Times change, people change, processes change. 25 years ago we listened to music that was made using instruments. Today the tracks are made with computers and “artists” have to Google their own lyrics to see what they said. 35 years ago, skilled hands on the factory floor in Detroit made our cars, now they’re produced from a control room using remote controls and joysticks. Throughout the years, however; some traditions in production remain intact…namely that of premium cigar rolling and blending.
We hung out with Michael Herklots, Executive Director for Retail and Brand Development for Nat Sherman Cigars, at Belle Meade Premium Cigars in Nashville, TN for a special tasting and lesson on how they produce some of their most popular cigars. Breaking down the individual components of the Nat Sherman 1930 cigar, Herklots educated us on the timeless process of blending a balanced, premium cigar while walking us through cigar history one leaf at a time. It was explained that there are two primary ways to blend:
- Writing down what [ingredients] you want in the cigar, trying it and tweaking it.
- Testing and smoking the components individually, smoking them one-by-one and then together in combinations until they work in concert
Armed with 3 bags of Surullos (small, rough “cigars” made completely of one leaf: #1 was the binder, #2 and #3 were the fillers), we identified the body, flavors and strength each leaf on its own. After struggling through a few of them individually, we did our best Cheech and Chong impression by smoking several of them all at once, squeezing the ends together to prevent extra air from entering and tasting how they performed together.
By experiencing each leaf on its own, Herklots explained that this is the only way to truly know what is or isn’t working in a blend. By changing and tweaking the proportions of seco, ligero and volado in the fillers while experimenting with the binders and wrappers, blenders are able to determine which “recipe” is right for each vitola they produce. While the basic elements of the blend can be the same, there may be more or less of a certain type of tobacco in the cigar depending on the length and ring gauge, as those proportions determine the taste.
“Like chicken soup made from scratch, tasting the individual elements isn’t nearly as tasty as the end product that has had a chance to age, letting components marry” said Herklots. It’s this aging/marrying process during blending (from a few weeks to several months) that helps the manufacturer determine if certain ingredients need to be altered for body, balance, aroma, burn and strength before they are put into full production for consumers to enjoy.
There’s something to be said for a cigar manufacturer that is deliberate and intentional with what they are putting into their product. While shortcuts can be taken and corners can be cut to get something to the market, blenders that care about every element they are putting their name on will take their time, do it right and reach back to the traditional processes that have made cigars the artisan craft that we now know it to be. It’s important to know that blending cigars is not just about putting together a list of exotic tobaccos to use, but investing in every leaf and the process to ensure that consumers get the consistent taste and performance that they have come to know from their favorite brands year after year.