The typical smoker of aged and vintage cigars is one who appreciates the value of time and the delicacy in the works of art that a manufacturer can create. These are educated passionados thanks in part to their experimentation over the years with the aging of different cigars. Not every cigar lover becomes a vintage cigar passionado, but for many this is a natural process of maturing in their cigar smoker career as described in Nino Inzerillo’s book Sigari? Si, grazie!.
This article compiles opinions and information published from some of the world’s leading experts on the topic of cigar aging. According to Luigi Ferri (as referenced by Nick Hammond in the article “It Just Takes Time”, Cigar Journal issue 3/2015), whose considerations are based on over 30 years of experience in the tasting of cigars of various ages, generally speaking we can divide the life of a cigar into three ages.
Youth (fresh cigar) – from 0 to 3-4 years
The “sick period” is typically included in this stage and it is one that needs a lot of attention because cigars should not be smoked during this time. “Immediately after rolling” explains Min Ron Nee (famous author of the book An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Post-Revolution Havana Cigars) “a cigar undergoes a sick period, during which the ammoniac [sic] smell is still detectable in a newly manufactured cigar.” This is due to the fact that tobacco leaves are moistened before rolling and this accelerates a further fermentation producing a lot of ammonia. How long it takes to get rid of the ammonia scent depends on the fermentation rate, the chemical constituents, the cigar size, the packaging and how we store cigars. Per Min Ron Nee, “For the majority of cigars handled in the usual way, the ammoniac smell will be over 90% gone in a few months, 95% to 99% gone by the end of the first year, and practically all gone by the end of the second year. Milder cigars .. take even less time.”
Fresh cigars are the majority of the cigars we find on the retailers shelves. Didier Hoevenaghel (agricultural engineer, technical expert, master blender as well as cigar manufacturer and author of the highly respected book The Cigar from Soil to Soul) defines the Market Standard Age (MSA) of cigars as being “1-3 years (from their rolling) depending on the distribution, retail shop and rotation of the brand.”
Seniority (aged cigar) – from 5-6 years to 15-20 years
This, according to Luigi Ferri, is the best period of maturation. Zino Davidoff (in his The Connoisseur’s Book of the Cigar) wrote “you have to have a particularly keen sense of smell and eyesight to notice aging effects. But that does not mean that the cigar no longer lives, it’s just that this process becomes more discreet, almost unnoticeable”.
Min Ron Nee defines two initial stages of maturation, and it gets more complicated. Also, bear in mind that stages may overlap: first maturation, when cigars continue to produce incrementally pleasant flavors as a consequence of continuous fermentation. Min Ron Nee writes “the slower the fermentation, the more time the chemical constituents have to mingle with each other, the more complex the flavors that are generated. As fermentation slows down, less pleasant flavors are lost through evaporation, chemical reactions, self-degradation, etc. This stage may span from 2-3 years for mild cigars stored in non airtight boxes to 10-15 for strong cigars in cabinets. The second maturation is the phase in which tannic acids further decompose and this interacts with the improved flavors originating from continuous fermentation. This maturation corresponds to the peak for pleasant flavors and might take more than 15 years, depending on the level of tannins and woodiness.
Min Ron Nee also refers to a “first vacuum period“, when “some cigars may lack adequate pleasant flavors … during first maturation … are unfairly judged … but when these cigars reach the second maturity … they have a kind of class and elegance which ordinary cigars can never match”. According to Min Ron Nee, Sancho Panza are the best example of this type of cigars.
Some cigars do not present sufficient wood and tannic substances to generate pleasant flavors even in the second maturation stage, they might need 20-25 years to develop finesse, what Min Ron Nee calls the “second vacuum period“. These cigars may be branded with poor aging potential because of this. El Rey del Mundo are, according to Min Ron Nee, the best example.
Old age (vintage cigar) – Over 20 years of aging
Zino Davidoff writes “Naturally, what is possible in Cuba, with a humid climate made for tobacco, is not always possible in Europe or North America. By the time cigars have reached these places, they may have suffered from the trip. You cannot keep a cigar there for 25 years, even if it’s a good vintage given the best of care.”
According to Luigi Ferri, at this stage, most cigars lose the best organoleptic characteristics. The typical life-span of a cigar has a course almost like a parabola with downward concavity, uphill to the top, until it reaches and maintains the maximum for a number of years and then decays, sometimes very quickly.
Ferri writes “If cigars are poorly preserved, the decay is faster and makes the cigar anonymous, flat, with little strength and an aroma of dusty earth.” Also, very importantly, “no low quality cigar can become good with aging!” He adds that a lot of research is still required on the “old age” stage.
Min Ron Nee admits there is no knowledge relating to this stage, which corresponds approximately to his definition of third maturation. However, he states that cigars produced in the 1950’s seem to still require time before their bouquets would peak. “Finesse, akin to that of greatly aged Bordeaux or Burgundy wine, is what begins to appear after 20 years. The chemical reactions behind this kind of aging might be similar to the mysterious ‘wine in a bottle’ maturing process.” The aromas are extremely complicated. Ethereal is the nearest word Min Ron Nee applies for these cigars. “Smelling a 50 year old Don Candido against a 20 year old you would instantly realize that this great bouquet is about four times stronger and no words can describe how great these bouquets smell, because of the paucity of the primitive human vocabulary”.
This stage is the one that created most debate among experts, most of them believing, as Luigi Ferri illustrated, that cigars at this stage have already shown their best qualities. Some even believe that the power of suggestion may lead vintage cigars to be over-prized simply for their antiquity.
This article was first published by Franca Comparetto at Cigar Sense. Visit www.cigarsense.com for more articles and to learn about their project of helping consumers to identify new cigars they’ll love through a personalized system.