Ageing cigars: the essentials.
Very often we hear that ageing premium cigars is the best way to improve their flavour. We hear that vintage and pre-revolution Cubans fetch very high prices due to their smooth, elegant and complex flavours. A lot has been written on the subject and many authors and websites mention different things. Who is right? The simple short answer is, they all get some things right. Some cigars will benefit from being aged for a couple of months, years or even decades. Some cigars simply will not improve at all. How do we know which cigars to age and which cigars to smoke right away?
'Cigars don't improve with age'
On the one hand there are people who claim that cigars don't need to be aged. They just need to 'settle in the humidor for a couple of weeks'. They claim this is the case because the leaves in a cigar have been cured, fermented and aged at the factory. 'The master blenders have selected what they believe is the perfect combination of leaves... the flavours from the cigars should be enjoyed as soon as one purchases them from the store'. While it is true that many New world cigars have been aged at the factories before being released to the public, this is not the case for many other brands from the New World and many famous brands from Cuba, see below.
By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, cigars were incredibly popular in Britain. In fact, Cuba's biggest customer was Britain. It was not uncommon for world renowned brands like Hoyo de Monterrey and Romeo y Julieta to sell their cigars in boxes of 50 and 100 cigars. Specially made cabinets were commissioned from master joiners in Cuba. Tightly packed bundles of 100 cigars were boxed in cedar boxes with sliding lids and placed in custom made cabinets. Some of these cabinets were sold to wealthy clients with up to 5 thousand cigars in them. As one may expect, these customers expected only the best cigars in their expensive cabinets.
Only the most experienced cigar rollers were allowed to roll the most exquisite blends of tobacco into these 'Cabinet Selection' cigars. Needless to say, preparing a cabinet, its sea voyage and its transportation from the port to the store took considerable time and the cigars were expected to last for many years. It would be very bold to assert that those cigars in cabinets 'did not change or were intended for immediate consumption'.
As the 20th century progressed, cigarettes overtook cigars in popularity and cigar makers were left with larger and larger surpluses of tobacco leaves. By the 1980's it was not uncommon for cigar factories in Cuba to roll cigars with tobacco leaves aged between 3 and 8 years. By the time those cigars were purchased, the leaves would have been aged for a total of 9 or even 10 years. The cigar boom, started around 1994, was going to change the world of cigars forever.
'Cigars always improve with age'
The other side of the argument is that premium cigars always improve, the claim is: 'if cigars didn't improve with age, why are vintage and pre-embargo cigars so expensive and sought after?' This is another bold assertion. We mentioned before that cigar blends have changed massively over time. Once the 1994 cigar boom drove demand for cigars from all over the world to never-before-seen levels the factories in Cuba started to release cigars which were rolled with leaves that were aged for just a few months.
Some New World cigar brands took advantage of having a greater supply of tobacco from various countries. They created complex and rich blends using different leaves. Some brands went as far as selecting only premium leaves and ageing them for a considerable amount of time (in some cases up to 10 years!). The cigars were wrapped in cellophane and were intended to be smoked almost right away. These cigars will change, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, as they are placed in people's humidors. Some cigar merchants claim that cellophane wrapper cigars should be kept in the humidor without removing the wrapper. This is recommended by them as it 'slows down the ageing process' and preserves the cigars in optimal smoking condition. This, they say, offers the flavours that the cigar maker intended.
What's the verdict?
Simply put, cigar ageing is not an exact science. Many premium New World cigars are meant to be smoked as soon as possible, ageing them will simply make them mellower and not necessarily better. Jorge Padron (Padron cigars) and Pete Johnson (Tatuaje cigars) claim that there is no need to age their cigars any longer. Various retailers and cigar writers recommend to store such cigars in their cellophane wrapper as this keeps them 'fresh'. Many other retailers recommend to keep the magnificent Opus X cigars (if you can find them) for up to 8 years.
As for premium Cubans, the debate goes on. While some people prefer the peppery, spicy and robust flavours in some young Cuban cigars, others prefer the gentle, smooth, elegant and complex flavours that aged cigars offer. As the oils present in the tobacco leaves fade, they mellow the strong and peppery notes in the cigar. From our experience here at Jeffrey st. gentle cigar brands like H. Upmann, Romeo y Julieta and Hoyon de Monterrey will develop lovely aromas and flavours when aged between 3 and 5 years. Richer cigars with a heavier ring gauge will become smoother, more elegant and complex when aged between 5 and up to 10 years. Try ageing some Cohiba (Robusto, Siglo VI) or Partagas (Serie E 2) cigars. For better results, get yourself a box (or two) and sample a cigar every year until you think they are ready. After all, it is you who decide which flavours and character you enjoy the most in your cigars.