The art of producing premium long-filler cigars is one of those traditional forms that is just as consumable as it is elegant. This creativity comes in many forms, which in the world of premium cigar types, translates to some truly intriguing experimentation methods.
Here at Klaro Cigars, we prefer to refer to cigars as “combustible art,” which is why we started offering every stogie we smoke and sell in a Klaro Cigars 5-pack. We believe that art is best enjoyed with friends and family, especially when the cigars being puffed have been further enhanced by some quality time in a liquor barrel.
What? You thought we’d let all of the craft beer breweries keep all of the bourbon barrel and rum cask conditioned fun to themselves? Alcohol and cigars have been the pairing of choice for centuries, so it only makes sense that master blenders merge the two together.
May you be a virgin barrel-aged cigar smoker, or an experienced cask-conditioned connoisseur, there is a lot that the cigar smoking public does not know about the collaborative art of aging tobacco in retired barrels of booze. Which is precisely why our nerdy asses decided to dig into the details and offer you the following insights into why barrel-aged cigars rule.
Aging, Fermentation, and Tapping the Right Tobacco
From a finished product standpoint, the complexity of a cigar flavor profile has just as much to do with fermentation and aging as it does with the tobacco seed varieties being rolled. This is especially true for robust tobacco strains, stronger Ligero sun-grown leaves from the top of the plant, and crops intended for Maduro cigar wrapper production.
During the tobacco fermentation process, all of those sugars, oils, resins, and plant nutrients transform into quite the complex concoction when given the appropriate amount of moisture, heat, pressure, and time. So imagine what happens when all of that sticky, resinous goodness gets stuffed inside an old barrel of booze for a few months!
May it be cigar wrapper leaves, the binder, or the premium long-filler itself, any portion of the cigar can benefit from a splash of barrel-aging. As the tobacco leaf’s starches convert into sugars, a certain level of permeability presents itself. There’s a reason why cigar makers are forever mindful of the cleanliness and air quality of the environment in which tobacco is aged and fermented.
If you keep things pristine and smelling pleasant (Spanish cedar anyone?), a specific cigar type fermentation and aging can last anywhere from a few months to years on end. During these stages, certain strong cigar types often receive upwards of a decade of temperature-controlled aging before hitting shelves.
So exactly where does the whole barrel-aged side of the story make its grand entrance? Precisely when the cigar master blender says so.
Typically, a secondary fermentation stage removes much of the remaining impurities from the tobacco, so some consider anything past this to be little more than a marketing ploy. On the other smoke ring, many cigar smokers proclaim that they can pick up on distinct alcohol-oriented tannin notes and that the cigar flavor profile itself is much smoother.
And although aging freshly primed tobacco in barrels straight from the farm is a definite no-no, as it is just too volatile and moisture-rich, anytime past that first curing stage is fair game.
Tobacco Nerd Note: Barrel-aged tobacco may have gotten its start back in Cuba long before any of us were born, but it never really became a major marketing move until the Cohiba brand made it so. During the 1980s, the Cuban arm of the Cohiba name began to heavily market what it called the “third fermentation stage.” A process that revolved around cramming tobacco inside virgin oak barrels for a tannin-rich finishing touch.
The Master Blender Knows Best
But as with any art form, knowing precisely which media will work best, and being skilled enough to know when it is time to call your masterpiece complete requires a lot of knowledge, skill, practice, and having the right materials and media at your disposal.
As a master cigar blender, one must be familiar with every aspect of making a cigar type or forming a specific cigar flavor profile.
That means familiarizing yourself with not only the cigar flavor profile provided by the tobacco seed being cultivated each spring, but it's pest resiliency levels as well. It means inspecting curing barn conditions and implementing fresh dry-aging strategies. And then taking the best post-harvest fermentation techniques, and setting them aside for a particular cigar wrapper leaf or a binder that you plan on barrel-aging. These, and many more tasks are but a few of the skill sets a cigar master blender must become proficient in.
But before a cigar’s nicotine-rich tobacco contents can be rolled into a cigar and aged for another few months (or years), the decision to stuff the leaves into barrels must be put into consideration. Tannin-rich, and brimming with sticky sweet alcohol remnants from yesteryear, barrel-aged tobacco can produce a gloriously aromatic experience when done right.
That’s not to say that all cigar tobacco is meant for barrel-aging, with the vast majority of shade-grown mild cigar variants being one such example. It doesn’t take much for a delicate Claro cigar wrapper to get damaged, and being that the binder and filler that it encapsulates are typically equally mild in flavor, boozy barrel nuances are entirely too overpowering for these tobacco leaves.
That is why the vast majority of the cigar types you see being marketed as being barrel-aged are of the more robust, darker variety. Corojo, Maduro, Oscuro, Colorado, and the English Market Select (EMS) option all deserve a place in a cask.
Tobacco Nerd Note: One of the first (and only) mild cigars to go all-in on the barrel aging process, is the Perdomo 10th Anniversary Champagne Super Toro. Interestingly enough, this bourbon barrel-aged gem was not marketed for its unique fermentation and aging stages until recently, as the barrel-finishing side of the process was considered to be a secret by the Perdomo family.
Life Inside a Barrel Ain’t So Bad
Once the tobacco has gone through its primary or secondary fermentation stages and is still deemed worthy of barrel-aging by the master blender, the leaves are carefully placed inside the barrel for anywhere from a few months to a full year.
With its stifling internal temps, and undeniably humid atmosphere, the fermentation process continues, but in a far more meandering method. The primary fermentation stage(s) have handled the heavy lifting, so now it is time for the tobacco to absorb any nuances that the former barrel of booze has left to offer.
Rotating the barrel so that the tobacco leaves inside have an equal chance at getting some contact time with the walls of the cask is vital. This gives further explanation as to why more fragile tobacco strains do not do so well when exposed to this additional stage of conditioning.
For fans of bourbon, the charred innards of a whiskey barrel offer a plethora of perks, some of which remain highly debated within the tobacco community. It’s no secret that charcoal filters out impurities, so it only makes sense that any lingering toxins within the tobacco leaves would be absorbed by the innards of the barrel.
That being said, some smokers claim that the flavors of the repurposed barrel itself are undetectable in a specific cigar type. Whereas others insist that this alcohol-rich cigar flavor profile is front and center from the moment their torch lighter sets the foot of the cigar ablaze.
Down here at the Klaro Cigars warehouse humidor, we tend to lean toward the opinions of the latter of the two. It is a known fact that olfactory senses trick our taste buds into tasting what we are smelling. So you better believe we are sniffing, chewing, puffing, and loving every barrel-aged cigar we can get our mitts on.
Tobacco Nerd Note: Another barrel-aged favorite around here at Klaro Cigars, is the “Whiskey Row Bourbon Barrel Aged Cigar” from Diesel. First launched in 2018, this cigar type is the collaborative creation between Rabbit Hole Distillery (the official bourbon of the James Beard Foundation), and none other than cigar master blender AJ Fernandez. Bold and intoxicatingly sweet on the nose, it is the Mexican binder of this cigar that sees a few additional months of downtime in Rabbit Hole Cavehill bourbon barrels.
Barrel-aged tobacco is a prime example of what happens when artistic creativity meets artisanal master craftsmanship. A delicious middle ground where old-world productivity and traditional know-how meet modern market demand and collaborative creativity.
While some may argue that barrel-aged tobacco constitutes a flavored cigar, there is no spraying, dipping, or “infusing” going on here. In fact, there is nothing unnatural about this extended aging process whatsoever. Just a bunch of tobacco leaves sitting around inside a wooden container, soaking up whatever nuances the old storage vessel still has to offer.
Is a barrel-aged cigar going to bash your palate in with a super boozy burn that makes you sweat? Unlikely. More like a sweet smack of a high-five to the nose, followed by a flavor that is more cigar than it is alcohol, char, oak barrel, or some combo of the three.
Our suggestion for those who have never tried a barrel-aged cigar, is to select something that appeals to both you and your pocketbook, and then buy a 5-pack of the same smoke. Then, invite a few friends or family members over, and all of you sit down with an adult beverage that you think might pair well with said cigar.
Experiencing a premium barrel-aged cigar is best done in a relaxed environment, preferably one that is filled with the people who matter the most in your life.