In this vintage column, Nick Hammond asks whether we’re going about it all wrong when it comes to smoking, tasting and evaluating our cigars. Cigars need time to give of their best. Smoking and evaluating them too early may well be skewing our perceptions.
The idea formed over a conversation in Dortmund. I was present – as were many others from the Cigar Journal team – at the InterTabac show and it was a great chance to meet the movers and shakers of the industry and talk about something we all have in common – a love of a fine cigar.
Thousands of exhibitors, retailers, manufacturers and cigar press were present, and the place had a kind of excited buzz about it for the entire three days. One of dozens of industry stalwarts I had the pleasure of meeting was Thomas Hammer. Thomas is sales manager for Fifth Avenue GmbH, the official German and Austrian distributor for Habanos, and we had arranged by correspondence to meet and chat. But try as we might, we couldn’t quite synchronize our complicated schedules, so instead we grabbed a few precious moments at the Fifth Avenue booth inbetween meetings.
Are we slaves of fast consumption, always hunting the newest things and forming opinions too fast?
Thomas has an intriguing idea. He believes – and I intend to meet him again to explore his thoughts more fully for future columns – that we may be totally misinterpreting the facts when we smoke and evaluate new cigars.
Furthermore, he believes we may be committing the heinous crime of infanticide – ‘killing’ these sticks far too young and failing to take into account the fact that tobacco is a constantly changing product throughout the lifecycle of the cigar. Effectively, we cut them off long before they have reached their prime.
“Are we slaves of fast consumption, always hunting the newest things and forming opinions too fast?” He asked as I frantically scribbled shorthand into my notepad. “This is what interests me. I can’t remember the last time I read a cigar review that said something like: ‘This cigar is a little bitter and harsh now and the burn is irregular and the draw tight. However, it has massive aging potential in the 3+ years category and these common problems will smooth out with age.’” He’s right, you know; we just don’t review cigars in that way.
We review and taste for the here and now, offering a real-time view of how that cigar is smoking at the given time of the review. I may occasionally report signs of potential for aging in a taste-test cigar, but I must admit, I don’t give the cigars any leeway on draw, combustion or taste profiles that may indeed prove to be ironed out with age.
“Because of a cigar’s origin, our past experience with the brand, texture and leaf quality, etc., we should be able to form an overall, long-term view on its potential prospects rather than dismissing it out of hand now,” said Thomas, by way of explanation, before disappearing in a puff of smoke into the mass of bodies constantly on the move between the InterTabac show’s five cavernous halls. We will meet again.
It’s an interesting concept, and one I’ve found myself pondering again and again while at-tempting to write up one of the many blind-taste test-cigars I work on each month. I hope it will ‘sharpen my pencil’ on how I look objectively at a new stick and, more importantly, smoke it for evaluation. This idea is not entirely alien to Mark George, although Mark probably hasn’t thought of it in quite this way before.
They’re rolled to be smoked, are they not? That’s what it’s all about.
I sat with Mark for a very interesting couple of hours recently in the smart new sampling room at JJ Fox on St James’s Street, London. He’s a lifelong cigar man (his father took him into Fox’s when he was 17 and insisted he have six boxes laid down in storage) and is rarely seen without a large vitola about his person. He’s a striking looking chap, too: handlebar moustache combined with a unique personal style, and he kindly gifted me a decade-old Partagáas Lusitanias to accompany our chat about vintage cigars. The photography agent and music-lover has a large collection of Havanas, stored over the years in the vaults at Fox’s and in various humidors at his home and office. (He lost a huge haul once when his offices were burgled and his insurer refused to pay up, but that’s a story for another day.)
“I have a cigar in my hand whenever I can,” he shrugs, lighting up his stick with a vintage Dunhill lighter and a jangle of silver bracelets that adorn his wrist. “In my office, in my house, I smoke at least a couple of big cigars every day. I prefer the larger sizes – Montecristo 520 is a great smoke; aged Romeo y Julieta Churchills, Partagás, Bolívar. These are the cigars I enjoy regularly.” Over the years, Mark has indeed enjoyed some incredibly rare and collectable smokes. He’s very much of the opinion that cigars are there to be savored with friends – and not kept forever in some musty corner.
“They’re rolled to be smoked, are they not?” he asks. “And so I have some vintage and rare cigars, but I’ll smoke them and enjoy them with my friends. That’s what it’s all about. We’ve tasted some sensational cigars over the years.” I can vouch for this with his generous gift of the Partagás, which turns out to be a rounded and sensual smoke, still full of power and spice. The point I’m trying to make – in an admittedly roundabout way – is that Mark and Thomas have a shared ethos, even though, to my knowledge, they’ve never met.
So, are we ruining our palates by smoking new cigars far too young?
They are both practicing and preaching the benefits of letting cigars relax, settle in and mature – a minimum of a few years and often in excess of 10. And they both taste their cigars with a different set of values in mind: giving those cigars the opportunity to really showcase what their tobacco can offer.
So, are we ruining our palates by smoking new cigars far too young? That cigar you tried a couple of years ago and didn’t like – I wonder what it might taste like now, with a few more years of age? I think the answer may be unpalatable, if you’ll pardon the pun. We may well be setting fire to future classics and passing them off as mediocre. Something to consider when you purchase that next box.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Winter Edition 2015. Read more