Cigar Hunter: Experimenting with the BlendLab

Editor’s note: Congrats to Leo from Folsom, California. He won the most recent Cigar Hunter prize giveaway: a 10-cigar travel humidor from Corona Cigar Co. and six of Corona’s 10th Anniversary Double Phatty Habano cigars. Watch for more giveaways in 2013: Make sure you’re 18 years old and registered here to win!

One of my earliest childhood memories involves tagging along while my mother chaperoned my older sister’s Girl Scout troop, as they visited a pizza joint and learned to make their own pies. Who knew you could get behind the counter, swirl your own sauce and choose your own toppings?

I was hooked on the idea, and actually mused on becoming a chef. For a year or so, anyway, until my baby teeth fell out.

Fast-forward 35 years or so, and the guys at Cigars International have given stogie lovers the closest thing available online to a roll-your-own experience. They call it the BlendLab.

A handful of cigar manufacturers offer Central American tours, and a few of those give ordinary consumers the chance to blend their own cigars in small quantities.

As you might imagine, the range of possibilities is practically endless: It’s like commissioning your own cologne from a custome perfume blender. The result could fall anywhere on the spectrum from sweet to disgusting.

And you typically have to wait weeks or even months to find out: Freshly rolled cigars are generally too wet to smoke for awhile, no matter how much you might be tempted.

CI’s solution is a selection of 64 small-batch blends that aren’t available anywhere else. The goal, the company says, is to “taste blends that will never be released to the public, usually due to rare or small allotments of tobaccos from a particularly good crop year or type, too small such that it could never support an ongoing production cigar.”

A few of these, according to the online marketing materials, will eventually be released to the public in larger quantities if customers rate them highly.

Sound fun? I thought so. So I asked CI’s Jorge Barillas to send me a sample of the BlendLab offerings, and he obliged in December with 10 different cigars for me to taste. (The cigars were free, but Cigars International hasn’t provided any other consideration for this review.)

It was, as Jorge warned me, a “roll in the catnip” for a cigar lover like me. Once again, I’m hooked on the do-it-yourself aspect of this idea.

As I tasted the cigars he chose for me, I imagined myself in a factory blending room, trying combinations of flavors that I had never experienced before. Of the ten, I absolutely hated three; I found three more less than memorable; and the remaining three four were stellar — absolute diamonds in the rough.

The cigars range in price from $4.00 to $8.50. You can literally buy them one at a time and taste them all if you want to.

In general, I’m a big fan of small cigar shops and turned off by the mass commercialism that has nudged many online merchants toward the Wal-Mart-ization of tobacco. But this is different.

Show me any small neighborhood retailer who could pull this off, and I’ll show you a niche-marketer who will probably lose his shirt in unclaimed inventory.

It really takes a big operation to offer this experience — one that doesn’t mind the financial losses involved with blazing trails. The BlendLab operation started in CI’s Bethlehem, Penn. store a few years ago, and my hat’s off to Jorge and his colleagues for finally bringing it to the Internet. You shoud try a few of these cigars.


Here’s what I tasted, including the stock numbers — which you can find on the BlendLab website – and some tasting notes:

The good:

WC-554 (Nicaragua)
5″ x 54, African Cameroon wrapper
Mild-medium strength, $5.50

The best of the bunch. A remarkably consistent, nutty Cameroon with a small burst of pepper at the beginning and a few Cognac notes in the final third. Definitely on the mild side of medium, with copious billowy smoke. Perfect for a cold day with morning cocoa or coffee. One of the best half-dozen cigars I’ve ever smoked for less than $6.00.

XJ-4554 (Nicaragua)
4.5″ x 54
Wrapper: Costa Rican Habano wrapper
Medium strength, $5.00

Beautiful construction, perfect blend of sweetness and a mild cedary aftertaste on the back of the palate. The primary characteristic is a creaminess that maintains from end to end. A short smoke but a delight. Slow, even burn that reminded me of a Cain Nub. The opening scent when you toast the foot is almost floral, without a hint of saltiness. This is what Don Tuto and other Costa Rican rollers wish they could produce with consistency.

YP-5754 (Nicaragua)
5.75″ x 54 (Salomon figurado), Pennsylvania Broadleaf Maduro wrapper
Medium strength, $7.00

Cocoa, cocoa and more cocoa from this dense, hefty cigar. Pennsylvania broadleaf is not a typical wrapper, and CI has formed it into a Salomon shape, which tends to regulate what would otherwise be a bit too much smoke. This is a woodsy, earthy cigar in the final third, but the opening cocoa note never goes away. If you know how to “retro-hale” through your nose, this is a great cigar to try it with. 

ZK-660 (Nicaragua)
6″ x 60, Brazilian Arapiraca Maduro wrapper
Full strength, $8.50

On the top end of the BlendLab price range, but in this case you get what you pay for. A meaty, full-bodied smoke without the salty front-end that can accompany ligero-heavy smokes. Flavors include a distinct peat-moss note in the beginning that gives way to roasted coffee and finally a burnt-earth taste that reminded me of the La Flor Dominicana Colorado Oscuro No. 5. If the ring size were a bit smaller, this would be a near-perfect maduro.

The bad:

XD-752 (Nicaragua)
7″ x 52, Seco Jalapa wrapper
Medium strength, $6.50

Loose construction with a copious draw that made the smoke hard to manage. Too many flavors competing for my attention, which indicates a failure in the blending process. In trying to be all thing sto all people, this cigar ends up being a big nothing.

YH-456 (Nicaragua)
4″ x 56, Habano Ecuador Ligero wrapper
Full strength, $6.50

An intense experience, not unlike the Cu-Avana Punisher. If you like that sort of abuse, this is a great choice. Definitely not an everyday smoke, even for fans of Fifty Shades of Grey-style sadism. It’s possible to make an overpowering smoke without subjecting the palate to a constant salty aftertaste, but this one missed the mark.

RT-654 (Dominican Republic)
6″ x 54, Connecticut Ecuador wrapper
Medium strength, $5.00

The most one-dimensional smoke of the 10 I tried. The draw was tight, so much so that I had to open it up with a steel spike before I could smoke it an inch down. At the three-inch mark the wrapper started to unravel, and one side burned far faster than the other. The cigar I smoked “canoed” significantly in the first third, suggesting that the binder leaf had shifted after it was rolled.

The “meh”:

ZV-654 (Nicaragua)
6″ x 54, Nicaragua Pueblo Nuevo wrapper
Medium-full strength, $6.00

There’s nothing remarkable about this cigar. Nicaragua’s Pueblo Nuevo region is known for its dark earth and its maduro leaves. Why anyone would bring a lighter-hued wrapper out of this part of the country is beyond me. Sort of like making a skateboard in Detroit. 

SD-5555 (Nicaragua)
5.5″ x 55, Cuban-seed Nicaraguan Corojo Viso wrapper
Full strength, $7.00

If you like spicy cigars, this would be a good addition to your rotation at the $5.00 price-point. But for $7.00 you can get a far better smoke either online or at retail. I considered crushing this out after the first two inches, but stuck with it. I’m left to wonder if it would mellow out into something pleasant after a year in my humidor, but at this price I won’t try again and find out.

XX-5552 (Nicaragua)
5.5″ x 52, Viso Habano Ecuador wrapper
Full strength, $7.00

This cigar’s wrapper practically disintegrated as I rolled it around in my fingers to loosen what felt like an overly tight construction. I expected a heavier flavor profile, but I had to slice off the first inch just to light it after the wrapper fell apart, so I may have sacrificed some of the spicy front end. What I had left was a medium-bodied smoke with an offensive “bite” that turned me off.

Despite a few bad experiences, this exercise was a huge winner overall. Why? Imagine what it’s like sitting in a blending room at a cigar factory — or on a stool in a test kitchen. You have to kiss a lot of frogs, the saying goes, before you find a prince.

I’ll definitely buy more of the four winners I found in the BlendLab. They’ll be smokes none of my friends have tried, and nothing at all like what you can buy by the factory-sealed box. For cigar aficionados in search of an unusual, authentic experience, this is pure magic.

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