When we think of boutique cigars, a ton of thoughts race through our minds fumbling for an answer as to what “boutique” actually means. This made my job of pointing out the top 10 boutique cigar brands a royal pain in the butt. However, in the great office debate of 2014, we came to agree that boutique is more about the high quality of the tobaccos used, unequivocal flavors presented via an artfully executed blending and rolling process, and size of the company in comparison to the rest of the industry.
Humor me while I attempt to prove my point with beer. Oh, wonderful beer – always on my side.
We can see the same divide between micro-brews and macro-brews in the beer industry. We think of macro-brews as the big evil corporations that pretty much add food coloring to what they “brew,” stick it in a random can, and call it beer. Easily interchangeable with almost zero flavor and extremely high level of production. Micro-brews on the other hand are perceived differently. Alchemist in Vermont, Harpoon in Boston, and Yuengling in PA are all considered micro-brews for their low production and high quality beers. Their blood, sweat, and tears are turned into magical goodness because of their passion to produce a quality brew, yet they are highly regional beers.
Similarly, much to the chagrin of beer snobs and hipsters everywhere, Sam Adams in Boston, Anchor Steam in San Francisco, and Sierra Nevada in California are all micro-brews as well, even though they are perceived as bigger companies. The fact is they are still relatively small compared to established macro-breweries and they all produce high quality beer, thus, by definition, they are still micro-brews. After all, Sam Adams, contrary to popular belief, only holds a 1% share in the beer industry in America even though it reigns as the largest craft beer producer in the nation. To put this into perspective, Sam Adams put out 2.7 million barrels of beer in total last year. That includes every different beer in their lineup. In the same time period, Bud Light Platinum, a new release, reached just shy of 2 million barrels. That’s just one line within the Budweiser brand of beer, produced by Anheuser Busch, which is owned by Inbev. Sam Adams is looking mighty small now, right?
The same applies for cigars. Macro-producers are the biggest in the industry that have a million lines of cigars. Given, they don’t just roll a cigar and slap a random label on it like macro-breweries. I’m a Fuente fan through and through, but they are one of the biggest in the business so I cannot classify them or their cigars as boutique. I will classify them as damn good though. Some of the names on my list may surprise you because you may consider them big, but all the companies on my list, in comparison, are essentially the Sam Adams of cigars. Big in their own right, but small in perspective with an artisanal product. Though no matter how they are perceived, we can confidently classify the following as the top 10 best boutique cigars on the market right now (in no particular order).
Kicked off in 2009 with the Paradigm, 262 Cigars has been growing ever since. We have to give these guys props because, let’s face it, they’re breaking into a very strong industry that is extremely hard to walk in and shake things up. They managed to do it though. Offering what is probably the boldest and most complex cigars around, you can get any of their four cigar lines now which are the Paradigm, Ideology, Manifesto, and Revere, with a 5th named Allegiance coming in the Spring of 2014. If you’ve never smoked 262, get on it. They make a very limited number of cigars and are still relatively unknown, but once they really catch fire, it will be impossible to get your hands on one of these tasty boutique cigars.
90 Miles Cigars
Made by Flor De Gonzalez Cigars, this is by far one of my personal favorite boutique cigars. They offer 3 lines: the 90 Miles, 90 Miles Reserva Selecta, and the 90 Miles 1980. Each provide a wildly different taste from one another, but each is amazing. The 1980 though is where 90 Miles really hits their stride. Let me put it this way – if I could only smoke 1 cigar for the rest of my life, I would be perfectly happy smoking the 1980. In all of my previous reviews of the cigar, I don’t think I had one bad thing to say about it. It’s one of the only boxes of cigars I will buy instead of buying singles here and there. They’re really known mostly around the Miami area due to their size and localized advertising, but in my 2 years working for Famous, I have seen them spread through the industry faster than a zombie apocalypse through New York City.
Perhaps the biggest company in my list of top 10 boutique cigars, Aging Room Cigars got a major honor this year with the Aging Room Quattro F55 Concerto ranked Cigar Aficionados #2 cigar in the world, being edged out by the Cuban Montecristo #2. Luckily for Mr. Nodal, the biggest cigar market in the world is here in the U.S., meaning he is essentially number one in the world. To be honest, it was only a matter of time before his cigars got a major ranking, but what’s more important is the fact that boutique cigars almost never make the rankings. Not only was this big for Aging Room as a whole, but it opened the door for other boutique and small batch cigar companies to have a chance to make it high on the list. If anything, we should all thank Aging Room for essentially reintroducing us to artfully made boutique cigars by creating some stellar blends. It seems everything Rafael Nodal makes is amazing. His Mojito? Killer.
Glen Case started Kristoff Cigars in 2004, and we’re damn glad he did. Just like Aging Room, Kristoff also found themselves on the magical top 25 list last year with the Corojo Limitada. I was actually a bit shocked to learn not many people had heard of Kristoff Cigars and how small their company really is. I had heard of them before I even worked in the industry and knew them to be the crème de la crème. I was appalled once I entered the industry that almost nobody had smoked one! From there I started my own mini-campaign trying to get as many people turned on to them as possible. Kristoff, I will guess, is going to be a very hot cigar in the near future. And with their new releases from IPCPR 2013, they demand the utmost respect from its smokers.
Eddie Ortega is the mastermind behind brands such as 601, Cubao, and Murcielago cigars – 3 major cigar lines in the industry that have smokers knocking people over at the counter for a chance to buy. But now he struck out on his own and is absolutely killing it in the boutique cigar market. His main cigar line is the Ortega Serie D which is an outstanding smoke on its own, but he has also created the wildly popular, very rare, Wild Bunch line. Each month in 2013 a new Wild Bunch cigar came out as a limited release using a different blend of tobaccos. The result was a wide variety of cigars that appealed to anyone’s palate. That’s what I love most about Eddie. He’s a true cigar guy that takes inspiration from the average smoker. He’s a guy that listens to his consumers and makes his products based off of their likes rather than following the trends within the market. Essentially, his theory is “give the people what they want.”
Hi Ho, Silver! Sorry about that. I had to squeeze that in. The next on my list of top 10 boutique cigars is Four Kicks made by Crowned Heads. Crowned Heads is a very new boutique cigar company that combines tradition with bold innovations in terms of blending. The result is a mix of high quality and complex blends that just won’t quit. Four Kicks cigars were inspired by the Kings of Leon song “Four Kicks,” which is essentially an anti-establishment, play by your own rules song. That’s exactly what Four Kicks represents. Oh, I forgot to mention they’re rated high into the 90s. Over and over and over again.
Paul Stulac Cigars
This crazy Canuck has a story that echoes my own cigar journey so far. He started smoking cheapo gas station cigars, tried a real cigar which he loved, and then started working in the cigar industry. Where we separate is his decision to go all in and start making his own cigars. And now I’m writing about him. Much like Four Kicks, Paul Stulac cigars combine his respect for traditional cigars with his passion for bold innovations. To be honest, I’m pretty damn biased when it comes to Paul and his cigars because I just love his story and his stogies. He wasn’t born into the industry. He worked his way into it which, as I mentioned before, is extremely hard. But that’s just a testament to how great of a blender he really is. This guy’s cigars are off-the-charts good and consumers took note. Now he’s expanding to new heights in an industry that chews up and spits out newbies like last weeks leftover meatloaf. Kudos, Canada.
Ernesto Perez-Carrillo- ever heard of him? He was the mastermind behind La Gloria Cubana cigars, came from an amazing tobacco family, and pretty much dominates everything when it comes to how tobacco should be done. However, he broke away from making major lines and broke out on his own in April of 2010 to form EP Carrillo cigars. His offerings? E.P Carrillo’s own line of cigars including the CORE, Inch, E-Stunner, and more. Each cigar is more about quality than quantity, which is great since the quality of the major lines he’s helped create over the years is top notch. Now he’s taking that to a whole new level because, hey… why not, right? Personally, I’m looking forward to anything else he plans on putting out in his boutique lines.
7-20-4 Cigars is one of the last great American cigar companies around. They started in 1874 and produced in New Hampshire until 1963 when the Cuban embargo was in full swing, causing the company to close. 7-20-4 Cigars was reborn using the same standards from its beginnings while bringing a new twist to the brand. While it isn’t a big manufacturer anymore, they produce exciting new blends with a ton of complexity to keep you guessing through the entire smoke. Even more important is their use of exotic tobaccos that the industry rarely uses, due to lack of harvesting for mass production, from nations such as Columbia and Costa Rica. Luckily for us, 7-20-4 is small enough to use those tobaccos without running out. The result is simply inexplicable and they’re fast becoming a favorite for boutique cigar lovers.
Oh, Illusione, how much I love thee. To round out my list of top 10 boutique cigar brands, I had to include Illusione cigars and for just cause. I could simply say “MJ12 Maduro,” drop the mic, and walk off stage, but they have so many great cigars that it’s impossible to really choose a favorite anymore. Their company policy is to “do the opposite from everyone else in the industry,” according to Dion Giolito, the founder of Illusione. Not sure what that means because I haven’t seen the filler on the outside of any of their cigars… yet, but we get it. They’re the bad asses of the boutique world and they’re a little, shall we say, offbeat in the best way possible. Their cigars are nothing short of amazing every year with collectors buying them in droves while Dion collects almost every award since their birth in 2005. If you ever see Illusione on the shelf, pick them up. Chances are they’ll be sold out within a week and God only knows when you’ll see them again.
So there you have it: my awesome aside about beer and my list of the top 10 boutique cigars. Each one of these manufacturers is nothing short of awesome. The increasing trend for boutique cigars has been rising sharply in the past year because they offer something different. They offer new flavors that you just can’t get with the major cigar manufacturers anymore. It’s a simple evolution, and by God it’s a great time to be a cigar smoker to see it happen. Or should I say “taste it happen?” Either way, we’re living through an exciting period with the evolution of boutique cigars and these are the brands to watch out for. Until next time, you stogie heads!