After 51 years of smoking cigars, Joel Herskowitz knows what makes a good cigar and says they don’t always come from Cuba.
“Basically, what you’re looking for is consistency,” says Herskowitz, chief operating officer and principal in Lee & Associates’ office on Madison Avenue in New York City. “You want a cigar that lights well, lights evenly, burns evenly, draws evenly and the ash burns evenly.”
“The taste doesn’t diminish but gets better from the first inch of the cigar to the last inch of the cigar,” he said. “These are all very, very important things. And it all has to do with tobacco, the aging of the tobacco leaf, the wrapper and construction of the cigar.”
A 2016 nationwide government survey estimated that more than 12 million men, 7.9 percent of the adult male population, smoke cigars. But Herskowitz is in a particularly discerning and passionate subset who cigar makers and top-ranked sellers qualify as “aficionados.”
The first 15 years of his career was on Wall Street, he said, in the days when traders would smoke “six or seven a day.”
“You could smoke anywhere in public and it didn’t matter,” he said. “Now, the ability to smoke multiple cigars is virtually gone unless you do nothing but sit at home and smoke cigars.”
Herskowitz is a founding member of Club Macanudo on East 63rdStreet. The club offers private humidors, dining space and one of the finest and most extensive cigar selections in New York City.
But wherever Herskowitz lights up, his favorite is the Padron Anniversario, which is consistently top-rated. He discovered the Nicaraguan-made product in 1994, the first year it was produced. Before that, he said his clear choice was the Montecruz. But after Dunhill moved production from the Canary Islands, he said, “It wasn’t the same cigar. The Padron is equally as good, if not better.”
The cigar world has affirmed Herskowitz’s early, high opinion, pronouncing the Anniversario a landmark for Padron and installing the Anniversario in the pantheon of elite cigars that perennially earn the highest ratings. Anniversarios are sold for about $20 each.
“Since then I’ve smoked at least one a day. That’s more than 10,000 Padron Anniversarios. Jorge Padron knows me and is very appreciative of my patronage,” Herskowitz says.
As ever, he said, there are premier factories in Cuba that are producing superior cigars. But quality tobacco is being produced elsewhere, too.
“Nicaragua has become a real leader in tobacco. Dominican Republic is a big leader in tobacco. Honduras is another big leader. The wrappers grown in Connecticut called ‘Connecticut shade’ are some of the most famous in the world,” he said.
He said the best cigars he’s ever smoked were on his first trip to London in 1974 and a memorable visit to the Dunhill store. “Really great Cuban cigars,” he said.
“The best climate and soil for tobacco is in Cuba. There are plenty of great Cuban cigars today but there are also a lot of counterfeit ones. There also are plenty of cheap Cuban cigars sold on Mexican beaches to American tourists for like $8 a cigar. Come on.”
“It gets me when I read reviews that include descriptions like nutty, chestnut, coffee, berries, chocolate, honey, balanced finish. I get all that stuff. And there’s a great deal that goes into creating and producing a premium cigar, but I also think you can get too technical. I also can do without the pretentiousness.”
“I light ’em. I smoke ’em. And occasionally, for the sake of conversation, I can light any decently constructed cigar and burn it from one end to the other without the ash falling.”