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Illusione 888 Claro

17 Mar

Blender: Don Gioliti/ Arsenio Ramos
Maker: Fabrica de Tabacos Raices Cubanas
Filler: Nicaraguan
Binder: Nicaraguan
Wrapper: Nicaraguan Candela
Flavors:  Wood, vanila, cocoa, sweet
Draw/Volume/Strength: -1 / -1 / 2
Rating: 9.2

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and we’re surrounded by clichés: green plastic top hats, novelty green beer mug-shaped glasses, vulgar green T-shirts, shamrock shakes, and the greatest atrocity of them all… green beer. St. Patrick’s Day began as a religious observance commemorating the man who brought Christianity to Ireland, and it has deteriorated into an over-commercialized farce, an excuse to drink excessively, and a chance to make a mockery of Irish culture.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with excessive drinking. In fact I do it all the time. But I do take exception to the bastardization of iconic Irish symbols for the sake of commercialization. And I also take exception to the kinds of stupidity commonly seen around this holiday, and people taking leave of their good senses. Seriously, green beer?

Photo of Illusione 888 Claro

Illusione 888 Claro (6¾x48)

But I’m not one to swim upstream. Even in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has become a sort of national celebration of the culture of the Emerald Isle. So drink up, and and put on a stupid hat, but instead of ordering a green beer, call for a Guinness or a dram of Jameson, and reach for green cigar. And in this case, the green is no novelty.

So what makes a cigar green? Good question, but to answer it, we should first answer the question, what makes it brown? Tobacco leaves obviously start out green and only turn brown in the curing barn. A typical curing time for natural brown tobacco leaves is 30 to 45 days at temperatures never exceeding about 90 degrees, followed by additional months of fermentation. Candela leaves are cured at much higher temperatures, up to 165 degrees, for only a few days. The resulting leaves are bone-dry and brittle, but after a few days of rehumidification, the leaves can be boxed for refrigerated storage. They never undergo an additional fermentation.

The fast turn-around from field to cigar made candelas a good choice during World War II, when cigar production ramped up to satisfy the demand of the countless ranks of GIs going overseas. After the war, candelas remained a favorite in the US for a generation. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the green things began to fall out of favor, replaced by darker, more oily wrappers. Since then they’ve all but been abandoned by most cigar smokers, many of whom are full of misconceptions of what a candela cigar is.

So what is a candela? First of all, it’s a mild cigar tobacco, usually used for wrappers. They’re smooth and light in flavor, typically with a semi-sweet palate, not at all bitter or under-cured like some people expect. Some tasters will identify a “grassy” or “barnyard” taste to candela wrappers, but it’s my opinion that this is 100% mental. They’re green, so people think they should taste like grass or leaves. I generally don’t find this to be the case. I’ve smoked Cuban Hoyos that tasted like grass or hay (I mean really tasted like grass), but they don’t taste anything like this. Plus, I’ve spent a lot of time mowing lawns, and there’s no way I would smoke a cigar that reminded me of yard work. And of course the filler blend has as much to do with the flavor of a cigar as the wrapper, depending on the vitola. So I guess the point is, you can’t make too many assumptions. It’s better to just smoke it.

One of the finest candela cigars available is the Illusione Claro (FYI, candela and claro are sometimes used to mean the same thing, although from a technical standpoint, they aren’t). I chose the 888 (6¾x48), the beefiest of the candelas offered by Illusione (there’s also a Robusto and a Lancero). The cigar is a Nicaraguan puro like all Illusione cigars, and features tobaccos from the Jalapa and Esteli regions.

The cigar is supple and yielding to the touch, and the wrapper is buttery smooth, and finished in a triple cap. Candela leaf is notoriously delicate, so use care when selecting your individual cigar, and look closely for damaged wrappers. They should be handled as little as possible to avoid cracks and splits.

The initial flavors are sweet and woody, with layers of vanilla and a hint of tangy cocoa. The draw is a hair on the tight side of open (-1) from a cap cut, producing a modest smoke volume (-1) of mild strength (2).

One is tempted to compare the flavors to the other Illusione blends, to gauge the contributions of the candela wrapper, but that’s a slippery slope. I’ve never smoked an Illusione that I didn’t love (and I’ve smoked a great many of them), but I’ve never sat down do perform a critical review of any of the others, so I’ll reserve comparisons for future reviews, and simply let this one stand on its own. I will say that the woody, buttery flavors of Jalapa show through from the filler blend, but there’s a caramelized sweetness and tangy depth to this smoke that adds an interesting richness and texture.

The flavors are remarkably stable, continuing with the initial palate, growing gradually richer and darker throughout the length of the smoke, but refusing to turn until the uttermost end. The cigar smokes cool and slow, and the inch-long ash is white and nicely scaled with well-formed cones. It finishes at an inch and a half nub in about 85 minutes.

I rate this cigar 9.2. It’s supremely delicious, and quite well made. It’s a little sweet for every day, but it’s got enough depth and complexity to go into any cigar lover’s regular rotation. And it’s a perfect pair with a light Irish whiskey.

So this year for St. Patrick’s Day, skip the green beer, and go with a green cigar instead. Your dignity will thank you… and so will your taste buds!

Until next time, this is the Cigar Sasquatch saying, “Love what you smoke, and smoke what you love.”

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