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.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Camacho Man? The Joke's On Me.

Last night I met my niece's fiance for the first time. Nice guy: Harley-riding, fast-talking, good-natured. A mechanical engineer, but unlike most engineers I've known, outgoing and friendly as hell. Kind of like your stereotypical Astralian, only from Canada. To top it off, the guy pulls out a cigar after dinner and hands it to me. "A little something for you, buddy."

It was a Camacho Maduro, robusto size. "Wow. Thanks!" I said. I was genuinely thrilled, if not a bit sheepish. My whole family was sitting around the deck table, and this was only the second time my two teenaged sons had ever seen me with a cigar in my hands. I tried to be cool and rookie-like. "Camacho Maduro" I read slowly, as if it were foreign to me, the unexperienced, hardly-ever-smoking novice. Right. Actually, it was a type I had tried before. In fact, I had one just like it in my humidor. My wife must have snooped out the brand name and passed it along to him. Either that or it was a hell of a coincidence. And if it was, he had good taste.

Good guy. Camacho guy. He had my blessing for the marriage, not that he needed it.

I set the cigar on the table, not wanting to appear too eager in front of the boys. Must act civilized and cultivated: A man with his impulses under control, only smoking cigars on momentous occasions, or when handed to me by benificent others as a gesture of good will.

Two minutes later, my wife stops in the middle of a conversation and says: "Aren't you going to smoke that?"

"Of course," I protested, as if this prompting had been required. I got up from the table and went inside for my cutter. After slicing the cap off, I had second thoughts: Just what condition was this cigar in? The Canadian had ridden 18 hours on his Harley to get here. I was guessing he hadn't kept it in any sort of controlled environment - a sealed plastic bag, say, along with a water pillow or humidification strip. He himself was smoking from a cheap pack of Backwoods. I actually thought about creeping back to my humidor, grabbing my own Camacho Maduro, and switching it with the one he'd brought. At least I knew mine would be fresh. On the other hand, I'd already cut this one open. What a conundrum! Outside, my wife called out: "Honey, what are you doing in there?"

Heck with it. If this one was dried out, I'd just quit smoking it.

And so I returned to the table and fired up the thing. Fortunately, the 18-hour trip seemed to have had no detrimental effect: The Camacho burned big and bright, imparting the same peppery, masuline flavor that I had remembered from one I'd tried a couple months ago.

Then, two inches along, the thing went out. Dang! I casually cut off the ashes and relit, hoping not to look like a fiend in front of the boys. It fired up again just fine, and the flavor immediately opened up into the sweet spot. And what a sweet spot it was! Camacho knows what they're doing - not too sweet, not too heavy, not too hot, not too tight. Just right, like Goldilocks at porridge bowl number three.

Five minutes later, the darned thing went out again. Must have been the motorcycle trip. Again I relit, and this time it stayed lit all the way through to the nub. Sweet spot all the way. You've got to hand it to Camacho: Not many cigars can hold their peak all the way to the end.

As for the two times it burned out: I figured it could have been the humidity (it was sweltering outside) or the motorcycle trip. Didn't really matter. Despite the re-lights, this cigar kicked ass.

A few minutes after midnight, I crawled into bed, a happy man. Sally came in from brushing her teeth and said, "So, did you enjoy that cigar scheme that Robert and I pulled off for you?"

"What do you mean, scheme?"

"Didn't you know? I snuck that cigar out of your humidor and told him to give it to you. Figured that way you'd be willing to smoke it in front of the boys."

"Oh, right," I said knowingly. Damn, I'd been had. "What made you pick the Camacho?"

"It was just lying on top and we grabbed it."

"Oh," I said. Not as if the Canadian had shown fine judgement, or played any decisive role at all. It was all yet another demonstration of the lengths my wife will go to "ease" me out of the cigar closet in front of the boys.

And the Backwoods-smoking Canadian? He still has my blessing. Even though he's no Camacho Man.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Camacho Candela

After my Rocky Patel Vintage 92 debacle, I tried to onsole myself with a Camacho Candela, monarch (robusto) size. Second time I've had this cigar, and good both times. The first time seemed to start out crispier and heartier, as I recall; last night's took a while to warm up and crackle. On the other hand, I'd just smoked half of an Indian Tabac Super Fuerte, which might have compromised my judgement.

By the middle of the cigar, this green-wrapped baby started taking on a dusky, hazy flavor - a pleasing, grassy, warmth like standing the middle of a hay field that's been cut early on a summer day that promises to be hot and humid. You're there at just the right time, dew on your feet, smelling the wonder of it all. Anyway, just as I was starting to groove on the Camacho, it was time to go. I hated leaving the last half of this downright cordial smoke in the ashtray. I can't be sure, but I believe it was going to be the best part of the cigar.

Yet again confirming rule #32: Don't pressure-smoke a cigar. Give yourself the time to smoke it to the prime, or don't smoke it at all. When will I ever learn?

The Pain of Losing a Rocky

Rule #23: When you go to a social gathering, don't bring any cigars you aren't willing to part with. I learned this the hard way last night.

What started out as an innocent visit with friends became a nightmare of epic proportions as I saw one of the best cigars in my collection slip into the hands of a stranger.

I had looked forward to the evening with high hopes - the other hubbie and I would smoke while our wives jabbered with each other in their back yard. I hastily grabbed 4 cigars from my humidor ("Hurry up!" yelled Sally, "we're late!") and in that three-second window of decision, my whole evening's fate was sealed.

My thought process: Take one big honkin' cheap cigar, one big honkin' fantastic cigar, and two smaller, medium-quality acceptable cigars. That way I was prepared for every variation of predilection and time constraint, and might actually be able to pawn off the cheapie. But as I hastily sealed the plastic bag and threw it into Sally's purse, a disturbing thought flashed through my mind: How was I going to cordon off the fantastic one - a Rocky Patel Vintage 92 - for myself? No time to think - Sally grabbed the purse, hustled me out the door and off we sped in the car.

Turns out the other hubby wasn't even home. Instead there was a visiting cousin. Nice enough guy, and the chatting went well. When the party moved outdoors, Sally tossed the cigars on the table. "Look, Jake brought some cigars! You want to have one, Brad?"

Brad, whom I hadn't known from Adam until this night, practically yelped with pleasure. "Sure! Let's see what you've got!" His eyes fixed immediately on the Rocky Patel Vintage 92 torpedo. Factory 2nd, mind you, but damned near as good, and one I'd been looking forward to ever since smoking the two others in my humidor and realizing they constituted one of God's great gifts to creation. The last few times I'd checked the web, there were no more Vintage torpedo 2nds to be had anywhere. This looked to be the last of the breed.

"Uh, that's a Rocky Patel. Good cigar," I said, trying to sound neutral. But to no avail. Brad liked the look of it. For someone who claimed to know little about cigars, he sure gravitated to the top of the line. "You mind if I take it?" he asked, his fingers already wrapped around it.

I knew that if I hesitated, I'd hear no end of it from Sally. Why wouldn't you let him take that cigar? Why did you have to be so stingy? I think this whole cigar thing's getting out of hand. It's becoming an obsession with you... And so on. It was a conversation I didn't want to have. And so, automatically, I said: "Sure, take it. It's a great cigar." As if I was glad to bestow such an honor upon this perfect stranger. As if two beers in the living room had turned us into brothers under the skin.

And so with an aching emptiness in the pit of my stomach I tried to content myself with Rocky's cousin, an Indian Tapac Super Fuerte, which normally would have excited me but now seemed a bit of a come-down, while Brad toked on his marvelously-burning Vintage 92 and remarked with annoying regularity that it was the best cigar he'd ever had. He even let it sit in the ashtray for torturous lengths of time - 8 minutes, 9 minutes - because he'd heard somewhere that surviving such neglect was the sign of a good stogie.

To add insult to injury, my Indian Super Fuerte tasted sub-par and actually went out at the halfway point. I didn't even try to re-light it. Instead I tried to console myself with a Camacho Candela robusto, that little green friend from Honduras. Only to hear my wife say: "What? You're having another Cigar? Two in one night?"

Yeah, and these two combined aren't going to give me half the pleasure that my last Rocky would have provided. But did I dare say so? No. What would have been the point?

Sometimes you just can't win.

Live and learn. On to other smokes.

Indian Tabac Super Fuerte: The Reckoning

Last night I tried my fourth Indian Tabac Super Fuerte robusto, expecting to keep up the winning streak.

All good things must come to an end, it would seem. The fourth Indian started out with the same brassy flavor I anticipated, but began losing steam halfway through. The flavor diminished and became somewhat muddy, though still acceptably pleasant, and the burn rate increased rapidly. I was hoping for the stick to open up in a final burst of flavor, like cigars often do. But this one opened up WAY too much: The tobacco was so loose I could practically feel it rattling around beneath the wrapper. Soon it was drawing as if there were a hole in it. One of Rocky's rollers must have fallen asleep on the job.

I put the stick down for a rest, and when I picked it up a minute later, it had gone out. I thought about re-lighting but didn't. This baby was just too loose for another roll in the hay.

Takeaway wisdom? A box of good-tasting 2-dollar cigars is a gift from God. But that gift comes at a price: The occasional dud. One out of nine, in this case, because the other three I smoked were great, as were reports back on the five that I passed out to my cigar-chomping buddies at work. As Meatloaf would say, eight out of nine ain't bad.

If you want an absolute, 100-percent guarantee that every cigar will be as reliable as the last, buy yourself a box of Aston Virgin Sun Growns for 250 bucks. Otherwise, buy a box of Indians. If you get an occasional dud, toss it out and move on to the next. At 40 bucks a box, you can afford to.

I've still got two of these babies left. I'm guessing the dud rate is going to drop to 1 in 11. My faith and optimism are unwavering.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Last Macanudo?

After hearing for months about this legendary brand in catalogs, on the web, and even name-checked in an old episode of Northern Exposure, I finally tried a Macanudo. Hyde Park, maybe, or Duke of Something... not sure, because it came in a sampler pack and the label doesn't spell it out. Man, was I disappointed! Mild is one thing. But treating the palate to a smorgasboard of squirrel breath and fish bones, topped with a hint of boiled cabbage, is another. I expected more from this venerable brand.

I've also noticed that every time a Macanudo finds its way into the Cigar Aficionado ratings pages, it never scores higher than an 86, and for the same reasons this one disappointed me: Harsh, tinny, one-dimensional flavor, when any flavor is discernable at all. Almost as bad as the Saint Luis Rey robusto I tried a few weeks ago, and put out after an inch. I gave the Mac two inches to convince me, then dropped it in the campfire.

Disclaimer: My experience may have been tainted by the fact that I'd smoked two cigars earlier on the same day, and enjoyed them immensely. My palate may have been rendered insensate.

So, I guess I'll have to give the Macanudo brand another chance. But I'm not going out of my way to do it. If a Mac happens to find it's way into a sampler pack, or into the hands of a generous friend, I'm on.

Until then, on to greener pastures.

Indian Tabac Super Fuerte - Unduly Maligned?

I had another Indian Tabac super fuerte robusto again last night, and darned if this isn't a cracklin' good little cigar. 40 minutes of easy-drawing, good burning, smoke producing pleasure. I don't understand why so many of the reviews I've encountered on the web (via google searches and customer ratings at online cigar sellers) have been unfavorable.

I've had three of these, and they've all been great. For two bucks, you can't beat the quality of the experience. The flavor mix puts me in mind of tortilla chips, pimentos, sesame and red pepper, all consumed while riding across a powdery brown clay desert in a Conestoga wagon with an Ennio Morricio harmonica theme playing in the background and natives in full headress gazing down solemnly from the cliffs above. And in the morning, you wake up to scorching hot campfire-brewed coffee, smoke in your hair, your pistol-packing mama already up and at 'em, rustling up some grub.

Not to self: Ignore the cigar reviews. At some point, you've got to start making up your own mind.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Swisher of Last Resort

Even people who've never smoked a cigar have heard of them: The dreaded Swisher Sweets.

In junior high you might have encountered one in the bushes outside the school dance where the problem kids stood passing around a bottle of Boone's Farm. They'd be smoking Camels, Marlboros and the occasional Swisher: Here, try this, man. Don't inhale, now. It's a cigar.

My older brother liked Swishers. He liked the way they tasted, and the way they sounded when he said them: Swisher Sweets. He'd often play cards with an elderly couple who lived three houses down the street, just to partake of their Swishers. He could get away with it, because he'd blame the old-timers: It wasn't me, Dad. You know those two smoke like chimneys.

Now, as a serious cigar smoker, I've often wondered about those Swishers. Just how bad are they? How syrupy, how campy, how pathetic the nerve of actually coating the tip with some sugary, fruited flavoring? Hah! Such a stick would be below me. And yet, when I ring up my purchases at the local discount store, I can't help but notice the cheap cigars behind the counter: Swishers are always among them. Many's the time I've repressed the urge to buy one. Just out of curiousity. Just for old times sake. Just for the socio-cultural personal historical significance of it.

Well, Sally put an end to all that. On our last foray to the vacation getaway, we stopped at our favorite liquor store and she bought a pack. Just like that. Her rationale: "I don't want a cigarette. I don't have time to smoke one of your big-assed cigars. And I want to smoke it in the car."

Even she subconciously seemed to know that the Swishers needed defending.

"Hey, no problem," I said. "But in the car? Are you sure..."

"Just shut up and roll down the window." Apparently the stress of spending the last 24 hours with our deplorable relatives had put her in need of soothing balm. A Swisher would have to do.

And so, the shameful little experiment: I, high-falutin premium-brand cigar smoker, would get a chance to take a drag from the beleaguered Swisher Sweet.

Man, was it tiny. No bigger than a cigarette. In fact it seemed a trifle slimmer. Sally lit it up and the scent wafted over to me in the driver's seat.

"How is it?" I asked innocently.

"Great," she said, puffing away like a train.

I drove another block or two, then asked, in as unassuming a tone as possible, "Can I try it?"

Suspecting nothing, she handed the cheap stick over to me as if it were a Padilla Signature 1932. I took a drag - a long hard one, to fill my mouth with the requisite amount of smoke that I prefer - and blew out the smoke. It tasted alright. Took another drag. Same thing. But I couldn't get a handle on the flavor. The sweetness on my lips made it irrelevant: When your tongue tastes like vanilla (or cherry, or cinnamin, or whatever the hell it is they coat those things with) the taste of the smoke itself becomes indeterminant. Nice, thick smoke, for a stick that small. But my two drags had taken about a half an inch off the poor little thing. In three more minutes, Sally had smoked it down to the filter.

"Hey, this thing's getting hot!"

"Put it out. That means you're done."

The whole cigarillo had lasted perhaps five minutes. And that was exactly what Sally had wanted. A fast, tidy smoke. So fast you couldn't tell whether it was good or bad. She rolled up the window, satisfied.

I drove on, unsatisfied. So many unanswered questions.

The next day, at the pool, two beers after polishing off my Indian Tabac Super Fuerte robusto and the remnants of Sally's Don Tomas Classico Churchill, I snuck a Swisher out of Sally's purse while she was taking a shower in the locker room.

Damn if the little thing wasnt too bad. But yet again: What did this smoke really taste like? Who could tell with all that sugar in your mouth? In five minutes I'd polished the thing off, and by then I could taste a dry blandness at the back of my tongue. I wondered about the larger-sized Swishers. Maybe they tasted better.

Well, damned if Sally didn't give me the chance to find out. Last night we were out having dinner with friends, and just as I'm leaning back in my chair after the splendid repaste, secretly lamenting the fact that I didn't bring a cigar (even though we were outdoors, nobody would want to sit around for an hour waiting for me to indulge myself, hence I'd left them at home) Sally pulls out a pack of Swisher Sweet coronellas. Man, this girl gets around. This stick looks to be about 6 inches long and maybe 30-ring in width.

"So much for the other pack," I said.

"I wanted something more substantial. But your big fat ones take too long."

Practical gal, that Sally. Moments like these, I admire her moxie, her caution-to-the-wind attitude, her willingness to fly boldly in the face of convention. I waited a respectable minute or two, then reached out to sample her coronella.

Not bad. A nice mouthful of smoke. Same irritating residue of syrup on my lips. But hey, I could see the point of this thing. 30 mouthfuls of smoke, you're done in 10 minutes, ready to pay your check and step into the limo.

Wait, who's kidding who. Not a limo. More like a Toyota or a Chrysler. But as a cigar of last resort, the Swisher does just fine.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Poolside Smokes

Recently my wife and spent an afternoon at the swimming pool Sally swore she was on the straight an narrow and would not be smoking anything. I took a couple extra stogies just in case.

One was a Don Tomas Classico Churchill, which had been rated #23 in 2006 by the fortunate aesthetes at Cigar Aficionado. Sun, poolside, and the biggest, longest, bad-assed-lookingest cigar in my humidor: Sounded like a good combination. I also hedged my bets in case the Don disappointed, packing an Indian Tabac Super Fuerte robusto. Short but fiesty, if my memory served me right.

By the time we'd settled into our lounge chairs and I'd fired up the Don, Sally was visibly squirming, reading her celebrity magazine and trying to act like the smoke wafting past her nose wasn't distracting her. It must have smelled better to than it tasted: This Don Tomas Classico was lighter than a vanilla wafer, and a lot less flavorful. It wasn't woody, or earthy, or sweet, or complex. Just soft, dainty smoke. Not good. I pinned my hopes on the second or third inch opening up into robustness. It could happen.

About the time I was burning past inch #1, my wife broke down. "I can't stand it," She said. "Did you bring anything for me?"

"You said not to."

"But why did you believe me? You should know better."

I handed her a Swisher Sweet. She had actually bought a pack of these crap-sticks on the drive up. "Nah," she said. "I want something bigger."

I handed her the Don Thomas that I was getting bored with. She took it, drew, and immediately started raving about how good it tasted.

I left Sally to her mild glory and whipped out the Indian Tabac Super Fuerte. From the first tawny puff, I knew I had found the right smoke for the poolside. Compact but brawny, this hearty lad transported me to a realm of savage plains populated by wild buffalo and whooping hunter-gatherers. A bit of Rocky Patel's proclivity for Asian spice bubbled up occasionally, hinting at his later career trajectory. This Indian was just fine. Great quality for the price, which is about one-third what you pay for a name-brand Rocky Patel.

Every five minutes or so, I asked the wife for a pull on the Don Tomas, just to keep tabs. Nothing special seemed to be happening. Same dull, spiceless flavor. Sally claimed to be enjoying it, but halfway through, she handed it back to me. "I've had enough," she said cheerfully.

(Note to self: Never give a girl a Churchill. It's a waste of precious real estate.)

Now I was stuck holding two cigars. I'd puff on the Indian, wait a minute or two, then puff on the Don. This worked for about 10 minutes but I waited too long at one point, lost in a reverie, and the next thing I knew the Indian had gone out.

So I finished off the Don, and yes, it finally developed some flavor during the last two inches. But is that what you really want from a Churchill? Four inches of boredom for two inches of fun? I think not.

A half hour later, I picked up the cold Indian, clipped off the ashes, and fired up its remaining two inches. Now there was a closer: Power down to the nub. Force and flavor almost as good as a Rocky Vintage. I rose from my lounge chair, a happy man, and almost fell over.

Note to self: Remain seated for at least 5 minutes after finishing a medium-to-full Rocky blend.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Live and Let Die: CAO Italia Defeats Cuba Aliados Corojo

Tonight I tried the Cuba Aliados toro (corojo version from C.I.) and the CAO Italia Novella. Two cigars one after the other. Sounds like fiendish behavior, but not really, once you see why.

First, the Cuba Aliados. Great if you love the taste of cardboard, old stinky socks, and drywall, all rolled into one sumptuous blend. Rolando, how could you let me down? I take back the comment I made about all the Puros Indios brands having a distinctive wheaty and sweet sub-flavor. Exception: Cuba Aliados has none of it.

I lit this thing, smoked one inch of it, and decided there had to be something better in this world than another 45 minutes with this pallid imposter of a cigar. So I went to my humidor and picked the smallest stick in the bunch, since it was going on midnight and I have to get up at 6:30 and go to work tomorrow: The CAO Italia Novella (i.e. corona) size. Highly rated by the various cigar-rating aesthetes.

From the beginning, I was captivated: Huge sweet powerful pleasure, smacking me right in the center of the tongue. For 35 minutes, it delivered without faltering.

Gentlemen (and ladies, yes, I know you're out there), if you smoke the CAO Italia regularly (say, once a week), I guarantee you will die of tongue cancer. And you will get down on your knees and thank the Lord Above for granting you the short time on this earth to enjoy these resplendent little bastards.

Puros Indios Meets Carlos Torano

The great thing about having a cigar-chomping wife is the chance to regularly sample two brands at once. Sally, however, is particular about cigars. She's taken a puff or two from nearly every brand I've had, and almost always hands the despicable lump back to me. The only exception being the perplexing Gurkha Centurian Double X, which she finds rich, satisfying and CHOCOLATELY (arrrggh! That word!).

So lighting up a cigar for the wife is always dicey: She might take three puffs, decide it's lousy, and put it out. This time, she insisted on having her own. "The usual Gurkha?" I asked.

"Nah, I'm getting tired of those. What else have you got?"

I thought long and hard. What else might be described by some cigar-reviewing aesthete as CHOCOLATELY? The answer: Carlos Torano Exodus 1959 torpedo, in a recent issue of Cigar Aficionado. I'd tried two of them, and found them less than the cat's pajamas. If Sally put it out, it would be no great loss.

For myself I chose a Puros Indios Doble Maduro, toro size.

From the start, it was a head-to-head race. I had no interest in Sally's Carlos because my Puros Indios tasted so darned good. So good that I castigated myself: Why had I let it sit in my humidor for so long? Why hadn't I ordered a whole box?!!

Meanwhile Sally was raving about the Carlos Torano. "Oh, I like this! It tastes chocolately, but smoother than those Gurkhas..."

"I swear, I don't get that chocolate stuff."

"I know you don't, baby, but just accept it. And I love this SQUARE SHAPE. The way it fits in my fingers..."

"They're called box-pressed."

"Oh, I like these box-pressed cigars...."

"Boy, you're picking right up on the terminology."

"I think I only want box-pressed from now on." She purred sensually, dragging on her Carlos.

"Enough," I said. "Let me try that."

We traded cigars. Wow! The Carlos Torano 1959 was excellent - full flavored, cool-burning, tastier than the previous two I'd tried. What was up? Had Sally worked some magic spell on it?

"I don't like this one," she said, handing back the Puros Indios. No chocolate, apparently, so no dice.

I reluctantly handed her the Carlos Torano, realizing it was the last one in my humidor. I took back the Puros Indios, took a puff, and found it was nearly as good. Who needed Carlos? This dark and heady gem was also a delight.

Twice now I've tried the Puros Indios Doble Maduro. Both times I found the flavor immensely satisfying, with a submerged inkling of honey graham or wheat or whatever fancy-schmancy term you might use to describe it, let's say an "autumnal leaf-burning edge tinged with sweetness" that seems unique to the Puros Indios brands. The Doble Maduro is the strongest of the bunch.

Unfortunately, about halfway through it started burning unevenly, while Sally's Carlos Torano kept sailing on. By the time I got down to the last 2 inches--sometimes the best part of a cigar--the wrapper on one side jutted out unburned, compromising the draw. Frustration!

Luckily, Sally handed over the last two inches of her Carlos, and I snarfed it happily.

Bottom line on the Puros Indio Doble Maduro: Great taste, bad burn. Rolando, keep that fantastic blend but PLEASE teach your rollers how to pack a stick.

And the Carlos Torano Exodus 1959? Must try again. Two were bland, one fantastic: A mystery that remains to be solved. Stay tuned.

The 70 Percent Solution

My struggle? It's not inner demons, the striving for social justice, or a desire to provide a better life for my children: No, my struggle, my challenge, my life's constant aching burden is in trying to reach that elusive 70 percent humidity in my humidor.

I have a relatively small humidor, supposedly 50-capacity but realistically meant to hold about 30 cigars. Early on I began to suspect that my stogies were coming out on the dry side, but couldn't know for sure because I had no hygrometer. (Accessorize, accessorize... that mantra playing constantly in the back of every cigar smoker's mind...) Finally, a few weeks ago I broke down and bought a digital hygrometer from C.I. for 23 bucks, and threw in a 10-pack of discounted Indian Tabac Super Fuertes just for good measure.

The hygrometer was fine (and the Indians too, more on that elsewhere) but it gave me a dismal reading of only 63 percent. I was crestfallen. How could I subect my cigars--and myself--to such deprivation? I took immediate action, activating a water pillow (yes, another accessory, and somewhat funky to see inflate -- let the kids watch, they'll love it) then slept fitfully, wondering what was happening inside the humidor. Would it reach 70 percent? Was I a genius for adding the water pillow? Or was I a fool - maybe it would send it over the top, up to 75 or even 80 percent, turning my cigars to mush. The hope, the dread, the uncertainty of it all...

I awoke the next morning to find that the humidity had crept up to a mere 65 percent. Better, but not nearly good enough. I opened the seal of the water pillow so that more of moisture-releasing membrane was exposed. Next day: 66 percent. Still not good enough! I stuck in a second water pillow, throwing caution to the wind. Still only 67 percent.

Jesus Lord, what did it take to hit 70 percent in this world?

Last weekend, I found out. While staying at my deplorable relatives' house in Duluth (where I nontheless had the pleasure of smoking a venerable Carlos Torano 1916 Cameroon corona) I noticed that the relatively cool basement where we were were quartered had turned hot and stuffy overnight. The only variable seemed to be the clothes dryer running in the next room. I went to check it out.

Turns out the dryer was rigged to vent into the basement instead of out the window like any other self-respecting head of the household would have ensured. All that warm, humid air, dispersing itself through the basement. I hated to think about what the various airborne clothing fibers might be doing to my relatives over the course of a lifetime, but more immediately, I wondered what was happening in my humidor.

A miracle, as it turns out. The hygrometer was reading a near-mythical 69 percent. As I stood there marveling, the reading turned to 70 before my very eyes. 70! The magical 70! Horns went off, confetti fell inside my head. I wished I had a camera to preserve the moment. Then, yet higher, to 71! I shut the humidor lid. Didn't want the little fireplugs to overdose, after all.

For a moment, I seriously considered moving to a dangerously ventilated basement in Duluth.

So there you have it, folks: If you want 70 percent humidity, unhook your dryer vent. You might get some kind of moisture-induced respiratory infection, not to mention a toxic buildup of cotton, rayon, and nylon in your vital organs, but who cares: Your cigars will be perfect.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Don't Smoke This Cigar!

Am I out of my mind, or is the Gurkha Centurian Double X the most overhyped rip-off in the world? Please tell me, I really want to know.

This burly looking cigar is sold at C.I. for a hefty price of 70 bucks per mazo of 6 sticks. Throw in shipping and handling, and you're out 13 bucks per stick. No telling how much a retail shop would charge for these things - I'm guessing 26 or 28 dollars apiece.

And then there's this whole backstory of these cigars being consigned for private use by the Sultan of Brunei. Is there even such a place? Does it have a sultan? If so, does he have any taste in cigars? And if he did, would it match anyone else's? And if his private stash is so good, why is it now being dumped on the open market?

Anyway, a buddy at work and I jumped at the chance to buy these at 12 for 49 bucks when they popped up as the weekly special at C.I. a few months ago. Boy were we excited, rubbing our hands in expectation, making furtive comments as we passed in the hallways. Finally, the fat little bastards came in. Finally, we would get to smoke like a sultan. Our mouths were practically watering.

A week later we compared notes: Did you try 'em? Yep. Whatja think? Hmm, not sure. Not so great, were they? Nope, not really. Kinda crappy, huh? Yep. And certainly not worth 28 bucks. You can say that again...

We walked away from each other, humbled and sheepish.

In the meantime, my wife sampled one and decided that for once she had found a cigar she liked. It tasted like chocolate, she said! Chocolate! Go figure. So I bought out my compatriot's remaining 4 sticks, to keep them on hand for the wife.

In subsequent weeks, I've sampled these fat boys as my wife happily noshes on them, and each time I can only say: Baffled.

Last weekend was the straw that broke the camel's back. After enjoying a perfectly delicious Carlos Torano 1916 Cameroon (corona), I watched as my wife puffed away on another Gurkha Centurian. And as usual, I grabbed it from her once every ten minutes to sample it, in the vague hope that eventually I would come around on this cigar, find a sweet spot, a hint of flavor, anything. But no such luck. Yet again, this thing drew like crap, tasted like crap, and unwound in our hands like crap. Even the wife admitted that she was no longer infatuated like the first couple of times, although she did continue to mention the word "chocolate." CHOCOLATE! Lord help us.

No more leeway, no more grace period, no more test puffs: I'm putting my foot down and saying once and for all: The Gurkha Centurian Double X stinks. It's a horrid, ugly smoke, and it isn't worth 3 dollars, much less 30. Buy it for your wife, if you must, but only buy it at discount.

If I'm wrong, please enlighten me. I really want to know.

All Hail Carlos Torano

Yes, size matters. In this case, the smaller the better.

I recently tried a Carlos Torano 1916 Cameroon, corona size, and it was powdery bliss from the first puff. Slightly reminiscent of the freebie Padron lonsdale that I experienced a couple weeks ago, but more consistent and thrilling. Heaps of powdery smoke dancing on the tongue then curling off toward heaven in glorious exhalation. Slight, cool sweetness. On a deep summer night, looking up at the stars from a hilltop backyard in Duluth, the 1916 corona hit the spot. Thank you Carlos Torano. All's right with the world.

Duluth? Don't ask. There comes a time in every man's life when he finds himself in the Duluth of his own nightmare. Your Duluth may go by another name - Bakersfield, Bayonne, Akron. It will be a place you visit infrequently, and home to relatives you deplore. When you're there, you simply endure. I recommend a Carlos Torano 1916 Cameroon to help you through - a corona size, mind you, and don't be ashamed. It may be thin and short, but it knows all the right moves.

Chocolate? What Chocolate?

Note to self: Beware any cigar promo that mentions "chocolately taste." In my experience, such a taste translates to: Nothing special. Example: Carlos Torano Exodus 1959 (torpedo size). This cigar was heavily ballyhoed both by Cigar Aficionado and CI as having a 93 rating, being the #5 rated cigar of 2006, and having a CHOCOLATELY taste, undertone, hint, etc. I looked forward to this velvety treat with rapture, only to find, on two separate occasions, that it just tasted like... smoke. Good puffy smoke, good burning stick, pleasant, mind you, but NO CHOCOLATE.

Same thing with the fabled Gurkha Centurian XX. Where's the chocolate? Or was it vanilla? No matter, you won't find either flavor. Just smoke. And not that pleasant, mind you.

Is it my taste buds, or is a chocolately-tasting cigar just an illusion dreamed up by copywriters for the major cigar distributors? I don't get it, man. Somebody enlighten me.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Cigar Heaven

If there's a Heaven, it won't be made of clouds. It'll be made of cigar smoke. Thick, white, billowing smoke that you can lounge around in forever. Smoke that smells good to everyone, whether they're the ones puffing away like fiends or not.

In Heaven, you can smoke one cigar after another without worrying about your health, because you're already dead. And without social reprisal, because it's Heaven. Everybody's happy; anything goes.

In Heaven, each cigar tastes as good as the one before, yet subtly different. And when you pick the brand you loved a month ago, it tastes exactly the way you remembered it.

No disappointment. No clouds. Just smoke.

That's heaven.