Whisky & Culture

Rolled Gold

Nothing befits a dram more than a fine smoke. James Leavey advises where to buy the best cigars.
By James Leavey
On 9 March 2000 at Christie’s in London, the hammer fell on 416 lots of ‘vintage cigars’, which ranged in age from 1930s to a box barely three years old. By the end of the day, the pre-sale estimates for Christie’s first auction devoted exclusively to cigars were exceeded by some £150,000 in a total take of just over £500,000. Christie’s also set a new world record price paid for one cigar at a public auction: £726 for a 9.5” x 60 ring gauge Hoyo Particulares.One enthusiastic collector sold 198 boxes (over 4,500 cigars) from the 1980s, whose original purchase price in London was estimated at £25,000. Christie’s hammer price a decade or so later was £176,000.Simon Chase, the marketing director of Hunters & Frankau, the UK’s main importer of Havanas, believes the current growing interest in vintage cigars can be traced back to 1995 when the US cigar boom was in full swing. “Ironically, although America’s cigar enthusiasts could read about Havanas in the pages of Cigar Aficionado magazine, they could not buy or smoke them, at least not legally. Then they realised that the American Embargo on Cuba did not extend to pre-Castro cigars (ie pre-1959).”As a result, the world’s cigar lovers found a lucrative market for those old boxes of Havanas they had been clinging on to all these years. This in turn spurred interest in more recent cigars, especially the larger Havanas, of which there has been a shortage for several years due to crop failures and Cuba’s economic problems. Earlier this year, a superficial glance at newspaper articles could lead you to believe that Cuba had sold her Crown Jewels, the Havana cigar industry, to the Franco-Spanish company, Altadis sa. Not so, according to Simon Chase, “Half of the marketing arm, Habanos SA, has been traded to gain much needed capital and expertise,” he said, “but the vast majority of the industry stays firmly in Cuban hands. All the tobacco growing, all the cigar making and, of course, the other half of the marketing.”Oscar Basulto, the new head of Habanos SA, whom the Financial Times dubbed the Cuban Cigar Tsar, summed up the situation in his own inimitable way, “They have the money. We have the tobacco. And they can’t smoke the money.”The new marketing arm of Habanos SA plans to invest heavily in Cuba’s tobacco production and agriculture, and safeguard the overall quality of Havana cigars. This will almost certainly result in less sizes and more price increases over the next few years. All the more reason to buy now, and smoke later. Even better, why not buy two boxes of your favourite Havanas, as the sale of the second will one day more than pay for the cost of the first. The same goes for certain non-Cuban brands, especially the premium smokes produced in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Jamaica.But the connoisseur will always opt for Havanas, as few places have stamped their name on a product quite as effectively as Cuba’s capital has on the world’s finest cigars. Today, the feisty Caribbean island produces around 200 million cigars a year, two thirds of which are hand-made, and the remainder, machine-made. The most sought-after Cuban cigars are hand-rolled, ie those comprised of long filler and a high quality wrapper, and made entirely by hand. It’s said that every hand-rolled Havana goes through at least 222 different stages before it is ready to smoke.There is a notable difference in price and quality between Cuba’s hand-rolled and machine-made cigars, the latter may offer consistent quality but tend be uniformly designed and less sophisticated in taste.Whatever their origin, all fine cigars share three main components: the filler – that inner core of tobacco, which forms the cigar’s shape and size; the binder – a large leaf that is somewhat coarser than the final outer covering; and not least, the wrapper – which constitutes less than 10 per cent of the mass of the fine cigar, but creates that vital initial impression as it is the part that we see and taste. Please note that the wrappers of the finest cigars have a smooth, silky texture coupled with fine thin veins and no blemishes.Size does matter, as generally speaking, larger ring gauge stogies smoke better than smaller ones. The ring gauge is the recognised measurement for the diameter of a cigar, based on 64th of an inch. For example, a 48 ring gauge cigar is 48/64ths or two-thirds of an inch thick. The length of is measured in inches or millimetres.There are countless sizes of fine cigars manufactured around the world, far too many to list here. Cuba alone produces 69 different cigar sizes, 42 of which are for hand-rolled Havanas, each with its own factory name.There are over 65 different shades of Havana cigar wrapper alone. All boxed Havanas are colour matched with the smallest tonal variances, arranged with the darkest cigar to the left and the lightest on the right, and banded by hand at exactly the same height on every cigar. So beware of any box of Havanas containing multi-coloured cigars, especially any cigars bought on the streets of Cuba. they are usually counterfeit.Most serious aficionados prefer shade-grown wrapper leaves, produced under a cheesecloth tarpaulin through which the sun is filtered, creating a thinner, more elastic leaf. Sun-grown wrapper produced in direct sunlight, tends to have thicker veins and is coarser than shade-grown. Cigars in good condition should feel firm but springy. If they are too moist they will be soft and spongy; too dry and brittle and, eventually, rigid and unsmokeable. Bloom is a natural part of the ageing process; the result of oils exuding from the tobacco. It usually appears as a fine whitish powder and can be easily brushed off, unlike bluish-coloured mould, which stains the wrapper and spoils a
good cigar.Not that this is likely to be found in English Market Selection cigars, reputed to be the finest Havanas; specially selected for the more discerning British market. You are unlikely to find any ‘EMS’ Havanas in Spain, where premium cigars are on average, less than 2/3 of their UK price. But price isn’t everything, especially when you are looking for high quality premium, hand-rolled cigars.In America, you can buy 96 per cent of all the cigars produced around the world, excluding Cubans. In Britain and elsewhere in Europe, you will only find 6 per cent, but most of them are Havanas unobtainable elsewhere, and kept in the finest traditions. Don’t look for vintage cigars in Cuba – they exported them years ago. As for buying premium cigars on the internet – that’s fine for everyday smokes. But when you’re paying serious money for the finest cigars, it’s better to personally check them first.The best way to buy fine cigars is to ask a reputable tobacco merchant (especially any of those listed below) what’s smoking well now, and what’s likely to be in demand tomorrow. And do try one first, before committing yourself to a box. At least you’ll know that if no one else wants them, you can always have a good smoke.