By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
America's sudden demand for premium imported cigars has unfortunately neglected to include the wide spectrum of less expensive, machine-made varieties that constitute the pillars of the cigar industry. Selling into the billions each year, these unashamedly populist draft horses beckon us from behind the counters at thousands of truck stops and supermarkets. Yet in our society's current fixation on imported cigars nobody has bothered to acknowledge domestic brands -- much less professionally taste them.
An event was swiftly arranged in the basement of the House of Shields, once the site of a Prohibition speak-easy, and current meeting place of the San Francisco Cigar Society. To ease the potential irritation of such a task, the participants were coerced with Knockando single malt scotch. We opened up our tasting to include a wide selection of colors, sizes, and flavors, ranging from pipe tobacco to menthol, sweets, and generic raw leaves. (The Erik filter-tipped cherry cigar was disqualified after it was discovered the "Erik" logo was stamped on each cigar, making a proper blind tasting impossible.) After their purchase in corner liquor stores throughout the city, all cigars were removed from their cardboard display boxes and rigorously maintained in a properly humidified plastic grocery sack until the evening's tasting.
Judges were required to blind-taste the unbanded cigars, in order of their number, and rate them as impartially as possible. They were asked to leave all prejudices and personal problems at the door. This was not a therapy session. Judges were also warned that if they stumbled upon a particularly magnificent cigar, and found themselves growing attached to it, to remember there were others in the room, and the schedule was tight. Although they were given the option to stub out the cigar and save it for later, or even take extra cigars home with them, none chose to do so.
Each cigar was numerically rated, using a modification of Cigar Aficionado's 100-point scale. All of which led to one overriding conclusion about domestic brand quality: The prices are pretty much impossible to beat.
95-100 -- classic
90-94 -- outstanding
80-89 -- very good to excellent
70-79 -- average-to-good commercial quality
60-69 -- average quality
50-59 -- below average
40-49 -- extremely disappointing
30-39 -- insulting
20-29 -- absolutely infuriating
10-19 -- unbelievably wrong
0-9 -- get this fucking thing out of my mouth
Havatampa Inc., Tampa, Fla.
Length: 4 3/4 inches
Features: "mild and flavorful," "exclusive birchwood tip"
U.S.: $0.30 apiece
18 Rolled as tight as a No. 2 Ticonderoga. Color reminiscent of a weak, loose beige stool. The Merv Griffin of cigars -- bland and mildly offensive yet ultimately of no consequence. Burn is plasticene and artificial, like smoking a Ken doll, with harsh, unpleasant finish. Aromas vary from a joss stick to mothballed cherries, with subtones of burning cornmeal and a hint of hay. Evokes images of tobacco falling off a conveyor belt, only to be swept up and set aside by a small, undereducated man who pauses to look at his watch. To be smoked only in desperation on a long road trip driving through Nebraska or Ohio, when nothing else can be bought. The consumer would have to be 13 and so drunk he couldn't speak to enjoy it.
Swisher Sweets Perfecto
Swisher International Inc., Jacksonville, Fla.
Length: 5 inches
Features: "totally unique blend of fine tobaccos and special flavorings"
U.S.: $0.34 apiece
16 Medium diaper brown wrapper, casual and summery, responds well to saliva. Persistent wrinkles suggests a hasty manufacture, either due to a high demand or ashamed factory workers. Pre-drilled hole a plus for the ladies. Flavor seems to rappel down the throat. Initial aroma of the entire contents of Mom's spice rack. Tip tastes sweet but the draw is a nightmare. Very harsh aftertaste, NutraSweet honey with a hint of concrete, like a cat pissing right onto the tongue. Appropriate to smoke in a seedy porn theater, midday, before the price goes up. The wallflower of cigars -- it will never make it onto the dance floor.
Middleton's Black & Mild Pipe Tobacco Cigar
John Middleton Inc., King of Prussia, Penn.
Length: 5 inches
Features: 100 percent pipe tobacco
U.S.: $0.40 apiece
9 Wobbly plastic tip produces a fast, unpleasant lighting experience. Color reminiscent of dark particleboard. Old cordial chocolate/rancid fruit fragrance. Wrapped cheaply, as if even the machine making it were eager to finish the process. Ridiculously light draw nevertheless yields a subtle smoke, like the patient progress of a Superfund site. Aroma of an old fraternal lodge about to be demolished. Palate varies from apple chutney to diatomaceous earth. Raspy aftertaste, a zing upon exhalation, as if biting into tinfoil with a filling. Brings up the image of an old, old man sitting in a chair under a quilt, waiting to die. Suggested to smoke at a bus station after performing oral sex upon a trick, or perhaps at an execution, where the smoker won't have time to become irritated, because he'll be dead.
Backwoods Mild 'n' Natural Cigar Consolidated Cigar Corp., Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Length: 4 inches
Features: Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper, "all natural filler, selected for mildness"