Proud To Be A Member

The TAA – What It Means for You

You’re probably a member of something – a civic or social club, or maybe a shopping membership like Amazon Prime, Sam’s Club, or Costco.  You pay your membership dues or fees and get access to benefits and value that are exclusive to members only.  If you’re a cigar customer at Smoke Rings or Cigar Box you have access to the benefits of membership of the TAA (Tobacconist Association of America) – and there are no fees – just by shopping with us, the benefits are part of the Cigar Box experience.  Membership is limited – now at 80 nationwide – only to local brick and mortar shops located in towns and communities across America.

The TAA

The TAA was formed in 1968 by seven retail tobacco shops.  Their primary purposes were to establish a forum for members to share information and ideas; to create standards for professionalism, training, and knowledge in the industry; and to function as a buying group that could work with major cigar brands to the benefit of customers.  TAA members are established in their communities and comply with all state and local laws – creating a level of trust in the business standards expected of TAA stores.  Members must meet the necessary criteria in order to join, with a retailer able to apply only when another member withdraws – keeping the number of members fixed.  

The centerpiece event of the TAA is the annual convention.  Here members are able to network with other TAA members and buy specially crafted TAA cigars made available only to members by some of the best known brands – including Tatuaje, Ashton, Drew Estate, Padron, La Flor Dominicana, My Father and others.

Membership in the TAA is part of the Cigar Box/Smoke Rings experience.  Seeing the TAA emblem in a cigar shop means that this brick and mortar store is not only part of the fabric of the community, but also part of a cigar community with only 80 shops across the country.  Its owners live and work locally, they hire people locally, and they’re committed to their customers and employees.  The impact of businesses in small towns and cities is huge!

According to research conducted by the Advocates for Independent Businesses trade group:

  • For every $10 million in sales, independent retailers create 47 jobs (compared to 19 jobs national chains create for every $10 million in sales)
  • Local retailers pay state and local property taxes that national chains often do not as they receive tax breaks and know how to avoid them
  • Being headquartered in local communities means that because of the people small businesses employ – and the goods & services they buy – about half of every dollar in sales stays local – not sent to national headquarters out of state for national ad campaigns or corporate earnings to be invested elsewhere

So we’re truly proud to live, work, and contribute to the local economy by offering the best products and service we can.  That’s been our brand since 1996 – a brand that’s a natural fit for our partnership with the TAA – and one more way we bring ‘Big World Taste to Your Small Town Shop’!!

Perdomo, Esteli and Nicaragua 101

Perdomo Cigars is a family-owned company created and led by Nick Perdomo.  Its headquarters is in Miami with the entire cigar-making process – from seed to boxing – occuring at the Tabacalera Perdomo operation in Esteli, Nicaragua. Here’s a quick dive into some background on Nicaragua, our trip there in 2015 and why that country might ring a bell for those of us around in the 1980s.

NICARAGUA

Nicaragua is in Central America, south of Mexico.  After many years of – and despite continued political instability – it is home to many of the leading cigar brands in the world including Perdomo, Drew Estate, Oliva, and My Father. While many in the public still hold the mythological notion of Cuba as the cigar capital of the world, cigar lovers know that Nicaragua has become home to many of the most popular and highly-rated cigars today. 

CUBA

While Cuba had a long and proud cigar industry, it was gutted by the Communist take-over of Cuba under Fidel Castro.  Many of the leading cigar-makers – among the best of the world – fled the dictatorship taking their knowledge – and seeds – with them.  They relocated in many places including the Dominican Republic – and Nicaragua, where the rich volcanic soil and ideal climate awaited the dedication and skill of expert cigar crafters. 

ESTELI, NICARAGUA

Esteli lies in northern Nicaragua, close the border with Honduras and 67 (direct) miles north of Managua, the capital.  In 2015, our Cigar Box/Smoke Rings group toured the Tabacalera Perdomo facilities.  We flew into Managua – about a three-hour flight from Miami.  Nicaragua has a population of about 6.2 million, with over 1.3 million living in the capital city and metropolitan area.  From Managua, we traveled by school bus on the famous Route 1 – Pan-American Highway – north through the incredible views of countryside valleys and over mountains dotted by lean-tos and small shanty towns. Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America behind only Haiti as poorest in the western hemisphere.  The poverty in places along the trip was clear as about 75% of Nicaraguans survive on less than $2 per day.    

Esteli, the third largest city in the country with about 90,000 people lies along the Esteli River in the highlands at an elevation of over 2600 feet. The consistently sunny, hot days and cool nights during the growing season are perfect for the tobacco fields of the region including the fields of Esteli, Condega and Jalapa valley.  Esteli’s population is about 90,000 and is much more ‘modern’ than the countryside with gas stations, supermarkets and fast food stops.

The Esteli region was the center of much of the fighting during the turmoil that gripped the country in its civil war in the 1970s-1980s – fighting that became the focus of attention of the United States under Ronald Reagan during our world-wide Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union and the threat of the spread of Communism.

SANDANISTAS, CONTRAS AND DANIEL ORTEGA

Nicaragua lived under the brutal and corrupt Somoza family dictatorship from 1936 to 1979.  The Somoza dynasty was overthrown in a violent struggle by the Sandinista Liberation Front in 1979 – a left-wing guerilla force led by a group including Daniel Ortega.  After seizing power, the Sandinistas moved to consolidate it through alliances and aid from the Soviet Union, Cuba and other communist nations around the world.  Anti-Sandinista groups coalesced into forces called the “Contras.”  The United States provided aid to the Contras through covert operations spearheaded by Reagan’s legendary CIA Director & spymaster William Casey, National Security Advisor Admiral John Poindexter and included Lt. Colonel Oliver North – as a way to slow Soviet influence in the Americas and the spread of left-wing revolutionaries to neighboring countries. The Sandinistas-Contra fighting ended with a peace accord in 1990 with political power to be settled through elections bringing hopes for a lasting peace which would set the stage for economic development and importantly for us – the cigar industry. 

ORTEGA

The President of Nicaragua today is Daniel Ortega – the same Daniel Ortega that led the junta that governed Nicaragua under the Sandinistas from 1979-1990.  Ortega – trading his fatigues for a suit – ran for President and lost in 1996 and 2001.  He then won in 2006 and again forged alliances with enemies of America like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Iran. Since then, Ortega – who later installed his wife as vice-president – consolidated power by taking control of the courts, police and military and crushing the free press.  Protest movements against Ortega’s corrupt and ineffective government erupted in 2018 – and the Ortega was ruthless in crushing the movements to keep himself and his family in power. 

THE TRAGEDY OF NICARAGUA AND ANIMAL FARM

The tragedy of Nicaragua is its unfilled potential.  With a west coast on the Pacific and an east coast on the Caribbean, it is a potential tourist attraction, not to mention an area with untapped economic potential beyond the tobacco, coffee and banana industries.

You’ve probably heard of or read George Orwell’s satire on communism called Animal Farm – which tragically is the template for many third world countries including Cuba and Nicaragua. In it, the animals on the farm dream of a better future where they won’t be exploited to create wealth that they will never share.  Pigs – as the most intelligent of the animals – come to lead the overthrow of humans on the farm, promising a better life where animals are equal.  Over time, the pigs become “more equal” and eventually run the farm to benefit themselves, moving into the human’s houses and getting the best food and comforts – making it difficult to tell the difference between life under the pigs and life the way it used to be – other than the constant propaganda slamming the bad old days and praising the ‘new’ way of life. 

For the people of Nicaragua today – like life under Somoza – the beauty and character of the country hold the promise of better days for its people – opportunities for farming, investment, tourism and creating a middle class that remain elusive under Ortega.  That promise remains stunted by corruption, poverty, repression, and government that exists to benefit itself at the expense of its people.

Whether Ortega’s Nicaragua or Castro’s Cuba – the potential for those people is there – as are the hope that free and open democracies will someday emerge – good for their people, good for the world, good for the cigar industry we enjoy – and that provides much needed employment, stability, and progress. 

As we saw with our own eyes, the cigar operations in Esteli help provide employment in that region, a better standard of living than in other regions of the country, and opportunities that don’t exist across society.  This industry is a life-line for the people who create hand-made premium cigars to export around the world.  As you enjoy your cigars from Nicaragua – remember the many hands that made it and a better life the people of their country might one day live.

Jump back to our previous posts for a tour of Tabacalera Perdomo, the growing significance of Nicaragua in the cigar industry and the consequences that misguided regulations periodically proposed in the United States would have. The slideshow is from our 2015 trip.

A Moment to Reflect

Life has changed so much in the last week or ten days, is that all it’s been? It happened so fast, like a nightmare unfolding day after day as businesses close and the lives we used to live interrupted. This isn’t what spring in is supposed to be – it’s supposed to be March Madness, The Masters, baseball beginning to slowly unwind over another summer, vacations, plans for 2020.

Instead it’s closing schools, an economy cut off in mid-stride, jarring orders to stay at home, precautions against a global pandemic unleashed from books or movies – now reality, a battle in our time. In the rush to react, the sense of normal gone – flashes of what’s lost for now break through from time to time – break through the rush of getting through the day, anxious about tomorrow, heartbreak for people across the country facing sickness, and fear and loss.

Many of us have a niche, things we do and share – something that our friends just ‘know’ – a culture, a language, a feeling.  It’s odd – many often go through our toughest times alone – others pick us up, console us, lend an ear if not a hand.  But all of us at the same time? Not a person among us to say they’ve been through this before.

For those of us gathered here together reading these words, be safe – may we get through this – each of us alone but also together.  For now, we might light a cigar, feel the relaxation that comes with the first draw – take a short time out – not an escape but a time to take it all in – remember other times, look an unknown future in the eye. We’re here, we’ll take it as it comes, and we’ll meet again in time.  We’ll arrive back where we started and we’ll know each like we never have before.  We’ll roll up our sleeves and get it done.  We look forward to being here to serve you again in our shops – and while relaxing with a cigar in years to come, appreciate it even more.

 

It started at Camp David

Carlos “Carlito” Fuente, Jr. reminisces about his meeting with Cigar Aficionado’s Marvin Shanken at Camp David in the hills above Santiago in the Dominican Republic. During that meeting, a bond was formed to support each other in their love for cigars and all the industry has to offer. Marvin’s advice to Carlito and his father was that “success in life brings responsibility to give back to others that are not as fortunate”.  This is truly a philosophy that the Fuente’s have adopted through their community support most notably the Cigar Family Foundation School of the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation in Bonao where over 400 students from preschool through high school are receiving a free education at the non-profit, privately funded charter school.

During a recent trip to the Dominican, our group from Smoke Rings Cigar Bar had the opportunity to stay a few nights at Camp David, located in the Northern Andes overlooking the city of Santiago. We learned about the cultural and historical landscapes of this breathtaking area.

Among its attractions, there is a collection of cars from the 1950’s and 1960’s that belonged to the family of the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the leader and former president of the Republic.

Twenty-six years ago, Marvin had a vision for the cigar industry with the conception of Cigar Aficionado. He believed that once people understood about the craftsmanship of cigars, how to select, cut, and light them, they would become passionate about smoking them; and he was right! As Carlito Fuente stated, cigars are about people…people are truly a blessing. The beauty of smoking a cigar is that it brings people together and that is the reward.

Enjoying a Cool, Slow Burn

Did you ever look at a premium cigar? I mean, really look at it? The complexity of this hand rolled piece of art is amazing. A cigar is made up of three major parts: wrapper, binder and filler and each piece of the puzzle comes together to form a masterpiece to be enjoyed by any cigar smoker from novice to expert. To truly understand the beauty of a premium cigar, let’s discuss each part in more detail.

cigar details
Anatomy of a Cigar

To begin, the wrapper of the cigar, which is the visible outer cover leaf, is the most expensive part per pound. The tobacco leaves used for the wrapper need to be perfect in appearance as well as flavorful. Imagine looking at a cigar and seeing a veiny, rough or blemished texture.

Cigar Wrappers
Examples of Tobacco used for Cigar Wrappers

This would surely turn off any cigar smoker who would like to truly enjoy the smoking experience. If the tobacco leaves are not up to the standards, then it can no longer be categorized as a wrapper.

Next, let’s talk about the binder in a premium cigar. Generally, you can consider the tobacco used in the binder can be the same leaf that didn’t meet the wrapper criteria. In other words, the binder consists of leaves that don’t need to be as unblemished and pristine in appearance. The job of the binder leaf is to do exactly that….”bind” the filler tobacco together to hold it in place. But there’s more to it than that. The combustion of the binder is also critical.  A good-burning binder will often help the filler burn more evenly.

Finally the filler, which makes up the bulk of the cigar, is where the cigarmaker can get creative, using different types of tobacco from various countries and even several different primings from a tobacco plant.  Flavor, strength, complexity and burn time of a premium cigar are achieved with the filler.

Cigar Filler
Types of Filler Tobacco for Cigars

The key to a premium cigar is the overall construction from the foot to the neatly rolled symmetrical cap. If a cigar isn’t made properly, it will not draw or burn as it should, affecting both the taste and your enjoyment.

Once you have chosen your cigar, it’s time to master the cut, light it and enjoy the smoke. Typically there’s a slight taper at the head of the cigar called the shoulder. You’ll want to cut just above that line finding the balance of cutting off the right amount in order to avoid having too firm of a draw and a build-up of tar in the head. To light your premium cigar, treat it delicately and “toast the foot” of the cigar using minimal direct contact of the flame to avoid the taste of pure char. Use caution when lighting with powerful torch lighters which can easily cause a charred taste.Cutting a Cigar

When it’s time to smoke your premium cigar, don’t rush it, slow down and enjoy the process. If you puff too often, you may overheat the cigar and make it taste bitter. A cigar is made to burn cool and slow in order to enjoy the flavors of the tobacco. Taking a puff about every minute is recommended to enjoy the true meaning of smoking a cigar. And while it may be tempting to tap off the ash of your cigar frequently, leave the ash on for as long as you can. It actually serves as a temperature regulator, keeping the cigar cooler

Leather chairs
Beautiful Leather Chairs at Smoke Rings Cigar Bar

So the next time you select a premium cigar at Smoke Rings, take a moment to appreciate the masterpiece in your hand before lighting up. Consider the quality of the tobacco and the expertise of the worker that hand rolled it. Then sit back and enjoy a cool, slow burn, preferably in a high back leather chair.

Go Big or Go Home

If it’s bigger, it’s got to be better!  That mindset has been entrenched in consumers’ brains year after year from marketing company after marketing company, no matter what the product. So it’s no wonder that the trend for a more robust and larger cigar has been gradually making it’s way into the cigar industry as well. Although we like to think of the cigar consumer as a savvy, educated buyer, we cannot help but think there has been some outside influences that have pushed them in the “bigger and bolder” direction.

In years past, most cigar smokers had a brand loyalty and typically smoked the same cigars on a regular basis; but as generations have changed so have their habits. Many cigar smokers adopted a more adventurous taste and attitude with their curiosity taking them in the direction of bolder cigars boasting a larger ring gauge. The influx of varieties of Nicaraguan and Dominican Cigars has opened up the market for this new consumer.

New shapes, sizes, and blends, combined with attractive and modern packaging has given an explosion to the Premium Cigar Industry since the 1990’s. The mild cigars that once dominated the market have been overcome by bolder varietals from prominent cigar makers. The rich, fuller-bodied blends have allowed manufacturers in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua to showcase their abilities. Both countries are now the number 1 and number 2 exporters respectively to the US.

The introduction of the bigger, bolder cigars began with such cigars as the Fuente Fuente Opus X and the La Flor Dominicana Ligero Series. The Ashton VSG followed as did the LFD Double Ligero to continue the trend of fuller-bodied cigars.  Recently the introduction of the new Romeo series in the cigar market with bolder cigars and their captivating modern packaging typifies this trend and are somewhat unlike the traditional Romeo y Julieta design.

Cigar Smokers are now fortunate enough to experience new brands being introduced all the time, creating a wider variety in flavor and size. The hype and excitement around new cigar introductions more than peaks the consumers curiosity. Just like every industry, the highs and lows depend on the tastes and demands of the consumer. With cigars, the consumer profile is always changing as cigar smokers seek new flavors as their pallets develop. So what’s up next for the cigar industry? Whatever the consumers want!

From Start to Finish

Premium Cigars are among the few items that truly are “all natural”.  There is no chemical treating, they are free of dyes, and no ripening accelerants are used. Those sweet and spicy flavors occur naturally in the tobacco leaves.  Premium Cigar Manufacturers let nature take it’s course to produce the tobacco that will be expertly handled and rolled into a fine cigar. However, as we all know, Mother Nature can throw some curve balls.  The master blender must be able to adjust and work effectively with crop variations. Each cigar maker will strive to produce a consistent product with the possibility of slight fluctuations created by weather.

Curious about what it takes before you are able to sit back and enjoy that premium cigar? On recent trips to renowned cigar facilities, we saw the entire production first hand.  From start to finish, the components of a cigar will involve well over 200 pairs of hands throughout the process in order to deliver this exceptional handmade product to your humidor. Beginning with the planting of the seeds, to having the leaves harvested and hung in the curing barn, and then piled up for fermentation, each worker skillfully handles the tobacco.

The piles are separated onto drying racks, are then repacked, and are stored for aging.  The aged tobacco is unpacked after a few years, rehydrated and separated by color.

The outer leaves used for the wrapper go through a de-stemming process and the filler leaves will have part of the stem removed. The proper proportions of the tobacco are distributed to the rollers where they will bunch and roll each cigar by hand according to the cigarmaker’s blend.  The art of rolling the perfect cigar is one that takes years to master.

The finished product is sorted for color consistency and sent back to the aging room.  Finally, the cigars are banded, boxed, and sent out.

Along the way, the cigars have also gone through numerous quality control steps, all completed by hand.  This entire journey has been a hands-on process with dozens and dozens of skilled labor taking the proper care to ensure a consistent and satisfying smoke. So the next time you enjoy a cigar among friends, remember all the expertise that went into your hand-rolled premium cigar, from start to finish.IMG_0289 2.JPG

 

Super Cigars from LFD

Are you ready for some football??!  La Flor Dominicana certainly is with their Super Bowl cigar! Even though the Vikings won’t be playing in this year’s game, the fans of this host state can enjoy a special cigar while watching the big game.

LFD is making their special edition football cigar an annual tradition, shipping it to LFD retailers in the host states.  This year’s Super Bowl marks the fourth time Litto Gomez and his team are producing this commemorative cigar.  The Ecuadorian Habano wrapper blends well with the Dominican binder and filler to produce a full bodied stick. To complete the look of this special cigar, a football-shaped design is carefully carved by hand from Connecticut-seed Ecuadorian tobacco to be placed on the wrapper. Our staff was lucky enough to be at La Flor Dominicana this year and watch the cigars come together first hand.

If you’re fortunate enough to be heading out to the Super Bowl to cheer on your team, swing by a local LFD retailer and grab one of these limited edition cigars…only 450 boxes were produced.  Although we don’t have them here in Pennsylvania, we do offer several La Flor Dominicana cigars including a few new ones selected during the LFD Tour (more on that coming soon in this space) at Smoke Rings Cigar Bar where you can sit back, watch the game, and enjoy a smoke on a Sunday afternoon.

The Top 25 Cigars of 2017

Really? Only 25?!! How can they choose? With so many premium cigars on the market, manufactured by well established companies, many generation after generation owned, choosing the top 25 is a task that I’m sure any cigar lover would endure.  Fortunately, Cigar Aficionado has taken on that task and has given their expert opinion on what qualifies a cigar to make it to the top 25 each year; however, feel free to keep on doing your own research!

Here’s how the process works:

To start this daunting task of pairing down the hundreds of excellent cigars to just the top 25 for the year, they begin by choosing the highest scoring cigars of the year.  Next, the cigars are presented to a distinguished panel of tasters.  To prevent any bias, the cigars are repurchased at retail, their identifying bands are removed, and finally, are blind tested through several rounds of tastings.  It becomes a cigar competition where only the best of the best will survive!  Excellent tobacco crops and masterful blending have made it a difficult task, but the winners have been chosen!

And the winners are…

  • No. 1 – The Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Eye of the Shark

No 1

  • No. 2 – The Padron Serie 1926 No. 2 (Natural)

No 2

  • No. 3 – The Oliva Serie V Belicoso

  • No. 4 – The Bolivar Belicoso Fino

  • No. 5 – The Alec Bradley Tempus Natural Centuria

  • No. 6 – The Ashton Symmetry Belicoso

  • No. 7 – The My Father The Judge Grand Robusto

  • No. 8 – The Guardian of the Farm Apollo Seleccion de Warped

  • No. 9 – The Plasencia Alma Fuerte Generacion V

  • No. 10 – The Villiger La Flor de Ynclan Robusto

  • No. 11 – The Partagas Lusitania

  • No. 12 – The New World Puro Especial Toro

  • No. 13 – The Archetype Axis Mundi Toro

  • No. 14 – The 601 Red Label Habano Torpedo

  • No. 15 – The Romeo by Romeo Y Julieta Aging Room Small Batch F25 Cantaor

  • No. 16 – The Rocky Patel Vintage 2003 Cameroon Churchill

  • No. 17 – The C.L.E Prieto 50 x 5

  • No. 18 – The E.P. Carrillo Dusk Solidos

  • No. 19 – The Romeo Y Julieta Short Churchill

  • No. 20 – The Macanudo Inspirado Orange Churchill

  • No. 21 – The Regius Exclusivo USA Pressed Perfecto

  • No. 22 – The Joya Black Nocturno

  • No. 23 – The La Flor Dominicana Double Ligero Lancero

  • No. 24 – The Tatuaje Cabinet Noellas

  • No. 25 – The Undercrown Churchill

That’s quite an impressive list!  You can view all the details of the Top 25 Cigars at Cigar Aficionado.

Now that we’ve peaked your interest, maybe it’s time to initiate your own Top 25 research for 2018 and see how your favorites compare to next year’s list.  You can begin at Smoke Rings, where we have over 100 facings in stock….that should give you a good starting point!  Researching the Top 25 is a tough job, but someone’s got to do it!  See you at Smoke Rings!

Choosing Your Cigar

When it comes to choosing a cigar, there are many options to consider…price, body, flavor, size and smoke time. Have you ever walked in to a humidor and wondered where to begin? Instead of selecting a cigar based on the cool cigar band, check out this educational, yet entertaining illustrated guide below. Whether you’re new to smoking cigars or think of yourself as a cigar afficionado, a little education always goes a long way.

cigar chart

Still have questions? Step into our Humidor where our knowledgeable Smoke Rings Staff will be happy to assist in selecting your cigar. See you at Smoke Rings!