By Marc Phillips
Have I told you about my constant struggles with smoking premium cigars in my isolated town on Colorado’s Western Slope? I’m sure that I have. In fact, I know that I have.
There are only a couple of places where I can find a halfway decent premier cigar within the city limits. Basically, I have a choice between mediocre cigars that are well cared for, and a nice selection of dried-out, poorly maintained cigars with jacked-up prices, thanks to Colorado’s fairly stiff tobacco taxes.
That leaves me with few options when it comes to getting the cigars I want, when I want them. I can travel to the nearest reputable cigar store, which means driving 60 miles to Grand Junction, or braving the most dangerous road in America, the infamous Million Dollar Highway, to check out a heretofore unvisited cigar lounge in Durango—106 miles away. The Million Dollar Highway, if you don’t know, is a winding mountain road with plenty of 1000 foot drops off the shoulder…and no guardrails. I promised my mother when I moved to this area that I would never drive through the Red Mountain Pass on that highway—a promise that I’ve since broken. But I see her point—despite the 25mph speed limit, which seems a tad generous, it’s a white-knuckled drive all the way, and it’s something that should never be attempted during the winter months, which can last half the year thanks to the 11,000 foot elevations through Red Mountain.
That leaves me with two other options. First, I can wait until I travel to a major American metropolis, such as the ones I frequent when we do high-end audio trade shows. I enjoy visiting new cigar stores all over the country, but I don’t do it frequently enough to keep me in stock of great sticks. Second, I can get my cigars through online sources, a solution that has its pros and cons as well.
My issue with dealing with online cigar sources is quite simple, and quite selfish. When I’m in the mood to smoke a cigar, I want to smoke a cigar. I want to buy my cigar, take it home and smoke it right then and there because I am in the mood, dammit. I don’t want to wait the five to seven days it takes to get those stogies delivered to my front porch. Online cigar stores are the perfect solution for the cigar smoker who is building a seriously stocked humidor, and that’s not always me.
That said, online cigar stores are a quite reliable and easy way to get the sticks you want. I’ve tried most of the big online retailers such as Thompson Cigars, Cigars International and Cigar.com. Over the years, I’ve gravitated toward Cigar.com because I like their customer service, and I like the fact that every single cigar I’ve ordered has arrived perfectly humidified, and in perfect shape.
But I think the real attraction to using one of these services is the outstanding deals you can get. You can definitely save a lot of money by taking advantage of “daily cigar deals,” “week-end blow outs” and the like. The only problem is that these great deals rarely coincide with my own cigar preferences. Those amazing deals, where you can get a $10 cigar for $2 or $3 bucks a stick, are often reserved for somewhat mediocre cigars that they’re trying to liquidate. Not once have I taken advantage of a great online deal that didn’t result in a cigar that didn’t quite meet my expectations. If I want to cherry-pick the cigars I want delivered, I’m usually paying the same price I’d pay at a reputable cigar lounge, plus shipping.
That’s where an online cigar store that focuses more on a personalized shopping experience truly comes in handy. In high-end audio terms, it’s much like shopping for an amplifier from an online source as opposed to dealing with a local dealer, one where you can develop a long-term relationship with the proprietor and focus on what you really want, not what an anonymous salesman is trying to sell you.
I encountered one of these “little guys” a few weeks ago. Anthony Welsch, of Cigars City in Tennessee, had been following my first few columns for The Smoking Jacket and he thought I’d enjoy a few sticks from Crowned Heads, a newer cigar marque that has been garnering a lot of buzz in the last couple of years. I’m already a big fan CH’s Headley Grange line, and I did review one for my second column, “The Courteous Cigar Smoker.” Based on the preferences I expressed in my first few installments of The Smoking Jacket, he made a couple of selections for me that were absolutely spot on. Anthony knows his stuff, and cigar vendors like him can help propel you into a more satisfying exploration of the hobby.
JD Howard Reserve HR-52 Toro
When I first heard that Cigars City was headquartered in Tennessee, it brought back a few wonderful memories of my early cigar-smoking days. One of the first truly great cigar stores I ever visited was in Chattanooga. I can’t remember the name of the place, and I don’t know if they are still in business, but their walk-in humidor was enormous. It had aisles, like a supermarket. I’m not talking about three or four aisles, like you’ll find in most reputable cigar lounges, but at least a dozen aisles with nearly every cigar brand I knew—which probably wasn’t a lot in those days. I’ve also found excellent cigar stores in Nashville and Memphis—Tennessee as a whole is an excellent place to be a cigar smoker.
Anthony’s fondness for Crowned Heads, a company that was founded by a couple a guys who once worked for AVO, is based on that same regional pride. “I’m a huge fan of Crowned Heads but I feel validated hearing your thoughts!” he told me. “The owners have Tennessee ties so I thought maybe I just wanted to like them so badly my heart was fooling my head!” Well, Anthony, no worries there—the JD Howard Reserve Toro is an absolutely wonderful cigar in every way. I’m about a third of the way through a box of very lofty, very expensive cigars and it says a lot that I switched to the JD without any sense of loss or disappointment.
The JD Howard Reserve (named after one of Jesse James’ aliases) is a dense, complex smoke that is meaty. By meaty, I don’t mean that the wrapper tastes like it was infused with pancetta. I mean that it’s solid, heavy in hand and substantial while having beautiful construction and a nice easy draw. I’ve been smoking a lot of cigars that are light in hand, meaning that they weigh next to nothing and smoke relatively quickly. But this cigar was the polar opposite—we’re talking about a long, slow, luxurious smoke that will slow your day down to an enjoyable crawl.
Made from Nicaraguan fillers, Ecuadoran binders and a dark, rich Brazilian wrapper, the HR-52 has a ton of bold, shifting flavors that taste unique enough to set it apart from the boutique crowd. You’ll taste plenty of wood, pepper, coffee and even a little licorice. I’m not the biggest fan of Brazilian wrappers—they often taste very different from more familiar blends from Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic and therefore can taste slightly “alien” to my palate—but the JD Howard Reserve has completely changed my mind.
Crowned Heads Tennessee Waltz
If the JD Howard Reserve was a big, fat, juicy steak, then the Tennessee Waltz is that same steak covered with crushed black pepper and a big dollop of horseradish. The overall flavor profile is similar to the JD, but it’s more spicy and powerful without one iota of harshness. The cigar itself, as you can see, is presented in a rather plain way—there is no band, save for the orange satin band that adorns the foot. It reminded me, in appearance, of the Cain Daytona—a mild and very affordable stick that “punches above its weight” in the same way an excellent two-way monitor speaker does. But the Tennessee Waltz has a real kick to it—you should probably eat before you smoke it and follow it up with a big glass of water to avoid getting green.
Despite the similarities in the flavor profile, the Waltz is made with a Connecticut broadleaf wrapper, and fillers and binders sourced in Esteli, Nicaragua, from the splendid factory as the Garcia family’s My Father’s Cigars. Perhaps that’s why it reminds me of the very desirable My Father Le Bijou 1922. With a length of 5 ½” and a ring size of 52, it’s a slightly smaller cigar than the JD (which is 6” and a 52 ring). It’s still a monumental smoke. Crowned Heads’ Jon Huber named it after the legendary song, which was playing when his grandfather met his grandmother for the first time. You’ll find that same deep, emotional undercurrent and dedication when you smoke one of these gems.
Anthony and I debated over whether or not I wanted to write about the Tennessee Waltz. It’s only available in Tennessee, and it’s not available online. But this limited availability does illustrate why it’s so important to develop a personal relationship with these online vendors. I would have never known about this cigar if I hadn’t started talking to Anthony about what I like, and what I’m looking for in a premium cigar. I’ve smoked plenty of these “regional” sticks in the past and usually they’re pretty worthwhile smokes—I’m reminded of a special “Texas Edition” Montecristo that I used to smoke back in Kyle that was one of the most enjoyable non-Cuban Monties I’ve tried.
For you fellow smokers in isolated locations, online vendors such as Cigars City may be the perfect compromise between taking your chances with unseen, unsmoked cigars and having that wonderful experience of sitting in a cigar lounge and asking for recommendations from the guy behind the counter.
What you don’t get from the small guys, or any other online cigar website, is the experience of “herfing.” Herf, in cigar lingo, is the experience of sitting down with like-minded cigar smokers and talking about sports, politics and, most of all, good cigars. During a herf you’re supposed to relax, unwind and bond with your fellow cigar aficionados. But the definition of herfing has broadened in recent years—you and a good buddy can herf anytime, anywhere, and these smokes from Crowned Heads are herfalicious in every sense of the word.
You can find out more about Cigars City by visiting their website at cigarscity.com, emailing Anthony at Anthony@cigarscity.com or simply by giving him a call at 888-812-9712 to find out what he recommends for you.