Want to know how EPC made the #1 Cigar of 2018? We dug into the CA Video Vault for a look back at our May ’18 sitdown with Ernesto, and learned everything there is to know about Encore Majestic by EP Carrillo. Watch now, and learn from the Master…
2018 CA Report: Top Cigar Brands You Should Know (And Why)
Easy question: if someone asked you which cigars you like, what would you tell them?
Now – besides the fact that “they’re good”, what would you say if that person asked, “why?”
Turns out, you don’t need to know the ins and outs of tobacco to know which cigars you like, or even why…but if you’re just starting out, or you’re still on the hunt for your go-to cigar, it’s helpful to know at least a little something – even one thing – about what makes these cigar makers special, and why they’ve earned a spot in so many humidors, and on so many cigar shop shelves.
I tend to shy away from making generalizations about cigars…but here, there’s a case to be made that each brand – or for that matter, the brand’s maker – has a trait, character or quality that makes it even more enticing to smoke.
Everyone can (and will) claim their cigars are “luxurious” – but the act of smoking a cigar is a luxury in and of itself; that’s why we smoke them. So there’s no reason to say one is any more or less a satisfyingly luxurious experience than another. Same goes for “flavorful” and “value” – if you feel it’s worth it, you’ll pay for it. Add to that, how cigar makers are offering a wider selection than ever; but their well-rounded portfolios are pretty much built on “one big thing” that defines the brand. Today, we’re looking at that underlying quality that each cigar maker is known for, and that makes all of their cigars great. And to top it off, give you one good example of a cigar you should be able to find pretty much anywhere and smoke, so you can experience that special something for yourself.
Maybe you’ve got a few samplers and 5 packs under your belt, you’re feeling good about your cigar choices so far and you’re ready to branch out. I want to give you an idea that, if you were to walk into a cigar shop and feel overwhelmed by the selection or don’t recognize the names, you’d feel confident in picking a cigar based on something that matters to you. Or better yet, to be able to have a meaningful conversation with the tobacconist behind the counter about what you like in a cigar. That way, when you find ones you like, you can start experimenting with other cigars – or digging into the boutique cigar brands – to find other cigars that have those things in common.
Conversely, if you think you’ve seen and smoked ‘em all – maybe you’ll rediscover what there is to love about some of the cigar brands here, and what it is that might make it a great smoke for you. You just may discover something you’ve been missing, or maybe give yourself a kick in the ass for passing them by.
One thing: this isn’t a checklist, and you shouldn’t limit yourself to just these cigar brands – it’s not anywhere near complete. There are several companies who make glorious cigars that you will absolutely need to try over the course of your cigar journey: Aganorsa Leaf, RoMa Craft, J.C. Newman and La Aurora are four that spring to mind. Then there’s AJ Fernandez, Manuel Quesada, Plasencia, Espinosa…along with production of their own brands, these guys lend a tremendous amount of support to boutiques and growing cigar brands alike by giving them access to top quality tobaccos these smaller operations couldn’t otherwise source or broker on their own (we’ll save them all for another article). Experiment, experiment, experiment: at least trying something from these manufacturers to get an idea of what they have to offer, will give you a point of reference next time you hear someone say, “It’s kind of like a…”
Arturo Fuente – Dominican
You don’t go through this life without smoking a Fuente. Dominican cigars were, for quite a while, stereotyped: dry, mellow, thin on flavor. Then we all learned better, as these folks had clearly not smoked Fuente…the great irony here is that this iconic Dominican cigar brand actually uses a Cameroon wrapper on many of their cigars. The leaf is a little sweet, kind of buttery-creamy with some pleasant nuances, but Dominican through and through. No wonder, then, that Ashton asked Fuente to make their cigars. While Fuente stepped up the intensity of some of their cigars with a Sun Grown wrapper, the original blend – as evidenced by this 858 – is Dominican, hands down.
Davidoff – Consistency
I’ve said it before: the top shelf is hard to reach for a reason. And while you may believe Davidoff’s claim to fame is expensive, know that quality and consistency come at a cost. I learned from Master Blender Eladio Diaz that consistency in their cigars is necessary year after year. No surprises. Davidoff smokers expect it, so the taste of their cigars must always stay the same – regardless of what curve balls Mother Nature might throw at the crops. “We determine the content, the diversity and the time to balance out the blends and thus to secure the continuity of the taste,” he says. That isn’t just for the Davidoff Signature Series, the smooth-smoking mix of refined Dominican tobaccos under Ecuador Connecticut, that’s shown here – it goes for everything that comes out of the CiDav factory. Everything.
Cohiba – Notoriety
Practically synonymous with the word “cigar,” you probably knew the Cohiba name before you started smoking cigars…it’s that well-known. On the whole, these are luxury cigars chock full of smooth flavor; Cohiba does not brush you back with a wild strength pitch, no matter what the blend. Matter of fact, everything from Cohiba I’ve ever smoked has been a pleasant burn, thick with creamy, velvety smoke – and this Red Dot, an exotic blend of Indonesian, Dominican and Cameroon tobaccos, is no exception.
Padron – Often-imitated
Have you ever heard one of your cigar buddies describe a cigar as a “poor man’s Padron?” There’s a reason why…actually, many: coffee, chocolate, spice, earth – these are the dark Nicaraguan flavors that Padron seems to work into every cigar they make. It’s a full body, full flavor profile that’s often imitated, rarely duplicated – mostly because once Padron locked it down, they never strayed far from this proven formula. True, some Padrons wear a weighty price tag (hello, Family Reserve) – but what’s nice, is that a cigar like this Padron 3000 does not require access to a trust fund to be enjoyed: it has been heralded as a “bang for your buck” smoke for quite a while.
Drew Estate – Innovation
If you know anything about Drew Estate, you’re aware of their penchant for being out of the ordinary: one look at the oddball tobaccos they use in the Larutan and Kentucky Fire Cured cigar brands, the spices infused into Ambrosia and the Florida-grown Corojo for FSG will all tell you. But it was ACID that launched the infused cigar movement into the stratosphere, and Kuba Kuba was at the controls: Nicaraguan tobaccos, sweetened cap, infused with a mix of botanicals and herbs that come from over 140 ingredients housed in the DE laboratory. Add to that, their fresh approach to traditional premium cigars via Liga Privada – which has given rise to highly-regarded (and rated) boutique cigar brands headed by Drew alums, like Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust (Steve Saka) and Foundation Cigar (Nick Melillo).
Macanudo – Connecticut Shade
Sure, “intro cigar” aptly describes Macanudo – it is, after all, central to many “first cigar I ever smoked” stories. But that understates the Connecticut-grown Shade wrapper tobacco, which undergoes an intensive, 30-month fermenting and aging process called a “winter sweat” that is unique to Macanudo. This is what gives the cigars, like this Hyde Park selection, their mellow, smooth character. It’s only lately with the addition of the Inspirado series that Macanudo has fielded some heartier cigars; but you’ll still find the Vintage 2006, Gold Label and Café focused on mellow and refined, made with this Connecticut leaf.
Perdomo – Farming
Any cigar maker will tell you that a good smoke starts with the soil. But Perdomo goes next level, blending tradition with tech: a yearly meeting with Bayer CropScience results in new techniques for better output and cleaner conditions, while combating disease and eliminating additives in the growing process. So Nick takes the classic Cuban techniques he learned from his father and grandfather, and marries them with infrared soil analysis that involves global positioning systems and drones. All to make better cigars. The results are evident in everything Perdomo grows and makes, however, from his top-of-the-line Edicion de Silvio to the workhorse Champagne – shown here in the popular Epicure.
La Gloria Cubana – Cigar Boom
Ernesto Perez-Carrillo told us that when he took over the family’s Little Havana factory from his father, he had always wanted to find a way to use Nicaraguan tobacco in a blend – at the time, it was a little hard to get. EPC finally got his chance in 1990 when he made the LGC Wavell; and then, everything exploded. You’re looking at the cigar that started the 90s cigar boom: the LGC Wavell is brimming with notes of coffee and cedar, wrapped in a spicy Sumatra wrapper. Following his success, Ernesto’s La Gloria cigars got stronger (and bigger) from here, with the Serie R being one of the first big-ring powerhouse cigars – and laid the foundation for more of EPC’s instant classics, like The Inch.
Montecristo – Torpedo
Montecristo No. 2: it’s THE classic. Montecristo is always associated with the top shelf because of their tobaccos, and it’s this #2 that I’ve seen described as “the staple to which all other Torpedoes are compared.” (Surprise: it’s actually a Piramide.) While the flavor profile varies from line to line (Montecristo White, Platinum, Classic, etc.), the Monte magic is in the torpedo – as there is a No. 2 in most of their lines, usually 50 – 52 RG. No small feat, as figurados in general are harder to make, and by only the more experienced rollers.
Rocky Patel – Variety
Variety is the spice of life, they say…and while some see the diversity within Rocky’s catalog as a shortcoming, I kind of like the idea that you could smoke a Rocky Patel cigar every day for more than a month, without smoking the same cigar twice. Rocky is constantly playing with tobaccos to develop a new or different taste, resulting in a variety of cigar brands that range from mellow (like the Vintage Connecticut and American Market Selection) to super-full, like the Rocky Patel Sun Grown Maduro Robusto – which also happened to be 2016’s #2 cigar of the year. All Nicaraguan on the inside, with broadleaf from Connecticut on the outside, and bursting with flavor AND intensity. If you’re feeling adventurous, consult your tobacconist – or other customer reviews – for some guidance on where to start.
CAO – Exotic Tobaccos
While CAO has some very well-renowned humidor staples, it’s their use of extraordinarily exotic tobaccos (at the time) that they rolled into their traditional premium cigars. It’s a world tour: tobaccos from Italy, Colombia, Nicaragua, OSA (a Honduran leaf), and America (that CAO America is like a melting pot), along with Amazon Basin and its alien rainforest super leaf. While more common today, even the Brazilia (shown here) was an oddity at the time of its introduction: the CAO Marketing staff was iffy on mentioning the Brazilian tobacco component, since it was such an unknown – now, it’s known as a premiere full-bodied smoke. I also remember it as being one of the first “kick your ass” cigars, that got people talking.
H. Upmann – Cedar
H. Upmann is, to me, very traditional, very “Old World” – having almost two centuries of cigarmaking under your belt will teach you a thing or two about making very refined cigars. Upmann’s tobaccos are all nicely aged, and so much time at rest really brings forth a woody, cedary quality to the taste and aroma of each smoke. It’s evident in this 1844 Reserve as well: made in the DR with Dominican long fillers, Nicaraguan Broadleaf binder and Ecuador Habano wrapper, it’s a little more robust and Cubanesque – likely on par with the Cuban Upmann petit corona, which was JFK’s smoke. And while H. Upmann has added some spiciness to their selections (H. Upmann AJ Fernandez, Mogul, Sun Grown), Upmann 1844 Reserve remains aromatic, and not at all potent.
Punch – Strong
It is, after all, “the cigar that lives up to its name.” A Cuban Heritage cigar brand, Punch made its bold, full-bodied introduction when production started in Honduras in the ‘60s; ever since, anything wearing the Punch badge has been medium-full and stronger. Though it’s made with a 3-nation blend, the original Punch Rothschild shown here (like most in their lineup) embodies the Honduran cigar flavor: big, full flavors of spice, earth, leather and wood. And why Punch is a cigar no smoker should go without tasting.
Joya de Nicaragua – Full Bodied
While the cigar boom tended to favor mellow Dominican cigars, the “Jewel of Nicaragua” stood out by humming along and doing their thing the same way since they started, in 1968: big, brawny power smokes. The factory was built after the first wave of Cuban exiles showed up with tobacco seeds in their pockets; today, Joya makes a number of brands that smoke fuller and fuller bodied (with one or two exceptions, at most); but it’s this Antaño 1970 that’s their signature smoke – a rich, earthy and powerful throwback that’s laden with pepper and spice.
Oliva – Well-rounded
Oliva was a bit difficult to characterize in one word…based on their savory Nicaraguan tobaccos, they have a range of options that can please just about any palate – so it’s true when someone said, “Oliva seems to have a cigar for just about any kind of smoker.” While that’s true for many cigar brands, Oliva maintains an affordable, well-rounded catalog. Consider the Serie G: it’s their middle-of-the-road smoke, not too full and not too mellow; it’s wrapped in legit Cameroon from Africa, and even their figurados – normally the most expensive cigars to make – won’t give you sticker shock.
My Father/Don Pepin – Spice
The Cuban-born Pepin spent his formative years crafting Havana’s marquee names; but when the master landed in Nicaragua (after a stop in Little Havana), the heartier tobaccos there allowed Pepin to blend cigars with his new signature move: a layer of spice. It’s evident in all of the My Father and Don Pepin selections, especially so in the puros like this Don Pepin Garcia Blue…this cigar is where you’ll experience what words like Corojo and Criollo mean with regard to flavor and strength; it’s also why boutiques like Crowned Heads and Tatuaje found their way into Pepin’s factory to blend some of their cigars, too.
Alec Bradley – New Wave
What you’ll notice about pretty much any Alec Bradley cigars: the look and feel of the boxes, bands, everything – it’s all a new twist on a very old and traditional thing. Go to the humidor shelf and see Black Market, Nica Puro, Maxx, Tempus. Different. Early on, for many of us smokers it was, “Alec Bra- who?” Then came Prensado, and the accompanying #1 cigar of the year honors for the Churchill. Then we learned…fast: that moment got people thinking about Honduran cigars, put AB front and center with the world’s top cigar brands and reminded us all how good a box-pressed cigar can be.
CLE Cigars – Corojo
While Christian Eiroa’s family oversaw the Camacho brand’s rise to prominence, it was their famous Authentic Corojo – developed by Christian’s father, Julio, on a farm called Santa Inez del Corojo – that has become the backbone of just about every tasty blend with the Eiroa name on it. Their tobacco raised the bar for full-body, and it’s used in just about every CLE and Asylum cigar…because if there’s someone who knows how to work it, it’s Christian (he’s also running a Bayer CropScience certified farm, focused on quality and cleanliness). The best way to taste it? Go for CLE Corojo: a Honduran puro, which is uncommon these days – but uncommonly delicious, smoking medium-full, with a topcoat of spice over rich and complex flavors.
Romeo y Julieta – Ubiquity
As in, they’re everywhere. You have, no doubt, been introduced to the 1875 Bully: made with Dominican long fillers under Sumatra wrapper, this was likely the first cigar that exposed you to tobaccos from somewhere other than the Big 3 (DR, Nicaragua, Honduras). Romeo’s calling card is availability – you can’t find a shop that doesn’t carry them, meaning if you’re a fan, you’re never out of luck. A straightforward flavor profile here: medium body, nutty and toasty. But as America’s love affair continues with RyJ, you’ll find them satisfying more demanding taste buds with beefier blends (505, Montague, San Andres and new Nicaragua). Just more Romeo to love…
Camacho – Honduras
Camacho’s word is “bold,” which pretty much sums up their approach to what the old-schoolers might have told you about strong Honduran smokes in their heyday. Even their mellow stuff (like the Connecticut and Ecuador) brims with enough body and flavor to get the heart and the taste buds racing. But the Camacho Corojo (which uses Eiroa’s tobacco, mind you) out Honduras-es the other Honduran classics with genuine Cuban-seed that produces a very Havana-like flavor. And yes, bold.
Partagas – Cameroon
Cameroon wrappers have proven themselves as an excellent substitute for Cuban Corojo wrapper; Fuente used it to great effect, and it was Ramon Cifuentes’ pick when he blended this first non-Cuban Partagas. There is no lightweight smoke in the Partagas lineup; but sweetness (and some spice) is a thread that weaves throughout all of their selections, and this Fabuloso gets its sweetness from their genuine, African-grown Cameroon.
Now you’re a noob no more: that’s twenty (actually, 21) top cigar brands you should know, along with One Big Thing that makes all the cigars under that brand special. Hopefully, the next time you’re heading to the humidor, you’ll have an inkling of how these cigars will treat you.