Cigars

A Robusto decision

A short, fat, formerly unloved cigar has now become top draw for connoisseurs, says Nick Foulkes.

December 19 2009
Nick Foulkes

This winter the cigar to be seen with is the new Trinidad Robusto: a beautiful, glossy tube of café-au-lait-coloured tobacco. With a length of four and seven-eighths of an inch and a diameter of about four-fifths of an inch, it is a worthy addition to the medium-bodied range of cigars that used to be diplomatic gifts of the Cuban government and which are now among the more highly prized of Havana cigars.

When it first appeared during the 1990s, the Trinidad was a long slim cigar, but over the years it has gradually put on weight. The arrival of this new Trinidad, as well as being perfectly timed for the Christmas season, completes the Robusto’s conquest of the cigar world. Recently, Simon Chase, consultant to UK Havana cigar importer Hunters & Frankau, gave a talk to a small group of cigar enthusiasts. “I asked each guest to tell me what the size of their dreams might be,” he says. “After a moment’s thought, the first guy said, ‘a Robusto’, so did the second and the third. In fact, like a mantra, “Robusto” was repeated by 13 out of the 14 participants.”

Cast your mind back to the 1980s. Some things were bigger than they are today: mobile telephones were still the size of bricks and women wore shoulder pads so wide that they had to enter rooms sideways. But when it came to fine Vuelta Abajo tobacco, less was more. This was the age of the slender cigar.

The hegemony of these pencil-like wands of tobacco seemed unassailable. What had begun as a trend in the late 1960s, doubtless inspired by Clint Eastwood in his cheroot-smoking spaghetti western incarnation, had been accepted as the norm. The favoured format was over 7in long with a ring gauge in the 30s. (The gauge is counted in 64ths of an inch.)

But in 1989 the Cuban tobacco industry introduced cigar lovers to a new word: Robusto. This neologism marked a departure from the slimline orthodoxy. It designated a new cigar that was, by the standards of the day, short and fat: just under 5in long with a ring gauge of 50. Moreover, coming from the prestigious Cohiba marque, it ignited what in the cigar world can be likened to the size-zero debate that would later convulse the catwalks. Was cigar-smoking heaven to be found in a long slim hand-rolled tube of tobacco or a short barrel-like cigar?

Robusto-sized cigars had existed before and there had been a vogue for them during the 1950s and early 1960s, when Hoyo de Monterrey’s Epicure No 2, Bolivar’s Royal Corona and the Ramón Allones Specially Selected were launched. However, a generation later these were considered recondite curiosities, and attempts to launch Robusto-sized cigars during the 1980s were far from successful.

“In those days the Robusto was not a popular cigar at all,” explains Edward Sahakian, proprietor of Davidoff of London. “In fact, the early 1990s saw two Robusto-sized cigars discontinued; the Flor de Cano Short Churchill and the Dunhill Cabinetta.” Only made for a few years and never in great quantities, it is one of the ironies of fashion that these two cigars are now among the most sought after at auction.

“When the Cohiba Robusto first appeared there was an element of surprise that Cuba was launching a cigar that had proved to be unpopular,” says Sahakian. However, tastes were about to change.

What the Cohiba Robusto (£20.10) delivered, and continues to deliver, was a flavour-packed half-hour cigar experience. The larger girth gives the blender greater opportunity to use more ligero leaf – ligero being the component that accounts for the stronger flavour. With the exception of the examples noted above, the girthier format was hitherto found in longer cigars such as the Double Corona. And while Double Coronas are fabulous, to appreciate one properly it is necessary to set aside at least an hour and a half. Moreover, the flavour delivery is gradual, intensifying as more of the cigar is consumed: again, fine if you have an hour or two to spare.

What the Robusto offers is, in effect, a chance to join the Double Corona after the first 45 minutes to an hour: the girth giving the satisfying and characteristically rounded flavour and fuller body. Another important factor that has contributed to the unstoppable rise of the Robusto is the hardening of attitudes against smoking. Even before legislation, cigar smokers were finding themselves marginalised. Gone were the days of lingering over brandy and cigars in a restaurant. A cigar became a pleasure to be taken on the hoof and often alfresco. At the risk of sounding like one of those now illegal advertisements for tobacco products, the Robusto offers a big-cigar flavour in a small time frame. Take the Robusto-sized Partagás Serie D No 4 (£13.40), for example: in 1984 Cuba produced just 5,000 annually for the whole world, whereas today a single shop, Davidoff of London, sells in excess of 3,000 per annum. And since 2007, nine Robustos and slight variations on the size have joined the already bewildering panoply of cigars coming out of Havana.

Thus what was once a speciality is now standard across almost all Havana brands – and many lineups now feature more than one. Hoyo de Monterrey, for instance, which boasted one of the original Robustos half a century ago, has three. In addition to the Epicure No 2 (£13.40), there is the Epicure Especial (£16.10), which has a 50 ring gauge but is five-eighths of an inch longer, and the espresso-like Petit Robusto (£10.60), which is almost an inch shorter at 4in. My preference is for the Epicure Especial as it is just that bit more balanced.

And, of course, they aren’t always known as Robustos. For example, the Montecristo Robusto that was launched this year is called the Montecristo Open Master (£14.10), whereas the Romeo y Julieta Robusto that made an appearance two years ago is known as the Short Churchill (£13.10) in honour of the discontinued cult classic from Flor de Cano, to which it is a worthy successor. Of all the new Robustos I would say that this is the most consistently pleasurable – well, at least it was until the arrival of the Trinidad Robusto (£19.20), or Robusto T as it is properly known. This is the Robusto for people who don’t traditionally like Robustos; on the mild side of medium, it has a creamy, almost cappuccino-like quality that recommends itself to neophytes as well as seasoned cigar lovers after a harmonious daytime smoke.

Looking at the Robusto across the brands today, what becomes apparent is the almost total change in the cigar landscape that has taken place in just a few years. And it is also possible to discern the beginnings of a new trend that, for want of a better term, I have dubbed the “Sumo” cigar: a super Robusto that has gorged itself on Ben & Jerry’s.

With the 50 ring gauge now regarded as standard by an entire generation of smokers, cigars with ring gauges of 52, 54 and even 56 are planned for next spring. Once again these will be Cohibas, Behikes to be specific, and it will be interesting to see if they have the same effect as the Robusto had 20 years ago. Maybe it won’t be too long before we have the first 1in diameter cigar.

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Cigars