The Big Idea: A Stronger Smoke
The cigars we’re smoking are becoming more buff. Just look at this year’s Best of the Best winners: Full- and medium-full-strength smokes dominate, with the Montecristo 1935 Anniversary Nicaragua the lone representative on the podium for the medium-strength category. Absent entirely are any cigars from the mild or even medium-mild segments. Meanwhile, a number of popular smokes, such as the J. C. Newman Diamond Crown Maximus and the CAO Vision, have debuted intense new versions that not only grabbed our attention but made our list for the year’s best cigars.
That means so long candela cigars, with their ultra-mild yellow-green wrappers, and hello to the flavors of Jalapa and Estelí, two of Nicaragua’s most popular regions for producing the dark, muscular tobaccos used in many of today’s premium stogies. In fact, 6 of this year’s 10 Best of the Best winners come from Nicaragua and feature its characteristically rich, earthy tobaccos. And the trend holds outside of our curated selection: Over the past several years, for the first time Nicaragua has outpaced the Dominican Republic as the leading exporter of premium cigars to the US.
The gravitation to stronger smokes is the result of a growing appreciation for the many flavor nuances to be found in fuller premium cigars, as with the current penchant for cask-strength whiskeys. We’re also firing up more stogies overall, with January 2021 exports to the US up by 55 percent compared to January 2020, according to the Cigar Association of America. This is unsurprising, perhaps, in the most homebound year in modern memory. With many of us now working from home, lighting up a mid-afternoon stogie is far more feasible than in an office environment. For smokers, at least, that’s one cloud with a silver lining.
Ultra-Premium: Cohiba Royale
The Royale is the fullest-bodied Cohiba to date and also marks the first time this celebrated brand has been hand-rolled in Honduras. To showcase its strength, it’s handsomely packaged in a semi-circular dome-shaped cigar chest (in either 5- or 10-count) in red, silver and black. The holographic bands are no less spectacular, but nothing outshines the cigar itself. Most evident is the roughly textured yet silky-smooth Nicaraguan broadleaf wrapper from the Jalapa Valley, which blankets a Dominican Piloto Cubano binder. The filler consists of leaves from Honduras and Nicaragua, all aged from five to six years. This is a medium-full-bodied cigar, possessing Lamborghini-like power wrapped in the luxury of a Maybach. Three shapes are offered, with the 6 x 50 Toro Royale being our choice for an after-dinner smoke. From $25
Reinvention: Fonseca; Encore: Davidoff Robusto Intenso; Re-Blend: Regius 2020
From its Cuban inception in 1892 to its run as a Dominican cigar (as manufactured by Manuel Quesada) starting in 1974, a Fonseca has always been a medium-mild smoke. But in 2019, the brand was sold to My Father Cigars, headquartered in Estelí, Nicaragua—in terms of cigar-making philosophy, a move akin to swapping a classic BMW straight-six for a Detroit V-8. Yet the new Fonseca as rolled by My Father Cigars remains smooth yet is noticeably more powerful, featuring a shade-grown Corojo 99 Rosado wrapper coupled with Nicaraguan tobaccos for the binder and filler. Although the first few puffs retain some of a traditional Fonseca’s characteristic mildness, the medium-full Nicaraguan earthiness kicks in quickly, with a well-tuned smoothness. Six sizes are offered, with Cosacos (a 53⁄8 x 42) still wrapped in white tissue, preserving an old Cuban tradition for the brand. $7 to $11
Encore: Davidoff Robusto Intenso
It’s hard to keep a good cigar down. When the original limited edition of this medium-rich 51⁄8 x 52 robusto sold out shortly after it was introduced, in 2005, it kicked off a mission by the Davidoff master blenders to duplicate it. Tobaccos are like wines—certain vintages simply can’t be replicated—but with Davidoff ’s vast warehouses of aging tobaccos, the near-impossible was achieved.
This reincarnation features the same Cuban-seed filler tobaccos as the original, from four regions of the Dominican Republic, all aged for up to seven years. In addition, an exclusive Habano Ecuadoran wrapper and a spicy binder from San Vicente bring back a rich, creamy smoke which Thomas Keller, Michelin-starred chef and Robusto Intenso fan, likens to his mother’s French onion dip, but with an added touch of truffles. $32
Re-Blend: Regius 2020
This extremely limited luxury brand was created by Akhil Kapacee, a London entrepreneur turned cigar maker, in collaboration with Mitchell Orchant, one of the UK’s most prominent cigar retailers and Cuban-cigar auctioneers. Each year, the Regius cigar offers a new blend of vintages of its Nicaraguan tobaccos, hand-rolled by the Plasencia factory in Estelí. This year’s offering is one of the most richly sophisticated yet: With an oily wrapper, the flavor is designed to appeal to those who might normally smoke a Cuban Partagás Serie D No. 4; though we found it slightly milder than that Cuban robusto, it’s still full of spicy flavor and a creamy nuttiness, like smoking in a rain forest just after a storm. Distribution is limited to the US and the UK, with only 200 boxes each of three sizes—a 41⁄2 x 52 robusto, a 5 x 48 hermoso and a 51⁄2 x 52 campana—allotted per region. All pair well with the sweet Islay smokiness of either a 2020 Lagavulin Distillers Edition or a Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Sherry Oak Finish. $16
Packaging: CAO Vision; Shape: Plasencia Alma Fuerte Sixto 1 Hexagon
Packaging: CAO Vision
Other than its spectacularly modern, white-lacquered, LED-lit humidor box, this new, Nicaraguan blend of the CAO Vision has nothing in common with past CAO cigars of the same name. To be sure, the Vision’s signature presentation is worthy of a packaging award—when opened, it bathes the cigars with an eerie blue light—but the cigars inside are equally worthy of a Best of the Best spotlight. They come wrapped in an exquisite Cameroon leaf, complemented by a Nicaraguan filler blend from farms in Estelí and Jalapa and wrapped with an Ecuadoran binder. Just one size is produced, a 7 x 50 Churchill, which is packed with earthy cedar and a touch of sweetness in every puff. $19
Shape: Plasencia Alma Fuerte Sixto 1 Hexagon
While Cuba’s early concept of a four-sided, box-pressed cigar has become extremely popular today, in 2016 family-owned Plasencia Cigars broke new ground with a six-sided cigar, the 6 x 60 gordo first seen in its Alma Fuerte line. The brand recently upped the ante by altering the original recipe with an aged Colorado Claro wrapper.
“When we created the hexagon-shaped vitola, we did it with the intent to push the boundaries of cigar making,” says Nestor Andrés Plasencia, CEO of Plasencia 1865, the brand’s Miami-based distribution company. This Nicaraguan puro emulates the filler blend of the original Alma Fuerte, and the new wrapper brings an added dose of silkiness and spice to the existing notes of nutmeg and cedar, all of which are subtly intensified by the unique surface area of its six-sided shape. $21https://b14d5d0b8352274fab7940b6b03560be.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Line Extensions: J.C. Newman Diamond Crown Maximus Robusto; Nicaraguan Cigar: Camacho Nicaragua; New Series: Trinidad Espiritu Series No.2
Line Extensions: J.C. Newman Diamond Crown Maximus Robusto
When the late Stanford Newman, son of founder J. C. Newman, wanted to create a fuller-flavored complement to the popular Diamond Crown line, he enlisted help from two sources: the Oliva Tobacco Company, which supplied its very best aged tobaccos, and Carlos Fuente, who loaned out his top master rollers. The result was the Diamond Crown Maximus, introduced in 2005 to celebrate the J. C. Newman Cigar Company’s 110th anniversary. The long-leaf filler is a blend of aged Dominican tobaccos topped by an Ecuadoran wrapper grown in the El Bajo region, where minerals and nutrients have washed down from the surrounding mountains and made the soil exceptionally rich. Thanks to the tobacco’s weight, the leaves can be re-bulked and re-fermented, resulting in a darker color and deeper taste. This newest shape, a 5 x 50 robusto, combines all those elements in a mouth-filling smoke, one of the fullest-flavored cigars ever created by the J. C. Newman Cigar Company. $12
Nicaraguan Cigar: Camacho Nicaragua
Despite its name, the filler blend of this cigar also contains Dominican and Honduran tobaccos, which nicely counter-balance the characteristically rich and earthy flavors of the Nicaraguan leaf. But it’s the extra spice of its Honduran binder coupled with a smooth (yet not too oily) Ecuadoran wrapper that brings it into the medium-plus-strength category, with a hint of espresso on the finish. Further contradicting the “Nicaragua” moniker, this cigar, like many others in the Camacho line, is actually rolled in Davidoff’s Diadema Cigars de Honduras factory, in Danlí. There are currently three shapes in production: a robusto, a toro and a Gran Churchill. If you’ve got the time, we recommend the 7 x 56 Gran Churchill, which will give you a good hour’s smoking experience as well as the fullest measure of the Camacho Nicaragua’s sweet, muscular spicy-oak flavors. $9.50
New Series: Trinidad Espiritu Series No.2
Want the vibes of a sunbaked Brazilian vacation without leaving the US? This cigar screams “Carnival” and “Copacabana Beach” from the first puff. It starts out with a rugged oscuro-hued Brazilian Arapiraca wrapper, then sambas into a Nicaraguan binder (the Nicaraguan filler is accented with additional tobaccos from Brazil). This blend, released almost two years after the milder Trinidad Espiritu Series No. 1, is another successful collaboration between Rafael Nodal, head of product capability for Tabacalera USA (which owns the non-Cuban Trinidad brand), and A. J. Fernandez, who owns the Nicaraguan factory where the cigars are rolled. Five sizes are available, ranging from a 40 x 71⁄2 fundador to a 6 x 60 magnum, the latter of which is the perfect complement to a barrel-aged Novo Fogo cachaça on the rocks. $10 to $11
Anniversary Edition: Montecristo 1935 Anniversary Nicaragua
For a “modern” Havana cigar (meaning one of the few classic Cuban brands to have been created in the 20th century) Montecristo has become a multi-national smoke. After being born in Cuba, it resurfaced in 1990 as a separate Dominican brand—and now, in an even spicier variation, as a Nicaraguan puro produced to celebrate the brand’s 85th anniversary. Rolled by Abdel “A.J.” Fernandez in four vitolas, all are “soft-pressed” in the Cuban box-pressed tradition. Despite its muscular-looking dark-brown wrapper, the flavor is at the upper end of medium, especially in the 61⁄8 x 52 No. 2, a size associated with Montecristo no matter where it’s made. Fire one up alongside a glass of Jefferson’s Bourbon Cognac-finished rye whiskey as a fitting tribute to the brand’s namesake, the Count of Monte Cristo, of whom Alexandre Dumas wrote, “I think he is a delightful fellow, who does the honors of his table admirably; who has traveled much… and he has excellent cigars.” $10.50 to $17.50
Lifetime Achievement: Hendrik “Henke” Kelner
Rarely does a single master blender come to embody the personality of an entire range of luxury cigars, but such is the case with Hendrik “Henke” Kelner. With his weathered Panama hat, relaxed smile and ever-present cigar, Kelner is as much a fixture of Davidoff’s fields as the tobaccos he grows there.
Trained as an industrial engineer, Kelner was producing premium cigars by the age of 24, first for others, then for himself as founder of Tabacos Dominicanos. His intimate knowledge of tobacco varieties, the tastes they produce and the variables of terroir ultimately brought him to the attention of Oettinger Davidoff AG; the result was an almost lifelong association with that brand.
Davidoff, known at the time as a Cuban cigar producer, was looking to reestablish itself in the Dominican Republic while maintaining its luxury bona fides. That’s where Kelner came in. He created for Davidoff an updated, refined identity, and in time developed new blends for the company. A pioneer of the creation of disease-resistant hybrid tobaccos, he’s also responsible for opening up new growing areas, including the Dominican Republic’s Yamasá region, a swampy area where tobacco had never been successfully grown until Henke and his team discovered how to raise the soil’s pH level.
For all his accomplishments, Kelner is quick to praise others, including Davidoff’s master blender Eladio Diaz and agronomist Manuel Peralta. Although recently retired, Henke continues to grow tobacco for Oettinger Davidoff. With his lifetime of knowledge, passion, innovation and dedication, Kelner has become a true icon in the industry.