One of the most important events on the cigar industry’s calendar takes place every spring when the Tobacconists’ Association of America Ltd. (TAA) has its annual meeting and convention.
Typically, the organization—which is made up of about 80 or so of the country’s most prominent cigar stores—meets at a resort in a Caribbean country. The plan this year was for the event to take place March 22-26 in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Then the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic began spreading and the group was forced to cancel its meeting.
Normally, the retailers and about 40 cigar manufacturers gather for the event for a week of both business and pleasure. There are three key sales parts of the meeting that place during the week. There’s a small trade show where retailers can place orders with the companies, who each set up a table and oftentimes offer aggressive discounts. There’s a separate selling event called the Dream Machine where manufacturers may offer tiered special pricing to the entire group with the retailers encouraged to collectively place bigger orders to hit certain thresholds which can unlock larger discounts or more favorable payment terms.
For consumers, the thing you most likely care about is the TAA Exclusive Series Program. The TAA invites the manufacturers to produce exclusive cigars, oftentimes limited editions, that are sold only to the retail members, with manufacturers pledging a contribution to the organization, typically between 25 cents to $1 per cigar sold.
This year, there were 14 manufacturers who introduced new TAA exclusives:
- AJ Fernandez
- Crowned Heads
- Drew Estate
- E.P. Carrillo
- General Cigar Co.
- La Aurora
- La Flor Dominicana
- La Palina
- My Father
- Nat Sherman International
- Rocky Patel
Sometimes the exclusives can be standalone releases, i.e. unique blends and cigars. Other times, the cigars are a specific size of an existing line that is otherwise not offered. That’s the case for the AJ Fernandez release for 2020, a 6 1/2 x 52 figurado for the company’s Bellas Artes Maduro line.
Bellas Artes was originally introduced in 2016, with its name a reference to Cuba’s national art museum, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de la Habana in Habana Vieja.
In 2018, the company added the Bellas Artes Maduro, which uses a Brazilian mata fina maduro wrapper over a Mexican San Andrés binder and fillers from the company’s farms in Estelí, Nicaragua.
This is the sixth size for the line:
- Bellas Artes Maduro Short Churchill (6 x 48) — 2018 — Regular Production
- Bellas Artes Maduro Robusto (5 1/2 x 52) — 2018 — Regular Production
- Bellas Artes Maduro Toro (6 x 54) — 2018 — Regular Production
- Bellas Artes Maduro Gordo (6 1/2 x 58) — 2018 — Regular Production
- Bellas Artes Maduro Lancero (7 x 40) — 2019 — 2,000 Boxes of 10 Cigars (20,000 Total Cigars)
- Bellas Artes Maduro Figurado (6 1/2 x 52) — 2020 — 1,000 Boxes of 20 Cigars (20,000 Total Cigars)
It is priced at $12 per cigar and began shipping in late March immediately following the conclusion of the 2020 TAA Meeting & Convention, which was done virtually because of the pandemic.
- Cigar Reviewed: Bellas Artes Maduro Figurado
- Country of Origin: Nicaragua
- Factory: Tabacalera AJ Fernandez Cigars de Nicaragua S.A.
- Wrapper: Brazil (Mata Fina)
- Binder: Mexico (San Andrés)
- Filler: Nicaragua
- Length: 6 1/2 Inches
- Ring Gauge: 52
- Vitola: Figurado
- MSRP: $12 (Box of 20, $240)
- Release Date: March 26, 2020
- Number of Cigars Released: 1,000 Boxes of 20 Cigars (20,000 Total Cigars)
- Number of Cigars Smoked For Review: 3
The Bellas Artes Maduro Figurado looks incredibly uniform both as an individual cigar and from cigar to cigar. If you have OCD or really like things symmetrical, this seems like a great choice. The box press looks to be done to a precise standard, and the wrappers on each cigar are a singular shade of very dark, somewhat muted brown. Once the cigar is removed from the cellophane, I get an aroma that is controlled by chocolate with chestnuts, a bit of pepper and some manure. One sample has a saltiness that is more or less the smell of sweat, not exactly the most appetizing of flavors. The foot has a big enough opening to provide some different characteristics from the wrapper. For some reason, it initially reminds me of the aisle at Whole Food I went down earlier this week to see if there was pasta. Other samples are a bit less specific but largely a mixture of chocolate, a grain flavor and some artificial citrus. The cold draws have a lot of chocolate, pear, earthiness, mud and a touch of pepper, sort of like if I burned the tip of my tongue.
As with many perfectos, the first puff is rather tight but there’s enough smoke that hits the palate for me to pick some earthiness with mud, white pepper and creaminess. There’s also a lot of indeterminate and muted flavors that I can’t quite place before they leave my senses. Unfortunately, by the third puff of the Bellas Artes Maduro Figurado that white pepper is now a burning sensation on the back of my throat. I’ve smoked a lot of different cigars over the years, but this is relatively unique—it feels like the back of my mouth is actually burnt. For whatever reason, smoking faster seems to help bring out some less harsh flavors, which is rather counterintuitive to most cigars. It’s dominated by a dry mineral flavor that is neither pleasant nor offensive. Behind that are some almonds and toastiness, but it’s challenging to really talk about much other than the fact the back of my throat is legitimately uncomfortable. Retrohales have a Cracker Jack-like sweetness, some burnt butter and wet leaves. The finish has a bitter version of that mineral flavor and just adds generic dry flavors, though doesn’t actually dry out my mouth. Flavor, body and strength are all full. Construction is fine, but the ash is super flaky and is making a mess.
The good news is things are a lot better in the second third. The bad news is plural. It’s not burning very quickly and so I’ve now spent roughly 45 minutes with my throat feeling like it’s burnt. Second, that burning sensation isn’t really going away. As for the good news, the mineral flavor isn’t as dominant as it was. There’s some earthiness that is now at the same intensity level as the mineral flavor, particularly on the finish. Retrohales have a grainy bourbon, a cinnamon flavor, burnt toast and some minerals. The finish has some dry nuts, lots of minerals, something that reminds me of bad olive oil and more of that generic dry profile. Flavor and body both remain full, but it seems like the Bellas Artes Maduro isn’t as strong in nicotine as it was earlier. Don’t get me wrong, I can still feel the strength in my head, particularly as I surpass two hours of smoking time, but it doesn’t seem like the same dosage. I touch up two samples to help with the smoke production; it probably isn’t absolutely necessary but the smoke production drops off and I can’t seem to bring it back on my own accord.
At some point towards the end of the Bellas Artes Maduro Figurado I realize that my throat no longer feels burnt. It certainly doesn’t feel great, but it’s a lot better than it was. There are also signs of a much different flavor profile: sunflower seeds and grassiness though still some minerals. Unfortunately, those new flavors are neither balanced nor strong enough to reset my taste buds to a point where I forget about the dry mineral flavors. Retrohales have a vanilla rum-like flavor, maybe some almonds, a lot of dry earthiness and black pepper. The finish has some creaminess—something that would have been great in the first—along with more of the sunflower seeds, but at times it just seems like generic dryness. Flavor finishes full while body and strength are more or less full.
- Perhaps your samples taste differently today, but the three cigars showed every indication that these are not ready to be smoked now.
- There are times in which I smoke cigars that have a pepper sensation that causes a lot of irritation in the mouth, this was something completely different. From the opening puff it felt like the back of my mouth had been burnt and it never went away. If I didn’t know any better, the cigar delivers a sensation that reminds me of when my palate is telling me I’ve smoked far too many cigars and it’s time to stop.
- When I woke up the morning after smoking the third sample, my throat still felt sore. In the interest of full disclosure, I hadn’t smoked anything other than one Bellas Artes Maduro Figurado per day over the course of four days and my throat was fine before that started.
- Because of reviewing cigars, I’ve read and continue to read numerous articles about how humans taste things. One of the more interesting things is that there’s a direct correlation between spicy flavors and actual burning your taste buds. As this article points out, menthol delivers the opposite sensation which I imagine is why menthol cigarettes came about.
- While I didn’t need to do much in the way of fixing the burn, the ash was as messy as any cigar I’ve smoked in the last month or so. Instead of forming nice chunks that went into the ashtray, each of the cigars I smoked was very flaky and looked more like it was just crumbling.
- I’ve never done a proper study or asked a scientist this, but my experience suggests this happens a lot more with certain types of stronger cigars. It’s pretty rare for this to happen with anything other than strong cigars.
- Speaking of strength, it never dipped below medium-full but it wasn’t consistently full. The first half-inch was very strong and I began to feel the strength in the second half of the cigar but it didn’t seem like the intensity was the same as the first half.
- Cigars for this review were purchased by halfwheel.
- Final smoking time was just under three hours on average.
I’m not sure if the Bellas Artes Maduro was supposed to be this strong and dry, but it’s not a profile that I’d ever want to smoke. At times it felt like the cigar is strong just for the purposes of being strong and the flavor profile—even in the second third, far and away my favorite part of the cigar—never delivers anything close to figuratively wipe the bad taste out of my mouth. I suspect that just a little bit of time will help to calm things down and provide more flavors, but for about half the cigar it felt like the back of my throat was recovering from chugging the hottest cup of coffee I could imagine. Even if the rest of the cigar was great it would be tough to recommend the experience, but for now, it’s an easy pass.