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.