Spring in New York City is a celebration. As someone who divides his time between India and New York, I always make it a point to be in New York for April’s cherry blossoms. While the morning is crisp, the day warms up by the afternoon, enough to get a barbecue going with good friends, a beverage of choice and, most significantly, cigars. Nitin Madan makes a persuasive case for non-Cuban cigars.
This past weekend, the barbecue season began with a fantastic Alec Bradley Prensado, Cigar Aficionado‘s Cigar of the year for 2011. A cigar like that is not only an experience in itself, it also has the ability to enhance the enjoyment of your drink as well as bring out subtle flavours of the accompanying food.
What spring is to New York, winter is to northern India. Cigars are relatively harder to come by here, although decidedly easier now than a few years ago. Aficionados and enthusiasts are bringing home cigars from trips abroad. Lounges and bars have become available to enjoy a stick paired with malts, cognacs and wines. What is still lacking, however, is access to knowledge. Or, if I may say, a nuanced perspective. A broad understanding may be enough to begin with but to allow your interest to turn into enthusiasm or passion, you need to delve somewhat deeper.
For many people cigars are an acquired taste. Being a non- smoker, I didn’t take to cigars as I might have taken to aloo paratha, in my wholesome Punjabi way. It was my passion for wine that led me to a cigar pairing event in New York, which is where I began my love affair with cigars.
A basic introduction that evening opened doors to further knowledge, greater exposure and the ability to enjoy cigars to their fullest. In India, while I have greatly enjoyed my smokes in some spectacular locations, there is a great deal of misinformation around. So, for starters, I’d like to bust at least one myth. Cuban cigars are not the last word in cigar making. This is a common misconception and not unique to India.
It isn’t unusual for specific products to be associated with different countries. For instance, there is a certain credibility attached to wines from France, or a malt whisky from Scotland, even while wines and whiskies of increasing quality are being produced all over the world. Cigars are much the same in that regard. However, it is now argued with some merit that Cuban cigars may actually be inferior to a variety of other cigars made with tobaccos from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Cameroon and, most significantly, Nicaragua.
Don’t get me wrong, I will not pass on a Cuban Cohiba – just as I wouldn’t decline a Burgundy Grand Cru or an 18-year-old Macallan, but that doesn’t mean that Joseph Phelps makes inferior wine in Napa or that an 18-year-old Yamazaki from Japan is any poorer in taste and enjoyment. Or, for that matter, a Dominican Partagas is in any way inferior to its older Cuban cousin.
Cuban cigars without doubt have a stellar reputation and with good reason. But since 1960 after the socialist revolution in Cuba, the US (one of the largest premium cigar markets in the world) placed an embargo on economic relations with its southern neighbour. The loss of this large market took its toll on the Cuban cigar industry. Added to that, all privately held cigar manufacturers in Cuba were nationalised by the government, under one company, Cubatabaco.
Predictably, in the socialist regime that has been in place since then, the Cuban cigar industry suffered. Quality control has been a major concern for buyers of Cuban cigars. While the tobacco itself is impeccable, it is the actual cigar making that has been compromised. European buyers, including those who supply to airport duty-free shops, have had to create special systems to maintain strict standards. Interestingly, due to reasons of quality supply has reduced, driving prices up on high end Cubans. Which brings me to another issue. Fakes.
The demand for premium Cuban cigars far outweighs their supply, a gap that is bridged by counterfeits. While aficionados can detect the difference even from the band around the cigar, less experienced smokers find it hard to discern the genuine from the fake, and thus remain cheated of the true Cuban experience.
The owners of the most famous Cuban cigar companies prior to 1960 went on to recreate the same brands they once owned in Cuba in neighboring islands with similar climate and topography. They started to grow tobacco from Cuban seeds smuggled out of the country and began making cigars under the same names that they had owned in Cuba. In other words, while the Cuban government continued to manufacture Romeo Y Julietta, Montecristo, Bolivar and other well established cigar names with exclusively Cuban grown tobacco, the original owners of these brands created the same brands while in exile, totally unrelated to their Cuban namesakes and captured the high-end cigar market in the US.
Today, the Dominican- and American-based cigar makers use tobaccos from various parts of the world to create the smoothest, perfect blends for a variety of tastes. In fact, more than a third of the 2012 Top 25 cigars ranked by Cigar Aficionado magazine are non-Cubans, including Flor de Las Antillas, the No. 1 cigar of the year, which is rolled entirely of Nicaraguan tobacco.
There is a whole universe of cigars to be explored outside of the Cubans. So if I may slightly twist King Edward VII’s words, my advice to fellow enthusiasts would be, “Gentlemen and Ladies! (Can’t forget the ladies!), you may smoke (them all)!”
HOW TO PICK THE RIGHT CIGAR
A cigar is a unique, personal experience. Every cigar has its own aesthetic appeal, bouquet, taste and intensity.
For the best cigar experience, it is necessary that you pick a hand-rolled premium product over a machine-made one.
Aesthetically, a good cigar will be free of blemishes and very consistent in the colour of the wrapper (the outermost layer of the cigar, not to be confused with the packaging).
A dry, unravelling wrapper will compromise your smoke, so look for a cigar with a smooth wrapper and a slightly oily feel.
Press the cigar gently between your thumb and forefinger. It should slowly regain its original shape without making cracks in the wrapper. This is a sign of freshness that comes from a cigar stored or aged in a controlled environment.
Before cutting and lighting a cigar, put it to your nose. Enjoy the aroma of the unlit tobacco. There is no reason whatsoever for a quality cigar to smell bad!
A well rolled cigar will burn evenly, and create a firm ash, that grows in size as you smoke. Aficionados take pride in how long the ash holds on their cigars.
A new smoker should start with something light to medium-bodied, before moving on to something with a fuller body. Try them all, before deciding what you like.
Price and brands are only a guideline and do not guarantee the best possible and most personal experience that you want to make your own, as a cigar enthusiast.