There’s nothing like tobacco: it is the passion of all decent people; someone who lives without tobacco does not deserve to live” (Molière, 1622-73, Don Juan, I.i)Frankly, as usual, Molière was talking out of his fancy French derrière when he penned the above definition of smokers. But it’s a good line to use when you sit back in the comfort of an expensive restaurant, light a nice big cigar, blow your blue smoke in the air and simply await the inevitable little cretin who can’t wait to complain bitterly that you’re exasperating his asthma. Which – in my opinion – is what the fine art of cigar smoking is all about: the principle that you gain the maximum amount of pleasure annoying the maximum amount of people. It works a treat in America but it’s beginning to become increasingly enjoyable over in good old blighty. The problem is, it’s also becoming increasingly expensive – particularly if you have a penchant for Cubans. They may be at the top of the cigar tree, the daddy of the cigar world in commercial terms (which is wonderfully ironic of course, given their country of origin) but they’re also horrifyingly expensive. With a Cuban you are rejoicing in the ability to burn money without a care.But what if you have to be a little bit more economic? Does it mean you have to take a downturn in quality terms? Does it mean you have to settle for second rate just because your wallet won’t stretch that far? Well, I know you want me to say no, but I’d be talking out of my own derrière. You will, in many cases, get an inferior product. But let’s put this in perspective. If, say, you trade ‘down’ to the best that Honduras has to offer are you in essence trading your fine cigar smoking habit in for the equivalent of a five pack of Hamlet? Of course not. What you’re doing is saying: “I’d love a Bentley – I mean I’d really love a Bentley. But I’ve got a 7-series BMW or S-Class Mercedes-sized wallet – not a flipping Morris Minor purse.” This is still fine tobacco we’re talking here, not 20 Superkings.So what’s on offer and from where? If it’s remotely Hispanic or Latin by nature, sounds a little bit like Cuba or resides in a similar sphere of the world and has been invaded – sorry ‘supported’ – by the US army at some point in its long history, then it probably makes cigars of some sort. So Mexico, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Tobago. All these countries or islands have spent hundreds
of years producing cigars – sometimes to a high quality, sometimes not. But it’s in the last fifty years where most have come on quite spectacularly. Why? Well, simply put, if you can make it out of a Cuban cigar factory, onto a raft and across the shark-infested seas that separate the coast of Miami from Castro’s home beach, chances are there’ll be someone there from the Dominican Republic or Honduras ready to ship you out to their cigar factory. Add to that a greater knowledge and understanding of the ways of the tobacco plant, and the strains of seed that produce the best smoking rolling and wrapping tobacco around, and you end up with a product that is – to abuse the above analogy – saving a little walnut dash and leather piping, a fierce competitor for the attentions of both beginners and enthusiasts alike.To my mind, it’s Honduras and the Dominican Republic that are really giving Cuba a good run for their money. And I’m not the only one to think that. The Americans love them just as much, buying almost a 250m of them last year if statistics are to be believed. Myth has it that in general you get a lighter, mellower kind of smoke from Honduras and the Dominican Republic – but I don’t necessarily hold with that. Like anything that is blended, be it whisky, champagne or tobacco in the form of cigars, it’s as much to do with what you decide to create as what you have at your disposal. They can blend the ‘filler’ tobacco for the cigar to any degree of richness they like – what’s more they can use tobacco leaves produced across the Americas (which is why you’ll find Honduran tobacco used to make Dominican Republic cigars and vice versa). It’s more a case that traditionally the style has tended to be on the lighter side. It’s only in recent years that there has been a determined effort to ape the richer, fuller bodied style of many of the successful brands from Havana. It’s also interesting to see that – like in champagne – many of the quality led brands in these two countries are either
associated or descended from the major Cuban brands. In the same way that you’ll find Domaine Chandon sparkling wines from California, you’ll find Hoyo de Monterrey, Punch and El Rey del Mundo from Honduras and Partagas, Ramon Alloyes, H Upmann and Bolivar cigars from the Dominican Republic – and believe it or not, Romeo y Julieta cigars made in both the Dominican Republic and Honduras. The beauty of this is that you can have some of the kudos of the big Cuban names, a lot of the quality and reliability and yet you don’t have to stray too far off the beaten track. There are others of course - Santa Damiana and Arturo Fuente spring to mind from the DR, whilst Don Ramos does the business in Honduras – that don’t have the kudos but are just as well placed to give you a great smoke.If you enjoy wandering into uncharted territory, then you might like to try the Canary Islands, where Dunhill produce some of their cigars, or Nicaragua, source of some great cigars (try Joya de Nicaragua). Mexico produces quite a lot of filthy chewy sticks of tobacco laughingly referred to as cigars but also does some thoroughly respectable smokes such as Matacan. And for a final foray, why not try a Gloria Cubana (a major Cuban brand) that has been made in the US – it’s like smoking a contradiction in terms. But make sure you smoke it in the middle of a Los Angeles restaurant with a broken air con filter, whilst nobly waving your diplomatic passport in the face of the anyone threatening to call the cops. Or at least dream about it.