Aged, or just Old?

22nd July, 2004: Posted by glpease in Tobacco, Cigars

I’ve had the pleasure of smoking some pre-Castro Bolivars that were amazing, as well as a few Cuban Davidoffs. But, I’ve had a lot more old cigars that just didn’t hold up. Depending on the blend composition, the storage conditions, and the quality of the original leaf, cigars *seem* to have a reasonable life of somewhere between 2 and 10 years, providing it’s a good cigar to start with. I’ve been smoking through a box of H, Upmann 2000s that I laid down in 1993, and they are absolutely exquisite. They’re softer than they were, yes, but they have more overall dynamics than I remember when they were young. There’s a lot going on in these beauties.

At the same time, I laid down some La Regentas, a delightful Canary Islands cigar that I enjoyed immensely in their youth. Age has not been quite as kind to them. They’re still a nice smoke, but their somewhat delicate young voice has become a whisper. I still enjoy them, but I do have to concentrate on the taste and aroma, and can only do so on a fresh palate.

Routinely, I lay down my cigars for at least six months before I smoke them, and most seem to be at their best after a year or two. It’s become more important post-boom to do this, as the manufacturers aren’t holding them as long after they’re produced. In all but a few cases, if the cigar has a cello wrap, I won’t even try it until it’s been undressed and rested for a couple weeks; I’ve had far too many “green” cigars, with their characteristic ammonia notes in the past few years to expect a cigar to be at its best when it’s first purchased. (Much of this is the result of rushed production, as the leaf isn’t allowed to sweat long enough for the nitrogen compounds to reduce, liberating the ammonia before the cigars are rolled, but that’s a topic for another article…)

Pipe tobacco operates on a different timeline. Five years, ten, 20. I’ve had Three Nuns from the 1940s that was divine, but I’ve smoked some mixtures that just didn’t hold up nearly as well. Pipe tobaccos are very much like wine in this regard; some will age gracefully for many, many years, while others are best enjoyed relatively young, though none will be at their best immediately after being put in the tin or bottle.

Virginias, with their high sugar content, are the best candidates for very long-term aging, and the changes they undergo is certainly to their benefit. Virginia blends with perique seem to have an almost immortal quality to them. While I can’t say whether they continue to improve, or even to change, they don’t seem to ever find the downhill slump, even after decades of cellaring.

Behind Virginia, the leaf with the longest life expectancy would be the oriental tobaccos. They develop some amazing floral notes in the tin, and deliver richness and complexity far beyond what they are capable of when young. However, there does seem to be a limit, and at some point, they begin a decline. They lose some of their bouquet, the spice begins to dilute, and they can even develop a slightly barnyard nose. These characteristics are not exactly unpleasant, but neither do they present a peak experience.

Latakia is an interesting tobacco. At first, it goes through a softening period. Some of this is simply the intermingling of its essential oils with the other tobaccos in the blend, but part of it is also a fermentative transformation of some of its more astringent aromatic compounds. (The organic chemistry lab in that little tin is remarkably complex. Some reactions are fairly quick, while others are very slow.) After it has married and melded with the other leaf in the blend, the Latakia goes through a stage where it seems to actually gain richness and complexity. Its youthful exuberance is tempered, and a more balanced nature is delivered to the smoker. All of this happens over an 18-month to two year period in most cases. Beyond that, the Latakia seems to remain relatively stable for years, perhaps a couple decades, before it begins its slow decline, during which time, it moves toward becoming very soft, and depending on the percentage in the blend, it can all but disappear. As with orientals, it doesn’t become unpleasant, but its punch is gone from both the aroma and the flavor.

At the two year point, a mixture or blend has begun to come into its own, and display its true colors in full fidelity. While it has not reached its peak yet, it’s at this point that the smoker can begin to fully enjoy the complexity and balance of the blend.

I recall smoking from a very old tin of Balkan Sobranie. I was present when the tin was first opened, and found it difficult to restrain my enthusiasm (drooling) as I waited for it to be passed to me for a fill. The experience was wonderful, but I found myself wondering how great that tobacco would have been a few years earlier, before it had begun its gradual descent. For this blend, in my opinion, 40 years was clearly too long to wait.

Old tobaccos command very high prices, and with good reason. These are rare treasures to be experienced or cherished, whether or not they are still in, or well past their prime. The thrill of smoking an ancient blend is only available through a long career of collecting and a great deal of patience, or the expenditure of seemingly vast sums of cash. Some blends haven’t been produced in ages, so the only way to enjoy them is to find old, carefully stored examples. The market sets the price, and it’s often quite a high one.

Of course, all of this depends upon blends that are well conceived, and skillfully blended from high quality ingredients. A good tobacco should be pleasant, even when young. If very youthful, there may be some dissonant notes, perhaps a little verdant nature that’s not quite in balance with the rest of the blend. If you don’t like the blend young, you might find it more acceptable aged, but it will rarely become a favorite. For the smoker who is starting their own cellar, I can only suggest buying the tobaccos you truly enjoy, in quantities that will allow sampling over time, storing the tins in a cool, dry environment. As you smoke one, replace it with two. See what happens to a blend after six months, after a year, two years, five, a decade. At some point, you’ll find yourself with a wonderful supply of your own vintage tobacco, and will be able to enjoy it any time. The experiences you’ll have will be more than simple signposts; they will rich treasures found along the path of the pipe smoker’s journey.