Special Edition; Limitada; Reserva; Aniversario…when cigars have these titles, we know they are cigars of distinction; with one distinction being their high price. For example the “regular” Padron line sells in the $6 range, but if we want to sample the elite 80th Anniversary cigar, it will set us back a whopping $33! That’s more than five times the cost. Or take the Arturo Fuente line: $6 for their “regular” Sun Grown cigars vs. $79 for an Opus X “A”…ouch! That’s thirteen times the cost! But are these cigars really worth the huge increase in price? Is this the only thing that makes them distinctive? Without breaking the bank I set out to see just how special these “special” cigars really were, and whether they were worth the extra expense. What I found was that this question had many answers and brought up some conflicting emotions.
Why are they “special”?
Unlike strawberries at the grocer, it’s hard to tell the quality of a cigar by looking and squeezing. The best cigars are not plump and juicy, and only an expert can tell one tobacco leaf from the next. But we DO know a great cigar when we smoke one. Cigar aficionados quickly learn that price does not foreshadow quality. Yet all cigar companies offer cigars at myriad price points. Are the most expensive ones always the best? Many cigar companies offer ultra premium lines at ultra premium prices. Can these premium prices be justified? Let’s talk about:
After cigar tobacco is grown, cured, and aged, the next important step in cigar making is leaf sorting. This is where the tobacco leaves are separated by type, grade and color. Leaf sorting goes through many stages, and continues until the moment the cigar is rolled. During this sorting process, the best leaves are reserved for the best cigars. Consequently, only a small percentage of the total harvest is suitable for a cigar makers’ “premium” line. This scarcity of raw material can drive up the price of these cigars.
This may explain why some cigars cost more than others, but does it justify a price multiple times its standard line? Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no. Cigar prices can be part of a company’s marketing strategy. Brands like Stradivarius rely on high cigar prices to give their product the appearance of exclusivity. Although these cigars are considered decent, the $30+ price tag suggests a quality that many feel is inflated. But in other cases, the additional cost truly reflects a quantitative jump in cigar flavor and uniqueness. This is certainly true when it comes to our first example: the prestigious Fuente Opus X.
The Creme de la Creme.
Cigars from the Dominican Republic have a distinctive flavor. And no other cigar exemplifies this Dominican flavor better than those made by Arturo Fuente. Long considered one of the best cigar companies in the world, they also grow and process tons of premium tobacco. The first to produce wrapper leaf in the Domincan Republic, Fuente has developed a super high-grade product at their plantation Chateau de la Fuente. It is this wrapper that adorns their Opus X line. Over the years I’ve smoked a number of different Fuente cigars and am familiar with the nutty, herbal quality that runs through their entire line. This familiarity led me to choose the Opus X for a quality comparison. Would the Opus X be much better than the standard Fuente line? For this experiment I chose the:
Opus X Robusto Rare Estate 1992.
Actually, choosing the Robusto was a matter of necessity. It was the only Opus X I could find. All the online vendors were sold out of these rare and highly sought-after cigars. As it turned out, this was a very good choice.
The Robusto comes in a beautiful tin containing three cigars. Each cigar is encased in a cedar sleeve. I chose to smoke this stick right out of the cellophane and the incredible pre-lit flavor was intense, with a strong presence of herbs and licorice. I could tell right away that this was going to be an outstanding smoking experience…and it was. Tremendous complexity, deep flavors of fruit, licorice, and honey; this was a cigar I could not put down. If I could afford to, this would be the only cigar I would ever smoke. It was that good. But its $30 price tag and limited availability relegates the Opus X Robusto to “special occasion” status. It’s a cigar I won’t be sharing, and will smoke in solitude with the lights turned low. I’ll want to savor every puff.
So, in the case of the Opus X Robusto vs. the “standard” Fuente line, the extra expense could be easily justified. But the Robusto was “only” $30. Would a $50 Opus X be even better?
The crème de la crème…de la crème?
To up the ante even more I chose a cigar gifted to me three years ago. I was saving it for the exact right moment and, well, I guess this is it. (It’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it!) Next up was the:
Fuente Opus X Rising X 2008.
At $50/stick I was anticipating a cigar experience like no other. The presentation was certainly opulent. With its single coffin case and gold and red double rings, this cigar looked expensive. It was a box pressed double perfecto with a cap resembling that of a whale’s tail. Cutting this beauty seemed like defacing a work of art. But cut I did, and unlike the Opus X Robusto, the pre-lit flavor and draw was disappointing. There was absolutely no flavor on my lips and the draw was non-existent. Fact is, this stick was almost completely plugged. I cut it three times trying to get a draw. Eventually I broke through enough to proceed, but the draw was never better than very tight.
Smoking the Rising X just went from bad to worse. It had a bitter, burnt charcoal flavor that reminded me of the fake Cuban cigar someone gave me last week. To cut to the chase, this $50 cigar is one I wouldn’t smoke again if it were free. I put it down after two inches and had to chew jellybeans to purge my palette of its awful finish. What a tremendous disappointment. Unlike the Opus X Robusto, the Rising X did not justify its high price. (Side bar: It’s hard to believe that an Opus X could be so awful. These are usually excellent cigars and I can only figure this stick was an anomaly.)
Now on to Padron…
I’ve been smoking Padron cigars from day one and have seen the expansion of the “Anniversary” line first hand. At first I resented these expensive cigars and viewed them as simply a marketing ploy. I later boycotted the entire brand because I felt the standard Padron line had suffered at the hands of the more expensive offerings. These days I have a less judgmental approach to the Padron cigars but generally prefer the Anniversary sticks to their standard line of cigars. Now, enter the:
Padron 80th Anniversary Maduro
Here we sort of skip a step. There seems to be three tiers of Padron quality. First is the standard lineup (i.e. 2000-8000), next the Anniversary lineup (1964 and 1926), and finally the most exclusive 1926 40th, 80th, and other small batch Anniversary editions. For the sake of this experiment, we jump right to the upper level 1926 80th Anniversary. And what a jump it is!
I chose this cigar because it is already one of my favorites and I had some on hand. I prefer the maduro wrapper when it comes to Padron, and the 80th is dressed in superb tobacco leaf. Comparing the standard Padron maduro to this cigar is simply unfair.
The Padron 1926 80th Anniversary Maduro is a cigar of such richness and intensity, that it stands alone as possibly the best maduro cigar ever made. That’s a bold statement and others may disagree (we all have different tastes and preferences), but this cigar delivers everything I look for in a maduro; rich dark chocolate, espresso, fruit, a perfect draw and construction, and undeniable strength. It’s a cigar I simply can’t smoke in one sitting, making it an all-evening cigar. There is no cigar I’d rather smoke on a formal occasion than the 1926 80th Anniversary maduro. Is it worth $30? Absolutely.
Do they have to be expensive?
Well, the fact is, special cigars can be found for well under $10/stick. But it takes a lot of homework to trace the pedigree of a cigar. And the pedigree will determine a cigar’s quality. What do I mean by pedigree? That’s all about the cigar blender, the tobaccos used, and the factory that rolls the cigar. I don’t expect the casual cigar smoker to be interested in that sort of thing, but to me, this information feeds my cigar obsession. Occasionally the confluence of blender, tobacco, and factory will produce a truly exceptional cigar that, without the proper homework, can go virtually unnoticed by the general cigar-smoking population. One such cigar is the:
Aging Room, Small Batch M356.
The Aging Room M356 came about when a limited amount of exceptional Domincan tobacco was brought to the attention of Rafael Nodal of Oliveros Cigars. With not enough tobacco for a standard production run, Nodal decided this tobacco was too good to dismiss. Thus was the beginning of this truly “special”, small batch cigar. In the recent article A Unique Cigar With a New Kind of Kick (Joe’s Gems), I extol the virtues of the M356 and how its effervescent quality was unlike any I’d experienced before. But what’s important to note here is that at $7/stick, this cigar is as flavorful and satisfying as any cigar, regardless of price. The M356 has tons of wonderful Domincan flavor, (see above) with an intensity that challenges the senses. Smoking this cigar feels like a special event, but at an everyday cigar price. The M356 illustrates that when rare, exceptional tobacco is put in the hands of a master blender, cigar magic can happen. Another such cigar is the:
Los Hermanos Robusto
Here again, cigar pedigree breeds perfection. Made at Raices Cubanas (Illusione, Viaje), using Aganorsa tobacco, and blended by Arsenio Ramos (Casa Fernandez), the entire Los Hermanos line is outstanding.
Casa Fernandez makes terrific cigars across the board, and has a number of outstanding lines in production. In the case of the Los Hermanos, it is rolled just once a year. Carefully selected tobaccos are used in this small batch run, making the Los Hermanos a truly special cigar. Perfect construction, intense flavors of black pepper, leather, and rich tobacco gives the smoker the impression of an expensive, “exclusive” cigar. And at $5/stick, the Robusto can go head to head with cigars costing much more. With perfectly aged Corojo 99 and Criollo 98 tobacco, coupled with decades of cigar blending experience, it’s no wonder why this cigar is exceptional. It would be special at any price.
So what makes a cigar special?
This “experiment” shows that, above all, when great tobacco is put in the hands of talented blenders and manufacturers, great things can happen. But when “special” tobacco is used, the end result can be truly extraordinary. And it’s not always about price. Sometimes it will be an expensive cigar that pushes the boundaries of flavor; other times an obscure stick will grab our attention, and cost a fraction of those exclusive brands.
In the case of the Padron 1926 80th Anniversary, the exceptional tobacco and additional fermentation and aging makes for an extraordinary cigar…but at a price. On the flip side the Aging Room M356 is equally worthy, but a fraction of the cost. Does that mean the later is a better cigar? If we judge a cigar in terms of value then yes, the M356 is better. But price aside, all but one cigar mentioned in this article are equally exceptional. If we want to experience the best cigars in the world then sometimes we just have to pay the price. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s the expense that can make for a “special occasion” cigar. If it’s the only cigar of its kind in our inventory, it will be one to savor with every puff; to reflect on how wonderful life is with a truly great cigar.
But the best news is that we don’t have to pay a lot to have a great cigar smoking experience. Over the last decade, cigar making has improved to the point that we can always find a great cigar within our budget. Ultimately finding any cigar we love makes it a special cigar. But when we want something extraordinary, and have an upcoming celebration, it’s rewarding and fun to be indulgent. ‘Cause when that “special” cigar is truly special, it can make for a Cigar Memory unlike any other. And great memories are priceless.
Thanks for listening,