Cigar Brands: So many choices, so little time…
By: Jorge Mendizabal, MD
So, you pay a visit to your local B & M (brick and mortar-> as opposed to say, on-line) cigar shop. The moment you enter the walk-in humidor you get this overwhelming feeling, a symptom of what I call “The mosquito in a nudist beach syndrome” (you know what you need to do but you don’t know where to start).
The reality is there are over 3,000 cigar brands in circulation. It is virtually impossible to try them all. It does help, however, to become familiar with some of the most popular brands and to know what to expect from them. What follows is my attempt to tackle this subject.
Cigar Brands and Cigar Makers
There are many ways to classify cigars. Shape, size, wrapper leave, country of origin are just some of them. It can get rather complicated. When it comes to brands of cigars, the issue is still somewhat complex. Brands change ownership and manufacturers. Some cigars made outside of Cuba use traditional Cuban brands (Montecristo, R & J, Partagas, Cohiba, etc.). It helps to try to keep up to date with news from the industry. You can get this type of information from your tobacconist or by reading on-line sites and blogs. In this article, I will try to summarize some of the most popular brands and manufacturers for non-ISOM (Island South of Miami) cigars. I will also include some information about the characteristics of their cigars.
General Cigars.- One the largest cigar companies in the world, based in Sweden. GC is currently proprietary owner of some of the most famous brands in circulation like Partagas, Montecristo, Hoyo de Monterrey, Punch, Sancho Panza, La Gloria Cubana, Dominican Cohiba, Macanudo to name a few. More recently, this industry giant absorbed the CAO and Torano brands. General produces cigars of very good quality. It is hard to go wrong with the likes of Partagas (the Partagas Black Label is legendary), Excalibur and Sancho Panza. My only concern with a company of this size is the fact they seem to have lost the artisanal sense of cigar making. Finesse and originality are sacrificed for the sake of volume. And, believe me, volume they know with annual sales approaching 2.5 billion cigars. That’s enough to put a stogie in the mouth of half of humankind. What a herf that would be.
Don Pepin Garcia.- Possibly the single most prolific cigar maker in the world, Jose “Pepin” Garcia is a Cuban expatriate who has spent a lifetime in the industry. From his humble beginnings in the Island to his multi-million dollar cigar factory in Nicaragua, Pepin is a busy man. In addition to his house brands, he manufactures cigars for several other brands like Tatuaje. The typical Pepin Garcia cigar is very much reminiscent of the Cuban classics like Partagas Series D#4. His cigars are flavorful medium to full in bodied, with a characteristic spicy finish. For a typical Pepin experience, look for DPG blue Label, DPG Black Label “Cuban Classic”, El Rey de los Habanos, Tabacos Baez and the Vegas Cubanas.
Tatuaje.- The brainchild of Mr. Pete Johnson (a former rock star) and Pepin Garcia, Tatuaje (tattoo in Spanish) has become a staple in the humidors of connoisseurs from around the world. Tatuaje cigars are manufactured in Nicaragua. They are bold, flavorful, spicy and not usually appreciated by beginners. The introduction of limited production lines as a marketing strategy has helped the sales of this brand. Look for Tatuaje Cabinet (brown label), Tatuaje Havana (Red Label), Tatuaje Cojunu (literally, “ballsy” in Spanish), Tabacos El Triunfador, Tabacos La Riqueza and The Monster series (the latter nearly impossible to find given its cult-like status) . Pete Johnson’s most recent introduction is La Casita Criolla, an authentic American puro made with 100% Connecticut shade tobacco.
Camacho.- The Eiroa family has been manufacturing this brand in Rancho Jamastran, Honduras. The Eiroas recently sold the rights of their cigars to Davidoff, another example of a giant gobbling up a major brand. The Camacho style is bold, full bodied, in-your-face. The Eiroas like to boast about their perfect construction techniques. Indeed, I have never found a Camacho with a bad draw. These cigars can mature wonderfully with humidor age. Look for Camacho Corojo, Camacho Triple Maduro, Camacho Diploma and Camacho Coyolar Puro (a fire cracker of a cigar).
Oliva.- Another Cuban expatriate family with a manufacturing tradition spanning over a century. Oliva is famous for producing some of the best wrapper in the world. They have based most of their production in Ecuador. Oliva cigars come in different strengths. The Oliva series O, Oliva series G end Flor de Oliva tend to be mild to medium in body. My personal favorite is the Oliva Series V, a full bodied, full flavor smoke which is a thing of beauty.
Padron.- No discussion about cigar brands is complete without mentioning the name of the company founded by Jose Orlando Padron in 1968. The Padrons, another family with tobacco tradition dating back to the early 1800s, have been making fine cigars in Nicaragua in their most fortunate (at least for us) exile. The Padron style can be summarized in 4 words: Cedar, Coffee, Chocolate and Earth. They are all medium bodied, competitively priced smokes. The only exceptions to this are perhaps the Padron Aniversario 1926 and The Padron Aniversario 1964, both lines usually priced over $20. Those are definitely special occasion cigars. The Padron Aniversario 1926 is simply delicious, possibly one of the best cigars in the world (certainly in my top 5).
Fuente.- Another “elephant in the room” when it comes to classic brands. Originally founded by Arturo Fuente in 1912 (Ybor City, Florida), Tabacalera Fuente has been steered more recently Carlos and Carlito Fuente and they have been producing some of the finest Dominican cigars in the world. In addition to the Classic Fuente Chateau line, look for the Hemingway and the Don Carlos Series, both phenomenal. The Hemingway Short Story and the AF Don Carlos # 2 are classics. The Opus X cigar line, in my humble opinion, is overrated and overpriced. Fuente also makes Diamond Crown. The Diamond Crown Maxximus is another special occasion cigar (about $16) that is worth trying at least once. The "Casa Fuente" is a luxury line only sold at Casa Fuente at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. No visit to Vegas is complete without purchasing and trying at least one Casa Fuente belicoso (about $32 a piece), possibly one of the most complex smokes in existence.
Perdomo.- It would be unfair not to mention Perdomo in this article. Perdomo is the manufacturer of some of the finest cigars coming from Nicaragua. It is worth experiencing their entire lineup, no exceptions. Instant classics include the Perdomo Habano, Perdomo Lot 23, Perdomo Reserve Champagne and Criollo, and the Perdomo Patriarch (my favorite).
Padilla.- Having started with the Perdomo family, Ernesto Padilla began producing his own cigars in 2004. Padillas are flavorful Cuban-style cigars. Look for the Padilla Habano, Padilla 1932 (possibly their best line), Padilla Miami Series and the Padilla 1968.
A.J. Fernandez.- A newcomer with another Cuban expatriate heritage history, Abdel Fernandez learned the trade directly from Alejandro Robaina, a recently deceased Cuban roller considered by many as a legend in the industry. In addition to producing his own line of cigars (AJ Fernandez Signature, Man o’ War, La Herencia Cubana and Diesel), AJ manufactures fantastic smokes for others like Rocky Patel and EO. The EO 601 series of cigars is extraordinary (try the green label). The Herencia Cubana Oscuro Fuerte is a fantastic smoke that can be had for about five bucks. Just a kid when compared to most experienced cigar blenders, AJ Fernandez has a bright future in front of him. His latest release, San Lotano is said to be extraordinary. Something new to look for.
Rocky Patel.- Rakesh “Rocky” Patel was already a successful Beverly Hills attorney when he decided to switch gears and enter the cigar industry. That, my friends, was a very fortunate career change. When it comes to making fine cigars, Rocky Patel is as prolific as it gets. With a list of over 30 lines of cigars, it is simply impossible to remember them all. Worth mentioning are RP Vintage lines (particularly the 90' and 92'), The Edge (particularly the Maduro), the ITC Anniversary, the Sun Grown and the Olde Worlde Reserve (my personal favorite). John and Vic featured two fantastic cigar blends from RP in the last couple of meetings of the SH/OLG Cigar Club (The Rocky Patel Bros Next Generation and the Rocky Patel Autumn Collection 2008).
La Flor Dominicana.- Litto Gomez from LFD has been producing some of strongest and most flavorful cigars in today’s market. Most of these smokes are not for the timid of heart. Their Double Ligero Chisel is perhaps the strongest cigar available. Be sure to smoke it on a full stomach, in the sitting or supine position.
Joya de Nicaragua.- The oldest cigar factory in Nicaragua, the brand was resurrected after the Sandinista Revolution by Dr. Alejandro Martinez. This brand features old style Nicaraguan puros from Esteli, Nicaragua. These are typically full bodied powerhouses better appreciated by the seasoned aficionado. Look for The JDN Antano 1970 and the JDN Celebracion.
La Aurora.- One of the oldest and most traditional Dominican brands, La Aurora has traditionally made mild bodied, full flavored cigars. More recently, they have tried to appeal to the taste of those looking for more strength in their smokes. Look for the Aurora 107 and the 1495 series. The traditional La Aurora line is much milder but still enjoyable. The Preferidos is a perfecto shaped vitola packed in a very elegant and colorful tube; the latter can set you back about $20 per stick.
Davidoff and Ashton.- Two upper shelf ($) brands. Of these two, Ashton tends to make fuller bodied, richer smokes. The Davidoff Millennium Edition is a notable exception. The brand Avo (created by the pianist, Avo Uvezian) is distributed by Davidoff and it includes some fine, albeit pricey smokes. Look also for Ashton Cabinet Reserve and Ashton Sun Grown. To be perfectly honest with you, I rarely reach for these brands. With so many other more affordable quality choices, I don’t feel their price is justified. A more affordable cigar from the Ashton line is San Cristobal (about $8).
Boutique Brands.- The cigar equivalent of a “boutique wine” can be defined as those smaller companies producing a limited amount of cigars for a specific niche within the market. Boutique cigars tend to emphasize the artisanal (emphasis in the ART part of the word) aspect of the craft. I truly believe this is where there are treasures waiting to be discovered. To name a few, in here I include brands like Cuban Crafters, Kristoff, Jesus Fuego, Illusione and Alec Bradley. Among these “boutiques” I recommend: J.L. Salazar & Hermanos (Cuban Crafters); Kristoff Sumatra and Maduro;, Jesus Fuego 22N/83W; Illusione Epernay and Illusione MJ2 (only cigar I have seen that comes wrapped in aluminum foil; ask me about the story behind this novelty) ; Tempus and Cabinet Reserve (Alec Bradley).
So there you have it, my 2 cents, the tip of the iceberg. It is virtually impossible to visit all available brands in one review buut this should serve you as a guide to safely navigate your tobacconist humidor. Remember, smoke what you like not what other person tells you is good for you. The best cigar still the one you keep going back to. Taste, at the end, is very indidual.