Friday, December 21, 2007

Cigar Blend Tasting in Danli and Esteli

By Gary Korb

Last month I had the rare opportunity to visit several cigar factories in Danli, Honduras and Esteli, Nicaragua. Most of my time spent in Danli was at the Plasencia factory, but each day on the road to their facility I also spotted the Carlos ToraƱo's factory, the Puros Indios factory, and the factory where General Cigar makes many of their Honduran brands. I would have liked to stop in to those factories as well, but the agenda was mainly limited to tasting some new Plasencia-made blends that will be coming soon to Famous Smoke Shop. I should add here that our hosts, Conrado Plasencia, who manages the Danli factory, and Nestor Plasencia Jr., were incredibly gracious. Although I've already thanked them privately, they also deserve a public acknowledgement.

Because space does not permit me to give you all the details of my trip, I thought the blend tasting would be a good place to start, with more adventures in the weeks to come, including over four hours of video I have to edit.

Blend tasting is a fascinating process. In Danli, we were taken to a large table situated at the back of the rolling room. So while you're smoking, you're also watching and listening to the rollers working away. The experience is akin to being inside an active beehive. A wooden tray is brought out with dozens of cigars, each designated by a number that is matched to a specific blend. Sometimes the number is written on a piece of masking tape adhered to a section of the tray, or it's written on a plain white band that's placed on the cigar. The rest is simple. Choose a cigar that looks tempting, light-up, start puffing, and write down your notes on a scratch pad.

At the Plasencia factory in Esteli, the process was pretty much the same, except the tasting was done in the Plasencia's spacious conference room. For this tasting, we not only sampled completed cigars, but we also sampled "cigars" rolled from a single leaf; for example, a Viso leaf grown in Esteli. These one-leaf cigars were rolled by Evilio Oviedo, Plasencia's master blender. (You can watch him in the video I took during the tasting session by clicking on the photo above.) This fascinating experience allowed us to gain a master blender's perspective of how tobacco leaves are selected to attain a certain flavor and strength during the cigar blending process.

The tasting session is usually accompanied by cafecito, or "Cuban coffee" served in little espresso cups. I don't know what it is about the coffee in Honduras and Nicaragua, but whatever they do to brew it, it's wonderful. I usually take cream & sugar in my coffee, but the coffee is so smooth and flavorful, I didn't need to add anything to it. It's like "the coffee from another planet." But I digress. When sampling the cigars, you don't necessarily smoke the entire cigar. Basically, you just want to get a good idea of the cigar's flavor profile, and reflect what you tasted in your notes. Of course, the better it tastes, naturally, you just keep on going. But usually about a third to halfway up the cigar will get you there.

Now to many an ardent cigar smoker, this probably sounds like the best job on earth, and in many ways it is. The thing is, after five or six cigars your palate starts to get a bit overcooked, and at least in my case, the cigars would eventually begin to taste sour or bitter. Even Hal, our General Manager, who has been through this process dozens of times, would eventually just kick back in his chair and say, "That's it for me."

The next day at the Oliva's factory in Esteli, Gilberto Oliva confirmed that this also happens to him on occasion. (I paraphrase): "If a cigar tastes bitter to me, I'll hand it one of my managers, let him try it, and usually, he'll say, 'It's fine.'"

But even when your palate is on overload, most of the time you can still tell the good from the bad.

Palate issues aside, I think we came up with a couple of winners. Actually, one of the new blends we sampled will be debuting in the Famous Smoke Shop catalog and on the website in the next couple of months. The most I can say at this point is that it's a line extension, and I think (hope) you'll find it as impressive as I did.

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