When creating a new line of premium cigars, nothing is more important, or more difficult, than finding the right blend. With an almost limitless combination of wrappers, binders and fillers available, it takes a team of true artists to craft the premium cigars we know and love.
The process begins by determining the flavor profile the team is looking to achieve. Usually the trending desires of adult consumers are the biggest influencing factor, but premium cigar makers may also try to fill a gap in their portfolio or work emerging or rare tobaccos into a creative or unique cigar.
Even a great flavor profile will fail without an even burn and a perfect draw. To create this seemingly impossible mix, most cigar makers call on one or two specialized blenders. Altadis U.S.A. is one notable exception; they use an entire team of master blenders – the Grupo de Maestros who represent some of the most knowledgeable minds in the tobacco industry.
When it comes to creating new cigars, the Grupo de Maestros have access to literally every type of premium tobacco commercially available. These tobaccos are sorted by Altadis U.S.A.'s leaf and manufacturing departments, who have smoked “puros” of each type to determine their exact characteristics and know what each will offer a particular blend. Like a great chef who has a masterful knowledge of his or her ingredients, the Maestros use their knowledge to unleash their creativity and craft the perfect recipe for the new stick.
While it can take months just to find a workable blend, the process is far from complete. Even with decades of experience, there's no foolproof way that these people have the ability to predict how the tastes will pair and marry, how the leaf will burn, or the general success of most newly constructed cigars. Instead, blenders begin the part of the job we all envy – testing experimental smokes.
For each new project, the Maestros sample an average of 15-20 blends sized 54 x 6″. The size is chosen because it is the most popular with cigar enthusiasts and using the same size each and every time ensures a fair test when testing new blends and comparing to completely different others. The group also tries to avoid the dreaded problem of “group think,” by never discussing the smokes being tested. Though it may take only a few puffs to disqualify a blend due to poor taste or burn rate, oftentimes cigar makers will smoke up to three-quarters of the new sticks to account for changes in flavors, burn rate and aroma.
After the blenders finish each stick and compare notes, the next step is refining and perfecting each cigar. In the best case, this is merely a slight tweaking; at worst, it can mean major changes. An issue with strength, for instance, can result in new filler or binder leaves which contributes to strength and complexity, while a poor burn rate usually requires finding a different wrapper with a similar taste profile.
Though it may seem like there's a magic formula for creating cigars that burn perfectly, Altadis U.S.A. Senior Brand Manager, Joe Maldonado, asserts, “There are no 'tricks.'” Joe has been with Altadis U.S.A. for over 13 years after having managed a small chain of tobacconists. He continues, “Some wrappers burn better with some binders, but that may not give you the desired flavors. There is nothing easy about what the team creates; however, when you add the intangible of passion, the worst cigar may still be a work of art.”
While most cigar makers are finished once their blenders are satisfied, Altadis U.S.A. performs a unique round table tasting with a larger team of 40 or more knowledgeable Tabacalera de Garcia employees. Over these meetings, an average of six different blends will battle it out to determine which one will make it into the hands of cigar lovers world-wide. If the team decides they aren't completely convinced that one stick is the best choice, the testers will try even more options until the cigar is perfect.
Each tester has their personal preferences and looks for certain nuances when trying new cigars. Some click tongue to their pallet to detect various notes like salty and acidy, some like to retrohale and run it through their nose to get the profile, and others try to get a sense of the rooms aroma.
“When I smoke a new blend, my first impressions are very important to me,” Maldonado says. “I like to look at the cigar first and make sure that I am going to enjoy a work of art. My next step is to feel the cigars for firmness to make sure I won't have any surprises. Then, I cut it and draw on the cigar a couple of times to test the draw. If everything up to then is perfect, then I proceed to light it, carefully noticing that I have a good burn. Finally I smoke the cigar and analyze it inch by inch.”
After agreeing on a blend that everyone is 100% satisfied with, the cigar goes into one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the entire process – the “fine tune” stage. This is the time when experts from the cigar maker's leaf and manufacturing departments search to find the specific regions and exact tobaccos that will enhance the blend further.
Like all great artists, cigar makers spend many sleepless nights getting the finishing touches just right on their new masterpieces. “We all strive for perfection!” Maldonado says.
From beginning to end, blending a cigar can take anywhere from six months up to a full year to find the perfect combination of leaves. For cigars that require sourcing new tobacco, the process can take as long as two to three years to visit farms around the world identifying the sought-after profile and to make sure all the leaves are fully aged.
Like true artists, always critical of their work, the Maestros and the rest of the team never quite feel their work is complete even when their creation is perfect. When they all decide – down to the last man – that they have hit their mark and reached what they have been striving for, they stop and celebrate a job well done by lighting up the brand new premium cigar they have created.