Boutique cigars… Is there a difference?

Fifteen years is a long time. If we look back to 1996, we would see a world where cell phones were simply telephones, and the “War On Terror” was still a naive five years in the future. Looking through the Summer 1996 issue of Cigar Aficionado, one can see that in the world of cigars, things were also very different. In their review of 83 maduro cigars, the highest score awarded by the judges was a pitiful 88. This serves to illustrate how bad cigars were back then, especially when compared to the number of current cigars that now consistently score in the mid 90s. Some of us were not smoking cigars in 1996 but have heard of the Cigar Boom and its subsequent demise. This poor showing in Cigar Aficionado reflects the state of past cigar quality and a bleak period in the history of the cigar industry. But what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and the cigar industry is now better than ever.

When the Cigar Boom bubble burst, it forced a new paradigm for the cigar industry. No longer driven by huge profits at the expense of quality, the focus now became giving the remaining, more knowledgeable cigar smokers a higher quality product. Additionally, with the advent of the Internet (called the World Wide Web back then), a new, inexpensive vehicle for brand marketing was emerging. This set the stage for a new group of cigar makers with a vision that would transform the landscape of the cigar industry.

Good things come in small packages…

From toilet bowls, to fishing tackle, the Internet has become an invaluable source for, literally, anything we could ever need. It gives us access to all available brands, at all possible prices. And the cost of selling products on the Internet is a small fraction of a comparable B&M (brick and mortar) enterprise. This has given young, ambitious cigars makers the ability to pursue their dreams of producing their own cigar brands. As it happens, many of these young entrepreneurs have unique and artistic visions of how the ultimate cigar should taste, and are willing to work tirelessly to realize their dreams. As a result, new cigars of exceptional quality are being born almost daily, and the Internet has given us access to them all.

KristoffThese limited production, independently owned cigar companies make what is often referred to as “boutique” cigars. Usually upscale, these cigars appeal to aficionados who research their cigar purchases and are looking for new cigar smoking experiences. And that is exactly what boutique cigars offer. These are cigars made in the image of a singular person, with a singular point of view. Like a “one off” dress, or a single malt scotch, each boutique cigar offers a flavor profile that sets it apart from all others. So much so that all good boutique cigars have a character that is reflected in all the cigars within its brand. Unlike a large cigar company with myriad brands under its umbrella, the boutique cigar will have just a handful of vitolas, all under a single brand name. It’s analogous to General Motors and it’s brands verses Lamborghini or Ferrari. In the latter there is a mandate as to how the cars will look and perform, all guided by the desire to make the best quality product without compromise.

TatuajeThe desire to create a great cigar, with a specific flavor profile was the inspiration behind the Tatuaje brand, and is a good case study in boutique cigars. It’s creator, Pete Johnson set out to make cigars that would capture the flavor of his favorite Cuban brands. His collaboration with master blender Jose Don Pepin Garcia would produce a cigar of such great character and strength, that it would change the direction of cigar manufacturing across all brand lines. With unprecedented critical and popular acclaim Tatuaje cigars became an overnight sensation. It’s spicy character and bold strength caused a stir in the cigar making community, and other manufacturers rushed to make their own cigars stronger, with a spicy character in emulation of the Tatuaje brand. Even today, years after its introduction, Tatuaje’s influence can be felt with the ever-increasing strength of new cigar brands. Although Tatuaje has now grown beyond its original boutique roots, Johnson has maintained that same level of quality, even with an expanded product output.

IllusioneToday, great cigars abound, and those of us who started smoking cigars after the Boom are fortunate to have not been subjected to so many terrible cigars. We are reaping the results of lessons learned, and the creative energy that comes with rebuilding. We are all products of our time, and in this post Cigar Boom era, the time is ripe for new creative cigar makers to flourish. Whether it be circumstance or divine intervention, the last half-decade has produced many new boutique cigar brands that are pushing the boundaries of flavor, construction, and strength. And this trend is showing no signs of abatement.


At this point in time, cigar making is going through a renaissance, and the boutique cigar business is the engine of its evolution. Keeping tabs on new brands and following the cigar blenders who create them can lead us to new, exciting cigar smoking experiences and the discovery of new flavor profiles. By being curious and spending just a few minutes online we can find information that will lead us to not only the best cigars currently available, but also the great cigars of the future.

12 thoughts on “Boutique cigars… Is there a difference?

  1. I am 18 and just recently started smoking cigars. In all I’ve only smoked 8 or 9!!! I can definitely say though that I’m interested in how cigars will be in the coming years. It is an interesting time for new cigar smokers as well so thanks for the article!

  2. It blows my mind that people think it’s so difficult to procure CC in the states?
    Anyway, started a few years ago with NC cigars and was initially quite impressed with the CC’s. To be honest, and this is after smoking both for the past few years, I find more and more I prefer the NC’s. One, the CC’s quality control standards are horrible. Very common to get way too tight cigars which require poking with a skewer, irregular burn line, etc. Secondly, even after smoking heavy weights like the Cohba Siglo VI, Partagas SP2, Monte #2, etc I find that the majority of CC are very limited in their taste profile. Much more things going on in a well made Viaje, LP or Illusione.

  3. I just picked up a copy of Cigar Aficionado to review their top 25 ratings for 2010… I’m wondering how long it will take before they publish a magazine entirely of advertising.

  4. Pet peeve… the Internet was NOT called “the world wide web” back then. The internet came first (actually DARPAnet came first), THEN came the web servers and the web overlayed on top of it. The WWW is *not* the Internet, never has been, never will be. It is a way of presenting information that uses the Internet as a transport. The Internet back then was full of gopher servers, FTP servers, remote systems you could telnet into, etc.

    Ok, ranting aside, great article though. Good reflection on the boutique cigars and I agree with many of the earlier posters (I also think CA is overrated, and I also think Cuba has nothing to fear). However, even though Cuba has nothing to fear, many of the non-Cuban brands are getting very very good and I think lifting the embargo would push both to even better heights.

    I do think if the embargo dropped, cuban brands would initially tank in quality until they could ramp up because of the influx in demand, but I also don’t think it would take long to get them back up to snuff either. There are some tremendously good cubans being made these last few years but it’s also wise to not discount Illusione, Alec Bradley, Carlos Torano, Tatuaje etc (and of course Fuente). These guys are blending and perfecting their cigars and releasing great cigars that stand on their own merits.

    From a purely construction standpoint, the cubans could stand to learn some lessons from the non-cuban makers while the non-cuban makers could really benefit from access to the fantastic cuban tobacco. Who wouldn’t want to see what Pete Johnson could do with a trainload of tobacco from Pinar del Rio? And who wouldn’t love to have a box of Trinidads rolled as perfectly as Fuente does with nary a single plugged cigar and consistent razor sharp burns in *every* cigar in the box?

    It’s an interesting time to be a cigar smoker.

  5. @jamestruth: sorry, I don’t understand what you mean in your comment. I *don’t* live in the US.

  6. The only people I ever hear who keep saying that non-Cubans are better than Cubans blah blah blah…Guess what? Always said by people who live in the US!
    News for you people…There really is a whole wide world outside of America…Shocking but true. Hello!

  7. Well-thought, insightful commentary. For those of us who were “burned” by so many brands near the end of the “cigar boom”, the present conditions within the industry are “a breath of fresh air” … or, more precisely, “a breath of smoky air”. Thanks for the encouraging explanation!

  8. Great post. I did not smoke cigars back in the 90’s, so I really can’t argue much about the truth of these statements, but… Lucky me… I love the newer brands and the trend towards exceptional quality in every aspect. There are so many great new brands everywhere you can get lost. As for Cuban cigars, I have an idiosyncratic position: non-cuban cigars are superior. Especially when construction is taken into account. And I have easy access to Cubans because I don’t live in the US. I wish I could have access to the great Dominican, Honduran and especially, Nicaraguan cigars that you have in the US. They cost a lot more than Cubans in Brazil, because the taxes for importers are much higher.

  9. I count certain boutique brands as some of my most favorite smokes. This past year the Tampa Bay area has seen two great new boutique companies take off with another ready to debut in a few weeks.

    I agree that this is an excellent time in the cigar industry and I hope it only gets better!

  10. Very well-written article. I agree totally. Non-Cuban cigar producers have nothing to fear from Cuba when the embargo is lifted. Cigars today are better than ever with more variety and quality — and most importantly value — than ever. Innovation and commitment have defeated poor quality and apathy once again, and always will.

  11. I personally don’t place much stock in Cigar Aficianado anymore. They seem to be more interested in advertising (much of it having nothing to do with cigars)than in keeping cigar enthusiasts informed. That being said, back in 1996, cigars were simply and on the whole, better. Most of them weren’t given lofty reviews, claiming a particular cigar was worth every bit of a $35.00 price tag. It was more honest. The manufacturers tried harder. The tobacco was superior. Now, we have cigar companies more concerned with putting another line on the market than cultivating a better leaf for their existing product.
    Am I the only one who finds it laughable when I read a review stating a cigar tastes “like apricots stewed in a strong barley stock” or something to that effect. Come on, people. It’s a cigar, made completely out of tobacco. Yes, I understand certain terms such as “coffee-like,” “anise,” “peppery,” “nutty,” etc. but in the effort to justify the price tag, some of the descriptions have become quite humorous. Ratings, such as those found in CA, are utterly bogus. A cigar could be made out of crepe paper and given a glowing review if the critic is given a “token” of appreciation. There are some sites that seem to hold more true to reality than others, and this is one (good review, by the way). Another is Cigar Obsession. They do exist, which is a great thing. Nothing is more frustrating than buying a $12.00 cigar due to the high praise it’s been given, only to find it smokes and tastes like it may have been pulled out of a cat’s litter box. I have much greater respect for a site that states “this cigar tastes like a monkey’s armpit and smokes like newspaper on a bonfire,” thereby saving me some cash.
    The 94 ratings and the 5 stars across the board have become far too common. Give us the skinny, give us the truth. With that, much love to you Cigarinspector, and a tip o’ the hat to you Robustojoe for this review.

  12. Great post, thank you for your dedication.

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