Why are Cuban cigars reckoned to be the best in the world?
It is partly a myth. Since their discovery by Christopher Columbus who brought them back to Europe, Havana cigars have played an ever-increasing part in the art of living. It's only after the Cuban revolution in 1959 that neighbouring countries started producing cigars, which meant Havanas led the way in most markets. Nowadays, even though some excellent cigars are produced elsewhere, the three leading premium brands are still Cohiba, Montecristo and Partagas.
In the wine world, critical opinion has moved from French wines to New World ones. Is there a danger of Cuban cigars losing their premier status in a similar way?
There is indeed. In January, Cuba said that it had produced for export 153 million of its world famous Havana cigars in 2001, 25% more than in 2000. But with declining demand, millions of the Caribbean island's stogies were never smoked and exports were down 30%, according to the government news agency AIN. On the other hand, out of the USA market, the consumption of Dominican and Hondurian cigars increased by more than 20%. The main reason being that cigar smokers are learning more about cigars and are willing to discover the quality of a "good" cigar. High prices do not guarantee a good cigar.
As has been the case for New World wine regions, cigar producing countries other than Cuba are now showing their skills at making cigars of a very high quality, able to compete with Havanas. These cigars (as is the case for New World wines) benefit from the new research on tobacco and are able to adapt their production to the market in order to suit all tastes, even for the most demanding customers. These cigars are the New Generation cigars. For instance, a novice smoker could choose a mild and easy cigar such as Don Diego Corona from the Dominican Republic, whereas a more experienced smoker would have a choice between a Cohiba from Cuba and a Santa Damiana H2000, again from Dominican Republic.
If you are selecting a cigar in a bar or restaurant, is there a good way of figuring out it is fresh and has been well kept?
Dry cigars have less flavour and aroma and are less mild and flake off in the mouth. Dryness is the major cause of unraveling wrappers, the second most frequent complaint among premium cigar smokers. To ensure their optimum condition, cigars should be stored at temperatures between 16C and 20C and at a relative humidity of 70 to 75% in a humidor. Remember the best gauge is your feel of the cigars itself, the touch look and and sight. When you feel it between your fingers, a living cigar is pliable and soft. One should be able to squeeze it gently without breaking it and it should revert to its initial shape. Aside from the shape or color of a cigar, which are questions of personal taste, one can check for certain signs on the cigar's body that indicate bad storage. The aspect should be smooth and without any large veins or patches. You should definitely avoid any cigars riddled with holes; these are sure to be caused by worms. Cigars showing mould, creamy or grey patches, should also be avoided. The wrapper should be silky, shiny with a clean colour.
What is the best way to cut a cigar?
Depending on your taste and manners, you can use anything from the most sophisticated cutter to a bite-off your mouth. Whichever method you adopt, the cut should be clean and large enough to permit a proper draw.
The cut of the sealed end of the cigar directly affects the quality of the smoke. It can change the quality of the draw, the taste and intensity of the cigar's aroma, as well as ensuring that the cigar remains evenly lit. The cut should be directly proportional to the thickness of the cigar. For example, you would not make the same cut for a Don Diego Corona as you would for a Torpedo No2. Most frequently used is a guillotine to cut off the cap, 2mm from the end. Make your incision almost to the full width of the cigar but leave part of the cap intact to avoid the wrapper unravelling.
If readers have questions about cigars (etiquette, particular brands etc), email them to the Editor, [email protected] who will pass all questions to Franc Modulus.