By Marc Phillips
As an agnostic progressive, I’ve learned to keep my own counsel when herfing with strangers or casual acquaintances. I don’t want to perpetuate any stereotypes about knuckle-dragging cigar smokers, but I also don’t want to get my butt kicked in the back alley of a cigar lounge for suggesting that La La Land and Moonlight are far superior to the latest Jack Reacher film. With my regular herfing buddies at Tismart Cigar Shop in Brewerton, New York, everyone knows where I stand on the issues—because I’m Facebook friends with most of them—and I’m constantly in awe of our ability to have spirited discussions that do not erupt into fights, mostly because we all understand that herfing is supposed to be relaxing. As a stranger in a strange land, I know better than to start shit—precisely because I have watched those Jack Reacher films and I know what happens when you say the wrong thing to the wrong stranger.
What’s really strange is that for most of my life I’ve considered myself more of a moderate. I haven’t really changed that much over the last twenty years but the political landscape has, and I now find myself well to the left on most issues. But there’s one recent issue where the moderate in me leaps out, and that’s with the latest FDA regulations on premium cigars.
The Tobacco Control Act, which regulates all tobacco products in the United States, was recently expanded to include premium cigars. This expansion, which was first announced last year, has struck fear into the premium cigar industry because the impact of regulation, and the huge costs associated with compliance, could be financially devastating for smaller cigar companies. I can understand why the expansion was needed—there needed to be more research and regulation of newer tobacco categories such as e-cigarettes and other “smokeless” tobacco products. From what I’ve read, someone in the FDA threw premium cigars into the mix at the last minute—and the whole cigar industry has been freaking out ever since.
The main issue with this new legislation isn’t whether or not these products can pass an FDA inspection. Frankly, I don’t want to be smoking anything that wouldn’t pass. The issue, of course, is money. The cost of submitting a product for FDA approval can put a smaller cigar factory out of business. A lot of existing cigar companies are big enough to survive such costs, and many cigar brands are already related through a few huge parent companies that control a large share of the market. Through these types of partnerships and consolidations, they can probably endure.
It’s the little “boutique” cigar companies that will likely disappear. That’s not a good thing.
First, I should discuss the term “boutique” as it applies to cigars. This doesn’t refer to a cigar that has a bright orange wrapper and tastes like passion fruit and lavender. A boutique cigar is one that has generally been blended with a variety of different tobaccos, all from different sources and even different countries. This type of cigar isn’t new to the industry, but it differs significantly from the old-school cigars companies that usually owned their own plantations and grew their own tobacco plants and controlled all aspects of production. Boutique cigar manufacturers tend to travel all over the world, looking for unique tobaccos for their unique blends. In general, these type of cigar companies have been growing in popularity in the last few years, especially among younger smokers. A lot of this has to do with the way boutique cigars are marketed—since these cigars are more dependent upon supply, many lines are “limited editions” and appeal to collectors.
To make matters worse for the new kids in town, the new FDA regulations have a grandfather clause that exempts cigars that have been in production for more than ten years. The idea behind that, I suppose, that if one of these older cigars were dangerous we would have heard about it by now. So yes, that part of regulation also makes sense, and it also targets the boutique cigar industry in a very focused way, a way that seems almost unfair once you discover some of these impressive new brands.
That’s why I wanted to focus on three particular sticks in this column, cigars that definitely fall into the “boutique” category. I knew nothing about these three cigar marques a years ago, when I first moved to Central New York. But thanks to my buddy Bob Tisdell Jr., owner of Tismart, I now include these three unforgettable cigars in my weekly rotation. I also want to pass on these recommendations now so you can stock up in case these companies are overwhelmed by the new regulations.
Mi Querida SakaKhan Churchill
Steve Saka had been a Facebook friend of mine for a few years before I realized that he was the guy who developed many of the most famous blends for Drew Estates such as Liga Privada. I also thought he was just another Brother of the Leaf. By the time I had figured out that he was a pretty important guy in the industry, Steve had moved on and started his own cigar company, Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust in New Hampshire. Through Dunbarton he developed the Sobremesa line, which I always enjoyed.
One day, Bob told me about a new cigar that had just come in. “It’s called My Curda, or Me Cuadro or something like that.” Bob’s Spanish is a little rough, but he knows a lot about cigars even if he can’t pronounce their names. Gringo. So I located it in the humidor, a beautiful dark 7” x 50 Churchill with a gold band. It was called Mi Querida, which translates to “my beloved” or even “my mistress.” It was a superb, complex smoke, very full-bodied and potent but without any harshness.
I went on Facebook and posted a pic of the cigar, saying how much I enjoyed it. A few minutes later, Steve Saka himself commented on my post and thanked me for trying the cigar. That’s customer service!
There’s a seriousness about this cigar that’s admirable. It’s not for novices—as I said it’s powerful and it might overwhelm a novice smoker. But it’s also so rich and complex, like a new lover you’re just getting to know. (Was that over the top? I’m just trying to circle back to the whole “my beloved” theme, which makes perfect sense after you smoke one.) It’s complex because Steve has put so much thought into this blend. He uses a Connecticut broadleaf wrapper that is “dark marbled with just a touch of oil.” The long-fillers and binders are blended from various Nicaraguan blends. This is a beautiful cigar, one to stare at and ponder as you light it and smoke it. Kudos, Steve.
Fable Fourth Prime Sapta
“Guess what? I’m getting Fable Cigars!”
I had no idea what Bob was talking about because I had never heard of Fable before. He had just returned from IPCPR, the big cigar convention in Vegas every year, and the Fable line made a huge impression on him. When the entire line of Fable Fourth Prime cigars arrived in his store, he immediate handed me the biggest in the line, a 6.25” by 54 gran toro box-press known as the Sapta, and let me try it out. I’ve been smoking them regularly ever since.
The Sapta is what you would call a toothy cigar, which refers to all the tiny bumps on the wrapper. These tiny bumps tend to contain a lot of the natural tobacco oils and therefore have a lot of flavor. In the premium cigar world, toothy is good. But beyond that, the Fourth Primes are incredibly beautiful cigars despite the simple and somewhat enigmatic band. You can admire the even, exact shape of this stick, the darkly gorgeous Pennsylvania broadleaf wrapper, the way the box-press shape fits so well between the teeth.
This is a luxurious stogie that draws easily and produces huge clouds of smoke. The flavor is bold, with the broadleaf wrapper blended perfectly with Ecuador Habano Ligero binder and filler that comes from both Nicaragua and the DR. I was immediately won over by the big notes of cocoa and coffee, with just a touch of spice.
Fourth Prime is the first line from Fable and is named for the number 7 and “the significance in holds in our world.” Sapta refers to the “Seven Sages” in Indian culture. That’s a little boutique-y in my opinion, and I might be more sardonic about this approach if these cigars were less than magnificent. Skip Martin and Michael Rosales, who blend these cigars in Fabrica de Tobacos Nica Sueno in Nicaragua, are the real deal, and they can be as mystical as they want to be as long as their product is this incredible.
Editor’s Note: “While our cigars are indeed manufactured at Nica Sueño and we learned a lot from Skip and Mike’s guidance as we fumbled through the first steps of our venture, Fable is in fact owned by myself, Sean Kremenetski and my business partner, Mitul Shah, who blended Fourth Prime after a two year learning curve and many discarded blends.” — Sean Kremenetski
Caldwell Blind Man’s Bluff Robusto
Compared to the other two cigars, this unassuming 5” x 50 robusto from Robert Caldwell seems rather modest—even with the odd image on the band. The Ecuadoran Habano wrapper isn’t toothy or oily. It just sort of sits there, a matte medium brown. As you hold it in your hand, it doesn’t feel particularly special. But when you light it up, the Blind Man’s Bluff offers up a smorgasbord of flavors from chocolate and coffee to licorice to cinnamon to cedar, all wrapped up in a deeply earthy patina.
If I wanted to tell you about a Caldwell stogie that’s outwardly as impressive the Mi Querida and the Fourth Prime, I would have told you about Caldwell’s masterpiece, the $20 Last Czar. (Many of Caldwell’s releases have a Russian theme.) The Czar is far more refined and balanced than BMB. But it’s also more than twice the price. Blind Man’s Bluff is priced like an everyday stick, but it offers those plentiful little touches that are usually the domain of expensive sticks.
What’s even more interesting is the way this stick evolves as you smoke it. The flavors don’t battle each other for supremacy, they gently reveal themselves to you one at a time. This is why boutique cigars are so endlessly interesting—the blends can be so interesting in the way they play out over the course of the cigar. Blind Man’s Bluff matches that wallflower of a Habano wrapper with a binder from Honduras, and fillers that are sourced from both Honduras and the Dominican Republic. It’s a little miracle, and a great value.
When discussing the ultimate outcome of the increased FDA regulations, there’s obviously an elephant in the room—one that wears suits that are too big and ties that are too long. Before the election last November, it was easy to blame the increased purview of the FDA as another example of liberal overreach. Even though there’s a new administration afoot, there are still concerns such as “He doesn’t smoke or drink, so why would he be a friend to tobacco” or “He’s not going to allow Cuban cigars in the country unless everyone in Havana agrees to buy a new Chevy.”
Then again, there’s that executive order that puts a freeze on new regulations. As of March 2017, the choices in your local cigar lounge probably haven’t changed yet, so all this lamenting over the last year may or may not be for nothing. Until we know for sure, it makes sense to explore these new boutique cigars and if you find something you love, stock up while you can.