in the physiological sense. But it was obviously a quality cigar with a nuanced flavor leaning towards peppery. I could see how others might be intrigued by it.

Short Sharp Rocky

Tonight I tried a Rocky Patel Vintage 2nds Perfecto 92, a teeny little cigar that I've had my eye on ever since winning a bundle for 25 bucks at (saved 15 bucks, woo-hoo! ...oh, the twisted psychology of the online buyer.... you could have saved 25 bucks by NOT BUYING ANYTHING AT ALL, idiot!).

Anyway, a midget Rocky Patel! Perhaps this would be the end of my holy grail-like search for the perfect winter cigar.

No. Not if this first one was any indication. It burned hot and dry at first, making me curse Rocky for foisting his funky-shaped leftovers upon me, poor unsuspecting consumer blinded by Rocky-faith. Then it got flavorful in the middle, leading me to forgive Rocky for his perfecto-tipped transgression (how can a pinpoint sized, reverse pyramid foot possibly taste like anything but a hot flame until it burns down to its thicker midsection? And why roll a cigar in this pointless, complicated and expensive manner?) Yes, once I hit the midsection, this cigar tasted wonderful, for the space of about ten minutes. Then it burned extremely hot again, and I had to put it out, a forlorn and much too long-looking stub.

Despite the delectable ten minutes in the middle, I'm not sure I really liked this RP toddler. I'll try a few more, then make up my mind. At least it's strong and memorable, like you would expect from a Rocky. However not much better overall than the Oliva Series G Special G, which is equally ridiculously shaped, and hot and dry except for 10 minutes in the center. On the other hand, this RP was a 2nd, so you have to cut it some slack. And I have no intention of paying full price for the regular Vintage 92 midget perfectos, because $4.50 for a 20 -minute cigar just doesn't seem right.

Boo-hoo. Looks like I'll have to spring for an Oliva Series V torpedo, and sit for an hour in a cigar lounge with all the other lizards. Then I'll only have Cigar Aficionado to blame if I'm disappointed. 94 rating? I'll be the judge of that.

Meanwhile I'll smoke down my remaining RP Vintage 2nds Perfectos while walking the dog.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Little Cigar, Big Mistake

In my ongoing search for the perfect short-duration don't-freeze-your-ass-off-in-winter cigar, I fumbled at my local cigar shop and bought a five-pack of H. Upmann Demi-Tasse naturals (4.5 x 33 ring), rather than doing the sensible thing and buying just one to check it out. In the flash of poor decision-making, I deferred to my obedience-to-authority upbringing and assumed that what was presented as a package, must be purchased as a package.

Friends, don't make this mistake. By mistake, I mean: 1) Don't buy or smoke H. Upmann Demi-Tasse cigars and 2) Don't ever buy five cigars without asking if you can buy just one first. It's a cigar shop, for crying out loud. They'll break open the pack.

Short review: H. Upmann Demi-Tasse, bad little cigar. Even giving it a 5 point handicap on a 10-point scale (because small cigars are always at a disadvantage) this little miscreant would get only a 6, and that simply because it burns evenly and produces hefty smoke.

But what cigarillo doesn't? The real issue here is that the smoke is yucky and bitter, flat and flavorless. Today I mentioned my disappointing experience with this tin-stick to a colleague at work and he merely said, oh, no, never H. Upmann! They're all bad!

So now I've got 4 of these stinky little lizards sitting in my humidor. Anybody want a cheap cigar?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Trouble With Puros Indios

The trouble with Puros Indios cigars is their unreliability. I say this with a heavy heart, as several of my experiences smoking Puros Indios have been among the best ever, equal to or better than more expensive brands.

What initially excited me was the unique Puros Indios flavor, evident particularly in the Maxima Reserva and Double Maduro lines. There was a wheaty, woody wholesomeness with undertones of sweet honeycomb or graham cracker that tasted unlike anything I'd smoked before. However, it was difficult to duplicate these experiences from cigar to cigar.

I found, for example, that when smoking the Maxima Reserva (toro) for a second time, the flavor was less pronounced. The third time, the cigar burned too fast and unevenly, though the flavor was back in fine form. The Doble Maduro toro, in contrast, tasted bland the first time, grandly creamy the second time, and burned jaggedly both times--so badly that the last 2 inches couldn't be smoked. The Viejo,the strangest of them all, often smokes extremely mild for the first half, then blossoms to full-throttled power for the second. Or maybe not, depending on your luck. The draw might be to loose, or just right, depending again on your luck.

The Cuba Aliados (corojo toro) and Cienfuegos (blazer/toro), the more expensive of the Puros Indios offerings, are overpriced and lacking in flavor. In the case of the Aliados, the flavor is actually mushroomy and putrid. Both blends underperform consistently, and at least they're reliable in that sense: You can stay away from them without worrying that you've missed out.

And the lowly cheapo? The "Flor del Todo" toro priced at 40 for 40 bucks? Actually not a bad cigar for the price. A hint of cinnamon, hint of wheat. Actually worth the whole dollar you pay for it.

Finally, the plain old standard Puros Indios maduros are serviceable although not memorable. Strong, a bit dry, and a hint of the wheaty sweetness that excited me way back when. But just a hint.

So, several varieties of Puro Indios and six months later, my fascination with the brand has come to a virtual standstill. Call it a case of early infatuation: Cigar seems unique and exciting, but on second and third date turns out to be inconsistent. You just can't trust Puros Indios: Sometimes you get the ride of your life; sometimes you're left stranded by the side of the road.

If you're willing to buy a whole box of Maxima Reservas or Double Maduros and throw out every third one that tastes wrong or burns badly, you'll be in for a treat with the rest. But that just seems wrong. If a hundred other brands can make consistent cigars - good or bad - why can't Puros Indios? It's a shame, because when Puros Indios is good, it's VERY good. Fantastic, in fact. Just don't bet on it.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Fond Memories: The Early Days

No, this isn't a history of the Beatle's formative years. Rather, it's about the first few times I smoked premium cigars.

After getting my tastebuds titillated by relatively harmless Harvill cigarillos, I had no idea what would come next. But cigars have a way of finding you: Within a few weeks, I overheard a guy at work mention that he'd smoked a couple cigars on vacation. My curiousity piqued, I engaged him in deceptively knowing conversation - yep, I smoked the occasional cigar. Occasional being 5 no-name cigarillos to date, but I didn't mention that. No, I didn't really have a favorite. Did he?

Rocky Patels, he answered. It sounded like the name of a 1930s gangster of far eastern descent, or a heavyweight boxer. I nodded appreciatively and smiled, like a complete idiot. And like any good hearted cigar fellow, the Rocky fan offered to bring me in a couple samples. He'd recently bought a whole bundle of them, he said, for 40 dollars. I had no idea if this was a good price, but assumed it must be. As I said, I was a complete cigar idiot.

The next day he brought in two huge, dark cigars that practically made me blush with intimidation. They must have been Churchills, and they were either Vingage 90s or Vintage 92s. I didn't know enough to ask. My first thought was that if I stuck one of these cigars in my mouth, I'd lose my center of gravity and fall over. Nonetheless I was determined to smoke them.

The first free night I had, I put on my winter coat, went outside in the 20-degree winter cold, and fired one up. I had no idea of the time commitment required. Within 10 minutes my fingers were almost frozen, and I'd barely smoked off an inch of it. Flavor? It was deep and brawny and vaguely middle eastern. I knew I had some sort of monster by the tail, and I kicked myself for having to throw it away before frostbite set in.

A month later the weather warmed to a seasonable 42 degrees and I took the second Rocky along while my wife got her hair done. I knew it would take her at least an hour. I fired up the cigar and smoked it out on the street, feeling a bit stupid pacing up and down the block, leaning against the occasional parking meter, and enduring strange looks from people passing by. As I passed the midpoint of this huge cigar, I began to notice the flavor of the smoke subtly changing as the cigar burned down. My real cigar fascination began.

A couple of weeks later I went to my local cigar shop and was shocked to see that Rocky Patels ran 9 to 11 bucks apiece. I asked the store clerk if there was anything else he recommended, sort of like Rockies but cheaper. I had now developed the impossible goal of trying as many different types of cigars as I could. The clerk pointed to something called Fonseca Cubana Limitada, one with a nice torpedo shape, and I grabbed it along with an even cheaper one called Henry Clay. The clerk said the Clay was ugly, but one of his favorites. Helpless and awed by the hundreds of different cigars in the humidor, I blindy took the guy's advice and bought the two cigars.

I smoked the Fonseca Cubana in an unbroken hour of peace and quiet in a secluded vacation getaway, and realized that this cigar tasted completely different than the Rocky, yet also also excellent. It had a musky, peaty flavor that grew stronger as the cigar progressed. Fascinating. I smoked it down to the last inch.

Now I was truly obsessed. I begged the dude at work for a couple more of his Rocky Patels. He gave me another dark one, and a lighter one which must have been a Connecticut. I put them in a makeshift plastic bag humidor, using a lightly moistened paper towel to provide humidification.

The days went by and all I could think of was smoking my stash of 3 cigars. But the weather would not comply - wind, rain, snow, cold - and life went on. Work, sleep, wife, kids, mortgage, the dizzying round went on and yet all I could think about was smoking another cigar. When, when, when? I talked about it constantly. It was driving my wife crazy. Finally on a cold April afternoon, I gave in to my craving, went to a local park, and fired up the Henry Clay.

For the first time, I was disappointed. Henry Clay was a decent cigar, but lacked punch or subtlety. I felt somehow shortchanged. That night after a one beer too many, I got the crazy idea to go out on the deck and do a comparison smoke of my remaining two Rocky Patels - the dark one and the light one. Maybe just smoke half of each. Like I said, one beer too many.

I learned two things that night: One, no matter how great the brand of cigar, Connecticut shade wrappers are just boring. This is a judgement I've rarely had to modify in the months since. Two, don't smoke two cigars at once, after drinking too much beer, and on an empty stomach, before going to bed. Yes, I went to sleep a happy man. But I woke up with a churning nausea and flu-like headache that kept me from going to work that day.

My first cigar hangover. It was not funny at the time. I made a vow never again to smoke 3 cigars in one day. A vow, I am proud to say, which I have broken many times since, and without complications.
Which just goes to show that here in America you can do just about anything, if you really put your mind to it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Too Mild to be Lush

Once again I made the mistake of buying a brand in a different size than the one receiving a great review in Cigar Aficionado. In this case, I lunged for a 10-pack of CAO Cameroon robustos because they were on sale ONE DAY ONLY for 30 bucks and free shipping. Greed will get you every time.

Cigar Aficionado had rated the longer size--the CAO Cameroon Toro--with a 90 and praised it with a glad-bag of superlatives indicating that it would provide an out-of-body experience second only to the Trinidad toro, which received a 92.

Well, that may or may not be true, but I can tell you flat out it's NOT true for the robusto. This good-looking, well-constructed cigar promises much more on visual appeal than it delivers when smoked.

The flavor hints at silkiness, but never achieves it. It is so mild and subdued, you'd guess it was modeled after skim milk. None of the subtle sweetness that I've come to expect from Cameroons was evident. I felt like I was sitting in a white room, with white furniture, blowing white smoke after having finished a meal of white food. This cigar was a complete white-out.

Smokers who gravitate to mild might love this cigar, because it's ever so soft and feathery and nice and non-threatening. But to me, it tastes like the cook forgot the salt. It's not yucky, just blah. Hopefully I'll find a friend who likes these, so I can sell off the rest. In the meantime I'm wary of buying the toro, which won the 90 rating, because it's hard to believe it would be much different than the robusto.

You can't have "lush" without a little oomph. Looks like I'll be giving away some CAO Cameroon robustos this Christmas.

Good Cheap Shortie

I went to my local shop last night and searched out the smallest hand-rolled cigars they had. One of them was the El Rey Del Mundo Cafe au Lait, a slim panatella/demitasse sized cigar measuring 4.5 inches by 35 ring.

The guy behind the counter said it was a decent smoke with a bit of eastern spiciness. He also qualified that by saying no small cigar can truly mimic the experience of a good thick-ringed cigar, and that slender cigars are bound to burn hotter.

I don't mind, I said. I'm on a quest to find a decent 20 minute cigar to aviod freezing my ass off in winter. I told him my preferences ranged from Rocky Patel to Puros Indios to Gurkha. On the strong side, not mild. Well then, he said, the El Rey is as good a bet as any.

Upon first lighting, I was delighted to find that this skinny specimen churned out ample amounts of hearty smoke, with a bit of dusty spice on the palate. It had a nice, dry fullness, not the throat-constricting kind that makes you lunge for a glass of water. Yes, it burned slightly hotter than I'm used to, but by slowing the pace between puffs, I was able to keep it from becoming a problem.

This cigar was excellent for the job at hand: To provide a robust smoking experience that didn't require me to sit for 90 minutes in a lounge full of sad-looking cigar lizards avoiding eye contact with each other and pretending to be enthralled by a Brad Pitt movie. I spent about 15 minutes chatting with the shop owner, another few minutes watching the Pitt vehicle, and a few more minutes outside finishing the cigar as I walked to my car. I was surprised to find that a cigar this small would occupy me for half an hour. Not quite the 20 minute cigar I was looking for, but close enough.

And the price? Although I paid $2.50 for it in the shop (in this most highly taxed of states), I looked it up online and found that you can get a 24-count box for 24 bucks. So basically, it's a one dollar cigar. Not bad for a buck. In fact pretty darned good.

I'll be comparing this to a few other brands in the 35-ring size, to see if anything in particular stands out. So far this one's the winner.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Final Verdict on Series G Special G

After having smoked three Oliva G "Special Gs" (naturals) during the past few weeks, I can honestly say I need to find a different small cigar to get me through the winter.

First of all, consider the ridiculous motions I put myself through just to smoke a cigar in the winter. First, I have to time it when the kids are gone for at least an hour so I can smoke the thing, change my clothes, shower and brush my teeth, thus projecting the parental talking point that that SMOKING IS BAD and you should NEVER DO IT. Second, I do it on the back porch where neighbors can't gawk and chide me for my poor role modeling to other kids in the neighborhood. Third, when I smoke in sub 40-degree weather, I have to run inside every ten minutes to warm up my hands and feet.

So no, I'm not going to subject myself to this 3-ring circus for the duration of a toro or even robusto-sized cigar. Even the smallest corona I've smoked, the tantalizing CAO Italia Novella, lasted a hearty 35 minutes. I need something even smaller, but not a Swisher or White Owl or other short-filled slummer that's been fossilizing behind a drug store counter since Bill Clinton left office.

The special G is a cute cigar that caught my eye because of its super-shortness (3.75 inches), thick ring gauge (up to nearly 50 in the mid-point), and sibling status with the G Cameroon robusto, one of my favorite cigars.

The Special G, unfortunately, can't quite walk in its big brother's shoes. It lights easily but but burns dry and hot for the first few minutes. Finally it settles down and smokes excellently for the next 10 or 12 minutes, achieving a near semblance of its big brother's rich, sweet and tangy flavor. Then it gets harsh and dry again, long before it should, i.e. at least half an inch before acceptable nub territory. All in all, 2 inches of decent smoking but nothing to rave to grandpa about.

The Special G might be my first choice for a winter cigar if it were priced at $1 per stick. But it isn't. Even if you buy a 48-piece box of these things, they'll still run you about $2.30 per stick.

I'm gonna have to run to my local cigar shop and seek out some small cigars in the 3-4 inch long range. Maybe even in cigarillo ring size. Call me a wimp, but now that the cold weather's here, I can't meet the demands of a big cigar. All my succulent 50-ring bombers are going to have to sleep in my humidor for the next few months. It hurts to even look at them.

But the Special G is not the solution.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Close, But No Cigar

In my ongoing quest to find the smallest possible cigar to smoke in the ass-freezing months ahead, while maintaining a semblance of fullness and flavor, I again sampled one of my Oliva Series G Special Gs (cameroon wrapped, not maduro).

Actually I'd been holding them in reserve until the winter blast actually arrived and I'd be in dire need of a 20-minute smoke. Instead my wife came home yesterday, in the middle of this Indian Summer (Native American Summer?) we've been having, and we had an argument involving weight goals and sex appeal, and she demanded something quick to smoke "to keep me from pigging out and turning into a blimp."

So I gave her a "special G," she took three puffs, then darted off to her next appointment. I had no choice but to finish it.

The sad truth about these little ladybugs is, they burn a little dry, at least for the first third. I had to grab a hasty beer. The second inch, however, was fabulous - great volumes of smoke, tangy and tasty just like its bigger brother, the Cameroon robusto. Then the last inch gradually petered out into bitter heat, and I let it go out without smoking it to the nub like a fiend, which I normally do with any cigar that will allow it.

So the verdict is: Maybe this is the best you can expect from a 3.8 inch long cigar. I haven't tried any other brands this short, so I'd hate to say the "special G" doesn't deliver. That 10-minute burst of well-balanced flavor in the middle is as good as any I've experienced with a full-sized cigar, and maybe that's the most you can hope for in a shorty.

I was recently tempted to buy a special offer of 40 5-Vegas "shorties," in fact, but ultimately declined, because I couldn't take the risk of being stuck with 40 cigars I've never tried before and which might taste like crap. If anybody's smoked a 5-Vegas shorty, I'd be curious to know if you liked it.

It's the Great Pumpkin, Rocky Patel!

As we approach Halloween, there's no question as to which cigar I want to smoke in commemoration of the spirit world which both fascinates and frightens us. I want something that glows. Something bold and striking. Something spicy and warm and full-bodied that will get me through a night of hoot owls, skeleton suits and scary little girls dressed up like Britney Spears. Most of all, I want something that tastes like warm pumpkin pie straight out of grandma's oven, with a little nutmeg and whipped cream on top: I want a Rocky Patel Vintage 92 Seconds torpedo.

Yes, you heard me right: 1) a 2nd, not a first and 2) one redolent of pumpkin pie. Not the store-bought Sarah Lee variety, mind you, but something hand-made with love and care from a recipe handed down through the ages. Something made not just with ingredients, but magic.

This RP 92 second has a bewitching flavor all its own, with a hint of caramel and Indian tea spices underneath, that gets more powerful as the cigar burns down. The burn, by the way, is incredible: The first time I smoked one, it lasted an hour and a half, with ever-increasing power and spice, never turning bitter or overpowering even to the lip-searing nub. Afterward, I found myself wishing I had 15 more. But I only had three, having foolishly divided the bundle weeks earlier with my work-mates.

The next time I smoked one, it lasted even longer, and I wished I had 30 more: Same rich, warm, deep and complex flavor, same perfect burn and draw. The third time I smoked one? Sadly, there was no third time. My third RP 2nd was untimely ripped from my hands by a thoughtless man named Brad.

Back to the review: If these righteous sticks are "seconds," I'm wondering what exactly are the "firsts" that they've been culled from, because I've never had a regular RP Vintage that looked or tasted like these. It makes me wonder if the "vintage seconds" name is a marketing ruse, and it's really a full-fledged blend of its own that Rocky sells for cheaper than his Vintage lines. Whatever the case, the result is a winner.

On my second go-round with this cigar, I was halfway through when my wife dragged me inside the house to watch a TV show. I compromised by leaving the cigar on the deck and stealing out for a few puffs during commercials. Surprisingly, no re-lighting was required: Even after being gone for as long as 9 minutes, it only took a puff or two to get this thing blazing away again. And the flavor was even better because of the long, cool burn between draws. Unbelievable. I darted back and forth for the next 45 minutes, hardly missing any of the TV show or the cigar. When the show was over, I went back out and homed in on the last 2 inches of this incredible pleasure bomb. All told, this magnificent "reject" burned for 2 hours and 15 minutes, with no lapse in flavor, draw, or burn. It probably would have burned for 3 hours if I'd smoked it through another TV show.

So the heck with the "real" Rocky Patel Vintage lines at 10 bucks a pop. Just give me these 3-dollar Vintage "seconds." I wish I had 60 more of them. No, make that 600.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

'Cause Cheap is How I Feel

Once in a while when I'm on vacation I'll wake up on a sunny morning and say to myself, do I really want to sit for two hours and endure the demanding luxury of a rich, full bodied, flavorful cigar? And on that certain morning I'll say, heck no, I just want the cheapest no-name house brand can find, and bet myself 10 bucks it's going to taste like a mouthful of cornstarch.

On this particular morning, the cheapest-looking cigar in my humidor was a skinny lonsdale with a plain red band that said simply "", the maduro house blend by the distributor of the same name. If this wasn't going to be the most laughable joke of a cigar I ever smoked, I didn't know what would. I bet myself 20 dollars that I would hate it, just for good measure.

I lost the bet. This inconspicuous lonsdale was actually a serviceable smoke, much like the Las Cabrillas I'd schlepped out the day before. Two decent cheap cigars in a row, both in the morning, which might have had something to do with it. If you're going to smoke a cheap, mild cigar, morning is the time to do it, before you're awake enough to realize what you're missing.

By "serviceable" smoke I don't mean good, mind you. I mean the cheapie burned well, produced a satisfying volume of cool smoke, and didn't taste like sandpaper wrapped in tinfoil. No, this sinewy workhorse had a papery, chalky, slightly peppery flavor that ranked higher in my book than some of the expensive brand names that people smoke to look good - wretched Connecticut-wrapped fatsos of the Cohiba, Excaliber, and Macanudo ilk.

The red label gave me a slight kick in the ass, along with the cup of coffee I kept filling and refilling. And it didn't cost me a fortune.

Am I going to run out and buy a bundle of them today? No. Will I ever smoke another one? Probably not. But if you stuck one in my mouth, lit it, and said, "here, smoke this cigar," I wouldn't turn you down.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Good, But No Chiselito

I'm on the verge of giving up on cheap cigars.

Problem is, a brand like Olor Nicaragua, apparently manufactured only for Famous Smoke Shop, isn't exactly cheap: About 84 bucks for a box of 25. So that makes it a three-dollar-plus cigar.

I won five of these in corona size (5.5 inches by 46) for 7 bucks in an online auction. Boy, I thought I'd really pulled one over on the world, and made out like a bandit! I couldn't wait to try one, and gloat in my bidding prowess, enveloping myself in a cloud of victorious smoke.

But now I think I know why the other bidders let me win: The Olor Nicaragua is nothing special.

Yes, it lit up easily, with a nice opening promise of leather and hickory. I was hoping it would open up into something exciting and powerful, like the La Flor Dominicana chiselito I had a few months ago. The draw was a bit tight, but that was to be expected in a ring size this narrow. The smoke was relatively thick but ultimately one dimensional, and it stayed that way for the entire 70 minutes it took me to smoke it.

Don't get me wrong - the Olor Nicaragua is a nice, medium-bodied smoke, with some interesting flavor attributes and a reliable burn down to the final inch. But it's not titillating or exhilarating, nor lush, nor velvety, nor smooth. It's somewhere in between. For $84 a box, I'd expect a little more.

Life is to short to waste on a mediocre cigar. I'd rather smoke a really crappy cigar and punish myself. At least you know you're alive.

I also won a five-pack of Olor Fuerte coronas for 7 bucks in that same auction. Again, I'm guessing there's a reason the other bidders dropped out. Still, I'm curious. I guess I just can't stay away from those cheap (and not-so-cheap) cigars!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Money to Burn: La Aurora Preferidos Round #2

Again, if you have lots of money to burn... the La Aurora Preferidos Sapphire Connecticut Blue Tube is a nice way to treat yourself. For a Connecticut, this thing has lots of depth and strength; almost as much as the Ruby/maduro version.

One thing I learned this time around is, give yourself plenty of circumference to draw from. At first I clipped just a teeny bit off the dovetail, which usually works for me with torpedos. But the draw was just too tight. So I cut away almost half an inch, and the draw opened up and this became a fine cigar, almost worth the 192 dollars or whatever astronomical price my wife paid at the local cigar shop (in this most heavily taxed of states).

Which leads me to wonder - why expend all that effort on rolling a torpedo, when the end user ends up cutting it off and throwing it away? Wouldn't it be better to make that last inch actually smokable? Much like the absurd length of a Churchill, it seems topedos and perfectos are specially-designed only to waste tobacco.

One great thing about the Aurora tubo cigars is the way they smell - all vanilla and almondy inside those salacious-looking tubes. I was temped to chow down on the cigar rather than light it. The tube carries the fragrance even now, long after I smoked the cigar. The aroma was so enticing, in fact, that for a moment I considered not smoking it at all, just leaving it in the tube so I could take an intoxicating whiff from it every week or so.

I guess there are worse things you could be taking a whiff of. Anyway this is probably the last time I'll ever smoke an Aurora Preferidos tubo. On my next birthday I'll ask the wife for something else; maybe a Fuente Hemingway, or a Padilla 1932, or a Coronado by La Flor. Something long and straight and expensive, that never goes on sale at Famous or CI. And doesn't come in a cutesy girly tube that could be confused for a lipstick applicator or a sex toy...

But the two Auroras were good while they lasted.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Cienfuegos Blazer: Overhyped 8-Dollar Cigar

I've managed to try two of the Cienfuegos Blazers (i.e. toro size), supposedly Rolando Reyes' meisterwork. I find this to be an overhyped 8-dollar cigar (or maybe even $12 or $13 at retail, I haven't checked). Luckily I got these two in a 20-stick sampler from Puros Indios that only cost me 32 bucks.

Frankly, I'd rather have a plain old Puros Indios, or a Doble Maduro, or a Viejo 99, all much less expensive blends. Each of them has more sublety and flavor than the Cienfuegos, which tastes like a 2-dollar cigar.

What is lacking, primarily, is flavor. The smoke is rich, a bit tart and a bit creamy, but there's nothing interesting underneath the heft. None of the expected wood or honey oatmeal undertones that you expect from Puros Indios. Instead, a briny, salty fullness that doesn't develop. What were they thinking when they released this cigar? Were they thinking we wouldn't notice, and just keep ordering bundle after expensive bundle?

All through the first half of this cigar, I could only think it was one of the most disappointing and overpriced sticks I've ever smoked, second only to the disastrous Gurkha Centurian. If the Cienfuegos were a 3 or even 4 dollar cigar, I might not complain. No, let's face it, I'd still complain: Even at 3 dollars, it wouldn't be a great smoke.

Then, during the second half, it started to get some flavor - a little leather, a little egg (which I don't mind). But halfway down a cigar is a long time to wait for some quality to emerge.

Aw, shucks, I started thinking at this point: It's not such a bad cigar. Just took a long time to get started. Decent flavor during the last third - however with a slight burning on the tongue.

Then again, no: This is definitely a flawed cigar. Not a total waste of time, but requires too much patience and coaxing. Not the all-around pleasant experience you demand from a premium.

At the last 1.5 inches, the cigar regressed to bitter tar and gumminess. I let it go out.

I will never seek out another Cienfuegos blazer, nor even buy one at discount. It does not pass muster. Sorry, Rolando. I loved all the others in the sampler; even the super-cheapie Flor del Todo, which at least has the decency to give you what you pay for.

Monday, October 15, 2007

20-Minute Smoke: Oliva Series G "Special G"

Now that the weather's turning cold, the challenge will soon become: How to smoke a cigar without freezing your ass off.

So, in anticipation of the coming months , I whipped out one of the smaller premiums on the market - the Oliva Series G "Special G" which is only 3.75 inches long and is shaped backasswards so you light the fatter end and smoke it down towards a narrower head.

I had exactly 20 minutes before the restaurant opened. Sally and I sat on a bench outside and I lit up the Oliva. Unfortunately, I was smoking on an empty stomach, but at least I had a beer to sip on from the bar next door.

First impressions: This little mite drew and burned well for such a teeny tyke, and produced ample amounts of smoke. But because of my empty stomach, I couldn't tell if the taste was as good as the highly rated series G robusto. It seemed as if it might be.

I'll have to try again under ideal conditions: After eating, and with a beer in one hand, and no other people milling around giving me the evil eye for smoking a cigar outside their favorite restaurant.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Disappointing Cohiba

With light-shade wrapped cigars, you never know what you're going to get until you try. Some of them can be full and sweetly flavorful, like the Rafael Gonzalez robusto and Creme de Jamaica robusto. Others are dull and papery, like the Excaliber epicure and Macanudo Hyde Park robusto. Others cost so dang much, you want them to taste good almost by force of will, but they don't. Case in point: Cohiba robusto.

You hear so much about the revered Cohiba brand. So, what joy I felt upon receiving one along with a bunch of other less expensive brands in my introductory $19.95 Famous new customer pack.

I kept this baby in my humidor for weeks, waiting for the right time and place, and hoping that this would be a tasty light (natural) cigar rather than a dull papery one.

No such luck. It was dull and papery, though probably the most high-quality dull paper one could hope for. About halfway through the cigar, I finally started getting some tingling on the tongue. But the draw was tight and the smoke piddling. This is not why I buy a cigar. And if it's why you buy a cigar, why then I just don't understand you.

So, mental note: No light-shade Cohibas. Maybe maduro next time.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Finally, a Gurkha Centurian That Tasted Good!

Last night I gave my wife the last of the 12 Gurkha Centurians I had bought several months ago. I'd been letting her smoke them down, one by one, because she liked them and I thought they were nothing but insipid, overpriced drumsticks.

She let me light the last Centurian for her and, lo and behold, the thing sparked right up with a rich draw and a tart, spicy flavor that NONE of the other 11 had delivered. And as we smoked through the next hour, this final Centurian continued to burn well, taste great, and blow prodigious volumes of smoke.

How could the previous 11 have been so bad? Theories:

1) Number 12 had been in my humidor the longest. Maybe it opened up somehow. But it seems unlikely. Number 12 had been in the humidor only about 10 days longer than number 11, and so forth regressing back to number 1.

2) Whoever rolls these cigars really doesn't know what they're doing and can only get one out of 12 right. If that's the case, it is truly sad, because Gurkha is getting 13 bucks each for these at online stores, and God knows how much at retail.

3) The other 11 Gurkhas were in fact imposters, fakes placed in the distributor's warehouse by some shifty middleman looking to make a buck. Or maybe someone at the factory is substituting cheap tobaccos and selling the good leaves to a competitor, and Gurkha corporate doesn't even know it.

And maybe there's a whole other universe under my fingernail, and maybe everything we think we know isn't true, and someone from another galaxy is conducting an experiment using us as guinea pigs and we're all going to get swallowed up by some magnetic force field coming at us from another dimension.

But seriously - how can 11 cigars in a lot be horrible, simply awful, and the last one be excellent? If anyone has any thoughts, I'd truly like to hear them.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Joy of a Cheap Cigar

A while back, a guy at work gave me a cigar called "Las Cabrillas De Soto " - a long, attractive-looking light-shade cigar - and I put it away in my humidor and let it sleep because 1) I don't like mild cigars and 2) I'm wary of cheapies.

The price label was still on the plastic wrapper: $3.85. Here where I live, a State with one of the most egregious cigar taxes in the land, a $3.85 cigar is mighty cheap - equivalent probably to a 2-dollar cigar in luckier environs.

Allow me to look this up online and see what a box of these might cost. Music from Jeopardy TV show.... waiting.... waiting.... Bingo, I found these at Famous - you can get a box of 25 for 45 dollars. So yes, folks, this is a cheap cigar.

But guess what? If you save a cheap cigar for the right time and place, sometimes (to paraphrase Mick and Keith) you might just find... you get what you need.

I took this pale Honduran along to the vacation hideaway - just myself, no wife and kids - and gosh darn on a cool Sunday morning, this long cheapie just called out to me. It said "winter is coming; soon you won't have time to smoke a long, silky feller like me."

So I lit it up, hoping to quiet the disembodied voice inside my head. I was hoping to find that this would be the undiscovered Shangri La of cigars, the uncut gem, the gold nugget at the bottom of the muddy sieve, yes, as any avid cigar smoker knows, I was hoping this cheapie would be THE WORLD'S CREAMIEST, BEST TASTING CHEAP CIGAR that nobody else knew about.

Of course, I was wrong. But it was better than I expected. Yes, it had the low-key, thin, papery taste of a Connecticut wrapper, but more creaminess beneath it than a Macanudo, Excaliber, or Monte Christo white. A lengthier finish than you'd expect from a light cigar; and after the halfway point a peculiar hint of onion and mint. I was pleasantly surprised.

At the last third, it got eggy and fuller-bodied, but tasted of charcoal instead of anything satisfying. I let it go out without smoking it down to the nub.

All in all, I got a good 4.5 inches out of this 7 inch cigar. Which begs the question, yet again: What's the deal with Churchills? If you pay for 7 inches of cigar, but only decently smoke 4.5 inches - isn't that about the same as smoking an excellent 5 inch robusto? What's up with all that wasted tobacco?

Such tangential speculation aside, the Las Cabrillas De Soto was a more than adequate cigar for early in the day, and for the particular mood I was in. I didn't want to be knocked over, I didn't want to have shrimp and pasta for breakfast. Just a light frolic that would leave me slightly titillated and ready for the day's adventures.

Final verdict: Worth having again. Yes, you heard me say it: A mild cigar worth having again. Perhaps even more so than the 5 Vegas Gold, which until now has been the only mild cigar I could appreciate.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

You Got Lonsdale on My Camacho! (Corojo Cetros)

Postscript: Second tasting - 3/22/08 - My second Camacho Corojo Cetros performed well in a closed-door environment. Good easy draw, but slight trouble getting an even burn for the first two inches. The taste was good, reminiscent of Padron Londres (also a lonsdale), but with a bit of molasses in the mix. Not a "wow" cigar, but a serviceable one. Both times this cigar failed to deliver a warm, fat sweet spot which I've come to expect from the fatter, robusto-sized Camachos. It went out a little to soon, with 1.5 inches left, but I decined to relight. I knew its best moments were behind it. Somewhat of a disappoinment, but a pleasant experience overall.

First tasting:
This one seemed so unlikely that I just had to bid on it at the Famous auction site: the Camacho Corojo Cetros (natural) - in a lonsdale size. Camacho? Lonsdale? How do you cross heavy metal with a string quartet?

Very well, it turns out. Like most lonsdales, the Camacho Corojo Cetros was a bit milder than it's fatter-ringed brothers. But tasty, fine-burning, and quality-holding until the last inch. Unfortunately, it was breezy outside the night I smoked this, detracting from the cigar-smoking experience. When the wind sucks the smoke out of your mouth, you're getting robbed of flavor. I'll smoke another one of these on a tranquil evening - and I'm guessing the report will be hands-down excellent.

Now to wax philosophical: There's something about the lonsdale shape that I like. Because it's narrower and longer, you get a cooler, less concentrated smoke, but with a pleasingly dusty, powdery consistency.

Then they get strong in the middle, much like a fatter cigar, but still with a certain amount of airy restraint. You don't feel like a hog when you're smoking a lonsdale. You feel dignified, yet fully compensated flavorwise.

I think I'm on the beginning of a lonsdale kick. Bidders, beware!

Going Too Low with Indian Tabac Boxer

I recently smoked an Indian Tabac Boxer ("Cuban Corojo") - another pit stop on my "how low can you go" quest to find the cheapest Rocky Patel cigar worth smoking. This time I think I hit bottom. No offense, Rocky, but nobody's perfect.

I lit up the Boxer while having a beer at Tom's Burned Down Cafe on Madeline Island, WI which is, by the way, one of the whackiest outdoor bars in the world and one you should visit at least once before you die. I figured if there's any place you can smoke in public and not get reprimanded, this would be it. I was right. No one scolded me or even looked at me askance. People were doing a lot crazier things that night than smoking a cigar.

The boxer was a friendly-looking little 4.5 inch robusto, fat and compact. But upon lighting, I was tempted to put it out and go for something else. It tasted somewhat dry, dusty, and harsh, with a pungeance of muddy red clay. To be fair, about halfway through it developed a warm, Rocky-ish flavor, a meatiness reminiscent of Camacho monarchas with about half the strenth. This flavor lasted quite a while, then turned harsh again at the last inch. I put the cigar down at that point.

For a cheapie, it was about what you'd expect. Not surprising in any way, unlike the Fire Corojo, which tasted better than its price. The I.T. Boxer is not one I'm planning to have again, unless someone comes up to me, sticks it in my mouth, and says "smoke this" without charging me a cent. Higly unlikely.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

If You Must Smoke a Perfecto...

...and you have lots of money to burn... then get yo'self a La Aurora Preferidos #2 Ruby Edition Tubo.

Otherwise, get yourself any number of straight-shanked cigars in the 3-10 dollar range, and have an equivalent experience.

I don't normally smoke perfectos, those bomb-shaped sticks that dovetail at both ends. Here's why: You spend the first inch smoking the first dovetail down to a normal ring size that produces useable smoke. Then you get two inches of nice, fat smoke. Then you get another inch of tar and nicotine-clogged dovetail burning at the butt end. So, in a five-inch cigar, you get two servicable inches of smoking. What's the point?

The point, apparently, is that when women go into smoke shops to buy their hubby a "good, expensive cigar" for his birthday, they get one look at the cute ruby-colored tubo and lose their minds. 25 bucks? Must be a wonderful cigar. He'll love it!

I didn't exactly love it, but I liked it. Those middle 2 inches were great. And it sure beat the hell out of an insipid Gurkha Centurian.

So if your wife wants to waste 25 bucks making you feel special, tell her to get a LONG, STRAIGHT cigar, not something that comes in a nail-polish pink tube that looks like it could serve as a vibrator.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Better Saint Luis Rey

A few months ago I purchased a St. Luis Rey Belicoso (dark natural, not maduro) after seeing it rated as one of the 25 best of 2006 by Cigar Aficionado.

I held it back in my humidor a long time, passing over it for other cigars because of my not-so-prime experience with a St. Luis Rey Rothchilde maduro - a cold, wind-in-your-teeth smoke that made me pucker with disgust and douse the cigar after 10 minutes.

Turns out my reservations were unfounded. I could hardly believe the belicoso was made by the same company. It started out a little hot and dry, making me fear it would be another Macanudo-like dud. But it quickly eased into an undercurrent of cream and soft spice; full-bodied smoke, but not heavy.

The subtley of this thing was surprising, considering it only costs about $3.50 per stick. It really drew out flavor in what might otherwise be a mild cigar. In fact, the St. Luis Rey belicoso is everything I usually wish a mild cigar would be - namely, medium-bodied and tasty.

I smoked two-thirds of it, enjoying its perfect burn, sensuous draw, and sheen of sweetness on the tongue--just barely noticeable and therefore tantalizing--and somewhere in the middle section I couldn't help but shake my head and say "man, what a great cigar!"

You know you have a winner when that happens.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

How Low Can You Go? Fire by Rocky Patel!

Can Rocky Patel make a bad cigar? I don't think so.

Case in point: The Fire Corojo, robusto size, which I received as part of a Rocky sampler pack. I'd never even heard of a brand named "Fire", much less of its association with the Rocky Patel name. A quick lookup at Famous revealed that they're cheapies, selling in boxes of 20 for only 34 bucks.

I couldn't wait to "Fire" it up and see how bad it was.

Not so fast, buster! This turned out to be the best cheapie cigar I've ever had. It burned well, drew well, and tasted not far removed from the Indian Tabac Super Fuerte robusto line. Perhaps not quite as complex - and certainly not as complex as the top-of-the-line Rocky "Vintage" blends, but jeeze, for $1.70, it went way beyond the call of duty. Worth at least double the price. I smoked it for 50 minutes, right down to the nub.

Once again this goes to show you that price and quality are not necessarily proportionate. In fact, it seems that the more you pay, the less "extra" quality you get per dollar. Call me asinine, but I would consider the Fire Corojo about "half" as good as a Rocky Vintage. Yet it is one-fifth the price! That is a strong value proposition, especially if you don't happen to have 10 bucks to fork over for a decent smoke.

The Fire Corojo had thick, strong smoke and a no-nonsense flavor, with hints of peppercorn and cream, and a bit of flinty earth tone. It fell right in line with my predilection for what I call "heavy naturals", crackly rather than ashy like so many of the market leaders that leave me shaking my head (Montecristo, Macanudo, Excaliber, La Gloria).

If Congress ends up passing the much-feared cigar tax to support child education, "Fire" might be the only brand I can afford and still feel like I'm smoking a good cigar. I'll keep it in my back pocket for further reference.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Super Fuerte in the Rain

Ok, guys, just how desperate can a man be?

I'll tell you how desperate: Day after day without a cigar, plagued by seasonal pollen allergies that leave your taste buds in ruin, knowing that a cigar under these conditions would only be wasted, good money after bad. And so the interminable waiting, waiting, waiting...

Well, today the temperature finally dropped, it got windy, and the ragweed seemed to go into hibernation. My nose was clear. I had only sneezed three times the whole day. So tonight I braved the elements and stole outside at 12:30 a.m. to finally SMOKE A GOSH-DURNED CIGAR.

My thinking went: I'll take a brand I've smoke many times before, so that if my palate is shot, at least I'll know what I missed. So I grabbed the old standby, an Indian Tabac Super Fuerte robusto.

The wind was howling so ferociously I had to roll down the deck umbrella, pull it out of its holder, and lay it flat on the ground. Then I lit the super fuerte, and it went up like a parched wheat field in August. I was in heaven. I drew and drew and drew, and the flavor was wonderful. Fast burning delight, as if the cigar itself know that a storm was approaching.

Then the rain started to fall. Was I going to cave into the elements, put this baby out and run for cover? No freaking way. I crouched under the awning, which afforded me absolutely no protection, cupped the Indian under my palm, and smoked like a fiend. I felt like a cigar junky, hoping no one would see me in my desperation. They didn't. It was 12:30 going on 1:00. Everyone in their right mind was asleep.

In a half hour, I polished it off. Cigars must burn faster in the wind... And this particular Indian, as if by God's providential will, had an especially open draw. God, I loved that flavor. That cream, that pepper, that brawn.

I smoked it down to an inch, doused it in the birdbath, and crept back into the house, my shirt soaked, my socks dripping wet, my jeans clinging absurdly to my ragged form.

Am I a fiend, an addict, a pathetic wretch of a man? Yes. But keep in mind, I've gone an entire week - that's seven days, count 'em - without a cigar. Can you blame any man in those circumstances? I think not.

It was the fastest cigar I've ever smoked, and I'd do it again. I am not ashamed. I'm a man, dammit, and a man has to live.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Pardon Me While I Sneeze

My usual high-spirited cigar reviews are on hiatus due to ragweed allergies. Yes, I smoked a couple of cigars last week, but when you're breathing through one nostril, your critical sensitivities turn to sludge.

Oliva Series G Cameroon robusto - the allergy really put the kabosh on this. I could tell it would have tasted good if my sinuses were in working order; instead all got was a dry muddy sensation. I let my wife smoke it: A good cigar should not go to waste.

Gurkha Centurian - Sally smoked this, and I took my customary puff or two. Same crappy flavor as always. Sally chewed it to bits and it fell apart in the ashtray. Sultan of Brunei, 28-dollar retail, my ass. I've got one more of these left in my humidor, and I will never buy another. Not even if CI dumps them at $3.99 a stick.

Indian Tabac Super Fuerte robusto - Nothing can keep this bad boy down. Even with my nose clogged shut and my throat streaming mucus, the intense peppercorn cream and spiciness lavished my palate with wonder.

Camacho Coyolar, monarcha size (only offered at C.I. as far as I know) - its deep, warm flavor swam to the surface of my embattled palate, allowing me some real pleasure until the cigar went out at the halfway point. I've had a burn problem with two monarcha-sized Camachos so far (out of 8). Great taste, but too bad about the burn.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

On the Verge of Glory

I have one word to describe the La Gloria Cubana Wavell (natural): Almost.

Almost a powerful, ass-kicking cigar. Almost a genuinely strong and satisfying flavor. Almost a hint of fruit or wood that gets past the ashy, eggy basis of the classic cheap cigar. Almost something you can buy in bulk and hold in reserve for those times when you don't know exactly what you want.

But not quite. This cigar is only a shade better than the La Hoya Excaliber Epicure. It verges on glory, but falls short. Short on nuance, sweetness, tartness, flavor. Strong on density, draw and power, long on finish, but ultimately leaving you feeling feeling ashen and spent. This is not a taster's delight. It's a textbook stinky cigar, the kind that clogs up boxing rings and Oscar Madison's card games.

La Gloria Cubana: Dry, bold, billowy no-nonsense smoke for those with guts.

Just don't look for glory.

Oliva Series G Pummels La Aroma de Cuba

Quick report on Oliva Series G Cameroon robusto: I had my third one a few nights ago, and it was another knockout. This sweet and powerful little plugger is consistently pleasing. Its flavor is as good or better than the La Aroma de Cuba Churchill I had a few days ago. Not an ignominious defeat, but a definitive one: The Oliva Series G is sweeter, just as tangy, and with a longer, satisfying finish to boot.

This is a great 40-minute cigar. The flavor stays good until the last inch. You could smoke the last inch if you're hardcore enough, but who's got something to prove? If you smoke for flavor, finish and consistent burn, and you don't have an hour and a half to spare, you simply cannot go wrong with the Oliva Series G.

The Short Finish of La Aroma de Cuba

A quick note on the La Aroma de Cuba: Had one this weekend, in a natural wrapper. Churchill size. Good smoke, highly recommended. Tangy, spicy flavor, and a bit fruity. The flavor was strong from the beginning, unlike some Churchills that require you to smoke down the first inch to get a taste of anything.

For a Churchill, it smoked fast; perhaps because it was a slightly narrower, 48-ring size. I got a good 70 minutes out of it, with the flavor holding up until the last 1.5 inches. I put it out then, although some hard-core smokers might have continued.

The only weakness was a short finish, if you care about that sort of thing. A great cigar if you're doing something - socializing, playing cards, etc. But not the creamy, long finish you need to luxuriate decadently. Not an alone-on-the-deck masterpiece, but worthy of having again in the right snappy environment.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

All Size, No Action: Quintero Churchill

Is it me, or do Churchill-sized cigars deliver a lot less than they promise?

Last night I finally had a whole evening of uninterrupted time to hang out with a buddy and smoke a cigar, so I took along the biggest one in my humidor: The Quintero Churchill (natural), a square-pressed colossus coming in at 7.25 inches long and 54 ring wide. It looked great, and was rated #24 for all of 2006 by Cigar Aficionado. My hopes were high.

The last Quintero I had tried, a maduro robusto, had practically knocked me out of my seat, so I didn't know what to expect. Would this thing put me in the emergency room? You'd think a Churchill would deliver mazimum strength, duration and physiological impact.

Not so. With every Churhill I've smoked, you spend the first inch waiting for air to turn into smoke. After that, experience will vary. In the case of the Quintero, the flavor was pleasant and mid-range, but just short of being bold and interesting. By the time I got to the middle of the cigar, the flavor started to open up and I had hopes that I was approaching the fabled sweet spot. But alas, the draw began to falter and within a few short minutes the thing had gone out. Nearly half the cigar remained unsmoked. I threw in the towel. I'd gotten a decent, if not exciting, hour out of it, and lots of good conversation in between.

I'm starting to think that Churchills are just not my size. I'm well under six feet tall, and I probably lack the cubic mouth volume to draw properly on these oversized monsters. Guys who smoke Churchills should be bald, six-foot-five, with hair on their backs and cheeks the size of grapefruits. With one puff, they'll draw a quarter of an inch off the sucker. All that suction probably keeps the burn temperature high, ensuring a decent flavor and consistent burn.

Normal-sized guys like me should stick to robustos. Five inches of solid burn and flavor from the get-go, no waiting around for the first inch to turn into something real. And that if you're lucky.

The Quintero Churchill is a good cigar, maybe even a great one. I'm just not the right guy to smoke it.

Hell Bent for Leather: La Flor Dominicana Double Ligero Chiselito Maduro

After my disappointing experience with the Excaliber Epicure natural, I hoped to redeem my day by smoking something with a real kick. But I got busy with other things and before I knew it, it was midnight. Not about to let the Excaliber have the last word, I opened my humidor and picked out the smallest, meanest-looking cigar of the bunch: The Double Ligero Chiselito Maduro by La Flor Dominicana.

This sharp-looking little 44-ring, 5-inch long cowboy looked mighty taut, dark, and dangerous. That chiselled cap looked like a serpentine funnel designed expressly to deliver a palate-blasting burst of smoke to its unsuspecting victim. Bring it on, I thought. I'd read enough about La Flor to hope that it would knock me on my ass and make me forget all about the Excaliber betrayal. Strong medicine. Come to Jesus. I braced myself.

With the first tight, brawny puff on this whippersnapper, I knew I had broken the Excaliber's gloomy spell. This chiselito was leathery, rugged, woody and slightly spicy, with a unique quality that I can only liken to the dusky pungence of milled grains wafting from open barrels in some creaky-floored general store circa 1879. The draw was firm but not prohibitive, and the flavor fresh, strong and panoramic. I could have been on the open prairie, wearing a ten gallon hat and spurs, looping steers with a lasso and leaving clouds of dust in my wake. This was one damned fine little smoke. I settled in for what I figured to be an exhilarating 40 minute ride.

Now I knew what the cigar-rating aesthetes meant by the term "leathery": They were talking about the sublime, crackling quality of the La Flor double ligero. I've encountered nothing else like it. Most of the other so-called "leathery" smokes I've tried have reminded me more of the aroma of fried eggs blown through a hair dryer. The double ligero takes the concept of leather, runs with it, captures it, and owns it. Do not say "leathery" unless you have smoked a La Flor double ligero. Until then, you know nothing, NOTHING about leather.

And one more thing: Don't be fooled by size. This teeny little critter stood and delivered for more than an hour. I limped off to bed at 1:30, one spent and happy cowboy.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Deals Galore: Resistance is Futile

My resolution not to order anything cigar-related for the rest of the month went up in smoke yesterday. I had no choice: Famous came out with a one-day "Monster Deal" on Indian Tabac Super Fuertes, robusto size. A full box of 20 for only 25 dollars. Did you hear that? Only 25 dollars! Plus FREE SHIPPING! You will be assimilated.

I ordered a box and sent an email notice to my cigar-chomping buddies at work. Note being: Order your own damned box, you ain't gettin none of mine.

Yes, miracles do happen, and good things come to those who wait. I felt like the kid at the end of Animal House, reading Playboy and dreaming about having a naked girl of his own when suddenly a buxom cheerleader crashes in through his bedroom window.

Like the kid said: Thank you, God!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Boring Crapstick: Excaliber Epicure Natural

Sooner or later, every cigar smoker is confronted with the unsettling realization that the cigar you happen to be smoking is a boring crapstick, and that no matter how long you keep smoking it to "give it a chance," it just isn't going to get any better.

Case in point: The Excaliber Epicure (natural) by Hoyo. This noble-sounding cigar came to me in an introductory sampler pack from Famous, and I'd been looking forward to trying it for weeks. Finally, it seemed like the right day. The cigar looked and felt right, and the label matched my own mood: A knight errant in search of a good smoke.

Right away, I was worried. When I lit this thing, it seemed to burn faster in the core than on the outside wrapper. And the taste was hot and dusty. The burn quickly corrected itself, and the taste mellowed. Or, rather, dropped precipitously to a low-grade peppery, wallpapery smorgasboard.

This vaguely unsatisfying flavor continued with remarkable consistency through the first and second inch. The draw softened and got warmer towards the middle, yet still no change in the flavor characteristic. By the halfway mark the burn was jagged and the draw was too hot - still with the same placid flavor - so I let it go out.

Don't get me wrong: This is not a bad cigar. Just dull. Certainly not nearly as rotten as the Macanudo Hyde Park robusto I tried a few weeks ago. If you happen to love Mac Hyde Park, or CAO gold, or Montecristo White, the Excaliber natural is right up your alley. But this isn't my alley, or even my neighborhood. I'm about ready to go out and fire up an Indian, or an Oliva Series G, or a Gurkha Regent.

The blurb at Famous called the Excaliber/natural "a favorite among golfers," which makes sense: If you want an innocuous background cigar that won't divert you from your game and your power-mongering chit-chat, this is the one to choose. Maybe it's just too much Connecticut - a Connecticut wrapper AND a Connecticut binder, whatever the heck that means. Pretty soon I'll be turning into one of those cigarheads who can elaborate on the insides of a cigar, the names of all the tobaccos, their country of origin and the GPS coordinates that mark the fields they're grown in.

Until then, I'll avoid anything with two Connecticuts, and keep up the quest for the Holy Grail: The cigar that makes me want to try no other. Sorry, Excaliber. You ain't it.

Note: Must try Excaliber Maduro version. It got a 92 rating a few months ago in Aficionado. Could the magnificent lucky aesthetes be wrong? Hard to believe.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Cameroon With a Kick: Oliva Series G

Sally and I finally got through the final episode of "Northern Exposure" and she actually shed a tear. This is the second TV series we've rented and watched all the way through - the first being "Sex in the City." You can guess which show I enjoyed more.

To commemorate, I smoked an Oliva Series G Cameroon robusto. Chosen, frankly, because it's the shortest cigar in my humidor and it was already 11:00 p.m. But the choice turned out to be excellent. A perfect little 45-minute smoke. A cameroon with a kick. Saucy little wench. Hint of sweetness, and quite a bit of power for a cigar that small. Sally even admitted it was good, and all she ever likes are Gurkhas or the dreaded Swishers.

I'm impressed by the differences between various cameroons out there, for example the Carlos Torano Cameroon - powdery and refined - and the Olive G cameroon - full and tangy. This is the second Oliva G cameroon I've smoked, and it confirmed my hurried and overstressed experience with the first - namely, that these little sticks are every bit as good as their 11th place 2006 ranking in Cigar Aficionado would imply.

I'm going to buy some more of the G-babies as soon as I can. They're on sale at Famous, 5 for 10 bucks. When you see a low price like that, you wonder if there's something wrong with the production run. In this case, there isn't. They're a steal.

Deals Galore

Both Famous Cigars and Cigars International now offer specials that change daily at their website - in addition to their weekly specials and offers by email! That's a lot to keep up with.

Famous has what they call their "Monster Deal" and CI has "Cigar Joe" - both 24-hour-only specials that include free shipping.

I've been checking each morning before I go to work, dreaming about what it would be like to have a humidor big enough to accomodate purchases of every single special from these two cut-throat distributors for 30 days in a row. Let's see - that would keep me in cigars for about the next 10 years...

I've resisted buying for the past two weeks. Wonder how long it will last.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Neighborhood Fumigation: Indian Tabac Super Fuerte, Round 5

Last night I smoked another Indian Tabac Super Fuerte natural robusto, my fifth this year. Boy, did it deliver. The evening was cloudless and quiet, not the faintest stirring of a breeze, and the smoke from this one-stick mosquito control system slowly expanded to fill my back yard and probably the yards of several neighbors. I think I even heard a window or two being shut in response.

Typically I pick shorter, robusto cigars when I want to clock in under an hour and keep the side effects to a minimum. In the case of the IT Super Fuerte, there's no avoiding the kick: This cigar generates a thick blanket of smoke that rolls over your taste buds with the insistence of a horn-blatting 18-wheeler. Subtlety is not the issue here, nor did I want it to be. I wanted a heavy cigar that let me know I was smoking it. The Indian Tabac Super Fuerte did not fail. Buttery, creamy strength, with a touch of black pepper, and no harshness whatsoever.

Even by the final inch, the flavor had not faltered, but I reluctantly had to pack it in. I knew that if I burned this thing to the end, I'd be risking dizziness, nausea, blindness, and dementia. In fact this morning I felt a little woozy and had to crawl back in bed for another 45 minutes to regain my equilibrium. A snack before bed might have been in order, or one less glass of whiskey. Note to self: Carefully regulate the whiskey-to-Indian ratio. Not a combination to be trifled with.

For the money, I have yet to find another cigar that can deliver a better blend of flavor and intensity. If you're in the mood for something sweet and gentle, don't reach for an Indian. But if you feel like ballin' the jack, keeping the flies off your tail, and driving your mighty convoy on through the night, grab one.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Incremental Perfection of the Ashton VSG

In July I finally took the plunge - using the wedding of a friend as an excuse - and plopped down 24 bucks for a couple of Ashton Virgin Sun Grown Tres Mystiques ("Tres Mystique" being Ashton’s high-falutin way of saying “teeny little corona”). One VSG for me, and one for the groom.

For everyone else I brought a mix of brands, none of which cost me 12 bucks. Turns out I overplanned, because out of a crowd of 100 celebrants, there were only four cigar smokers, including me and my wife. One guy took an Olor robusto (a house brand at Famous) and the other guy took a Partagas of some sort, both choices which pained me because they were the only samples that I had (mental note: bring only duplicate cigars that you are willing to part with).

We all went behind a hedgerow and smoked in the sweltering summer night, music blaring in the reception area behind us. The crowd on the other side of the hedgerow was for the most part a churchgoing, clean-living folk, and we didn’t want to offend them by bellowing smoke into their festivities.

The groom was nowhere to be seen, so I tucked the two Ashtons away and lit up a Crème de Jamaica robusto. Short little stick, but generous in flavor. Touch of sweetness and, dare I say, trace of rum or coconut – or was it just the brand name influencing my tastebuds? Won’t know for sure until I try another one. The Jamaican burned cool and sweet until about the last third, and I put it out. Still, good value for the money.

The groom eventually appeared and I helped him light the Ashton. “Don’t be fooled by the small size,” I told him. "This is one of best cigars on the market.” He nodded pleasantly, took a few puffs, and strolled back into the party with his cigar, clean-living folk be damned. He was the groom, after all, and could do what he pleased.

A few minutes later I asked him how it tasted. “Excellent,” he said, no more description forthcoming. It was his wedding night, after all. The last thing he wanted to do was stand around analyzing the quality of a cigar.

Three hours and much sweating, dancing and beer-drinking later, I was back home and couldn’t wait any longer: I just had to try that other Tres Mystique.

I hoped that having smoked a cigar earlier in the evening wouldn’t spoil it. It didn't.

And what was my impression of this fabled brand? Good. Excellent, in fact. A great 45-minute smoke that looked beautiful, burned perfectly, drew inimitably and tasted fine. The flavor was strong but varied, with no particular dominating overtone, just nice rich, cool heartiness on the dusky, peaty side. Full of nuance and subtlety, but so skillfully blended, it seemed perfect.

Almost too perfect, in fact. Like the time I took my kids to a pro basketball game and was astounded by the grace, speed and fluidity of the players and the way the interacted with each other. It almost looked choreographed. Yet within 15 minutes, the game had taken on a repetitive slickness. These guys were so good that they hardly ever made a mistake, and when they did it was barely noticeable – a squeak of a tennis shoe, a momentary loss of balance, a missed basket that was either tipped in or grabbed without ado by the opposing player for the dance to continue on the other end of the court.

What I’m trying to say in my long-winded way is that the Ashton VSG is so perfect, you have to think hard about what you’re experiencing. There’s no quirk or jolt or uncanny nuance to get your attention. It's an incremental sort of perfection. All you can do is sit there and think: I am smoking a perfect cigar, not much bigger than my thumb, that cost me 12 dollars.

Truth is, I've had 4 dollar smokes that were almost, ALMOST as good. Bottom line: If you’re loaded with dough and you want every single cigar to unfailingly look, draw, taste, and burn great without ever straying the least bit off course, this baby is for you.

But if you’re willing to tolerate the occasional irregularity, there are plenty of other cigars that will get you damned close to the Ashton VSG for a much lower price. Like, for example, a Carlos Torano 1916 Cameroon corona, or even a lowly Padron 6000.

If I was loaded and could afford a perfect cigar every time, I’d stock up on Ashton VSGs. But I’m not, so I won't. And I'm guessing that after the first three or four of them, I wouldn't even notice the perfection anyway, like that choreographed basketball game.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Too Much, Too Little, Too Late

Early in my cigar smoking days, reading the reviews and ratings, I used to wonder why people made such a big deal out of the DRAW. If the darned cigar tasted good, who cared if the draw was too loose or tight? Well, soon I learned. DRAW is where it all starts, and sometimes ends.

Take the Indian Tabac Super Fuerte Mini Bellicoso, which is a maduro as opposed to the natural-wrapped robustos I've enjoyed so much in the past. A feller at work gave me two of these maduros to sample and, taking one out to the deck last night, my first impression was: Man, this thing is wrapped tight as a rock. If I had bonked someone over the head with it, it would have done some serious damage. But on to the real test, which was lighting and smoking it.

It lit just fine, but that's about where my satisfaction ended. First of all, the DRAW was too tight, and it stayed too tight, and yes, it mattered. For not only did I have to suck on this thing like a straw in a milkshake, the smoke that resulted was nondescript. Heavy, thick and strong, but still nondescript. I kept waiting for the flavor to appear and for the draw to loosen into the telltale sweet spot, but it never happened. At the halfway point, I gave up and lit up something else.

Namely, an odd antique of a cigar named Flor de Farach that another dude at work gave me after cleaning out his basement and finding a box of these in a corner somewhere. This particular specimen was a nice light-colored lonsdale size, but it had lost almost all of its sweet tobacco aroma when I brought it up to my nose. In fact it smelled a little stinky, and this without even having lit it. My hopes were not high for this grandpa.

Leaving the Indian to die in the ashtray, I fired up the Farach, expecting the worst. Fortunately, this cigar was not bad, just mediocre. It had a wonderful DRAW, not too loose, not too tight - but that's about all it had going for it. The smoke was light yet full, with a hint of potato or onion, but not enough to make a difference. Drawing it in and blowing it out was fun, the way a cigar is fun to someone who only smokes maybe once a year and has yet to realize that cigars are not just about biliously offensive clouds of smoke, but also flavor.

Flavor aside, the Farach smoked well. But without flavor, how good can a smoke really be? I suppose if I had been at a golf course yakking it up with pals, or showing off at an outdoor party, the mere production of smoke would have been enough to satisfy me. But I was alone on the deck, waiting for something good to happen. Since the flavor was so scant, I grew bored with this stick after about the halfway point and let it go out.

So, two halves of two mediocre cigars. Not the greatest experience. Not the reason I'm willing to place my tongue and mouth at a long-term health risk. I'm tempted to run out tonight and fire up a good old reliable Indian Tabac Super Fuerte robusto - natural, not braggedy maduro, and not wrapped too tight, or too loose, but just right. And flavor? You can bet there will be loads of it.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Backwoods: Sugar Without Shame

Over the weekend I tried a "Backwoods" brand cigar from the visiting Canadian, just out of curiousity. These skinny, shaggy sticks smelled mighty good when he was smoking them - vanilla or some such scent - and they looked manly in a raggedy, cowboyish kind of way. Probably designed that way by some clever marketing team, so that manly cigar-chompers could indulge their feminine side without being obvious.

They came in a soft, foil-lined package, like chewing tobacco. I opened the bag, took a whiff, and was captivated. After a day or two of offhand references (What was the name of those cigars you were smoking? How much do those things cost? Boy, those things sure smelled good...) the Canadian finally caught my drift and offered me one.

"Sweet Aromatic" I believe was the flavor designation. It lit it up, feeling like I should be wearing cowboy boots and a gunbelt instead of sandals and shorts. The cigar tasted like vanilla to me; and not half bad. And, unlike the dreaded Swisher Sweets, there was no sugar coating on the end of it. No cheating required because the tobacco itself seemed to be drenched in flavoring. I wondered how they did it: Soak the things in vanilla extract?

At first, I was enchanted. Vanilla smoke! Exciting! But it felt progressively syrupy as the cigar wore on. Kind of like getting cotton candy when what you really want is ice cream. More significantly, the burn on this thing was not reliable - when I left it unattended for more than 20 seconds, it would start to peter out and I'd have to revive it with frantic smokestack puffing.

After about ten minutes, my palate was sated. How much sweetness can a man stand? I set the half-smoked cigar aside for a breather, and the next time I picked it up, it had gone out.

I didn't bother to relight it. I'd gotten the picture.

I don't know if there's a better 15-minute smoke out there, or a better "flavored" cigar, but compared to Swisher Sweets, Backwoods is a no-brainer. And on those special occasions when you feel like pouring confectioner's sugar on your tongue and washing it down with a root beer float, I couldn't think of a better cigar to follow it with.

You and the Night and the Gurkha

Ah, wedding season! A joyuous excuse to laugh, eat, drink, and smoke cigars.

On Friday, however, I showed some restraint and didn't even take a cigar to my niece's rehearsal dinner. But when we got back home, I wasted no time in hitting the deck for a surprisingly satisfying Rafael Gonzalez while Sally slaved away in the kitchen preparing multitudinous quiches and salads for the next day's pre-wedding brunch.

Yes, I asked if she needed my help. No, she insisted that I keep her chain-smoking relatives occupied outside so she could concentrate on making the food. I took her at her word.

By midnight, Sally was done cooking and ready to relax. It was just the two of us, out on the deck, speaking softly and gazing up at the stars. Everyone else had gone to bed. And what did Sally choose to commemorate this most intimate of occasions? A Gurkha Class Regent torpedo. Good girl! Long ago I had tried a Regent and immediately began raving to everyone within earshot that it was THE BEST CIGAR I HAD EVER HAD. A few weeks later I tried another while in the throes of palate fatigue, and it had tasted as mediocre as everything else I'd had that day. (Note to self: Do not smoke three cigars a day, even while on vacation.)

Now I looked forward to glomming a few puffs off Sally and reformulating judgement on this swarthy brand. "Don't worry," I said as she stuck the daunting 6-incher into her mouth. "These things burn pretty fast."

I let her munch on it a minute or two, before commencing to glom myself. Upon which I was pleased to find this cigar just as exellent as the first one. Creamy, cool, elegant and fast-burning - an unlikely combination, but true. The Regent is so fluffy and downy, you'd swear it was made of goose feathers.

Sally and I grooved on it all the way down to the nub. I was tempted to ransack the medicine chest for a pair of tweezers, just to suck the last half-inch out of it. But, maintaining a shred of dignity, I put my arm around Sally, sighed and watched the final embers of this exotically named gem fade into memory.

Forget Paris, baby: We'll always have Gurkha.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sancho, I Done You Wrong

Why, why, WHY do I keep making the same mistake? Taking a big, fat, lay-around-the-shanty cigar to social events when there's no way in Hell I'll have time to smoke it.

This time, it was a wedding reception. Eternal optimist that I am, I packed three cigars just in case I ran into fellow chompers. Oh, how they would love me! Free cigars, and in such good taste! But not too good taste: Chastened after my recent Rocky-relinquishing incident, I made sure to pack only cigars I had extras of, and wasn't emotionally attached to (no Rockys, no Gurkhas). And in "small" robusto sizes, to minimize any time constraints. After all, what's a 40-minute smoke in the great cosmic scope of things? A flash, a trifle. The time would pass in an instant. And so the foolish delude themselves.

The evening progressed with no cigar smokers in sight - only a few cigarette fiends, hot-boxing it outside the reception hall. Finally at about 10:30, after dancing herself into an exhausted frenzy, my wife made the inevitable request: Cigar?

A warning went off in the back of my brain: Waste alert! Waste alert! Abort now!

"Yes," I said reluctantly. "But do do we really have time--"

"Oh, stop fretting. Let's just smoke what we can. Come on."

"But..." Protest was futile. I was swept along in the current called Sally.

I pulled out a Sancho Panza Valiente (i.e. robusto), something I'd been wanting to try for a while. Lately during strolls in my neighborhood I had come across two Sancho Panzas, mysteriously split open and abandoned on the street, about half a mile from each other. Then a Sancho had arrived in a value pack from Famous Cigars. The universe seemed to be telling me to try this cigar.

And so I lit it up. For a relatively cheap cigar (you can buy a box of these online for about 42 bucks) it tasted pretty good. Natural wrapper, not too heavy or ashy. I was hoping for a little sweetness, hot off the heels of my Rafael Gonzalez experience the night before, but none appeared. Instead there was straight natural flavor, strong, pleasant and self-assured.

Each time I passed it to Sally, she chowed down like the world was going to end, chewing it to a fray and huffing five or six chugs at a time. Needless to say, between the two of us, this thing was soon burning as hot as a stunt car in a 1970s Burt Reynolds flick. Nonetheless, it started opening up nicely after the first inch. Not bad at all. Nice fullness, with a touch of silk or cream. I tried to keep it away from Sally while engaging her in insightful, emotionally intelligent conversation. This only worked for so long.

"Finish up," she said after a few minutes. "We don't want to keep everybody waiting too long."

We hadn't even gotten to the halfway point. I sensed that this cigar was going to get better, might even become the "best cigar for the price" that I had ever smoked. But now I'd never know. I thought of saving it for later, and tried to cut it below the ash with my guillotine. But the cutter was too dull, and the cigar too soft. It scrunched up in the middle, mortally wounded. After a few final, poignant puffs, I lay poor Sancho in the gutter, leaving him to burn to a lonely death as the wedding reception partied on.

Sancho, I done you wrong. Maybe someday I'll find the right time and place to give you the fighting chance you deserve.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Go-To Gonzalez?

Postscript 9/13/2008

After revisiting this brand recently, I can only say regarding my original review below: I must have been out of my f#$^ing mind! The Rafael Gonzalez robusto (natural) upon multiple outings has none of the full sweetness I described at first. It is indeed a bland Connecticut shade cigar, whose only recommendation is that it has a bit more kick than the usual mild General Cigar offering. This cigar is only a notch better than a Dominican Cohiba, Montecristo White, Las Cabrillas, Vega Talanga Rojo or Macanudo Hyde Park.

Original review follows:

Sometimes I question the craze for heavy maduro flavor. Natural wrappers also have a lot going for them, and tend to bring a certain sweetness that maduros don't have. I guess sweetness isn't considered manly enough by your average rough-and-tumble cigar chomper.

But a certain amount of sweetness, in my book, can be welcome as long as it's hearty. Rafael Gonzalez, for example. I tried one in robusto size recently, and found it to have a slightly tangy, melony core that was quite pleasing and satisfying - not cloying at all - and that held steadily from the beginning through the end. This cigar burned perfectly, produced huge clouds of smoke and tasted great all the way down to the last inch.

I didn't smoke the last inch but probably could have, if I'd been feeling like a fiend and it wasn't one o'clock in the morning.

Verdict: Potential go-to cigar. Must try one again soon.