Wednesday, April 30, 2008

How to educate your palate

By Gary Korb

Today I want to pick-up on the topic of "flavors in cigars." I often refer to cigar flavor descriptions as "Cigar Aficionado-speak." No doubt, when the magazine debuted in 1992, it became "the voice" for describing premium cigars in much the same way wine aficionados described fine wines. And it made sense, since cigars and wines have a lot in common.

I've always had a sensitive palate, and as I've described in the Famous Smoke Shop catalog, as well as in my cigar reviews and blogs, I've tasted flavors of nutmeg, white pepper, and coffee bean, to name a few. Moreover, I even did a survey on this subject in which the majority of respondents agreed. Certainly, at this stage, you'd be hard-pressed not to find a cigar review from any "educated palate" that didn't describe some flavors the writer tasted in the cigar. I mean let's face it; if cigars didn't have any appealing flavors, we probably wouldn't smoke them in the first place.

So, now to the point.

Last weekend I was in my wife's sanctuary, also known as the kitchen, looking for some ingredients for an omelet I was making. As I was turning the spice racks, I became very curious. I began taking out a number of spice jars to see how accurate I'd been during my many years of reportage. Among them were nutmeg, fennel seed, anise, allspice, white pepper, black pepper, lemongrass, and crushed red pepper. I wet my index finger, sprinkled some spice on it and tasted, one after the other. I'm also happy to report that many of my descriptions were right on-target.

This procedure reminded me of a May 2006 article in Cigar Aficionado about a scent kit titled "Make Scents of Cigars" from Credo, the same company that makes some excellent humidifiers and other cigar accessories. The kit came with six scent flasks: caramel, leather, oak moss, musk, pepper and damp earth. A small booklet was also included explaining how each scent "figures into a cigar." The article was quick to point out that the kit represented "only a fraction" of what you're bound to find in most cigars, and were "not necessarily the most prevalent ones." Whatever, it sure seemed liked a cool idea, especially for cigar newbies.

The article also noted that "developing a keen palate takes time and patience." So, the moral of the story is, keep trying new cigars all the time. Eventually, your palate will become more sensitive to the flavor nuances in every cigar you smoke.

Additionally, if you want to learn more with regard the continuing education of your palate, I found an excellent online resource. Check out the Enspicelopedia® on McCormick's website. They're the experts on spices and flavorings, and I think you'll find it very enlightening.

Makee some time to experiment with spices and other flavors, and the next time you puff on your cigar, let that smoke roll around and settle in on your palate. You never know what you'll discover in there, but at least you'll have a better reference.

Monday, April 28, 2008

My Weekend Cigar: Avo XO Intermezzo

By Gary Korb

You may remember that back in January I wrote about an incident where I was at a bar/restaurant/nightclub that permitted smoking cigarettes, yet prevented me from smoking a cigar. The cigar in question was an Avo XO Intermezzo. Well, it just so happens that this past weekend's cigar was one of the same, so now I'll actually get to complete my review.

Ever since I discovered Avo cigars they've been one of my humidor staples. I seem to be drawn mostly to the medium-bodied XO's for their unique melding of creaminess with delicately spicy flavors, and the 5½" x 50 Intermezzo in particular. Plus, the U.S. Connecticut wrapper on this cigar is one of the best, not only in quality, but the way it sublimates the flavors inherent in each of the six different Dominican leaves used for the filler and binder.

I smoked the Intermezzo out on the deck after a home-cooked dinner which included mixed greens salad, scallops pan seared in garlic, and a vegetable soufflé. I paired the cigar with a glass of Dow's Boardroom Tawny Reserve. The night was clear, the temperature comfortable, and with my wife attending an impromptu wine-tasting party, and my sons inside watching the WWE Friday Night SmackDown, I had no distractions.

As usual, the cap clipped off in a perfect little disc exposing just the right amount of tobacco at the head. I lit the foot as delicately as possible and those first few puffs were as creamy as slow-churned ice cream. The draw was flawless and the smoke was dominated by sweet cedar flavors laced with hints of nutmeg, and the slightest trace of coffee bean. I let the cigar smoke itself, puffing at longer intervals, which kept all those creamy flavors coming down to the last inch. It smoked for well over an hour, and was so well-balanced, even at that point it resisted turning bitter, but I'd had my fill and let it go. Besides, the boys were calling me to join them for the Undertaker vs. Batista match.

I've smoked the Avo XO Intermezzo at various times of the day and under all sorts of circumstances, but I as an after dinner retreat, it doesn't get much better than this.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Retro-Smoke: The Griffin's Special Edition XX

Today's cigar review is truly a retro-smoke. Yesterday I had the day off, and it was a perfectly gorgeous day; sunshine and temps in the mid-70's. What to smoke? I reached into my humidor and came up with a Griffin's Special Edition XX. We're talking vintage 2004 here - the very first edition of The Griffin's Anniversary cigars. I didn't even know I still had one of these.

I took it out on the deck, paired it up with tonic & lime juice, and enjoyed one of the most sublime cigars I've had in quite a while.

Here's the funny thing. In preparing for today's blog, I had some trouble finding the blend, so I googled the cigar and found my own review from a May 2004 article titled "Outstanding Cigars of 2004:"

The Griffin’s Special XX
Size: 5¼" x 52
Strength: Full
The Griffin’s Special XX was made in limited edition (only 3,000 boxes) to celebrate the luxury label's 20th Anniversary. The wrapper is a specially-cured Ecuadorian Connecticut with a well-balanced, vintage Dominican tobacco blend. The aroma is rife with cedar fragrance and just a scintilla of vanilla, plus the ash is hard as nails. The smoke is moderately sharp with a very rich, woody taste, leaving notes of pepper and spice on the palate. Comparatively speaking, it’s a marvelous fusion of the milder Griffin’s Classic and the more robust Griffin’s Fuerte.


Now, let's fast-forward back to yesterday. You may have noticed that I classified the 2004 cigar's strength as "full," which it was considered at the time, but the cigar I smoked yesterday was as mild as it gets. However, many other factors I described held-up over almost four full years of home-aging.

The cigar was marvelously creamy, and that little hint of vanilla was still in there, too. (I remember thinking that the smoke reminded me of a thick, old-fashioned vanilla milkshake.) The ash also remained very firm throughout. A sweet, cedary flavor dominated the smoke, and the pepper and spice notes had all but disappeared until the very last inch. Actually, I believe this sudden peak in sharpness was attributed more to the fact that most cigars tend to juice up and turn a little sour at that point, because the smoke as a whole was not the least bit spicy.

I'm pretty certain that was the last Griffin's XX I'll ever get to smoke, but at least I'll remember it fondly. Now I have to see if I've got a XXI, XXII or a XXIII hidden somewhere.

Monday, April 21, 2008

My Weekend Cigar: Joya De Nicaragua "Serie C" Robusto


Here's a tasty little number I found among my leftover cigars from last year's RTDA Show (now the IPCPR). I've always enjoyed the deep, rich flavor of Joya De Nicaragua cigars, most of which are puros. However, last year they introduced the Joya De Nicaragua "Serie C" cigars that combine a full-bodied blend of all-Nicaraguan longfiller & binder tobaccos with a specially-grown Ecuadorian Connecticut leaf (hence the "C" in the name). The leaf is a shade darker than your average Ecuadorian Connecticut, and the result is a more flavorful cigar that also packs quite a wallop.

The first thing I noticed about the 5 x 52 "Serie C" Robusto was its heft. This is a really solidly-packed cigar that felt heavy in my hand. It started out with a sweet, dark tobacco flavor and aroma, but by the midpoint this was a bold, spicy cigar that reminded me of the muscular Joya De Nicaragua Antaño 1970 cigars.

The smoke was dominated by a well-balanced mélange of earthy, woody and spicy flavors with a shot of white pepper on a long finish. In a word, "awesome." One of this cigar's finer attributes was the aroma that emanated from the wrapper, which added a little "sweetness" to the experience, but overall, it was prodigiously potent.

My only regret was that I didn't pair it up with a good Tawny Port or a Shiraz, which would have been a welcome counterpoint to its spicy character. Not being in the mood at the time for those particular libations, I opted for a glass of purified spring water. Oh well...

During the final act the cigar rounded-out somewhat, or maybe my palate simply adjusted. All-in-all, a marvelously smooth and "heady" smoke with a lot to offer, especially after a big meal in the evening.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Retro-Smoke: Flor de Oliva 5X50 (Sumatra)

Those who are most familiar with my cigar smoking routine might ask me, "Why are you writing about the Flor de Oliva 5X50 as your 'Retro-Smoke?' You smoke them all the time."

It's true. In fact, I picked up a fresh bundle last week. I usually rip through a bundle in short order, but the cigar in question today was one of several Flor de Oliva 5X50 Sumatra that I stashed in my humidor just over a year ago. As good as these cigars are right out of the bundle, the year-aged version I savored a few days ago was absolutely exquisite; like an entirely different cigar altogether.

One of the reasons I've stuck with Flor de Oliva cigars has been their consistency - not to mention they're one of the best cigar buys you'll ever find. They draw well, burn well, have a great aroma, and the sweetened caps offer a pleasant counterpoint to the dark and delicately spicy Nicaraguan tobaccos. I've also tried every shape in the line, and my palate just seems to gravitate to the 5X50.

Getting back to the one-year-aged 5X50, the cigar retained its rich, earthy, medium-bodied profile, yet was much smoother and creamier. The spicy element had faded somewhat, but the aroma had a much more floral character, like it had bloomed during its prolonged hibernation. A cigar that cost me about $1.20 had metamorphosed into a "$5 cigar."

Five years ago, when I first started smoking Flor de Oliva, a Famous coworker told me we had a customer who would order a couple of Flor de Oliva bundles and keep them in his humidor for a year before smoking them. At the time I thought it was kind of silly, but now I know why.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Citizen Borhani

In case you missed it, I'd like to draw your attention to a wonderful article that appears in the April '08 issue of The Cigar Report Magazine titled, "All That Glittered," by Nick Kolakowski. It's an insider's look at the career of Tony Borhani, one of the cigar industry's most fascinating personalities. It reads like a mini documentary, and I found it to be, you'll pardon the expression, "fair and balanced."

So why do I bring this up? Well, I've gotten to know Tony over the years and he's always been a true gentleman. I've also had the pleasure of interviewing him. Plus, he's never refused me any request, be it cigars for reviewing, providing a comment for the Famous Smoke Shop catalog, or making time for me at the RTDA trade show (now IPCPR).

My most recent experience with Tony was in Esteli, Nicaragua last November. Tony drove us all over town, treated us to meals, gave us a tour of the Tabacalera Tambor factory, where most of his Bahia cigars are made, and introduced us to Abdel Fernandez, a very talented young man who is producing the Bahia ICON cigars.

True, Tony does have a yen for partying into the wee hours of the night. On our last night in Esteli, he took us to a quiet little out-of-the-way sports bar where we were joined by several of his friends. It was already past midnight, and we, including Tony, had to be at the airport in Managua by 5:30 A.M. Wine and appetizers ensued, and when we left it was about 2:00 A.M.

Just to give you some insight into Tony's heart; when we left the bar there was a man lying passed-out in the street. Tony couldn't help but want to stop and move the man up onto the sidewalk so he wouldn't be run over by some other driver.

I know Tony's been, as my old friend Jimmy used to say, "goin' through some changes" lately, but I'm pretty certain he'll survive. If anything, Mr. Borhani is one cat who always lands on his feet.

Monday, April 14, 2008

My Weekend Cigar: Arganese Connecticut Ambassador & Maduro Chairman Robusto

This weekend I had the luxury of smoking two cigars, both from Arganese. If you've haven't yet smoked Arganese Cigars, maybe you've at least seen some of their risqué ad campaigns; one even made it to the "Headlines" segment on The Tonight Show. Created by real-estate mogul, Gene Arganese, the brand debuted last year in a big variety of blends, all which are handmade in the Dominican Republic.

I received these samples shortly after learning that Arganese cigars will be soon be available at Famous Smoke Shop in the Connecticut, Maduro and Nicaraguan blends.

The first thing that impressed me about both cigars was the quality and color of the wrapper leaves and the overall construction. Both were well-packed, clipped perfectly, and lit evenly. I also had no draw or burn problems.

I started with the 5" x 50 Arganese Maduro Chairman Robusto. The wrapper is a dark, oily Brazilian Mata Fina that encases a full-bodied blend of Dominican filler with an Indonesian binder. The pre-light taste was rife with a "sweet tobacco" flavor. Once lit, the aroma was also pleasantly sweet. The smoke was creamy and full-bodied with dark tobacco flavors and a peppery kick on the finish. During the journey I noted some hints of coffee bean, but the smoke was dominated mostly by sharp, spicy flavors. Overall, a good rich-tasting and complex smoke.

The 5" x 50 Arganese Connecticut Ambassador Robusto also had an appealing sweetness to it. By comparison (and description) it was much milder than the Maduro, too. This blend sports an Ecuadorian Connecticut wrapper with a similar Dominican/Indonesian filler & binder recipe. The smoke was much creamier, well-balanced, lightly spicy on the finish and medium bodied, yet very rich in flavor. I couldn’t pinpoint any flavors in particular that I could name, but it was quite enjoyable.

Comparatively speaking, the Connecticut was more to my taste, but I can easily recommend both. I'm now looking forward to getting my hands on one of the Nicaraguans to complete the set.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Retro-Smoke: Padrón 2000 Natural

Ever since I discovered Padrón Cigars I've maintained that they are the only cigars made outside of Havana that are as truly distinctive as Cuban cigars. If you're a regular Padrón cigar smoker, then you know what I'm talking about. Nothing else seems to taste like a Padrón, yet many have come close, which is the same argument you can make for most Cubans.

I'm almost embarrassed to admit how long it's been since I smoked a Padrón 2000, since they're one of my personal favorites. But in this job it's easy to get distracted with all the new cigars that come my way.

My very first Padrón was from a box of Londres that my brother bought for his wedding many moons ago at the suggestion of a local cigar merchant. I enjoyed it immensely, which encouraged me to move on to some other sizes.

Now among my two favorites in the main line - the other being the Padrón 6000 Maduro - the 5" x 50 Padrón 2000 is "classic" Padrón. The proportions are perfect for savoring all those dark, earthy Nicaraguan tobaccos laced with Padrón's signature coffee & cocoa bean essences. The best part is, you can buy them for an average of $3.60 a cigar. That's surprisingly reasonable considering that with the high demand for Padróns, they could charge $5 a cigar, and they'd still be worth it.

From my experience, this full-flavored, medium-bodied cigar always lights perfectly, draws easily, and burns clean, making it one of the most consistent cigars, too. I've never been disappointed with the 2000 in either the natural or the even sweeter-tasting Maduro version.

If you've never experienced a Padrón cigar, the 2000 is a great place to start.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Are cigars really just "a guy thing?"

A while back I received an email forwarded to me from a Famous Smoke Shop Customer Service agent. It was from a woman customer who wrote: "When you send out your emails, make them more gender neutral. I’m tired of seeing all the reference to guys in the emails. There are plenty of woman smokers too."

Here's the deal: With regard to writing the emails, I never thought I was being sexist; I was just relating to my fellow BOTL's ("Brothers of the Leaf"). Wondering if there are any "Sisters of the Leaf," I googled the acronym "SOTL." What came up was "Scholarship of Teaching and Learning" at Indiana University, Bloomington. So I tried a search on "Sisters of the Leaf" and got "Tea Leaf Green Live at Three Sisters Park," "Caroline Leaf and Her Two Sisters," and "Fall Leaf Quilt Pattern by Four Twin Sisters." Not exactly very much to do with cigars. But I digress.

Now, a lot of guys will tell you there's nothing sexier than seeing a woman smoking a cigar. OK, maybe some women, too (not that there's anything wrong with that). Not surprisingly, I've stumbled upon many a cigar website with pix of chicks smoking cigars. They grab my attention, but other than being used as a prop, I doubt as to whether any of these girls actually smoke cigars.

The sexual aspect aside, I not only enjoy meeting women cigar smokers, I respect women cigar smokers. Truth is, you just don't see all that many women smoking cigars. Or to put it another way, you really don't find many serious women cigar smokers, but I know they're out there. I did an article on women cigar smokers a few years ago, and these ladies were smoking some pretty serious cigars; not the mild or flavored fare some might suspect of a stereotypical female cigar smoker.

Moreover, I see plenty of women cigar smokers at the IPCPR trade show every year, many of whom are cigar store owners, so you know they have a vested interest in the leaf. Online, you'll find sites like FumeeWorld.com, started by Heather Waibel Haddad, and CigarWoman.com, a site dedicated to women cigar smokers. Then there's Jennifer Jordan, senior editor at SavorEachGlass.com, who blogs regularly on cigars.

I guess the sexual divide has mostly to do with the origins of cigar smoking, which throughout history has been a male-dominated practice. Take it to the next level, and maybe one of the big reasons a lot of men band together to smoke cigars is because, let's face it, it's one of the few times they can get away from their "significant others."

So is smoking cigars just "a guy thing?" I think for the most part, yes. But let's at least give our cigar-smoking "sisters" some cred.

Your thoughts?

Monday, April 7, 2008

My Weekend Cigar: Alec Bradley MAXX Traditional Toro

Here's a sneak preview of a cigar that's both "old and new." Well, not all that old, but definitely new. Two years ago, when the Alec Bradley MAXX cigars bowed at the then-called "RTDA Show" (now the IPCPR), they were among the most talked-about new cigars at the convention. Retailers were practically trading blows to get to the Alec Bradley booth and scarf a free sample. I was one of the lucky ones, and eventually cited Alec Bradley MAXX as one of the best new cigar series of 2006.

The original MAXX line is composed of extra-large cigars with hip names like the "Freak" at 6 3/8" x 60, and the "Ego" at 9½" x 50. Earlier last week I smoked the 5” x 58 "Fixx," which provided a nice point of comparison for this review on the 6" x 50 "Toro," one of four frontmarks in the new Alec Bradley MAXX Traditional selection.

MAXX Traditional selection is designed to appeal to cigar smokers who want a full-flavored cigar in more "traditional" sizes; it's that simple. Note that the company came out with the diminutive 4" x 46 MAXX "Nano" last year, which may have led to the development of the Traditional series.

The cigars have the same medium to full-bodied blend as the original MAXX selection: Colombian, Nicaraguan, Mexican and Honduran longfillers bound in a Costa Rican binder, and wrapped in a dark, zesty Nicaraguan Habano leaf. Besides the sizes, the only other difference is that the cigars have a brown & gold embossed band.

The Toro lit beautifully and burned well with a firm grey ash. The smoke was smooth and creamy, dominated by rich, earthy-woody overtones laced with sweet tobacco flavors and a note of coffee bean. I paired it with a glass of Tawny Port which dovetailed nicely with the cigar's subtle complexities. Comparatively-speaking, it was just what I expected from this already proven cigar.

Personally, I happen to like large ring cigars, but if you're not a fan of jawbreakers, the Alec Bradley MAXX Traditional is just the ticket. Look for them to arrive in stores soon.

For more information on the MAXX Traditional selection, visit the Alec Bradley Cigars website.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Cigars and the "marrying" thing

I'm pretty sure I've touched upon this subject before, but here goes: About a week or so ago I received an email from a gentlemen who wrote: "I normally keep my sticks separated. I'm wondering if mixing two brands together would be like a married effect. Would it turn out to be a different kind of taste? Could it do more harm than good?"

I've been asked about the marrying thing a lot, and I know there are some cigar smokers who are particularly finicky in this regard. A few have told me that they have special sections in thier humidors and/or separate cigar humidors just for their maduro cigars, their Nicaraguan cigars, their Cuban cigars, whatever, and have even described other variations of cigar segregation too numerous to mention.

I've been comingling my cigars in my humidors for years and I've never noticed any distinct difference in the way they smoke or taste. Perhaps there is some credibility as to the "marrying" with other tobaccos over long periods of time, but from my experience the cigars don't seem to be affected much at all. If anything, they taste better.

I advised the writer to put some cigars of varying brands in his humidor with their cellos and some without. Then, after a few months, to smoke one of each and compare to see if the flavor was affected in any way.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Freezing Cigars: Good idea?

Yesterday I received an email from my friend Bill who wanted to draw my attention to John von Brachel's March 26 blog, "Bugged Out," posted at CigarReportDaily.

von Brachel writes: "I just got a new box of [Cuban] Romeo Y Julieta Short Churchills. They were gorgeous, displaying all the signs of good things to come: consistent oily wrappers, consistent color and sweet, toasty aroma. So, you probably think I lit one up the moment I got home? Wrong. In fact, they went right into the freezer! I’ve got too many top-quality aged cigars in my humidor to let the annoying cigar beetle to tear them up."

I can't speak for Cuban cigars, because I don't actively seek them out. But in this case, I think Mr. von Brachel makes a good argument for being safe rather than sorry.

The only time I've ever frozen my cigars has been the extremely rare occurrence where I found a few beetle holes. It certainly does the trick, but I've always been a little leery about the whole freezing cigars thing. However, if done properly, which includes moving the cigars from the freezer to the fridge so they thaw slowly, then into the humidor, it doesn't seem to negatively affect their bouquet.

Most of the better manufacturers have their own methods for dealing with tobacco beetle larvae. One method is using a special vacuum process that crushes the beetles and the eggs. Moreover, I recently learned that Davidoff freezes their cigars prior to shipping to ensure that any and all beetle larvae are obliterated.

In doing a search on "treating tobacco beetles," I found a patent at freepatentsonline that describes a method by which "uncured tobacco leaves are heated by microwaves or in an electric high-frequency field prior to subdivision into ribs and strips." Truth be told, I'm not aware which, if any, premium cigar manufacturers or their suppliers use this process.

One final note: If you decide to freeze your cigars "after the fact," especially if the cellos have already been removed, be sure the cigars are placed inside a plastic freezer bag.