November 29 2012
Three years ago, in these pages, I wrote about the renaissance of the Robusto, a chunky 40-minute cigar that had marched from obscurity to global domination. Having come close to extinction during the latter half of the 1980s, when all but one Robusto, the Partagás Serie D No 4, had been discontinued (and in one year only 5,000 of them were made), it is now almost universally available in every brand, from Cuba and beyond. In fact, the Robusto’s dramatic success led me to suggest, at the end of my 2009 article, that a new trend might be dawning, for something I dubbed the “sumo cigar”: a cigar so well built that it would make the generously proportioned Robusto seem anorexic.
The first glimmerings of the heavyweight fashion crept over the horizon towards the end of 2004, when Cohiba launched the Sublime (now £300 each), a limited-edition cigar of 6½ inches in length with a ring gauge diameter of 54. Each ring-gauge point is 1/64th of an inch, and before the Sublime the idea of a straight-sided cigar above 50 seemed daring to the point of ludicrous. Thitherto, if one wanted a cigar with more girth, the choice was limited to shaped ones: most commonly the Pirámide (usually the No 2 from H Upmann or Montecristo), which tapers to a point at one extreme and has a 52 ring gauge at its widest. Occasionally, one would see a Salomon, a flaring double‑ended torpedo that touches 57 just before the end. Until about 2004 I only ever encountered these in Havana. I remember having a talented roller called Taboada at the old La Corona factory make me 50 about 12 years ago, and they were a source of wonder when I brought them back.
The Sublime, which at the time looked like a giant log of tobacco, changed all that. Of course, it helped that it was a superb cigar, generally considered the finest so far in the 21st century (they’re now very scarce, with widely varying prices). However, having stunned the world with a hefty straight-sided offering, the Cuban cigar industry exhibited its customary idiosyncrasy and the Sublime size did not resurface on the global market for four years, when another limited edition arose – the Montecristo Sublime (£31).
In that time the 50 ring gauge, which once seemed big, had become, for want of a better term, the standard. And, in general, brands outside Cuba have tended to lead the trend towards fatter cigars, with recent years seeing such arrivals as the Thunder by Nimish (54), the Diamond Crown Maximus (56), the Ghurka Assassin Dagger (58) and the Macanudo Café Gigante (60) – though, none of them are commercially available in the UK. The names imply an appeal to inner machismo, and while it is not necessary to assume one’s most orotund Russell Crowe‑in-Gladiator voice when asking for these whoppers, one is certainly tempted.
There were, however, only a handful of Havanas that made it up to 54, among them a Pirámide from San Cristóbal (£17, and not one of the most visible brands) and another Montecristo, the Open-Eagle (£22), which only entered the marketplace in 2009.
Beyond demonstrating one’s manliness, there are more practical advantages to girthy cigars. On the whole, they are less prone to the problem of blockage that afflicts some thinner ones, and the delivery of the flavour is more even and generous. But the primary purpose is to put in more tobacco, to increase taste as well as strength; and one argument as to why the Havana cigars resisted putting on weight for so long is that they simply did not need to. Anyone who has ever attempted a Bolívar Corona Gigante (a “weedy” 47) is well placed to attest to the punch that a Havana can pack; this is the sort of cigar that could stop a charging rhino. Even a 42-ring-gauge Corona from the marque named after the great South American liberator is enough to send me reeling to my bed.
Combining three types of filler leaves from the Criollo plant (volado for combustibility, secco for aroma and flavour, and ligero for strength), Cuba’s master blenders are able to deliver an incredible spectrum of taste, from symphonic to soloist. And as well as the importance of crafting a range of strengths and flavours for most palates, there was a concern that the blends characterising each brand would become distorted in supersize formats. It is not simply a matter of scaling up the quantities. Distinct from new brands springing up in other parts of the world, Cuba’s deeply rooted cigar culture is not always quick to change, often for good reason.
At the end of October I was in Havana and met the master blender at Partagás, Arnaldo Vichot. He is a remarkable man with almost six decades of experience in blending, and yet even he found developing a Partagás with a ring gauge of 54 a challenge. After numerous trials, he only succeeded when he requested a specific type of secco leaf from a particular escogida (sorting house) in Pinar del Río that handles tobacco from a small area of the Vuelta Abajo, grown by one farmer. The resulting cigar was the Serie E No 2 (£24), which made its debut last year and demonstrates the richness and strength traditionally associated with Partagás without losing any of the definitive spiciness.
In addition to the difficulties blenders encounter when trying to capture and replicate subtle nuances of flavour, the larger ring gauges pose more mundane problems, such as a lack of suitable moulds in which the filler and binder can be placed to form their shape, before being clad with glossy wrapper leaves. As such, there are practical limits to what can be put into production. That’s not to say that a talented roller would be unable to make large-girth cigars without a mould, but great skill is required and that is correspondingly rare. Other than his recent work, the largest cigar Vichot recalled blending was way back in 1958, when he worked at the Por Larrañaga factory and was asked to create a 58 ring gauge for the Duke of Windsor.
Coincidentally, it is in its pre-revolutionary past that the Havana cigar found a compelling reason to move into the superheavyweight league. Medio tiempo is the name given to tobacco from two small leaves right at the top of the plant, and it has enjoyed an almost mythological status in the cigar industry. It was once used in commercially available cigars, but for the past 50 years or so it had only featured in those rolled by growers for their own consumption.
However, 18 months ago medio tiempo made its first official appearance in a couple of generations, when it was unveiled as the mystery ingredient in the new Cohiba Behike (from £31). The smallest has a ring gauge of 52, the largest 56, and these are not cigars that feel the need to bruit about their power with silly names; they are known as BHK 52, BHK 54 and BHK 56.
Because of where they grow on the plant, medio tiempo leaves are nearest the sun and are the last to be harvested, seven days or so after the last ligero, usually in late February. Moreover, they cannot always be counted on to appear. For instance, if a year is particularly wet, no medio tiempo will be picked. Nor is it just climate that dictates availability. Medio tiempo requires careful handling on the part of the grower, something that can only be learnt by experience; but when done properly, the results achieved from these two small, precious leaves are stunning. In a way, they are like the botrytis-affected grapes that make the great sweet wines of the world, such as sauternes and trockenbeerenauslese.
Dr Eumelio Espino, who recently retired from his post as scientific director of Cuba’s Institute of Tobacco Research, told me that the chemical components and the structure of medio tiempo are such that the flavour is more concentrated, the nicotine content higher and – crucially – the leaf itself thicker, so that it can withstand longer periods of fermentation at a slightly higher temperature. While ligero ferments for 90 days, medio tiempo is given up to 120 days to develop its characteristics, after which it is of course aged, like ligero, for at least two years. Behike production is limited by the nature of the raw material to around 750,000 a year (less than 1 per cent of the total for handmade Havana cigars). The rationale for introducing medio tiempo in a larger format cigar was that its power needed to be showcased in the context of various other types of tobacco, to create harmony rather than harshness.
At first I was sceptical, not least because I felt I would find the result too strong; but on acquaintance the Behike in whatever size is approachable, the tobacco sufficiently mature and well blended to make every one of the 6½ inches a delight, even if one’s taste is towards the more docile end of Cuban production (in this, the extra period of fermentation accorded to Cohiba’s tobacco is helpful). What pleases the local cigar industry is that it believes such results are impossible to reproduce in any other tobacco-growing region in the world.
Although medio tiempo is likely to remain exclusively a Cohiba speciality, there are signs that blends specific to large-format cigars are now being produced by many brands. In addition to the Serie E at Partagás, there is a short 55 ring gauge at Romeo y Julieta called the Wide Churchill (£20), and in October the limited-edition 55-ring-gauge Montecristo 520 (£28) arrived on the market, the extra couple of ring-gauge points enabling the blender to give the sort of fullness of flavour that oenophiles refer to as “creaminess”.
While in Cuba, I called on Walfrido Mesa Hernández, the newly appointed logistic vice-president of Habanos SA, which distributes Havana cigars worldwide. Though he preferred not to talk about next year’s launches, the rumours I have heard include a 55 ring gauge for Hoyo de Monterrey and 54 ring gauges at Partagás and Bolívar, as well as numerous 52s across other brands. Perhaps even more significantly, I have yet to learn of much that is new below the benchmark girth of 50.
Slightly provocatively, I asked him when Cuba was planning to break through the 60-ring-gauge barrier. As soon as the question was translated, an ominous hush fell. Such was the silence that you could almost hear the sunlight hitting the smoke as it shone through the slatted blinds of the boardroom. He got out of his chair and strode from the room. I exchanged worried glances with the others around the table.
After a couple of minutes he returned, his features composed, and with a flourish placed what looked like the business end of an armour-piercing shell in front of me. Although a prototype rather than a production cigar, this was a 60-ring-gauge Pirámide. As it stood on the table in all its majesty, it was of sufficient size to cast its own shadow. This was probably the first time anyone outside the cigar industry had seen it, and yet it looked oddly familiar.
It was only a day or two later that the penny dropped. Almost exactly 50 years earlier, in October 1962, the world had trembled as the Cold War superpowers squared up to one another over what would become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, working in conditions of similar secrecy, the Cubans had come up with a potentially world-beating projectile-shaped cigar. The only difference is that cigar lovers will be hoping this new missile gets launched as soon as possible.