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.