Jake’s Top Ten Cigars of 2018!
Our resident humidor specialist and cigar aficionado Jake Healey offers his Top Ten picks of last year, and a few honorable mentions too!
“These are the cigars that appealed most to my palate over the last year. This by no means is meant to be the be all and end all. One of the things I hate about some cigar reviews is how high and mighty they get. I’m just a schmuck who likes to smoke and share his opinion with other smokers. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this list and look forward to swinging by Ale House Cigar Bar and trying out a few of these delicious sticks.” - Jake
1. Southern Draw Cedrus the Hogan
When A.J. Fernandez tells you a cigar is good, it’s a good cigar. When he says it’s great, you’re in for something special. When he says, in english, that it’s the best cigar he’s ever smoked; you know you’re talking about a cigar that’s in a different class all together. That’s exactly what happened with the Cedrus. The cigar is only available in one size; a box pressed torpedo called the Hogan to pay homage to the brand’s first steadfast supporters, Phil and Shelly, who share their last name with the 5 1/2 inch by 52 size that is only offered in a unique 10 count box which is sure to grab the attention of anyone shopping around a humidor.
As the story goes, Robert was putting time in at the factory which produces all his cigars; Tabacalera A.J. Fernandez in Estelí, Nicaragua. Despite being one of the most respected tabaceleras in the world, Robert makes sure to spend as much time in the factory as possible both to develop new blends and ensure the quality of the existing lines. Originally, the blend for the Cedrus featured a Habano 2000 wrapper. The Sumatran leaf that is used on the Cedrus now was simply a purchase Robert had made eight years prior with plans to develop cigars in the future. As one tends to do, he decided to play with the blend and put the Sumatran wrap on the cigar to see how it would taste. Robert was immediately pleased by the results but the factory manager was not impressed. He wrote the cigar off as being too strong after one or two puffs and rested the cigar in a nearby ashtray with the intention of discarding it in the trash later. The man himself, Abdel Fernandez, happened to be walking by and asked what the cigar was. The factory manager informed AJ that it was too strong and he didn't like it. AJ, never afraid of ligero or nicotine, lit the abandoned cigar and walked into his office.
Robert continued to work and discuss the plan for Cedrus with his compatriots while AJ did work in his office. A few minutes passed before AJ opened his door and shouted ‘Robert! Ven aqui’. Robert responded with ‘in a minute’. After some time passed AJ once again opened the door and, with a slightly heavier tone again shouted ‘Robert! Ven aqui!’. Robert, still busy working responded once again ‘in a minute’. Finally, AJ had enough. In english, a language rarely spoken by AJ, and in a loud yell, which is atypical for the usually mild mannered AJ, he called out ‘Robert…get the fuck in here!’ Robert was taken aback. He had, up until this point, not known AJ to lose his temper, swear, or speak that much english. Fearing a possibly bad conversation, Robert slowly made his way into AJ’s office. ‘What the fuck is this?’ AJ exclaimed. ‘It’s the new blend I’m working on. I liked it a lot but your factory manager disagreed’. In a surprising turn, AJ informed Robert that the blend was ‘the best cigar I’ve ever smoked’. That’s quite the accolade, especially considering AJ is considered one of the best blenders in the business today.
This review of the Cedrus by AJ might be a little extreme, but for my palate it was the best cigar to come out of 2018, and would have topped my 2017 list had it been released earlier. The shape lends itself to a comfortable mouth feel regardless of your preferred ring gauge. The burn is slow and even, thanks to the box pressed shape and the method used to do it. To my knowledge, Southern Draw is the only company to box press their cigars after they are wrapped, contrary to the traditional method of pressing only the binder and filler and adding the wrapper later. The latter method often caused box pressed cigars to be slightly underfilled which leads to a quicker burn than it’s rounded counterparts. Thanks to Robert’s innovation in box pressing cigars all of the box pressed cigars in the Southern Draw line offer a slow and even burn without holes in the filler, canoeing of the wrapper, or simply just smoking too fast. The Cedrus is no exception to this rule.
Wrapper: Indonesian Sumatra
Binder: Estelí Habano 2000
Filler: Dominican Piloto Cubano Viso, Nicaragua Criollo 98 Estelí Viso, Nicaraguan Habano 92 Quilali, Nicaraguan Corojo 99 Ligero Jalapa
2. Protocol Official Misconduct Toro
Cubariqueńo cigars have been on the radar for quite a while now. This newer company is owned by Juan Cancel and Bill Ives, two NYPD officers. All of their products are manufactured by Erik Espinosa’s La Zona factory in Estelí. Their partnership has created three great blends already, Themis, Probable Cause, and the original Protocol. The new kid on the block is the Official Misconduct. It is separated from the rest of the offerings by its black box and silver bands. This medium bodied cigar offers great flavor notes and creates a smooth flavorful smoke with each puff.
Wrapper: Ecuadorean Habano
Filler: Jalapa and Estelí
3. Falto LJF
Luis Falto has always made delicious cigars. That’s just a fact. The man knows how to manipulate tobaccos to give him the flavor he wants, which is flavor we all enjoy. His first box pressed offering, produced to celebrate the company’s 23rd year in business, came out so good he even decided to put his name on it, calling it the LJF Reserva del Fundador. La Aurora in the Dominican Republic’s master blender Manuel Inoa is responsible for each limited run of twenty count boxes, which are only released 100 boxes at a time. As with every Falto, the blend is done according to the size and therefore there is only one size offering. The smoke is luxurious and thick and offers a light pepper note through. At the low MSRP of $7, it’s definitely worth the pick up.
Wrapper: Habana 92 Dominican Republic
Binder: Ecuadorean Sumatra
Filler: Dominican and Nicaraguan
4. Joya de Nicaragua Cinco Decadas Diadema
A lot of Joya fans were disappointed by this cigar due to its lack of firepower. Most Joya fans expect a full bodied kick in the teeth every time they light up so I can understand why they’d be a little bit disappointed by this smoke. That being said, they missed out by not keeping an open mind. This cigar may only be medium in strength but what it lack in ligero it makes up for in flavor.
The blend was offered in two sizes, El General and the Diadema. El General is similar to a churchill but the size to smoke is without doubt the Diadema. The 6X54 perfecto size offers an excellent flavor transition. Starting off, the tighter ring offers a nice pop of flavor from the Nicaraguan wrapper. As the smoke progresses, the ring gage gets wider and offers a more mellow flavor where the spice is muted and a sweet nutty flavor comes to the forefront. On the last third, the decrescendo shape left causes the cigar to slowly intensify in flavor. The blend has not been released but we know that the wrapper is Nicaraguan in origin and the rest of this cigar’s composition is made up of the finest aged tobacco the oldest factory in Estelí had to offer. What better way for Joya to celebrate 50 years of success despite many roadblocks along the way than by using its best vintage tobaccos. Those tobaccos do cause the price of this cigar to be high with the El General retailing at around $20 and the Diadema being one or two dollars more. That being said Dr. Cuenca and his head roller Ruddy Ruiz Benavides have done it again. Here’s to another half century Joya!
5. Cornelius and Anthony Señor Esugars
The first time I smoked this cigar was while I was presenting my list of the top cigars from 2017. I remarked at the time that I was upset I had not been exposed to it previously or it would have topped that 2017 list. Therefore, it had to make the list this year somewhere, albeit not at the top due to this years stiff competition. The dark, oily San Andrés wrapper contains an undisclosed American binder and filler from Nicaragua. The standout size for this blend is without doubt the robusto in a 5X50. The chocolate notes derived from the wrapper balances out perfectly with the pepper notes from the fillers. This is a cigar from a small, newer company that can compete with the likes of the My Father Le Bijou and Liga Privada. For around $10 that’s a steal compared to the competition.
Wrapper: San Andrés Negra
6. Herrera Estelí Maduro Lonsdale
One of the reasons this list is late coming out is because I knew this cigar would be hitting shelves soon and, after speaking with the great Willy Herrera in Nicaragua earlier this year, I decided to wait and see if it was as good as he said it was so I could put it on this list. I have to say, that man is a tobacco genius who has never let me down before and certainly didn’t this year. Even though the blend is almost that of an inverted Liga Privada No.9, the smoke is almost smoother and trends more toward a medium than the full you experience with a No. 9. Mata Fina is a sweet, chocolatey leaf that I in fact used in my own blend done in Nicaragua with Willy Herrera helping (because if you need help, it might as well be the best help you can get). The fact that this cigar features one of the most expensive leaves in the business as its wrapper but still maintains a sub $15 price point is a true testament to Drew Estate’s buying power and use of tobaccos. Plus who isn’t a sucker for a good lonsdale? The smaller ring gauge allows you to really taste the sweet notes this fabled wrapper gives the cigar. It’s a total win.
Wrapper: Brazilian Mata Fina Maduro
Binder: Connecticut Broadleaf Maduro
7. E.P. Carrillo Encore Majestic
When you have a big hit, you always do an Encore. Originally Ernesto Perez-Carillo Jr. had named this cigar ‘The La Historia Encore’ as a follow up to the much loved and well reviewed La Historia line in 2016. This cigar is a Nicaraguan puro, which is an unusual blend selection for a Dominican cigar maker. Carrillo also utilized a little done process of fermentation for this leaf known as tericio, which is one reason that the cigar took so long to come to market. The majestic size is somewhat of a robusto, coming in at 5 3/8X52. It features quite a bit of tobacco from the Jalapa region. This particular area of Nicaragua has numerous volcanoes, causing the tobacco to pick up the flavors of the ashy soil. This causes the cigar to taste of warm almonds and white pepper which causes somewhat of a tingling sensation on the tip of the tongue. These notes build in power to give the cigar a solid medium plus strength with a smooth creamy smoke. There certainly isn’t anything like this cigar on the market today and its uniqueness make it something special. There really isn’t another cigar on the market like it which, paired with the fact that it’s delicious, is one of the reason it made my top 10.
8. Espinosa Especial No. 1
Manufactured at the La Zona factory in Estelí, the DNA of this blend starts out with a Mexican Negra wrapper. The interior is a tour of the four tobacco growing regions of Nicaragua with Ometepe, Jalapa, Estelí, and Condega. The release was delayed to give the cigars more time to age, allowing these flavorful tobaccos to come together, and it definitely made a difference in the final version that customers can enjoy today. The No. 1 6 1/2X48 size is one of three sizes available in 10 count boxes. The cigars flavor is exactly what you’d expect based upon the composition; a smooth, dark chocolate cigar with nicaraguan pepper, espresso notes, hay, and a little sweetness from the Estelí and Condega which transfers to a somewhat flowery vanilla taste as the cigar progresses. If you’re looking for a dark and smooth cigar with a nicaraguan kick that recedes as the smoke continues, this is the cigar for you. Not to mention it offers an excellent price point of sub $10.
Wrapper: Mexican Capa Negra
9. Esteban Carrera Chupacabra Hellcat Hellcatito
A very long name for such a small cigar. The Hellcat line by Esteban Carrera is an extension of its Chupacabra line. The Hellcat is set apart from the other Chupacabras in two ways; the shape and wrapper. Unlike its Oscuro and Habano wrapped counterparts from the Chupacabra lineup, the Hellcat is wrapped in a San Andrés Mexican wrapper and is box pressed. The traditionally sized cigars from the Hellcat line are all excellent, however a superstar has emerged from the hum drum of toro and robusto; the 4 1/2X44 petit corona size known as the Hellcatito. The interior of this medium plus cigar with a dry smoke is all from Esteban Carrera’s home of Nicaragua. The tiny factory has made a perfect tiny vitola packed with flavor. The smoke has an interesting dry and rough texture and offers amazing bittersweet chocolate notes backed up by the traditional spice you’ve come to expect out of a cigar from Nicaragua. With a price point around $7 the Hellcatito is priced appropriately for its size. The best way to describe it is to compare it to a Lotus Elise; small, stylish, and overall unassuming until you open it up, feel the passion that went into its manufacturing, and enjoy your time with it however short it may be.
Wrapper: San Andrés Mexican
10. A.J. Fernandez Ramón Allones Toro
Tabacalera A.J. Fernandez does it again! One of the best factories in the business paired with the amazing blending prowess of Abel Josef Fernandez has created numerous hits in the past, but this cigar is special. A.J.’s father smoked Ramón Allones from Cuba for most of his life so when A.J. was presented with the opportunity to use the storied name, he dove straight in. He acquired the cigar brand from General Cigars, who had all but given up on using the name after Michael Giannini’s exit from the company a couple of years prior.
The cigar does not resemble anything from Cuba, but has an identity only A.J. could give it. The Ecuadorean habano oscuro wrapper covering up a corona 99 binder. The filler is all Nicaraguan, featuring leaves from the Jalapa, Pueblo Nuevo, and Condega as well as a new hybrid leaf grown by A.J. and his team in Estelí. The 6X52 toro is my preferred size as the robusto leaves me wishing there was more cigar left. Once you get past the almost obnoxious number of bands and cedar, you finally get to see the dark chocolate wrapper that provides cocoa and creamy notes with peppery spice on the finish. This medium plus strength cigar is sure to be a hit with fans of sweeter, dark cigars that feature a little kick. There is a woody flavor that is undetectable in the first third but slowly appears as the cigar burns until it’s sweet cedar note emerges at the end. Make sure you wear gloves for this one so you don’t burn your fingers.
1. La Aurora Hors D’Age
It seems my friend Manuel Inoa, master blender for La Aurora Cigars, has a bit of a fetish for limited edition cigars. Every year La Aurora releases a new, high price point, limited run cigar and 2018 was no exception. This year gave us the La Aurora Hors D’Age. Launched at the annual celebration of Dominican cigars, Procigar Festival, in February in five sizes. The only size I’ve had the pleasure of smoking so far is the Toro 1, a 5 3/4X54. I usually don’t like a ring size over a 50, which probably has something to do with the cigar not being higher up the list, paired with the somewhat bitter and almost sour start in the first 1/8th of a inch. If you can get past those two things, the cigar opens up and offers delicious flavor from its surprising blend which has essentially ditched the Dominican tobaccos that have made La Aurora famous. The cigars sport an Ecuadorian wrapper and binder while the filler is made up of leaves from Colombia, Nicaragua, and the Dominican. Its MSRP of $20 is nothing to scoff at either but considering its use of well aged tobaccos and its limit of only 90,000 cigars worldwide produced across the 5 sizes it’s understandable. The blend features pepper notes, cedar, and vanilla which all initially jostle for attention. As the cigar burns, the flavor slowly mellows to become smoother and more refined with a heavy walnut note, while also gaining strength. One thing is certain, this cigar requires no touch ups on the burn at all. It’s constructed perfectly from start to finish. The flavors of this cigar are definitely love it or hate it but I’m on board with this blend. It’s definitely worth the purchase despite its faults and price point.
2. Southern Draw Rose of Sharon Perfecto
I was first introduced to this smoke by none other than its namesake, Sharon Holt, while in the Southern Draw booth at IPCPR this July. I first thought we were beating a dead horse here. There are already several sizes of the Rose of Sharon available so why would you make another? Does it really make a difference? I lit the cigar before I asked why and I’m glad I did. The Rose of Sharon has always proven to be anything but a boring Connecticut wrapped cigar through its use of a Nicaraguan habano Binder and ligero filler. So why the new size? The new sizing was created as part of Robert’s ‘Ignite some good’ initiative. In order to purchase this cigar, the retailer must agree to make a $3.75 donation for each 10 count jar of 6X56 perfectos purchased which Robert matches to total $7.50 per jar sold. The money goes to help both active duty military and veterans, in addition to the homeless and cigar focused charities.
So does that fact make the cigar taste better? While it makes the purchase easier, it doesn’t change the flavor. What does is the shape of this cigar. In the beginning you get to taste all the spice from the binder and filler but, as the cigar progresses, the ring gage expands and sweet smooth notes of cedar and walnuts emerge. This size is not only different than the more traditional vitolas but, if you ask me, it’s an improvement.
3. Kristoff Vengeance Perfecto
The Vengeance is back with a…well…you get it. The blend is completely different from the first run of the vengeance. This new addition features a Connecticut Broadleaf Maduro Wrapper in place of the Brazilian wrapper of the original release, an Indonesian binder, and fillers from The Dominican and Nicaragua but leaves out the Honduran filler featured on the old blend. The cigar is made in four different sizes, but for my money the 6 1/2X60 perfecto size is the winner. Just like all perfecto/figurado/diadema/preferido sizes the shape lends itself to a flavor evolution. The medium full blend starts out by highlighting this cigars spicy side but, by the time you’ve reached the middle of the 60 ring, you realize you’re half way through an amazing evolution. The kick has dissipated to simply lingering in the background and allows the more subtle notes of mocha and somewhat of a s’mores flavor. The back half of the cigar reveals a sweet cocoa note. At around $10-$11it’s a bargain.
4. Alec Bradley Magic Toast Robusto
Yes, I’m aware that this is the stupidest name for a cigar that we’ve heard in a while. Just when we thought Wasabi and Avocado were as far as the cigar industry would go, the Rubin boys proved us wrong. Alan Rubin, the patriarch of the brand he named after his sons Alec and Bradley, explained the name by saying he and his business partner Ralph Montero shared a late night toast of whisky while in Honduras overlooking the tobacco fields lit by nothing but moonlight and their flashlights to celebrate their successes. Somehow this information makes the name seem even worse. Don’t let that deter you because, fortunately for the Magic Toast, it’s far better than what the name would suggest. The blend utilizes tobaccos from both Alec Bradley’s home turf of Honduras and neighboring Nicaragua, Using the former as a wrapper, a double binder of the former and the latter, and filler from both countries as well. Manufactured by Raices in Danlí Honduras the cigar is a rich and sweet medium to full bodied cigar with heavy notes of chocolate and creamy dark coffee. It’s almost like how sometimes when chocolate cake is really rich you can’t eat the whole piece; making the 5X52 robusto, smallest of the three sizes offered, the best pick. This particular blend is the best Alec Bradley has produced in recent memory. So here’s a toast to the delicious Magic Toast and Alec Bradley’s continued success.
5. The Nestor Miranda 75th Anniversary
Any time a famous cigar company has a significant anniversary or a famous cigar company patriarch has a significant birthday you can be sure that there will be a cigar to celebrate the occasion. Nestor knew he couldn’t be the exception to this rule and that those who knew his impending birthday would be extremely disappointed should he not produce anything to celebrate three quarters of a century on this planet. Per his usual modus operandi, he went to the Pepin family to create a 7 1/4X57 salomon sized beauty crafted entirely of Nicaraguan leaves. Production was limited to just 15,000 cigars, organized as 1,000 boxes of fifteen. The maduro wrapper has notes of cocoa, leather, and coffee as one would expect the blend to have. While this cigar is full bodied, it’s smooth nature makes it easy to smoke. There has been the occasional instance of the cigar drawing poorly, had these complaints not been lodged I probably would have moved this blend up the list, but it’s worth the risk because the blend truly is that good.
6. Cornelius and Anthony The Gent Toro
It’s quite rare to find a top 25 list with brand repeats, especially when the brand isn’t Padrón or Fuente, but the Bailey boys at C&A really put in some work in the last couple years and deserve recognition for it. The Gent is a smooth, medium bodied box press. For some reason the other cigar the company released at the show, the full bodied Mistress, got more attention than its much more refined counterpart. It offers the same sizes as The Mistress; corona gorda, toro gored, robusto, and the 6X50 toro which, in my opinion, is the best size they offer this blend in. The cigar, manufactured by La Zona in Estelí, features an Ecuadorean rosado wrapper with an American binder and fillers from both Nicaragua and Honduras. Sweet cream, cedar, and milk chocolate notes make for a delicious and thick smoke with each puff. As the cigar continues to burn nutmeg, walnut, and milk chocolate some to the forefront, abandoning the slight pepper note in the first third. The cigar finishes with less complexity than it started but it almost doesn’’t matter since the notes you end with are the ones you really enjoyed in the beginning. With a price of around $10, it’s hard to say no to this little gem.