By Marc Phillips
A few years ago, but more recently than I’m willing to admit, I visited my favorite cigar store in Austin and stocked up on a few Don Pepin Garcia Cuban Classics in the gordo (6 by 60) size. At the time, this was one of my absolute favorite sticks—it was smooth, creamy and very strong on chocolate notes. It smoked like a dream and was never harsh or overbearing, despite the larger than average size.
Jim Harrison, the manager of Habana House at the time who has since gone to a corporate position with Xikar, was always a great source for recommendations. When I grabbed three of four of these gordos, he leaned in and said “If you like that one, you really need to try the figurado.”
He then exited the walk-in humidor to assist another customer, leaving me alone to pretend like I knew what I was doing. I didn’t. I thought figurados were fairly easy to spot with their odd tapers, bulges and points. I looked over the entire selection of Cuban Classics and they all basically looked the same, just different lengths and ring sizes. What I didn’t notice, however, was the lone box of torpedoes. I took me a few subsequent visits to figure out the figurado, and once I did I realized, like all cigar smokers, that I still had a lot to learn about the art of smoking premium cigars.
(On the other hand, some people feel that coronas, one of the most basic types of parejo, are the safest bet because it’s the first type of cigar torceadors are taught to roll when they are apprentices. So if you can’t get your corona right, nothing else matters.)
Figurados, due to their unusual shapes, are usually far more complex smokes than parejos. Due to all those tapering or bulging sides, the ring size of the cigar changes as you smoke it, revealing sudden shifts in flavor and draw. In other words, figurados evolve continuously when it comes to their flavor profiles. They might start out mild and then suddenly accelerate in spiciness and flavor as the ring size expands toward the middle. Some people actually prefer their cigars to maintain their “sweet spot” from beginning to end, which explains why “shorties,” sticks that are usually only 4” to 4.5” long, are becoming popular. After all, a cigar that is so-so during its first third, smooth and balanced at the halfway point and extremely harsh in its final third is not considered a great cigar. But a well-made figurado evolves in flavor while maintaining consistent quality from start to finish. If a great figurado could last forever, it would be the Everlasting Gobstopper of tobacco products.
There is a catch to smoking figurados. They’re not quite cigars for novice smokers. They can be difficult to light correctly, for example, and even tougher to keep evenly lit through the duration of the smoke. If there’s a Hemingway tip at the foot, which is basically a nipple that has a tiny hole in it, you can just zap it quickly and evenly with your lighter and it should burn evenly and effortlessly as long as you constantly rotate the stick as you draw the smoke. Some cigars from Viaje, for instance, have identically rounded heads and foots, with just a small pinprick on one end so you know where to apply the flame. For some reason, these all burn perfectly thanks to exquisite construction. Despite this, when figurados go rogue on you it’s usually a disaster.
For me, however, figurados can lead to “canoeing” far more often than parejos. Canoeing, of course, is when a cigar starts to burn unevenly on one side until the whole stogie looks like a hollowed-out canoe. Once you get a serious canoe going, you might as well extinguish the cigar because it’s just going to taste harsh and then fall apart in your fingers at the end. Due to the increasing and decreasing of the ring size along the body of the figurado, it’s far easier to build (and sink) that canoe. By taking the following precautions, however, you can probably prevent this from happening:
- Take the time to toast the foot of your cigar correctly and evenly before you light it. Toasting refers to charring the foot of your stogie so that once it is lit, it will burn evenly for the first third of the cigar. I’ll even apply a flame lightly to a tiny Hemingway tip before I light it—just to get it started off right.
- As I’ve already mentioned, constantly rotate your cigar while you smoke it. Canoes happen when you hold the cigar in the same position—tiny flaws in the consistency of the cigar will become amplified if you don’t rotate. Toasting will get you through the first third of your cigar, but rotating will get you to the end in style.
- Don’t hotbox. That refers to puffing repeatedly on the cigar to get that cherry glowing like a beacon in the night. Not only does that ruin the taste of the cigar, it causes it to burn erratically. Have you ever smoked a cigar in windy weather? You’ll know what I’m talking about. Every draw should be deep and singular—it’s not a contest to see who can produce the most smoke.
- If your cigar does start to canoe, slow down. I find that in most cases, a canoe will right itself if you slow down and allow the cigar to burn in a more natural fashion. I’ve had canoes correct themselves before the midpoint by simply reducing my draws. Remember, one puff per minute is all you need to do to keep your stick burning evenly and smoothly.
I recently grabbed a handful of beautiful figurados from my neighborhood cigar store a few weeks ago. By “cigar store” I mean Rem’s Place in Grand Junction, Colorado, and by “neighborhood” I mean an hour’s drive north of here because I can’t find a decent cigar in my hometown to save my life. If I do want to get a cigars quickly, I have a choice between two locations nearby; one has a horrible selection of mediocre cigars but their humidor is in good working order, and the other has a decent selection but let all their sticks dry up—and they also jack up their prices as well. No thanks.
Rem’s is closest thing I have to a neighborhood cigar store, and they have a very nice—not world-class, but respectable—selection that is well-maintained. Of all those figurados, these two were by far the best…
Arturo Fuente Hemingway Work of Art Maduro
I’ve been smoking this one for quite some time; it’s one of the first true figurados that I used to purchase on a regular basis. Arturo Fuente has been around for a very long time, and they offer a huge selection of cigars in their line-up, but the Hemingway line—marked by a black border around its label (as opposed to the green border on the entry-level line and red on the sungrown line)—is composed of truly accomplished cigars, stogies that are absolute classics in every sense of the word.
For me, the Work of Art (which is available in both colorado and maduro wrappers) is the real jewel in the line, a stubby yet gorgeous figurado with a strong, full flavor and absolutely flawless construction. Again, impatient smoking styles will cause the burn to get a little squirrely, but the Hemingway tip always results in an easy light so you’ll start off on the right track. (By the way, it’s named a Hemingway tip because “Papa” himself used to order them this way from the factory.)
The two varieties of the Work of Art are interesting because I actually find the darker maduro wrapper to be smoother and creamer and less harsh than the lighter Colorado wrapper, which has a tendency to turn nasty after you pass the big, thick bulge in the middle of this 4 ¾”, 46-60 ring cigar. The only downside to the Work of Art is that it smokes quickly, even if you take your time with the puffing. At its center it’s an unctuous, enveloping smoke, but once you pass its peak and the taper starts to narrow you’ll be bummed that it’s coming to an end. And that, of course, is the mark of a truly great cigar.
Aging Room M356 Forte Perfecto
Aging Room is a newer brand on these shores, and they focus on all-Dominican blends made from fairly rare tobaccos. They’re so new, in fact, that I never even tried one until I had moved to Colorado two years ago. Despite this, they’ve received many accolades, including a spot in Cigar Aficionado’s Top Five a couple of years ago.
The M356 line is a small batch line, which means it’s made from rarer blends and released in small quantities. The flavor is a bit more complex and subdued than the Work of Art—you’ll taste cedar and hickory notes that cool off the peppery finish. Of the handful of M356s I’ve already smoked, I found the overall flavor profile to be sophisticated and refined without being too mild—but the overall construction was a bit off the very best. Yup, the first one I bought resulted in a canoe.
This perfecto, however, burned slowly and perfectly all the way to the end, and the stick held its ash until I was almost at the halfway point. If you’re one of those cigar smokers who don’t quite get the importance of maintaining your ash for as long as physically possible, it’s more than just cooling off the smoke and the heat on your tongue. It’s about the roll, and how perfect the structure is, and acknowledging it by avoiding an unnecessary removal of the ash. Besides, a perfecto should be literally perfect—it should be a special cigar, for special occasions, the very point of smoking a figurado in the first place. If you’re curious about Aging Room and haven’t tried one yet, start with this one and you’ll understand the hype.
Other figurados I adore include the Ashton VSG Enchantment, the Oliva V Melanio Saloman (which was #1 on this year’s CA Top 25, and for good reason), the Don Pepin Garcia Serie JJ Salomon, the La Gloria Cubana Artesanos de Obeliscos and the Padron No. 85. My favorite cigar of all time was a figurado, a Cuaba from Havana. Whatever you choose, ensure you have plenty of time to light and enjoy your figurado, and you may never go back to one of those ordinary parejos again.