Puff...Savoring Life as It Goes Up in Smoke
There is a feeling of decadence that comes from smoking a good cigar that is unmatched by almost any other leisure activity.
Perhaps it is the unfashionable machismo, or the mischief of enjoying something that is so bad for you. Or perhaps it is simply the perverse satisfaction that comes from burning an expensive object for pleasure. And, at the top end of the vintage cigar market, things can get expensive indeed.
"A box of 50 Chateau d'Yquem can fetch £10,000 or more at auction," said Mitchell Orchant, managing director of the London cigar merchant C.Gars Ltd. That is nearly $17,000. "The Anniversario, can sell for £400 a cigar and its value just seems to keep on going up." Both cigars were made by Davidoff, the famous Geneva tobacco house.
As the price tags suggest, these are not just any old stogies. Examples of a prestigious elite of vintage Cuban cigars, they date from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, a golden age when a mixture of local Cuban artisanal skill, tobacco quality and the demands of a handful of European exporters combined to create some of the finest cigars ever made.
The intervening years have only served to improve them further, according to the experts.
"The cigars are like a good Bordeaux," said Mr. Orchant. "In the right conditions they can keep for almost ever, and year after year, like good wine, they get better."
Not all cigars age well. There is little point in buying a two-dollar panatela - a long, slender cigar - and sticking it in a cupboard for twenty years. Top vintage cigars tend to be the larger, plumper types, such as coronas or Churchills, always handmade and rolled from the best leaves of the tobacco crop. Cigars made from a full, strong tobacco blend tend to age best.
Stored correctly in a humidor the best cigars, or sticks as experts call them, can mature for about 30 years, during which time they become mellower even as the flavors become more distinct. They can hold on to that quality for a further 30 years or more before the flavor of the tobacco starts to deteriorate.
Within the rarefied world of vintage Cuban cigars, two brands, Dunhill and Davidoff, stand out above the rest. That is in part because of their undoubted quality. It also helps that they were made in large volumes and are consequently still readily available to buy at auction or from specialist merchants.
Vintage examples of other famous Havana brands such as Romeo y Julieta, Cohiba and Montecristo are also much prized. A box of 49 Montecristos, dating from the 1950s, before the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, will go under the hammer in December at a C.Gars Ltd auction in London and is expected to fetch as much as £6,000.
"The price of other Cuban brands is rising as they age but they are less expensive because they were never discontinued like the ultra-collectible Dunhill and Davidoffs," said Mr. Orchant.
The Dunhill and Davidoff cigars were the offspring of an unlikely marriage between two of Europe's most exclusive luxury tobacco brands and Cubatabaco, the Cuban state tobacco monopoly.
Cubatabaco made cigars under license for the London-based tobacco company Dunhill from 1984 until 1991. Dunhill-branded Cuban cigars were made prior to the Cuban revolution too, but few have survived.
Of the post-revolution Dunhill Cubans, the ones to look out for, say aficionados, are the mid-1980s Don Cándido and Don Alfredo: the latter, named after the company's founder Alfred Dunhill, sell for $350 to $500 a cigar.
Davidoff's Cuban output dates over a slightly longer period, from 1967 to 1991. Perhaps because of that extended run, which means that there are more available, or perhaps because they were distributed more widely across Europe, it is the Davidoffs that have emerged in recent years as the darlings of many vintage-cigar collectors and smokers.
Made under the guidance of Zino Davidoff, the patriarch of the company that bears his name, the cigars were named after some of the finest wines of France: Dom Perignon, for the iconic champagne, seven inches, or 17.8 centimeters long; Château Mouton Rothschild; Château Lafite; Château Latour; Château Margaux and Château d'Yquem.
None of the names were ever officially licensed with the châteaux. Yet the French wine makers mostly tolerated the breach of their trademark, perhaps helped by Mr. Davidoff's habit of sending them gift boxes of his cigars.
The one exception was Château d'Yquem. The maker of France's most lauded Sauternes dessert white wine warned Davidoff off using its name in the early 1980s, and the cigars bearing its name were discontinued in 1982. Already considered one of the best of the Château series, the intervention of the vineyard served to make them the rarest and thus the most expensive of the range.
The unlikely coupling of the European luxury brands and Cuba did not last. By the late 1980s Cubatabaco's efforts to increase the volume of its output led to a decline in quality. Davidoff in particular took the decline in standards badly.
Zino Davidoff went on French television in 1987 to harangue his Cuban business partners and backed up his talk by burning 130,000 cigars, declaring them unsmokable.
The relationship between Cubatabaco and Davidoff and Dunhill ended in 1991 when both the European houses shifted their production to rival tobacco-producing countries.
Some cigar aficionados mourn the end of those relationships as the end of the golden age of cigar making. Others are less nostalgic.
"The Cuban cigars were always a little inconsistent and still are," said Dorothée Spriet-Weisz, manager of A la Civette, an almost 300-year old Paris cigar shop, on the rue Saint Honoré, that lists Casanova, Voltaire and Winston Churchill as past customers. "I like the Dominican Davidoff cigars, but it is a question of personal taste and it is true that 65 percent of the cigars we sell are Cuban."
Source: New York Times