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|| News Item: Posted 1999-12-23

The Count on Cigars: The Perfect Smoke- Size, Shape, Tobacco & Brand
By Eric Risberg

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Robustos, torpedos, belicosos, coronas, Dominican, Jamaican, Cuban, 50 ring gauge, Connecticut wrapper. If you don't know what these terms mean, how can you choose the right cigar to celebrate this special New Year's Eve?

Keep in mind that there are three keys to choosing the "perfect smoke" -- the size/shape of the cigar, the type and origin of the tobacco, and the brand.

Size and shape.
Words such as "robusto," "torpedo," and "corona" refer to the size or shape of the cigar. The size is measured in length by inches and in diameter by ring gauge. Ring gauge is measured by sixty-fourths of an inch. Therefore, a cigar that is 5 x 50 (normally the size of a robusto) would be five inches long by 50/64 of an inch.

The length and size of a cigar influence how a cigar will taste. Let's say you are smoking cigars made up of the exact same tobaccos. The bigger the ring gauge, the fuller the taste. The longer the cigar, the cooler the smoke. For example, let's take two Bauzas: a 7 1/2 x 50 fabuloso (double corona) and a 5 x 38 petit corona. The petit corona will be a milder and hotter smoke, while the fabuloso will have a more full-bodied taste and smoke cooler. However, the petit corona will last about 40 to 50 minutes, while the double corona will last two to two and a half hours.

Think of it like comparing telephoto lenses, with the widest f-stop representing ring gauge. If a petit corona is like a 105 f2 lens, then the double corona would be like a 500mm f4 lens.

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My favorite size cigar is the robusto, which accommodates those who don't take hours to enjoy their cigars, but look for more instant gratification in the experience. It is a compromise between richness and time of burning. Another favorite of mine is the torpedo, or figuardo, which I'll discuss in a future column. The torpedo's tapered end and its unique construction allows the cigar to start out mild but get stronger as the smoke is funneled through the narrowing shape that is reached as the cigar becomes shorter. You can compare this smoke to a zoom lens.

Type and origin of tobacco.
Remember there are three basic parts to the cigar: the filler, binder, and wrapper.

The filler is the core or "heart" of the cigar and accounts for more than half the cigar's flavor. Filler can be made of long-leaf tobacco or of short-leaf filler, which is usually found in machine-made cigars. Long-leaf filler is used in more expensive handmade cigars. For example, Fuente utilizes as many as four different long leaf tobaccos in its filler blends.

The binder is the part that holds the filler in place. It is a unique leaf, strong, yet able to add flavor to the filler and wrapper.

The wrapper is what many consider to be the most important part of the cigar, not only because it provides a third or more of the flavor, but also because it creates the "impression" before the cigar is lit based on its texture and aroma. The color of the wrapper is also very important. The colors range from claro (light green) to oscuro (blackish brown or brownish black). In cigar stores, the most common wrappers you'll see are either a colorado (medium brown), often called EMS or English Market Selection, or maduro (dark chocolate brown). Generally speaking, the lighter the color, the milder the taste. Maduro wrapper cigars are very popular and tend to be richer and sweeter in flavor.

Just like wines that come from a blend of different types of grapes, cigars are made from blends of different tobaccos. To fully explain tobacco from each country is tricky, because each tobacco is cured and aged differently. But here's a basic key on how each country's tobacco is classified: Dominican - mild. Honduran - more full-bodied and spicier than Dominican. Cuban - full-bodied, Jamaican - lighter than Dominican. Cameroon - spicy, heavier than Dominican. Mexican - less refined, mild to rough. Again, these are generalizations, and a number of other countries produce tobacco as well, including the U.S. and Canary Islands (part of Spain). Cuba does produce a number of cigars that are light, and the Dominican Republic and Honduras produces some cigars that are very strong.

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The Brand.
The brand represents a family of cigars, a history, and a particular flavor. Brand name conjures up an image and sense of recognition, but most important, it comes down to a matter of taste. For example, the Cuban Bolivar is known for its strength of taste and its raw, earthy, spicy qualities, while the Dominican/Jamaican Macanudo, one of the most popular cigars in the U.S., is a mild, aromatic cigar of perfect construction and consistency. At the other end cigar brands range from the inexpensive machine-made Hav-A-Tampa, a popular little cigar that had its beginnings around WWII, to a Davidoff, which previously produced the Chateau Havanas and now produces premium Dominican cigars.

In a matter of days, the year will be over and most of us will probably be working over the busy New Year's Eve weekend. But for those who have a day (or a few hours) off to enjoy a smoke, here are a few selections. The Ashton Cabinet VSG (Virgin Sun Grown) has just been released, comes in 6 sizes -the Torpedo size is one of the closest cigars available in the U.S. to a legendary Cuban Montecristo Number 2.

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Want something grand, sure to draw attention, and able to last a couple of hours or more? At one end, very reasonably priced for under $7, try a Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur #1 from Honduras. Or, if you want to splurge and have received your year-end bonus, check out the Fuente Fuente Opus X "A," which comes in its own individual wooden box and goes for $40 a cigar. The Opus X is finally making its long-awaited debut on the West Coast and can now be found at select shops in California, Oregon, and Washington.

If you don't want something big, try this robusto with your champagne: the new, moderately priced (under $5) Menendez & Garcia Por Larranaga robusto with the Habana 2000 wrapper, made by Consolidated Cigar. And one of the best deals I have seen (which also makes a great gift, either to yourself or your friends) is the Le Cigare de L'an 2000 by Montecristo (made by Consolidated Cigar, can be found in Philadelphia Holts Cigar Co.for $99.95). You get 12 Churchill cigars in decorative glass tubes, a cutter, in a lacquered box featuring a Delacroix painting -- a real steal at about $150.

(Eric Risberg ("The Count") is a San Francisco-based staff photographer for the Associated Press. He can be reached at:

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