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Tasting and grading two old brands now updated: Saint Luis Rey Cigars and Hoffman House

Los Angeles, June 27 - Cigar brands come and cigar brands go, but they seemingly never die.

That's the case with both Saint Luis Rey and Hoffman House, two brands with very long histories, but not much currency with today's smokers . . . until recently.

Saint Luis Rey is an old Cuban brand, created by the firm of Zamorra y Guerra in 1938, primarily for the British market. It was hardly a major player anywhere else, but somehow it survives to this day as a minor brand still produced by Habanos.

In the U.S., the brand had essentially no presence for decades after the Cuban trade embargo was instituted, but in 1996, Hollco-Rohr re-introduced it as a Honduran-made brand. That firm was later purchased by what is now Altadis U.S.A., which came out with its own version - also made in Honduras - in 2003. We checked out what is now a popular brand on the U.S. market, along with its siblings, the Saint Luis Rey Serie G.

Hoffman House was a U.S.-made brand that debuted way back in 1861 when Edward Hoffman, a noted Chicago tobacconist, created his own blend. It grew in popularity and reached its zenith after Hoffman sold the brand in 1898 and was a popular cigar into the 1920s.

Veteran Chicago tobacconist Chuck Levi decided to bring back one of the city's historic cigars in 2006 and after plenty of work on the production aspects and a trademark fight, he debuted it in 2008. Given its pedigree, we had to try it right away.

Saint Luis Rey Reserva Especial

The Havana-made Saint Luis Rey was designed for the British market and is known for its full body and strong flavor. When Altadis U.S.A. decided to create a new edition of this brand in 2003, it paid attention to its heritage. The result, made at the Flor de Copan factory in Honduras, is a full-bodied cigar with a rich taste.

The new "SLR" blend features a Nicaraguan-grown wrapper and binder and Nicaraguan, Honduran and Peruvian leaves in the filler blend. It offers a toasty aroma along with a full body that's very present in the mouth, but not overwhelming.

The primary taste element is of dark caramel, with a note of spice on the finish, but the depth of the sweetness of this cigar hits you right away. The intensity of the caramelized flavor recedes at midway and is nicely balanced against the spiced elements for an interesting and engaging taste. Very well made, the burn is even and steady and the balance of caramel and spice continues through to the finish.

The most staggering aspect of this cigar is not its quality, but its price! At retail prices of $3.00 to $3.75 each, Saint Luis Rey is an outstanding value and for those who enjoy fuller-bodied cigars, could be an excellent after-lunch or afternoon cigar. It's offered in boxes of 25 for all but the two small-cigar sizes and the tubed Coronas, offered in 20s.

Overall grade: A: Exceptional.

Altadis U.S.A. recognized the desire of many smokers for large-ring cigars and so the Saint Luis Rey Serie G - for giant - was introduced in 2006. Of the five shapes, the smallest ring gauge is 54 and the largest - the No. 6 - is a fat Toro at six inches and 60 ring.

The Serie G line was initially introduced as an all-maduro brand, featuring a Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper and binder along with Honduran and Nicaraguan filler leaves. The blend is decidedly full-bodied, with a spicy aroma.

The taste is marked by a sweet, caramelized flavor that's no surprise to veteran maduro smokers, with a short finish. However, the Serie G maduros are never overpowering, offering a sweet and light taste and just a drop of spice on the tongue throughout the first half. This calm and demure approach can be a surprise when you're enjoying a 60-ring cigar, but this blend stays consistent.

There's a little more spice at the end, but the overall impression is relaxing and mellow; perhaps a little more depth of flavor could have been expected. This is a well-made cigar and given its girth, is reasonably priced at $5.00-7.50 each in boxes of 25.

Overall grade: A-: Excellent.

Saint Luis Rey Serie G - Natural wrapper

The Serie G line with natural wrappers appeared in 2007 following up on the success of the maduro-wrapped line that debuted a year earlier. This blend has a Nicaraguan-grown wrapper and binder with Honduran and Nicaraguan-grown leaves in the filler. It's also full-bodied, but never aggressive, with a spicy aroma.

The flavor showcases elements of caramel and cream; it's not sharp and sweet like many blends, but has a creamy finish which can be quite seductive. For such large cigars, the blend is extremely smooth, with a medium finish and no spice at all.

Far from being boring, the taste is relaxing, with no bite at all and enough flavor to keep you entertained. There's a note of spice near the end, telling you that this cigar is done. At prices of $5.00 to $7.50 before local tobacco and sales taxes, this is an accessible cigar and the range includes the Short Robusto, at 4 1/4 inches long and 54 ring, just the thing for a cigar as you return to the office from lunch. All sizes are offered in boxes of 25.

Overall grade: A: Exceptional.

Chuck Levi's years-long effort to revive the once-famous Hoffman House brand has resulted in a quality cigar made by Altadis U.S.A. in its Tabacalera de Garcia factory in La Romana, Dominican Republic.

It's medium in body and features an Ecuadorian sun-grown wrapper. It's well made and burns well, presenting a slightly spicy aroma. The flavor is tangy and sweet with a caramelized note, complimented by a spiced element on the finish.

Hoffman House is a rich blend, with lots of flavor and the more spice in the second half that's nicely balanced. In reviving this brand, Levi prized its history above all else and if you let your mind wander just a little, you can very easily picture this cigar in the hands of some 1890s gentlemen, discussing over a brandy whether the country would be better off with Republican William McKinley or Democrat William Jennings Bryan.

This travel tool to the past is reasonably priced at $6.75-7.95 each (before local taxes), with all four sizes offered in boxes of 20 with William-Adolphe Bouguereau's racy 1873 painting "Nymphs and Satyr" reproduced on the inside lid of the box.

Overall grade: A-: Excellent.

Both the Saint Luis Rey and Hoffman House blends help cement the tie between cigars and history. It is one of the important aspects of cigars which differentiate them from all other forms of tobacco and which, in the current anti-smoking environment, mark them for special handling, even by those who oppose all forms of personal pleasure.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Tasting and grading two old brands now updated: Saint Luis Rey Cigars and Hoffman House