The Ash Diaries: The Robusto Blind Tasting
Many of us, unavoidably so, find the very marketing of cigars instructive to the whole experience of smoking them – including being indicative of it's flavour profile. Cigars bands, the classic vehicle of this marketing, were historically developed – so the myth goes - to prevent the staining of gloves from the tobacco. Now, most cigars (with some exceptions) are decorated with increasingly elaborate and attractive bands identifying, sometimes ostentatiously, the brand. The distinctive black, white, and yellow band of Cohiba – for example - sits alongside other luxury brands as an indicator of fine living, but also surely as an indicator of the smooth and refined smoking experience that will follow? Yet how much of this is just marketing hype and how might some classic cigars perform stripped of their bands? What, in short, might a blind tasting reveal – not only about the cigars but about us, the authors? Could we identify a New World cigar from a Cuban cigar, or one Cuban brand from another?
To our ever-curious authors, Omar and I wanted to experience three samples each of a quintessential cigar shape and size (vitola) without any clue as to its origin. We were kindly presented, by our dear friend Paresh Patel of Havana House, with three un-banded cigars each of the same vitola. Specifically, a robusto - a cigar with a 50 ring gauge and 4 7/8 inches by length. The three cigars were nearly identical in shades of wrapper, and we were told two were Cuban cigars and one was from the New World. The challenge was to identify which of the three was a New World cigar, and which brands the two Cubans belonged to. How reliant are we on the branding and would we enjoy our un-banded cigars in equal measure to those usually carrying brightly coloured identifying bands?
Unhelpfully for our purposes, the robusto vitola is offered by many of the famous Cuban brands. It is said that the London banker Leopold de Rothschild commissioned the Hoyo de Monterrey factory in the 1880’s to produce this size for him. The size became increasingly popular in the 1990’s. It is also observed by some that this vitola seems to create a better balance for the flavours present. We certainly think so too.
The robusto format includes such classic Cuban smokes as the Bolivar Royal Corona, Cohiba Robusto, Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, Juan Lopez No. 2, Partagas D4, Ramon Allones Specially Selected, and Romeo y Julieta Short Churchill. Each, to us anyway, has a distinct and so we hoped recognisable taste. Whilst some believe that Cuban cigars are the best in the world, the position might better be described as Cuban cigars are different to New World cigars. It should also be said that there is wide variety within non-Cuban cigars; with each origin taking on it's own flavour profile – some lighter and some more powerful and spicy.
The first cigar we smoked, identifiable by a pouch marking it as ‘Cigar A’, presented to us as somewhat light in strength. It was approachable but somewhat linear in flavour, with limited flavour evolution as we progressed through the smoke - an observation often, sometimes unfairly, made in relation to some New World cigars. It should be said that this cigar was perhaps the best in term of its construction of the three: with an easy draw, solid ash, and a near perfect burn. Yet it lacked a certain something. To both of us, we were quietly confident that we had identified ‘Cigar A’ as being the non-Cuban sample. A confidence which grew after we sampled ‘Cigar B’ and ‘Cigar C’.
Next, to ‘Cigar B’. Relying again only on flavour profile, the clues pointed us in a clear direction. The cigar was rich, complex, and it evolved over the course of the smoke. We were in no doubt that it was unmistakably Cuban in flavour. The question, however, was which of the many robustos was it. This was an undeniably strong cigar but beyond that there were discernible flavour notes that were our clues. This was full of heavy spice and strong earthiness. It was, so we thought, the classic Partagas D4, well known for such flavour notes.
To ‘Cigar C’, which, as before, had a mid-brown shade of wrapper. This was the easiest of the three cigars to seek to identify thanks to a light - almost floral – profile. It was an impressive smoke and certainly, so we thought, Cuban by origin. Whatever we were smoking, we regarded it as an exceptionally good cigar. We were both separately and independently confident from the outset that we had identified a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2.
A certain apprehension was unavoidable as we digested the eventual results of the blind tasting. ‘Cigar A’ was indeed the non-Cuban cigar. In fact, as we later learned it was, to be precise, a Hiram & Solomon Fellow Craft robusto - based primarily on Nicaraguan tobacco. ‘Cigar B’ was revealed as the Partagas D4, and finally ‘Cigar C’ as the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2. To our considerable relief, we had identified which of the three was non-Cuban, and which brands the two Cuban robustos belonged to.
The tasting suggested to us that Cuban cigars do indeed have something quite unique and special in their flavour profile. More than that, that each brand within the Cuban portfolio has its own particular and discernible flavour profile. We are not necessarily suggesting one origin – or indeed brand - is better than the other, but they are different and evidentially so. Different also in terms of construction quality – as we alluded to earlier, it was the New World cigar that was almost flawless in construction whilst the Cubans occasionally suffered.
Why not try this tasting yourselves and amongst friends - give some thought to the flavour profiles or consider more objectively what cigars you, in fact, enjoy. It was, above all, enormous fun and not without challenge. With our many thanks to Paresh Patel at Havana House for making this very memorable afternoon possible.