As a cigar collector (2000 and counting) and a smoker of premium smokes for almost twenty years, I am very excited about the state of premium and "super-premium" cigars. Those of us that survived the cigar boom of the '90s have benefitted greatly from the experiences that the top cigar makers gained during the boom. Today we have so many choices that it is easy to get overwhelmed when browsing online to buy a good smoke. But most of the sticks being rolled these days are very good smokes. I remember (as most of you do) buying smokes in the mid-'90s and not really knowing what to expect, even from the top cigar producers in the world. Cigars were inconsistent, young, burned strangely, rolled horribly, or, worst of all, plugged. But the top companies stuck it out while the newcomers and bandwagoners came and went, and now we have an extremely competitive market with the best smokes I've ever had coming from different places around the globe. One of my favorite sticks, the Graycliff Expresso, comes from the Bahamas of all places! The Fuente Fuente Opus X has continued to dominate most cigar conversations I have, and they are getting better and better. I have Opus X sticks from various years dating back to about 2001, and they just get better with age. I suggest letting your Opus X sticks rest at least a few months in your humidor before trying them. They are great right out of the box, but they really open up after some shelf life. The other super-premium Fuente is my personal favorite, the Fuente Anejo. Extremely high quality in every stick, with a complex filler and binder, but here's the kicker: it's rolled with Maduro wrapper that is aged in old cognac barrels. Talk about a kick! These little firecrackers can bring a grown man to his knees. Try the extremely rare Anejo 77, nicknamed "The Shark". It's the only cigar in production that is both round and square. It is a torpedo shape at the head, bit it tapers to a box-pressed looking foot. But it is not box-pressed, it is actually rolled by hand just the way it comes in the box. There is one lady roller at Chateau de la Fuente who rolls the Shark, and that's all she does. She gets to take home three sticks every day after work! I have already proposed marriage, but she shot me down and kicked me to the curb. The Padron Anniversary is another headline grabber at the moment, and they don't disappoint either. The 1926 series ages very well, but the 1964's are right up there as well. Gurkha has some very good smokes out as well, and they continue to trudge forward and keep active in the market by putting out various styles and sizes. Rocky Patel is putting out some of the best cigars in the world right now, and his product seems to be getting better as well. Padilla is a newcomer right here from the United States, and they are on the same level as the other smokes I've mentioned as well. At the most recent Cigar Aficionado Big Smoke in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to have my very first Tatuaje. I had heard great things about the brand, but I could never get my hands on any. Wow! I was blown away with it, to say the least. I wish they would put more out, but I guess the quality would be affected. I got to meet Pete Johnson, the owner of Tatuaje, and he is a genuinely great guy. Very down to earth and laid back, very bright guy. Hopefully, in '07 I can get my hands on some Tatuajes and see how they age. the Ashton Virgin Sun Grown is a great smoke to have right out of the box. I've found that they lose a little of the peppery taste that makes them so good if they sit for a while, so smoke 'em soon to get all the strength and flavor out of them. Ashton's whole line is very good, but most are pretty mild for my taste, so I stick with the VSG.
The Fuente family has always put out great smokes, and they are currently the top team for a great smoke at a reasonable price. I got a chance to meet all of the Fuentes (Carlos, Carlos Jr., Cynthia, and others) at the '05 Big Smoke and they all signed my "Journey to Chateau de la Fuente" book. It was a real treat to speak with these people. Again, they are very down to earth and very appreciative of the people who buy and smoke their cigars. They are cigar royalty and they carry an air of nobility, but they are really great people. To learn more about them, visit "Casa Fuente" next time you're in Vegas. It's located in the Forum Shops at Caeser's Palace, and it's a great place to hang out and have a smoke (those places are dwindling, aren't they?). They have their own "Casa Fuente" line of cigars that can only be bought at the store in Vegas. The cigars are pricey but excellent. They are supposedly made of Opus X filler and binder but rolled with a Cameroon wrapper. You can also purchase the rest of the Fuente line there, including Opus X, Anejo, Don Carlos, Hemingway, Ashton, etc. Have a mojito on the patio with your Opus and people watch until your heart's content. They have beautiful waitresses as well, clad in Cuban style garb and always very friendly.
The Padron family is right there with the Fuentes. They have put out consistently great smokes at reasonable prices for years. I love their chocolatey Maduro's as well as their Anniversary lines that I mentioned previously.
Which brings us to that little Communist Island just south of Miami. I hear a lot of people say that Cuban cigars are overrated, not worth the money, etc. Those are the guys that got suckered into buying phonies. Cuba was, is and will continue to be the cigar mecca of the world. They took a hit in the mid-'90s as well, trying to put out too many smokes to keep up with demand, but they are back and better than ever. Cubans taste better, are rolled better, age better and burn better than cigars from most other countries. About half of my collection consists of Cubans, so I speak from experience. My everyday smoke right now is the Trinidad Fundadores. It's a thin, long panatela that's just a pleasure from start to finish. I try and buy my favorite Cubans (like the Fundadores) in cabinets of fifty so I can rely on consistency throughout the box. While Cubans are the best, they aren't always consistent taste-wise. I have a few boxes of Montecristo #2, one of the most popular and most sold from the island, and they can vary from stick to stick. That's not to say that some aren't good, they just have a different taste. The Cubans are also coming out with "Special Selection" smokes every year, which keeps things very interesting as a collector (and very costly). The special selections tend to be overhyped and a bit over-rated, but they are still great smokes. It's also nice to see Cohiba back on track. they were once considered the greatest smoke in the world, but they really took a hit during the boom as well. They are now back at full speed, and the Siglo VI and the Esplendido are two of the best sticks money can buy. I have a box of Esplendidos from '05 that I call the best in my collection. They smoke like a Cadillac, with notes of honey and tea with a spicy finish. Unbelievable smoke if you can get your hands on some. I have a cabinet of Saint Luis Rey Double Coronas that are aging well too. Very strong smoke, mellowing a bit with age, but still an ass-kicker. My favorite Cuban brand would have to be Partagas. I have about eight boxes, including Presidentes, Lusitanias, and some old Lonsdale's that they don't even make anymore. The best Partagas is the Salamon, which is a ginormous figurado that is right up there with the Esplendido on my hit list. Some of my other favorites are Vegas Robaina, Bolivar, Punch, Hoyo De Monterrey, and Cuaba.
I'm trying to keep a good supply of Cubans because I fear that once the embargo is lifted (it WILL happen eventually, and we know Castro is circling the drain) the quality will suffer. Cuba is obviously a very impoverished nation, and once they can legally sell to the United States, they will produce as many smokes as they can and jack the prices up. So, just like in the mid-'90s, they will forsake quality for the quick buck because they HAVE to. But, hopefully, things will even out and they will again reign supreme after the post-embargo boom dust settles.
So, in closing, I must say that Cubans are great smokes to be sure, but the rest of the world has made up a LOT of ground quickly. Opus X, Fuente Anejo, Padron Anniversary, Tatuaje are every bit as good as the best Cuba has to offer. By this time next year, we may be talking about something that Gurkha or Rocky Patel or La Flor Dominicana has come out with. But for now, enjoy the moment and enjoy some smokes. Don't be afraid to buy online, but I suggest sticking with reputable companies. Billy at CigarsDirect.com has a great variety of smokes at reasonable prices, and he can usually get you whatever you want even if he doesn't have it in stock. Enjoy this boom, OUR boom, the loyal cigar enthusiast boom. We finally have the ball in our court, so take advantage and buy some smokes that you may not have initially considered. Have an expensive smoke once in a while, you deserve it!