The typical smoker of aged and vintage cigars is one who appreciates the value of time and the delicacy in the works of art that a manufacturer can create. Such smoker is an educated passionado thanks, in part, to the experimentation s/he conducts over the years with the aging of different cigars . Not every cigar lover becomes a vintage cigar passionado, but for many this is a natural process of maturing in their cigar smoker career as described in Nino Inzerillo‘s book Sigari? Si, grazie!.
This article compiles opinions and information by some of the world’s leading experts on the topic of cigar aging.
The cigar ages
According to Luigi Ferri , whose considerations are based on over 30 years of experience in the tasting of cigars of various ages, generally speaking we can divide the life of a cigar into three ages:
- Youth (fresh cigar) – from 0 to 3-4 years
The “sick period” is typically included in this stage and it is one that needs a lot of attention because cigars should not be smoked during this time. “Immediately after rolling” explains Min Ron Nee “a cigar undergoes a sick period, during which the ammonia [sic] smell is still detectable in a newly manufactured cigar.” This is due to the fact that tobacco leaves are moistened before rolling and this accelerates a further fermentation producing a lot of ammonia. How long it takes to get rid of the ammonia scent depends on the fermentation rate, the chemical constituents, the cigar size, the packaging and how we store cigars. Per MRN, “For the majority of cigars handled in the usual way, the ammonia smell will be over 90% gone in a few months, 95% to 99% gone by the end of the first year, and practically all gone by the end of the second year. Milder cigars…take even less time.”
Fresh cigars are the majority of the cigars we find on the retailers shelves. Didier Hoevenaghel (agricultural engineer, technical expert, master blender as well as cigar manufacturer and author of the highly respected book The Cigar from Soil to Soul) defines the Market Standard Age (MSA) of cigars as being “1-3 years (from their rolling) depending on the distribution, retail shop and rotation of the brand.”
- Seniority (aged cigar) – from 5-6 years to 15-20 years
This, according to Luigi Ferri, is the best period of maturation. Zino Davidoff (in his The Connoisseur’s Book of the Cigar) wrote “you have to have a particularly keen sense of smell and eyesight to notice aging effects. But that does not mean that the cigar no longer lives, it’s just that this process becomes more discreet, almost unnoticeable”.
MRN defines two initial stages of maturation, and it gets more complicated. Also, bear in mind that stages may overlap:
- first maturation, when cigars continue to produce incrementally pleasant flavors as a consequence of continuous fermentation. MRN writes “the slower the fermentation, the more time the chemical constituents have to mingle with each other, the more complex the flavors that are generated. As fermentation slows down, less pleasant flavors are lost through evaporation, chemical reactions, self-degradation, etc. This stage may span from 2-3 years for mild cigars stored in non airtight boxes to 10-15 for strong cigars in cabinets.
- second maturation – when tannic acids further decompose and this interacts with the improved flavors originating from continous fermentation. This maturation corresponds to the peak for pleasant flavors and might take more than 15 years, depending on the level of tannins and woodiness.
MRN also refers to a “first vacuum period“, when “some cigars may lack adequate pleasant flavors…during first maturation…are unfairly judged…but when these cigars reach the second maturity…they have a kind of class and elegance which ordinary cigars can never match”. According to the MRN, Sancho Panza are the best example of this type of cigars.
Some cigars do not present sufficient wood and tannic substances to generate pleasant flavors even in the second maturation stage, they might need 20-25 years to develop finesse, what MRN calls the “second vacuum period“. These cigars may be branded with poor aging potential because of this. El Rey del Mundo are, according to MRN, the best example.
- Old age (vintage cigar) – Over 20 years of aging
Zino Davidoff writes “Naturally, what is possible in Cuba, with a humid climate made for tobacco, is not always possible in Europe or North America. By the time cigars have reached these places, they may have suffered from the trip. You cannot keep a cigar there for 25 years, even if it’s a good vintage given the best of care.”
According to Luigi Ferri, at this stage, most cigars lose the best organoleptic characteristics. The typical life-span of a cigar has a course almost like a parabola with downward concavity, uphill to the top, until it reaches and maintains the maximum for a number of years and then decays, sometimes very quickly:
Ferri wrote “If cigars are poorly preserved, the decay is faster and makes the cigar anonymous, flat, with little strength and an aroma of dusty earth.” Also, very importantly, “no low quality cigar can become good with aging!” He adds that a lot of research is still required on the “old age” stage.
MRN admits there is no knowledge relating to this stage, which corresponds approximately to his definition of third maturation. However, he states that cigars produced in the 1950’s seem to still require time before their bouquets would peak. “Finesse, akin to that of greatly aged Bordeaux or Burgundy wine, is what begins to appear after 20 years. The chemical reactions behind this kind of aging might be similar to the mysterious ‘wine in a bottle’ maturing process.” The aromas are extremely complicated. Ethereal is the nearest word MRN applies for these cigars. “Smelling a 50 year old Don Candido against a 20 year old you would instantly realise that this great bouquet is about 4 times stronger and no words can describe how great these bouquets smell, because of the paucity of the primitive human vocabulary”.
This stage is the one that created most debate among experts, most of them believing, as Luigi Ferri illustrated, that cigars at this stage have already shown their best qualities. Some even believe that the power of suggestion may lead vintage cigars to be over-prized simply for their antiquity.
Aging potential factors
Luigi Ferri lists the factors that contribute to the aging potential of a cigar:
- The process and duration of tobacco processing (curing, fermentation, aging, etc.) must be optimal
- Tobacco should not be too aged prior to rolling the cigar.
Didier Hoevenaghel explains further “The aging is better in leaves (in piles and in bales) than in the cigars themselves. But, as aging of leaves is more dynamic and difficult to control than the cigar aging, this process should be limited in time. Even the strongest leaves should not be maintained too much time before being rolled.”
- Cigars have different aging potential according to the composition of their leaves; those with more ligero have more potential for aging
- Cigars should be kept sealed in their original boxes, so they do not have to endure too many micro-fermentations. Like in wine, oxygen deteriorates some of the delicate flavors of cigars. This is why cigars packaged in varnished cabinets or airtight jars age much better overtime.
- The storage temperature and humidity must be lower than the one for daily consumption cigars: temperature should be at 16-18°C and relative humidity at about 65% for aging vs. about 19-21°C and about 70% of relative humidity for daily use.
The tasting transformation
In terms of the organoleptic characteristics developed by chemical and physical changes during the refinement in the airtight storage:
- Hints of ammonia disappear after 1-2 years. Ammonia scent is definitely an off-flavor, different from bitter or dry/tannic palate perceptions, which are more connected to personal preferences.
- Cigars gradually loose moisture and combustion improves.
- Cigars gradually present less harsh bitter and tannic/dry palate perceptions. Tannin is thought to be responsible for the ‘dry’ mouthfeel found in young cigars. The tannic/dry palate perception is not necessarily a bad one; it depends on personal preference.
- Sweet woodiness (wood sugars) appears when, as time goes by, with tannins breaking down, wood sugars recover from the loss of sweetness originating from fermentation.
- Tasting is more homogeneous, with minor changes across the three thirds.
- Leaves marry together and the cigar becomes less spicy, less acid and more balanced with more delicate aromas.
- Aromas change slowly, as Luigi Ferri describes:
- Aromas of herbs, vegetables and berries decrease.
- At the same time there is a relative increase of certain aromas: first earth, cocoa or coffee beans, spices (black pepper, cumin), leather and animals, dried fruits (walnut and almond).
- After many years other aromas may increase : wood, spices (green pepper, white pepper, clove), ethereal (balsamic, salty taste, glaze, butter, vanilla, baking-powder, honey) and sometimes flint.
- Flavors tend to mingle with each other.
The aging of new world cigars
Per Giuseppe Elefante (renowned Catador, lover of and expert in Cuban cigars, former member of the board at CCA, the widest Italian national cigar club association) it is still difficult to make a proper evaluation for New World cigars (also referred to as non-Cuban), as it’s hard to find cigars more than 20 years old from these terroirs. However, it might be possible to observe aging processes similar to those known for Cuban cigars. It would be necessary to assess what the correct temperature and humidity values need to be to achieve an optimal refinement over time. Such values may change due to the different varieties of tobacco blended by the various producers, resulting in a different aging potential within each line.
This year, the Fuente Fuente Opus X cigars celebrate their 20th anniversary. Greg Mottola and team at Cigar Aficionado tasted some of the 20 year old cigars, stored in the Cigar Aficionado office humidor. They reported the following organoleptic notes: “earth, spice and leather have turned into cinnamon, cedar and flowers. In all of the Double Corona’s nearly eight inches, hints of earth, coffee bean and nutmeg came and went, but the cigar is nuanced and mature, perhaps with nothing to prove anymore after 20 years of maturation. It burned cool and slow and really showed the softer side of an OpusX. The Robusto was a bit stronger. Unlike the Double Corona, some of its stronger barnyard and leather qualities were still perceptible underneath the floral and tea-like elements.”
We definitely look forward to learning more on the aging potential of New World cigars.
We also hope you found this article interesting, and perhaps inspired your own desire to explore the world of aged cigars in case you haven’t done so yet. If you have your own experiences in storing and maturing cigars over long periods of time, we would love to hear about them! Feel free to share in comments.
– Zino DAVIDOFF, The Connoisseur’s Book of the Cigar, 1967, Second English translation of 1984, McGraw-Hill Book Company
– Giuseppe ELEFANTE, La Teoria dell’Invecchiamento Secondo Min Ron Nee, 2011, Sigari! (Cigar Club Association, Italy) issue 7/2001
– Luigi FERRI, Tasting of Cigars – Fresh, Aged and Vintage, 2015, also referred to by Nick Hammond in the article It Just Takes Time, Cigar Journal issue 3/2015
– Didier HOEVENAGHEL, The Cigar Ages, Facebook article of 13 Sep 2011
– Didier HOEVENAGHEL, The Cigar from Soil to Soul, 2008, Editions du Myosotis
– Greg MOTTOLA, Smoking a 20 Year Old Opus X, Cigar Aficionado 8 Oct 2015
– Min Ron NEE, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Post-Revolution Havana Cigars, 2003, SZ Druck, honorary consultant Adriano MARTINEZ RIUS
Featured image: Romeo y Julieta Brevas 1943 – Cigar Club Association, Italy
This article was re-published on Cigar Journal in three parts:
The Stages of Cigar Aging – From Fresh to Vintage
What Happens to Tobacco during the Aging Process?
What are the Influencing Factors of the Aging Potential of a Cigar?