Gregory L. Pease, Associate Editor
I’ve been smoking through quite a few of my vintage cigars lately, some, now reaching their prime, the last few from boxes I’ve savoured over the years, others, from fuller boxes that are just starting to hit their stride, and that will offer me some fabulous smokes over the years to come. This, I cannot lie, is not a bad thing. What may be a bad thing is that in the three decades I’ve been smoking and aging cigars, I’ve seen a lot of things come, and a lot more go, and one thing that has always been in the back of my mind is the overworked cliché that all things change. Therein lies my gripe, and a guarantee of at least some small degree of future sorrow. Not all change is good, or welcome.
My journey down memory lane with these old smokes is not simply a waltz with nostalgia, but something a bit more purposeful. I’ve sampled many very good cigars over the past few years, and a great many more that have not much impressed me. But, even among many of the better smokes, as much as I’ve enjoyed them, I’ve continued to find something missing, a fundamental aspect of what caused me to go geeky over cigars in the 80s, and is almost universally absent in most of the modern cigars I’ve been smoking. Ever the explorer, I did the only thing I could do to turn back the clock, investigating if this ephemeral quality was simply some characteristic of a middle-aged guy’s fuzzy watercolour reminiscences of a romantic past, or if there might be some merit to my discontent; I opened the vault, my mother’s old freezer I’d converted to a humidor when it gave up the ghost, quite a few years before she did.
And, there it was, even in some thirty year old Upmanns and Romeos some might consider past their prime. It’s more than just the results of careful aging. That intrinsic, elusive richness was still there, a lingering, oily, mesmerising flavour that still, to this very day, brings joy to my palate. I can’t quite describe it. It’s a muskiness (not mustiness) that those wonderful cigars used to mark their territory, an almost butter caramel sweetness, but more primal, more meaty. It was a creaminess, so often talked about and rarely delivered, that was palpable. It’s that umami thing in smoke. It gave these cigars a wonderful front of the palate teasing, but more importantly, a mouth-filling finish that was, and still is, even in these mature sticks, so enticing, so satisfying.
In what, to me, is a ludicrous arms race where so many makers are chasing adjectives like fatter, longer, stronger, spicier, powerful, they seem to have lost track of some of the adjectives I might apply to these old beauties; sultry, seductive, provocative. This wasn’t a rare quality, either; it was almost commonplace amongst the quality marques 30 years ago, but it’s all but gone missing in too many of the modern mash-ups of multinational leaf, rolled into burrito sized spice-bombs with enough “power” to stop a stampeding rhino dead in his tracks. I’ll be clear. I do not want a cigar to punch me in the face, kick me in the boy-bits, or otherwise cause me physical distress. I smoke for pleasure, not pain.
I’m not just whinging, here. This is not the same as the lamentation of those who say that the only cigars worth smoking were the top-tier Habanos of the golden age, and damn that embargo, though I will say that the best of the Cuban smokes I’ve enjoyed also possess something of this wonderful quality. This has nothing at all to do with not being able to produce cigars that have the characteristics I crave. Those “old” cigars were made from leaf that could just as easily be grown, processed, fermented and blended today as was done 30 years ago. It’s simply not being done. The dinosaurs amongst us are being largely ignored by marketeers who are chasing a new and growing crop of cigar smokers who never had the pleasure of those old beauties.
It’s not a new thing. It began during the so-called boom years, when every brand started attempting to keep its grip on market share in an increasingly wide field, not with their well-deserved reputations, but with a fusillade of line-extensions and “new” blends hoping to compete with new brands by “cigar makers” falling off the tobacco truck at every turn. And, with all these new makers came new consumers chasing new trends, leaving the old standards, apparently, to be left twisting in the winds of change.
Remember “New Coke,” and the uproar it created? (if you’re under 35, you won’t. Look it up.) It was disastrous, or so it seemed. But, it turned out to be powerful marketing stuff. After the complaints reached a high enough pitch, the manufacturer responded with a new New Coke, called, interestingly, Coke Classic.
Something similar is perhaps at play in the cigar industry. Hearing the complaints of long-standing customers over these “improved” blends, some producers attempted to appease the crowds with supposed recreations of the old lines, the cigar industry’s performance of the “Coke Classic” dance. But, just as with the soft drink, these impostors weren’t really exactly the same. “You’ll get used to them.” Not me. My inner-curmudgeon is alive and well, and still longing for those old recipes, dammit.
I’m sure it had gone on before I started smoking cigars, but my awareness of this phenomenon began in the years after one of my favourites, the H. Upmann 2000, a brilliant lonsdale packed in cedar chests, was discontinued. I bought what I could when I leaned they’d be disappearing, figuring they’d hold me until something came along to rightfully take their place. There were still other wonderful smokes to soothe the loss, but nothing quite hit that sweet spot for me the way the 2000 did. Unfortunately, it was just the first casualty of many that I experienced. Soon, the Partagas line went through changes in formulation, and then Romeo y Julieta, and on and on. These changes came too fast to keep up with, and neither my freezer or my wallet were fat enough to sufficiently insure my future smoking pleasure. And, the ever-growing parade of line-extensions became like Macy’s on New Year’s Day.
Some years ago, I went off to see if there might not be another Upmann with the same flavour, the same engaging aroma, the same richness. I was interrogated, “Which Upmann do you want?” The young cigar guru rattled off a phone book of line extensions, then looked into my dazed and confused eyes, waiting for my response.
“I have no idea. I just want an H. Upmann lonsdale, or a corona, that tastes like the old ones before I needed a field guide to identify my cigar.”
Now, the “Original” has been added to the phone book, but it doesn’t have a Cameroon wrapper like the real original did, and the cigar with a Cameroon wrapper has a very different blend. Now, the brand’s identity is so plagued by some sort of multiple-personality disorder, it’s almost meaningless. You can’t tell the players without a program.
So, is the future sorrow that I predicted up there in the first paragraph sealed? I’m down to the last dozen of those beautiful 2000s, and other faves in the vault are equally endangered. Tragically, if I didn’t have this dwindling supply of now-vintage cigars with which to rekindle those sparks of memory smouldering in my not yet addled mind, I might have more easily just attributed my malaise to nostalgia, to the fact that pastures always seemed greener “back in the day,” or to just becoming like my parents, who endlessly regaled me with poetic waxing over the better times. But, no. It’s real, and my dalliance over the past weeks has proved it.
I’m not quite saying those old cigars were better, overall, than today’s best. In fact, with a broader palette of leaf from which to draw, some blenders are doing remarkable things, with flavour profiles that are complex, interesting, engaging. There are some truly exciting blends being produced. But to me, those silky, oily wrappers robed a mystery that I still long for, and cannot seem to find, except in a few luxury products that I simply can’t afford to smoke. And, I’m not enthusiastic about jumping on the trend wagon, embracing the softball bats that are increasingly popular, gobbled-up by the apparently growing segment of the market (and scoffed by more than a few veteran rollers). I want some really good, reasonably priced cigars like they made “in the old days.”
Lately, though, I am a little hopeful. Trends do follow cycles, and there’s only so far things can go in their current direction. Maybe an 888 or 999 stick will signal the end of the silliness, and things will start to get back to something resembling normalcy. Maybe then, cigar makers, and smokers alike, will again focus on the classic shapes (there’s are reasons they’ve been around so long) and sophisticated flavours over hugeness and bollocks-busting strength.
One recent joyful discovery, in fact, is fueling some provisional and measured optimism comes in the form of the new Mario Palomino line, the revival of a brand that’s been in a coma for about a decade. Made in Nicaragua, these are blended with some genuine Jamaican leaf in the filler. They’re not quite the Royal Jamaicas of my youth, but they have more than a hint of their wonderful, deep character, a nice dose of what I’ve been missing for so long, and a reasonable price tag.
Maybe there’s hope, after all. Anyone listening?
|Gregory L. Pease Associate Editor.
Greg joins us for regular cigar reviews, his monthly editorial column, "Up in Smoke," and the occasional feature article, bringing over 30 years of deep passion for the leaf to our team. Prior to becoming the founder and principal alchemist behind the pipe blends of G.L. Pease Artisanal Tobaccos (est. 1999), he’d been a pipe and cigar aficionado since his college days, and spent time working at the legendary Drucquer & Sons Tobacconist in Berkeley, California to support his affliction. He is widely educated on tobacco and all things epicurean, is an experienced writer, and has quite a refined palate. He is also a wine and spirits geek, and a gourmet cook.