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Maturing Havanas

The tradition of aging fine Habanos has been around for a long time. Many cultures use this practice to improve the quality and refine the taste of the cigars they like to smoke. Most notably, in England you will find many fine wine cellars where English gentlemen age their beloved bottles of Lafite Rothschild next to cabinets of Davidoff Chateau Lafite and Chateau Margeaux or Dunhill Estupendos. Hong Kong for years accepted this practice, as it was a colony of England. In Spain and Cuba the cigar smoker prefers to smoke only fresh cigars. Most of the Cuban cigar makers will tell you that cigar will lose it “sole” after 5 or 7 years. My guess is that, it is a cultural phenomena.Smoking was something that son would take up after watching his father and with his father’s approval and guidance. That is universal, no matter where you are born.

The famous Zino Davidoff was of the same opinion. He always questioned the practice of aging Habanos and always argued with cigar aficionados that cigars will peak at 3 to 5 years of age and will start lose their taste after that period (even though Zino, an avid cigarette smoker, seldom smoked cigars!).

I think some cultures like the strength of pepper and spices and a big flavor that you find in a young cigar.Oils are plentiful, strong and fresh in a new tobacco leaf. Others prefer the complexity of flavors found in aged cigars. In my opinion they are by far more enjoyable and rewarding to smoke than fresh cigars. Not to say that I don’t also enjoy from time to time a freshly rolled cigar from the table of cigar roller in Havana.

Aged cigars have been around for many years. Before the cigar boom of 1994, Cubatabacco always aged filler tobacco (tripa) for cigar production for 4 to 6 years, and wrappers (capa) for at least 3 years. It would take another year or two for a finished product in a cigar box to sit in a warehouse in Havana before departing to Europe by ship, crossing the ocean, resting for another 6 months to 1 year in a distributor’s warehouse before finally arriving to your local tobacco shop. It may have sat on the shelf of a cigar merchant for a year or two before it was purchased. Therefore, if you bought a box of cigars in the mid 1980’s, The cigars could have already been 7 to 9 years aged!

This is not the case today as the world has become smaller and hungrier for anything Cuban, especially the mysterious Havana cigar. Now days tobacco is cured for only months, produced and airlifted to cigar shops in a matter of months. What we smoke today was a leaf on a plant just 12 months ago.

How many times have we heard “Oh, this cigar has fruity notes” or “it has chocolate or coffee flavor”? We think those comments are reserved for real connoisseurs or cigar aficionados. But in fact any one of us can taste it. Many times I am told by cigar smokers ”The taste is a very subjective matter. What I taste may not be what someone else tastes”. The fact of the matter is that the taste is absolute and non - subjective. If we put 10 people around the table and give them all strawberries, all 10 will agree that they taste strawberries, not orange. If we give them a tomato, all 10 will say it is tomato. Where we begin to have problems and get confused is smoking a cigar with 5 , 6 or more of those flavors being combined in a single cigar. Now we have to sit there and try to pick out what it is we taste in the cigar.That is a lot harder to do than with just one flavor. That is where the aged cigar comes in, as the fresh cigar will completely overpower you with spices. It is like eating a hot and spicy dish – you only feel the burning and miss the flavors of your food.

The aging process is another mystery in the world of cigars that is already filled with many mysteries. Nobody really knows for a fact why or how it occurs. In my own opinion and after speaking to many tobacco growers and cigar smokers, I think it is because of the fresh oil in the tobacco leaf. When we light up a young, fresh cigar and taste pepper and spices, we taste fresh oil filled with nicotine. The flavor is so strong that we really cannot taste anything else in that cigar. Certainly we taste some sweetness or perfume scented grass,cedar, or coffee, but the flavor and taste are secondary and underdeveloped because the taste of oil in the leaf is so strong.

The cigars are just like Red Bordeaux wine - the longer you age it, the smoother it will be. The wine has tannin and cigars have oil. The oil is drying out with age, leaving us the real flavor of cigar to enjoy.

The aged cigar will have 3 definitive stages – the front, the middle and the last. The front is the first flavor you feel in your mouth when you light up and taste your Habano. Then after a few seconds the flavor changes on your tongue as you exhale smoke. You taste the “middle” of your Habano. The “last” or the “finish” is the flavor that stays in your mouth from a few seconds to sometimes even minutes or hours in your mouth if the cigar is great! All three flavors could be very close or could be very different from each other. And that is the beautiful mystery of Habanos. One of the most distinctive varieties of flavors I ever experienced was smoking 1955 Ramon Allones Ideales. The front of the cigar was all chocolate, and than it would change to vanilla and than very strong menthol last! It was an incredible experience that will always stay with me…

The biggest difference between the aged and fresh cigar is that fresh cigars only have the “front” – strong and powerful, and are lacking the “middle” and “last”.

The best way to see it is to light up a fresh cigar and 15 or 25 year old Habano and smoke them together, next to each other so you can taste the difference. It is amazing how very few people would actually attempt to smoke 2 cigars at the same time, while wine drinkers can taste 4 or 5 or even 10 different wines when they compare them. Cigars are no different and the practice of smoking 2 or 3 cigars at the same time is quite popular among cigar aficionados. The only way you will learn about Habanos, their similarities and their differences, is if you smoke them together, explore their mystery. I smoke 2 or 3 cigars together all the time, trying to taste the difference in them.

Not every Habano will age well. Some milder, sweeter cigars will get only marginally better with age. Some of the best brands that will age well, in my opinion, are Bolivar, Punch, Partagas, Ramon Allones, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, Rafael Gonzalez and Saint Luis Rey. The stronger and richer cigar, the better it will age.

Some of my favorite aged cigars are Dunhill Don Candidos and Flor de Punta, Cabinettas and Estupendos. Dunhill brand discontinued its production in Cuba 1988 and hasn’t been the same ever since. They have that unmistakably Dunhill herbal flavor of Black English Breakfast tea with notes of honey and fruity cedar. One of the most expensive cigars to buy at Euro150 to 200 per stick. Davidoff is another valuable cigar that is not as expensive as Dunhill, but will still set you back Euro 75 to 200. The flavor of Davidoff cigar is more of floral perfumes with vanilla and sweet spices. The most famous and popular Davidoff cigar is Dom Perignon was last manufactured in 1992. It is indeed as sweet as a glass of Champagne and is just as aromatic and effervescent as it’s famous namesake. If you are fortunate enough to find it don’t hesitate buying it. It will be worth the money you will pay for it.

Perhaps my favorite aged cigar is the 1965 Por Laranaga Magnums – 49 gauge and 6 ˝ “ (17 cm) length. This cigar was last made in Havana in the early to mid 1980’s. What a bouquet and aroma!!! This cigar is silky smooth and sweet with incomparable richness of coffee, toasted walnut and a hint of citrus.  

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