Cuban Puffery

Those who have lived with tobacco a long time are said to cultivate otherworldly powers of perception. By simply tasting a cigar, they can name the precise origin of the leaf, much like vintners can sip a wine and name the variety and origin of the grape. A hint of saltiness, a certain earthy character, or a pungent sharpness are all tell-tale clues to the sandy soils from where a cigar was born. But as the legendary Bordeaux region dominates wine, only one district offers a cigar so prestigious it makes the tongues of its disciples quiver with awe.Welcome to sunny Havana, Cuba.Long considered the holy grail of the cigar world, Cuban cigars are nourished from the finest seed, the richest soil, and the lushest climate in the world. The reddish soils of the Vuelta Abajo region near the city of Havana, where the most prized cigars originate, offer the perfect blend of sand and quartzite. Abundant rivers flow from the surrounding mountains, enriching the land with their healthy mineral content. Spared the burning equatorial heat, the island nation basks in an average temperature of about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, bathing Cuba's tobacco plants in a vast natural humidor.And what a pity it all is, because Cuban cigars have been taboo in the United States since President Kennedy imposed the trade embargo against Cuba following Castro's rise to power in 1959. The smokes have subsequently been unavailable to us poor norteamericanos unless, that is, one happens to have generous friends who are also exuberant world travelers. Ironically, officials estimate that over 5 million Cuban stogies are fired up in the United States each year, owing to the work of enterprising smugglers. Not even the law, it seems, can stand between a fine cigar and its devoted connoisseur.Punch is said to be the second-oldest Cuban cigar-maker still in production, having been founded in 1840 by Manuel Lopez. The cigars were initially destined almost exclusively for the British market, as a popular magazine by the name of "Punch" was much adored in Britain at the time. Today, Punch has both Cuban and Honduran production, as cigars made in Honduras may be legally exported to the lucrative American market. This is common practice for many manufacturers who moved elsewhere in the Caribbean following the Cuban revolution, although for obvious reasons the Honduran products lack the cachet of cigars rolled with Cuban tobacco.The Punch Coronation, at 5 inches and a 42 ring gauge, comes wrapped with a band of shaved cedar, a feature of certain high-end cigars that imparts a dry cedary-sweet aroma to the full-bodied stogie. Rich leathery notes dominate the flavor, with hints of toffee and coffee. The fine, aged tobacco is redolent of a pungent, musky flavor that can only be likened to the scent of a virile billygoat. Even while subtle, one recognizes the oddly irresistible aroma of a musk-ox in estrus. As the cigar burns gradually shorter, the flavors become more potent, yielding burnt wood and even grassy notes, eventually giving up a resonant herbaceousness.One delightful aspect of the Punch is, of course, its punch. Cuban smokes are often thought more powerful than most cigars made available in America, being rolled with heaps of the most carefully blended tobacco in the world. Sadly, this follows a curious pattern of flavor dilution seemingly endemic to our country.Just as the quintessential American beers (think Budweiser) are rather insipid compared to their European counterparts (think Guinness), and as American cuisine is less feisty and flavorful than the chili-powered indigenous cuisine of Mexico or Thailand, some believe the cigars of America wane when compared to those of Cuba. On the other hand, some cigar authorities have argued that Cuban cigars are no longer the world-class puffery they used to be, owing to widespread shortages of capital, fertilizer, and basic amenities like fuel in Havana. While the reputation of its cigars may never wane, in truth the economic climate in Cuba remains doubtfully unstable. May the realpolitik look favorably upon the stogie's heroic homeland.

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