By Marc Phillips
“Way out west, a story is told
About a bunch of cowboys, tiny and bold
Riding tall, tall in the saddle
Herding cows the size of schnauzers but they’re cattle…”
Ah, mini sirloin burgers from Jack-in-the-Box. Until Flo from Progressive Insurance, in her deadpan and impish way, declared that sprinkles are for winners, this was perhaps my favorite TV commercial in the history of the planet. My sons and I memorized the words and started singing that catchy song at every opportunity—at least until we actually had them at the local Jack and realized they were, like most fast food, nothing special. But to this day, probably a decade after that memorable commercial first appeared, I can still sing the complete song on a dare.
That’s what marketing gurus call a home run. I can’t hear the words “tiny” or “bold” without breaking into song—at least in my head. In fact, this phrase made its way into my cigar smoking rituals—if I have a small cigar that is quite potent, a familiar critter in the world of stogies, I have to fight off those three words from leaving my lips.
Why are little yet powerful cigars such a thing? Well, to tell you the truth, it’s because a big and powerful cigar is not for the novice cigar smoker. You’re probably familiar with the term “green,” as in a cigar being so strong that it will turn your face green with nausea and dizziness once you get to the two-thirds mark. Turning green can make an otherwise enjoyable herf end on a somewhat bittersweet note. I’ve smoked cigars so big and so strong—the Man O’War Armada comes to mind—that afterward I literally had to crawl to the couch on my hands and knees and catch my breath for a good twenty minutes until the world stopped spinning. Yes, even the guy who writes a cigar column has smoked cigars so bold that he’s expelled the chunder from down under to the amusement of his fellow herfers.
That’s where the “tiny” part comes in. Take one of those powerhouse sticks and condense it into a smaller size—say, a corona or a petite corona at the most, and suddenly that brutal, spicy smoke becomes quite manageable and even enjoyable. You might ask why people would want to accept such a challenge, since it sounds so painful, but it’s a little like hot sauce. After a while, you stop tasting the heat and you need more. Cigars can be the same—after smoking several mild cigars the novice smoker might want to up the ante a bit Still, a tiny and bold (there goes the song in my head once again) cigar is a great way to experiment with different tobacco flavors without getting too green and embarrassing yourself in front of your cigar buddies.
There are plenty of ways to avoid getting green with these potent smokes, however:
- Take your time. I’ve already said this before in this column, but chances are you need to slow down your smoking style if you’re getting green all the time. Hotboxing—puffing repeatedly so that the cherry on the end of your cigar glows like molten lava—will increase the harshness of your cigar to the point where you’ll start to feel sick. In addition, puffing too hard and too often will also limit the amount of oxygen you’re getting in your lungs and to your brain, hence the nausea and the headaches.
- Protect your ash. There’s a reason why experienced cigar smokers don’t constantly tap the ash of the end of their sticks while they’re smoking—that ash acts as insulation and keeps the cigar from burning too hot. I can remember smoking a Padron No. 35 maduro, a very powerful cigar, and having two of my friends ask to give it a try. Being cigarette smokers, the first thing they did was tap that ash off, much to my consternation. The second thing they did was cough up half a lung when they exhaled. Keep the ash on the foot of your cigar until it falls off naturally.
- Eat before you smoke. Enjoying a big, heavy cigar on an empty stomach is just asking for trouble. I’ve seen cigar vendors offer synopses on certain sticks that include the phrase, “You might want to save this cigar for after dinner.” That’s code for “You may turn a deep emerald green after this one.”
- Stay hydrated. If you do become green after smoking a cigar, and it happens to most of us, just drink a big tall glass of ice water. In most cases this works perfectly for me—the greenness will vanish within a couple of minutes.
I headed out to my local cigar store, Rem’s Place in Grand Junction, on a mission to grab a couple of these tiny and bold, tall-in-the-saddle cigars. Even though I have loved dark, spicy, face-peeling cigars in the past, in recent years I’ve gravitated toward smoother, less bracing smokes. Part of that is due to the fact that I’m smoking fewer cigars here in Colorado than I did in my halcyon days in Texas, and yes, I go green easily as a result. But it many ways these two diminutive yet butt-kicking cigars brought back a lot of memories of taking big puffs and then holding tightly to the armrests of my smoking chair until I landed safely back on Earth.
Illusione 68 “Bombone”
If you’re familiar with Illusione cigars, you know that founder Dion Giolito identifies his many sticks with a number or letter designation. In this case, “68” refers to the year he was born, an apt number for the smallest stick he makes. “Bombone,” on the other hand, sounds a lot like “little bomb,” which is not enigmatic at all once you smoke this firecracker. (Bombon is the Spanish word for marshmallow, and may also refer to bon-bons, which may allude to the 68’s heavy chocolate notes.) I used to sell a lot of 68s in my cigar lounge back in Texas—it was the go-to stick, along with the Oliva V, for my customers who wanted HUGE taste. Some of my customers would ask me why it was so small (it’s a 4” long petite corona with a 44 ring), and I would answer “because it’s all you can handle.”
As much as I loved this little cigar, which is made from Honduran tobacco blends, I always thought it was about all I could handle before I passed out face down in a puddle of my flopsweat. A little more pepper, a little more spice, and I would have never tried another. But as it stands, a good three years since I smoked my last one, I’m surprised by all of its complexities underneath its “blast of pepper” during the first half. You’ll taste plenty of cedar as well, but you’ll also get some prominent cherry notes that increase in sweetness as your work your way to the end. As with many other petite coronas, the Bombone lights easily, burns flawlessly and emits a deceptively big plume of smoke. Best of all, this Bombone did not make me turn green. I felt a twinge of accomplishment when I placed the smoldering one-inch nub in my ashtray.
Then I remembered a little trick about the 68, which can be applied to almost any cigar this strong—age it for a while before you smoke it. Letting a 68 sit in your humidor for a couple of months will help it to develop more complex flavors, taming those chili-hot notes and bringing out the true character of this awesome little cigar. Best of all, it’s very affordable—I use to charge $5 for a 68, and I paid only slightly more here in tobacco tax-heavy Colorado.
Ashton VSG Tres Mystique
The Ashton VSG (Virgin Sun Grown) line is, for me, the jewel of this legendary cigar marque’s line-up. You can spend a lot more on the ESG (Estate Sun Grown) line, but in my opinion the VSGs get you most of the way there for about half the price. (High-end audio isn’t the only place where you can debate the Law of Diminishing Returns.) For many years I’ve smoked the VSG Enchantment, a stubby figurado that’s very similar in size and shape to the Arturo Fuente Work of Art I reviewed in “Go Figurado!” It’s a little spicier than the Fuente, but it burns a lot more evenly and is one of the most rewarding figurados I’ve tried.
The Tres Mystique is another petite corona at 4.3 inches long and a ring size of 44. Like the Illusione, it’s easy to light and it burns like a champ. But if I had to compare the Tres Mystique directly to the 68—and that was easy to do since I smoked them on the same day—I’d say that the Ashton is the more sophisticated cigar with more substance and less “blast.” Its Ecuadoran wrapper does have prominent notes of pepper, but that’s balanced with a touch of peatiness that gives the Tres Mystique an earthier, more natural flavor. In other words, I always get the distinct impression that the 68’s been somehow “juiced” to achieve that extra measure of punch, while the Ashton’s flavor seems more organically tied to its tobacco origins. It’s just a tiny bit more genuine in its flavors.
There’s a twist, however. The Ashton did make me a little green. I’d chalk that up to the fact that I had smoked the 68 just a few hours prior, but it did happen. Subjectively, the Ashton didn’t slap me across the face like the Illusione did, but it did take its toll. It’s a little longer than the Bombone, and maybe that was the difference. But it’s a tiny and bold little cigar (cows the size of schanuzers) that makes you think you just smoked a big and bold cigar.
I can think of several more tiny and bold (way out west) cigars that will challenge your palate and yet allow you to broaden your cigar smoking horizons. The aforementioned Padron No. 35 Maduro certainly tops that list—it’s a truly great cigar that I can only smoke once in a great while, although sometimes I smoke the milder “Natural” No. 35 like they’re going out of style. Viaje, one of my favorite cigar brands, also offers a couple of crazy, intense little tobacco nuggets called the Honey Hand Grenade and the Skull N’ Bones that tend to cross the line when it comes to cigars that I can finish without barfing.
But if it sounds like I’m warning you away from these little powerhouses, I’m not. Not only will sticks like the Illusione 68 and the Ashton Tres Mystique stay in your memory long after you’ve showered, shampooed and washed your clothes twice, they’ll train your palate to appreciate cigars with a wider variety of flavor profiles. Just remember to eat something before you light up—I’ve heard mini sirloin burgers might be ideal.