By Marc Phillips
Since I started smoking premium cigars back in 1998, I’ve lived in several states: California, Washington, Texas, Colorado and now New York. That’s right, we just packed up and moved a few weeks ago to Central New York where we can take advantage of reducing shipping costs for our distribution company while experiencing the unique wintertime pleasure of being buried under something called “lake effect snow.”
Each time I move to a new state, I tend to judge it based upon its friendliness to premium cigar smokers like me. For instance, Texas was extremely friendly to cigar smokers—I had several quality cigar lounges within 25 miles of my house, tobacco taxes in Texas were almost non-existent so that the prices were always low and I could smoke openly in public areas. Washington State had decent prices, but few places to buy. Colorado had few places to buy, and the high tobacco taxes jacked up prices to the point where I was ordering mostly online.
The most cigar un-friendly place I’ve ever been is New York City. I always thought the Big Apple was a place where one could hang out in a dirty back room with Boss Tweed and his cronies and smoke giant stogies until the room burst into flames. Not so. The first time I visited NYC as a cigar smoker, I had to pay twice the prices I paid in Texas thanks to prohibitively high tobacco taxes—I remember that a pack of cigarettes cost $15 at the time—and there was absolutely no place to smoke in public. I had to stand 15 feet from any public building, and I couldn’t go out in the street, so I had to line myself up with the curb as if I was a gymnast setting up on the balance beam. I did find a nice cigar lounge in the city where I could relax with a $28 cigar that cost me $7 back in Austin.
Once we decided to relocate to the Syracuse area, I started doing some research. The good news was that Syracuse was home to several cigar shops with excellent selections. The better news was that cigars in Syracuse weren’t exceptionally pricey—that crazy taxing situation was solely the realm of the Land of $100 Daily Parking Fees. The best news was that I moved into a quiet, sleepy little town a half-hour north of Syracuse and found a great cigar store with an incredible selection within walking difference from my new home.
So what’s the bad news? Well, after touring several dilapidated house rentals in Syracuse proper that are still giving me nightmares, we found a brand-spanking new condo complex that had everything we wanted. We would be the first tenants in our unit, so everything inside was literally pristine and perfect. The catch? No smoking was allowed in the unit. That’s okay, I thought, I’ve lived with those rules before. As long as I can smoke outside on the patio—
- You cannot smoke ANYWHERE on the entire property.
That’s a hell of a tease, I thought. Just a couple of hundred yards away I had a cigar store that had all of my current favorites—Curavari, Illusione, Padron 1926, Nat Sherman Timeless, Litto Gomez, Headley Grange, Oliva V Melanio and more, not to mention quite a few sticks I’d been dying to try but couldn’t find—and I couldn’t sit outside my house and smoke them.
I tried to improvise the best I could. I tried to smoke behind the big dumpsters in the back, but every time someone came to empty their trash I wound up scaring them. And since our beautiful new condo complex was still basically a construction site, smoking away from the buildings usually meant smoking in ankle-deep mud. In my first weeks in my new digs, I ruined a couple of pairs of shoes.
I finally found a solution just beyond the property line, a rather non-descript cinder block building painted mocha brown located at the back of an immense lawn that overlooked the highway. Since no one seemed to occupy the building, I sat on the side away from the wind so I light my precious stogies without too many problems. I sat down against the building in the thick green grass, my butt making a permanent indentation in the soft, damp ground, and I watched the traffic drive by. Suddenly I realized how suspicious I looked sitting against that building and smoking, especially since the actual smoking jacket used by the guy who writes The Smoking Jacket is a worn-out old hoodie and one police car after another kept on driving past me. I imagined being rousted by the cops for smoking cigars on private property, and having to explain that I wasn’t allowed to smoke anywhere on the property of my new home, and this round indentation in the grass was the closest thing I had to a smoking lounge in the State of New York. It got to the point where I actually hoped I would be harassed by the police because it would make this particular column more interesting. Hey officers, can I take your photo for Part-Time Audiophile?
That didn’t happen, of course. What did happen is that my first three Onondaga County cigars—all box-pressed for some strange reason—were exquisite, thanks to the folks at Brewerton Liquor and Cigars. Like my own cigar lounge in Texas, Copper House Cigars, the cigar store is actually an annex to the liquor store. At first I thought it would be similar to the liquor stores back in Colorado where I had to choose between eight or ten mediocre sticks, but this place has everything I could possibly want.
At this stage of my cigar-smoking life I’d like to say that I’ve smoked all the Rocky Patels there are, but they keep releasing new ones and I think they’re now up to about 10,000 different stogies. Seriously, the 6.5” 54-ring Royale you see here has been on my hit list for quite a while—ever since it placed in the top five in Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 in 2014. While RP has had cigars on the list before, never had one scored so high. After the list appeared, they all but vanished. But I finally found one here in Brewerton and I scooped it up.
First, let me say that I really enjoy Rocky Patel cigars. I consider them the Harbeth 40.1s of cigars. Blindfold me and put me in a room with 100 pair of speakers, I’ll pick out the Harbeth the instant I hear it. The same with smoking RPs. It’s not that they’re so different than other cigars—which is usually not a good thing–but their blend is distinctively smooth and rich and very consistent from cigar to cigar. The Royale, made with an Ecuadoran wrapper, Connecticut binders and Nicaraguan fillers, is one of the most refined RPs I’ve tasted. From the first puff it was just an effortless experience, easy to draw with huge plumes of smoke and accompanied by a lingering, pleasant and earthy flavor. Best of all, it retained this exceptional smoothness all the way to the end—not once did it draw hot or harsh.
It reminded me, to a certain extent, of the basic 1990 and 1992 Reserves in the Rocky Patel line, but with additional depth and smoothness. My problem with the 1990s and 1992s have been with their somewhat fragile caps—one wrong move during the cutting process and the whole thing unravels like a can of crescent roll dough. The Royale had a beautiful solid cap on it and I was able to get a great cut on it.
I honestly believe that this is the best Rocky Patel I’ve smoked, and I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve smoked several more Royales since this first one. Highly recommended.
Yet another substantial box-press cigar that placed unusually high in the Cigar Aficionado Top 25—it was a lofty #3 in the 2015 rankings—the CAO Flathead 660 remarkable for several reasons. First of all, it’s cheap at just about $8 per stick. That’s a lot of value for a big (6” by 60) beautiful cigar like this. Second, it’s called a flathead because the head is flat, really flat—the entire line is modeled after flathead engine blocks, and each box looks like an engine. When you cut this monster, you’ll worry that you’re cutting too much off—but as long as you cut outside of the cap you’ll be fine. But it’s fairly disconcerting at first.
Finally, this cigar was a nice long smoke. Really long. Like almost two hours long. That’s one of the many advantages to box-pressed cigars—because the fillers and binders are compressed into that square space during the aging process, these cigars are denser and therefore smoke more slowly and evenly. Every time I smoke a box-press cigar I tell myself that I should only be smoking box press cigars from now on. Then again, I say the same thing about figurados.
The 660’s strengths are in its complexity—it’s made with Connecticut Broadleaf wrappers, Cuban-seed binders and fillers that are sourced from both Nicaragua and Dominican tobaccos. It tastes of leather and earth and is perhaps a little more peppery than the RP Royale, but it is far from overwhelming. But prepared for an intense herf with the 660. It’s a powerful and lengthy smoke, but the value quotient is very, very impressive. I’d pay twice as much for a cigar like this without blinking.
This was another Cigar Aficionado winner, placing number #10 in 2014. I picked this pretty little box-pressed number of for a couple of other reasons, however. First of all, I’ve never tried an A. Flores cigar in my entire life. It’s one of those red-and-gold cigars, meaning A. Flores uses a traditional red-and-gold band that makes it disappear into the crowd at the cigar store. I’ve missed out on so many great cigars because I chose something sparkly and unique instead, and over the last few years I’ve been trying to rectify these errors by paying more attention to the “Plain Janes” of the cigar world.
Second, the SP52 was a beautiful, compact stick with an almost seamless wrapper that reminded me of the Padron 1926 line and its flawless construction. The torceadores at A. Flores are obviously very skilled at what they do. This cigar even smoked like a Padron 1926, with an effortless draw that produced gigantic plumes of smoke. Where it veered away from Padron was in its flavor profile; it had one of the most prominent cedar notes I’ve experienced, which gave it a far smoother and milder flavor than I expected.
This 5” by 52-ring wonder only came up short in one department—it smoked far too quickly! I was done in less than a half-hour. The exquisite draw had something to do with it, along with its mild and agreeable disposition. I simply couldn’t get enough of it and was perhaps a little too aggressive. I keep thinking that if I could combine the marathon that is the CAO Flathead 660 with the flavor of the A. Flores, I’d have a new favorite smoke. Nevertheless, I’m going to smoke a few more of both until someone invents that stogie.
Things are looking up for me in Central New York, however. That local store has placed a couple of barstools and tables out front so people can smoke freely. I’ve discovered a couple of cigar stores that actually have mini-lounges inside—just the thing for those coming winter months. And I’m starting to like my little spot on the grassy knoll—as long as I don’t get arrested.