Two Hundred and Nine Non-Consecutive Years
Cohiba have long been the iconic face of modern premium cigars but in a world of growing demand and with so many brands vying for their moment in the spotlight, it begs the question that some would perhaps consider to be of the highest sacrilege: “Are Cohibas these days all they’re cracked up to be?”
I decided it was time to find out.
Officially founded in 1966, Cohiba was the private blend of Fidel Castro and reserved for his own personal enjoyment, with some occasionally being gifted to certain visiting dignitaries and state officials. It would not be until 1982 that the brand became fully available for commercial sale, with three vitolas forming the base of the marque: the Panetela, the Corona Especial and the Lancero, with several more to follow in 1989.
In 1992 however, Linea 1492 was created, a range of five cigars with each commemorating each century passed since the arrival of Christopher Colombus to the island of Cuba, the Siglo I, II, III, IV and V.
Now, admittedly, my experiences with Cohiba vitolas in the past have been slight and almost universally negative, so in setting out to construct this pairing I had to set aside a whole lot of confirmation bias and be prepared to approach the Siglo I I would be sampling as objectively as possible.
The smallest of the Linea 1492 offerings, the Siglo I is what would be officially designated as a “Tres Petit Corona,” crafted from only the finest tobaccos harvested from a handful of rigorously selected plantations producing the finest tobacco on Cuba. The tobacco itself undergoes an extra fermentation process in barrels unique to the Cohiba brand, with the intention of further refining the blend and producing an unparalleled smoothness.
And by lord, it is smooth, I’ll give it that; there’s simply no denying that the Cohiba blend is one of the tastiest in the world. A fitting tribute to the efforts involved in making the brand the world’s most beloved purveyors of premium cigars, especially in their mind-searingly brilliant Edicion Limitada outings and special releases. But flavour alone does not a great experience make, and we’ll touch on that later.
Pairing drinks with even the most entry level Cohiba vitola presents a challenge in itself. You don’t want to stifle the flavour profile of such a prestigious blend, but the other items in the pairing have to be robust enough to make an impression. It’s a fine tightrope to walk, but I had just the thing: a nine year old bottling of a Tomatin from Gordon & MacPhail’s now-defunct Cask Strength collection. This is a whisky that periodically haunts my dreams, I think about it all the time, I dread to think about the oncoming day where our stock of it finally runs out. It’s made a big impression on me to say the least. Distilled in 2007 and nurtured lovingly in first-fill bourbon casks until being bottled just shy of it’s tenth birthday in 2017, this powerful beast of a dram clocks in at a fairly potent ABV of 58.5% and oozes big flavours of vanilla, banana, chocolate and a touch of peppery spice owing to the barrel char of the bourbon casks. A set of characteristics I felt would hold it in good stead alongside the Siglo I.
In keeping the theme of neutral accompaniments that would add supplementary nuances to the pairing, and with some sage advice, I had my sights set on a lager as the beer of choice, German preferably. The choice became immediately apparent to me when I considered in the abstract that the purpose of the Siglo I was to commemorate the first hundred years following Columbus’ voyage, and I just so happened to know of a lager lurking in our stock that was brewed to celebrate its brewery’s hundredth anniversary: Ayinger Jahrhundert Bier.
First brewed in 1978 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ayinger, Jahrhundert Bier would find itself classed as a Dortmunder, a lager substyle which is slightly maltier and stronger than your average German lager, whilst still being very soft and well rounded. Of the Jahrhundert in particular however, I felt that its flowery, herbaceous notes and slight touch of spice would support its companions handsomely.
Once more I set off to my favourite bridge, still just over a week away from the return of the Cigarden, this time however I found myself uncharacteristically resolute in my choice of weaponry for the pairing. Now, as I prefaced earlier, great flavour alone does not a good smoking experience make, and my enjoyment of the Siglo I was marred by quality control issues almost immediately. I could easily forgive this if it was a rare exception, but the numerous Cohibas I’ve had over the years have all been fraught with issues regarding extremely lop-sided burns (even when enjoyed as slowly as possible), unravelling, the cigars splitting unexpectedly, or simply being impossibly tough to get a draw from. Which begs my follow-up question: “Is this the precedent that should be set by the world’s leading force in premium cigars?” I think not. Surely the attention to detail and quality that can be paid to BHK’s and Edicion Limitas should also extend to core range and standard offerings? After all, these are the meat and veg of the brand, and the experience that the vast majority of smokers will encounter, would it not behove them to endear the bulk of their loyal following, especially considering the premium they pay for the privilege. On the other hand, and as noted before, there’s simply no denying the sheer brilliance of the Cohiba blend, smooth as silk but also powerful as all hell, and it lets you know it. Woody and creamy, with a heck of a spice following on the finish, in tandem with the Tomatin it created a magnificent waxy mouthfeel, sealing in the flavour like one would when searing a steak, with the herbaceous spicy notes of the Jahrhundert Bier running through the proceedings like mercury, cleansing and corroding all at once.
I’d like to end on as positive a note as possible though, as I have admittedly been critical to the point of heresy throughout this discourse, Cohiba have become the juggernaut that we see today for very good reasons, nobody does it quite like them, but it would be nice if they kept a watchful eye on their quality across the board instead of just on the special releases, keeping the little guy in mind. After all, wasn’t that the point of the revolution in the first place?
Food for thought perhaps.