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Holiday Survival Guide: Burning Desires: Cigars

Brent Butterworth & Richard Carleton Hacker

What better way to begin a golf gathering, season an afternoon social, or end an elegant dinner party than with a fine cigar?

 

We present new tastes to tantalize the  adventurous guest, classics to impress those who take solace in the tried-and-true, and accessories that will render even the most extravagant host speechless.

Among our cigar recommendations for gifts or party favors are the Carlos Toraño Tribute, the Bahia Blu, the CAO Italia, the Gurkha Legend, the Davidoff Especiales “7,” and (this page) Padrón 6000s.

Because fine cigars should be complemented with equally exquisite accessories, we suggest the Ashton Vavona humidor, the Credo Synchro cutter, and the Porsche Design PD1 lighter. Details on these and other accessories can be found on page 250.

Fresh Fire
Nothing delights a stalwart smoker more than a journey into the unknown. These six recent releases will secure for your guests a safe yet eventful passage.

Davidoff Especiales “7”
We begin our voyage with what may be this season’s most auspicious debut: a cigar that combines seven tobaccos in a single stick. Five different tobaccos constitute the filler, and two more form the binder and wrapper. The Especiales “7” exhibits such a complex character that describing it with words seems pointless. Your guests may fill an hour listing the flavors that fleet across their tongues; we will state simply that the “7” possesses a medium body and a slightly spicy quality. Davidoff offers a single size, the Robusto Real (5½ inches, 48 ring gauge), but when presented with a smoke this spectacular, one does not yearn for variety.

CAO Italia
Smokers who rarely venture beyond the Caribbean and Central American offerings when they choose their tobaccos will flush with excitement at their first draw of the Italia. Half of the filler tobacco hails from Italy, a region unknown even to adventurous smokers. A Honduran wrapper and binder add more familiar flavor notes. With its smooth taste and an aroma reminiscent of exotic hardwood smoke, the Italia is distinctive and original—but in the spirit of a Corum watch rather than a Pontiac Aztek. The longest and best size is the 6¼ x 54 Gondola.

Bahia Blu
This puro composed entirely of Nicaraguan tobacco proves that a cigar manufacturer need not wander outside a single country to create a complex, balanced smoke. Four tobaccos from various regions of this Central American nation combine to create an exceptionally balanced smoke that always delights but never overpowers. This medium-bodied cigar lingers on the palate with a particularly delightful, slightly sweet aftertaste. The 7 x 48 Churchill we sampled complements lighter beverages, such as a smooth Scotch, a fruity cocktail, or a sprightly Chardonnay.

Carlos Toraño Tribute
Although the sinister brown color of a maduro wrapper scares off most novice smokers, a few might be attracted by the exclusivity of the Carlos Toraño Tribute’s individually numbered boxes. Warn them, though, that the Tribute is no place to begin exploring the maduro. The bold character of the Tribute’s Ecuadoran wrapper combines with Dominican and Nicaraguan fillers to produce a powerful flavor as sure to delight veterans as it is to overwhelm beginners. Toraño produces 1,000 numbered boxes of each size; we were fortunate enough to sample from box number 1 in the satisfying 6½ x 52 caliber.

Padrón 6000
The last hour of a party often proves the most satisfying; conversations become more intimate as acquaintances filter out and your closest friends remain. Some consider a cigar too intoxicating for the deepest hours of night, but the Padrón 6000’s light-to-medium body, refined flavor, and tangy nose offer subtle stimulation especially appropriate for after-midnight relaxation. The Nicaraguan tobaccos in this beautifully constructed 5½ x 52 torpedo blend perfectly with a smooth Highland single malt or a light Cabernet.

Gurkha Legend
Guests who seek a more challenging excursion will appreciate this full-bodied blend. Like a group of experienced, fearless jazz musicians, the Legend’s Connecticut maduro wrapper, Cameroon binder, and Dominican filler deliver characters both concerted and discrete. The flavor of the wrapper is powerful and chocolaty, and the filler offers peppery overtones. Reserve the Legend for the cognoscenti. Although the box’s unusual sliding metal cover facilitates a dramatic presentation, this cigar is not one to pass out to just any guest who requests a smoke.

Always Welcome
Classic cigars produce admiration among connoisseurs and, sometimes, a life-changing experience for novices. Here are six must-haves for the expert host.

Fuente Fuente OpusX
This cigar is a guaranteed eyebrow-raiser. It was the crown jewel of the cigar boom, and in terms of demand, it continues to eclipse all others. The name is derived from Carlos Fuente and Carlos Fuente Jr.’s collaboration (thus the “Fuente Fuente”) on the first Dominican Republic puro—a cigar in which wrapper, binder, and filler are all from the same country. The wrapper, pundits said, could not be grown in the Dominican Republic, but the Fuente family proved them wrong. Aged for more than a year, this medium-strength cigar stands up to most cognacs and nearly all single-malt whiskies. Limited availability may restrict choices, but we prefer the 75/8x 49 double corona for maximum flavor.

Ashton VSG
A dark, oily wrapper usually indicates a full-bodied blow to the palate, and the Ashton VSG does not disappoint. The “VSG” stands for Virgin Sun Grown, a reference to the absence of any cheesecloth shade covering that would have diminished the sun-enriched flavors in the wrapper. Five years of aging and a double-fermentation maduro binder add to the VSG’s strength. Rich and powerful, like many who favor it, the VSG demands the equivalent of an osso buco entrée with an uncut, unfiltered Booker’s bourbon afterward. The 7½ x 54 Spellbound—a Churchill—delivers the maximum punch.

Padrón 1964 Anniversary (Maduro)
Nicaraguan soil is close in texture and mineral content to the rich, red earth of Cuba’s Vuelta Abajo, and that similarity—plus four years of aging—makes this cigar the choice of smokers who lament the pre-Castro good old days. Its creamy finesse, reminiscent of the extra-aged pre-Castro Cubans, is enhanced by extended maduro fermentation. Yet this all-Nicaraguan box-pressed puro has a subdued strength that allows it to be smoked in the late afternoon as well as in the evening. The 6 x 52 torpedo or the 6 x 54 Imperial are preferred sizes, when you can find them.

Davidoff Millennium
With Dominican filler and binder tobaccos that have been aged for a minimum of four years, followed by a year—and often more—of cedar room aging for the completed cigars, the double-banded Millennium is a well-crafted smoke, full of complex flavors and spice. Its woody finish makes the Millennium ideal for a heavy cognac such as Hennessy or a smoky single malt from Islay. The Robusto (5¼ x 50) and the Churchill (6¾ x 48) offer the best balance of size and full-ringed flavor.

Graycliff Espresso
This new powerhouse quickly has earned a place of honor in a host’s humidor, because it represents the ideal response to those who ask, “Don’t you have anything stronger?” The shadowy dark, rough-textured Costa Rican wrapper—a sterile cloning of the Cuban Corojo seed—hints at the power to be unleashed with the very first puff. Cuban seed Cameroon, Ecuadoran ligero (the strongest leaf of the plant), and a touch of soothing Philippine Simaba are some of the tobaccos that enable this cigar to live up to its hard-hitting Espresso name. Our favorite shape of this limited edition line is the Pirate (6 x 52).

Macanudo Vintage Cabinet 1997
Since 1979, only five harvests of Connecticut Shade wrappers have been exceptional enough to be considered vintage. This is the latest, from the world’s largest grower of the coveted leaf. The 1997 elevates what was already the best-selling cigar in America. In keeping with the cigar’s vintage theme, the San Andrean binder was selected from the best of Mexico’s highly rated 1998 leaf, and the tobaccos were allowed extra time on the plant to provide an additional boost in flavor. Anyone desiring a smooth-tasting, medium-strength cigar will not be disappointed with the Macanudo Vintage, especially the 7½ x 49 Vintage 1 Churchill. It is the perfect companion to a blended Scotch and one of the few cigars that pairs well with a gin martini.

Forbidden Fruit
Cuban cigars offer unequaled cachet, even though they are often inconsistent in quality—and remain illegal in the United States. But a vacation home overseas would be incomplete without these four standouts.

 

Cohiba Esplendido
The Churchill-sized Esplendido is aptly named, for “splendid” is the word that comes to mind when first lighting this symbol of Castro’s new Cuba. Created as the official government cigar, it initially was reserved for visiting VIPs. But since 1982, the Esplendido has been available to all smokers throughout the world (except the United States, of course). The cigar is made like no other in Cuba: Its tobaccos undergo a unique triple fermentation, with the last aging stage occurring in wooden barrels that imbue the cigars with a distinctive spice. It is full-bodied—more so than some would like—but it possesses an elegant earthiness.

Partagás Serie D No. 4
This 47⁄8 x 50 cigar is the classic robusto, packing an abundance of rich, deeply flavored smoke into a stubby package that will last from 30 to 45 minutes. Founded by Don Jaime Partagás Ravelo in 1845, the brand is still made in the original factory—the oldest continually operating cigar plant in Cuba. Some find the hearty flavor of the Serie D a bit rough, but such coarseness is a consequence of the cigars not always being aged for a year or more, as they were before demand outstripped supply. Nonetheless, the Partagás Serie D provides a hearty smoke for those in search of strength that is not overpowering. It is the perfect accompaniment to a dark chocolate cake or a snifter of Macallan 18.

Montecristo No. 2
Easy to clip, easy to light, and easy to smoke, the No. 2 has a medium-to-heavy flavor that can be likened to the taste of filet mignon. Yet it is also reminiscent of dark chocolate and moist red earth, with a finely honed complexity and a long, substantial finish. The No. 2 is among the most consistently rolled of the Cuban cigars, which is one of the reasons it remains the hallmark by which other Cubans are judged.

Romeo y Julieta Churchill (Tubes)
Romeo y Julieta contradicts the notion that all Havanas are strong. It is a full-flavored yet medium-strength smoke, even in the large-formatted 7 x 47 Churchill. In fact, Romeo y Julieta coined the term Churchill, renaming the Clemenceau because this size was a favorite of the British statesman. The Romeo y Julieta Churchill is one of the few Havanas available in a tube, packaging that makes it easier to slip a few of these masterpieces into your coat pocket to present as an end-of-the-evening surprise for your dinner host. With or without the tube, the Churchill is the same smooth-smoking cigar, with a pleasant aroma that many find almost floral.

 

Tools of the Trade
One cannot enjoy a great cigar without the proper accoutrements: a cutter, a lighter, an ashtray, and a fine humidor to protect your treasured tobacco.

In Sync
What more could be done with the humble cigar cutter? Surely no dazzling technological innovation could come to this field—or so we thought before we encountered the Credo Synchro (starting at $100). Many other cutters are equipped with dual blades to produce a symmetrical cut, but lacking the motor skills of a watchmaker or Andres Segovia, you inevitably will apply more pressure with either your forefinger or your thumb and make an uneven cut. However, as the cutter’s name implies, the movements of its two blades always are perfectly synchronized. With the Synchro, we achieved the most precise cut we have ever seen; we doubt even Dr. Denton Cooley could do better. The Synchro is available in five metal and five wood finishes.

Thinner Lighter
Most cigar lighters cater to your hand; their heft and girth provide as much tactile pleasure as a 54-ring-gauge robusto. Pity, however, your poor leg, which must rub against these behemoths all day long as they ride in your pants pocket. With the new, slim PD1 ($100), Porsche Design provides a more comfortable experience for your thigh—and it treats your cigars gently as well. A single flick of the thumb opens and ignites the lighter. The PD1’s circular flame is formed by multiple small nozzles instead of a single large one, making it windproof and more consistent in temperature than a single flame. The PD1 is available in a variety of colors.

Ashes to Ashes
Although the ashtray may seem to be a passive device, the finer examples play a more active role. The Bugatti Design ashtray ($400) positions two cigars opposite each other, the perfect configuration to inspire the conversation that always accompanies a shared smoking experience. Without a doubt, the ashtray itself will garner many flattering comments. Its heavy crystal base provides a stable, secure receptacle, and its deep, V-shaped notches can support today’s popular large-diameter cigars.

 

Airtight Option
A desktop humidor is a risky gift, because as with a corkscrew or a chef’s knife, every aficionado already has one that he or she loves. The Ashton Vavona humidor ($2,300), though, exhibits sufficient quality to displace practically any predecessor—or prompt the recipient to make room for a second desk. The burl-wood finish is the first clue that this is a superior humidor, and lifting the lid produces the rush of air that indicates an airtight seal. It also reveals the flawless workmanship that has made Manning, the division of Ashton that produces these humidors, a revered name among cigar connoisseurs.

Traveling First-Class
Every veteran smoker has received at least one travel humidor as a gift; the bar in my smoking room is cluttered with a half dozen. However, most have an industrial appearance that makes them seem more suited for carting your favorite soldering iron. The Bugatti Design travel humidor ($1,500) is an exception. Its wooden exterior is as handsome as that of most fine desktop humidors, and its cedar interior safely cradles even large cigars through the rigors of international flights. A white leather strap with a magnetic clasp holds cigars firmly in place when you open the lid. Bugatti Design includes a protective velvet pouch—a travel case for the travel humidor.

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