For its contribution to the 2018 Tobacconists’ Association of America (TAA) Exclusive Series Program, General Cigar Co. released a new cigar for its CAO brand, the CAO Estelí.

While the name may suggest one thing, the blend isn’t quite what you would infer. The cigar uses a wrapper from Nicaragua’s Jalapa region, a binder from Honduras, and fillers from the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua. Like most CAOs, the cigar is produced at the company’s STG Estelí factory.

Also of note, the cigars arrived at retail much earlier than was originally announced. While the company had originally said they would begin shipping on Aug. 15, retailers began posting that they had arrived in mid-May, the first TAA 2018 release of any manufacturer to arrive on shelves.

The cigar is offered in a single 6 x 54 toro vitola, packed in 10-count boxes, with single cigars priced at $8.99. A total of 1,500 boxes are being produced.

  • Cigar Reviewed: CAO Estelí
  • Country of Origin: Nicaragua
  • Factory: STG Estelí
  • Wrapper: Nicaragua (Jalapa)
  • Binder: Honduras
  • Filler: Dominican Republic, Honduras & Nicaragua
  • Length: 6 Inches
  • Ring Gauge: 54
  • Vitola: Toro
  • MSRP: $8.99 (Boxes of 10, $89.90)
  • Release Date: May 2018
  • Number of Cigars Released: 1,500 Boxes of 10 Cigars (15,000 Total Cigars)
  • Number of Cigars Smoked For Review: 3

While I figured the cigar was about 6 inches in length, I could have sworn it was a 60 ring gauge, as it seems bigger than its stated—and verified—54 ring gauge. The wrapper isn’t quite as dark as I thought it was prior to taking it out of its cellophane sleeve, and instead shows a clay redness that also reminds me of fresh beef jerky in spots. The wrapper is dry to the fingers with a bit of very fine grit, and a close inspection reveals just a bit of tooth and even some stray leaf hairs, or glandular trichomes as they are otherwise known. There’s also a decent network of veins, some of which create a slight ridge for the fingers to cross. The roll is clean with occasionally visible seams, while the caps are decent if a bit less than perfectly applied and there is a slight bit of uniform give. The foot is an interesting and complex web of aromas; it has the brightness of floral but is a good bit heavier, with some nuts providing a bit of savory character and pepper adding its own zing and at times a syrupy sweetness tying everything together. The cold draw is near ideal but much more muted in favors; a bit of fresh wheat bread dough stands out and offers a bit of sweetness, while a bit of bark and damp firewood helps ground things. Pepper is minimal at best.

The CAO Estelí opens with a dry, somewhat peppery smoke that seems to tie together the flavors from the cold draw with what the clay red hue of the wrapper might suggest about the soil in which it was grown. Some fragrant wood mixes in well with the other flavors and aromas in the first inch, and while I don’t find it to be overly vibrant or attention-grabbing, there’s nothing off-putting whatsoever. There’s definitely some dry earthiness to be found in the first inch, which works with the pepper to stimulate the front half of the tongue, sides included. After the first clump of ash drops, the flavor unpacks itself a bit more, with a bit more pepper through the nose and what seems to be some evolution of the bark and wood flavors, though it’s in a territory unfamiliar to my senses. The draw and burn have both been quite good through the first third.

Black pepper continues to build as the second third of the CAO Estelí gets underway, which helps nudge the cigar into medium-plus to medium-full territory in grading the initial strength of each puff. The flavor that I couldn’t identify in the first third seems to have become cured meats, which continues to develop through the midpoint, while there seems to be some underlying char building up. There’s also a good bit more pepper building in the profile, though now it has crossed over into the rough and rocky side of the spectrum. While there are points at which the flavor loses some of its vibrancy and runs the risk of fading into the background, it doesn’t get overly harsh or boringly mild. It’s a good bit stronger and more vibrant as the burn line heads into the final third, still with plenty of smoke production, very good draw and even burn line.

The start of the final third shows a significant jump from where the cigar started off, as the flavors are much more vibrant while the overall profile is getting into full-bodied territory but also showing a bit of roughness. I’m hesitant to call it harsh, though certain puffs warrant the description. There’s still a bit of char in the mix, and the closer the burn line gets to the band, the hotter the smoke becomes, leaving a bit of a stinging sensation on the front of the tongue that intensifies through the rest of this portion.


Final Notes

  • General Cigar was one of several companies to release TAA exclusives in 2018, joining Tatuaje, E.P. Carrillo, Gurkha, Kristoff, Colibri, Joya de Nicaragua, Altadis U.S.A., Crowned Heads and CLE Cigar Co.
  • TAA also got a new president this year in Scott Regina.
  • I was a bit surprised to see a water spot trying to hide on the backside of one sample.
  • There is something about the name of this cigar that makes me think it should be made with all Estelí-grown tobacco, as well as made in Estelí. I would find that story much more compelling.
  • It’s been interesting seeing how different companies address the TAA branding for their cigars. Some companies have used the organization’s logo—Tatuaje being the one that is probably most familiar—while others have used printed ribbons or bands with their own design, while the CAO Estelí integrates it into the primary band. While I like the TAA’s logo, I think this design works pretty well.
  • Given that summer has arrived in the Phoenix, Ariz. area, it seemed to be a bit harder to figure out just how much nicotine strength I was getting from the cigar and how much I was feeling the effects of being in the triple-digit heat while smoking it. Thankfully I was in the shade with a swamp cooler blowing on me, but it’s impossible to fully mitigate temperatures in the low 100s.
  • I smoked one sample in the evening, still as my first cigar of the day, and it left me with a bit of a nicotine kick to the system, so I’m inclined to say the final third has a sneaky amount of strength to it.
  • The consistency among the three samples was quite good, and I can’t say any one stood out drastically from the others.
  • General Cigar Co. advertises on halfwheel.
  • The cigars for this review were purchased by halfwheel.
  • Final smoking time was two hours on average.
  • Site sponsor Corona Cigar Co. carries the CAO Estelí.
87 Overall Score

If my biggest complaint about a cigar is that the name doesn't seem to be a perfect fit for the blend or its backstory, that's a pretty good sign. While the CAO Estelí may not have much if any Estelí-grown tobacco in it, the cigar itself is still quite enjoyable. Balance and complexity are maintained for most of the nearly two hours of smoking time, the technical performance was nearly flawless, and even with some strength at the end, it's not a total gut punch. Put me down as impressed by this limited edition addition to an impressive catalog of TAA releases.

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Patrick Lagreid

I strive to capture the essence of a cigar and the people behind them in my work – every cigar you light up is the culmination of the work of countless people and often represents generations of struggle and stories. For me, it’s about so much more than the cigar – it’s about the story behind it, the experience of enjoying the work of artisans and the way that a good cigar can bring people together. In addition to my work with halfwheel, I’m the public address announcer for the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks during spring training, as well as for the Salt River Rafters of the Arizona Fall League, the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and previously the Arizona Rattlers of the Indoor Football League. I also work in a number of roles for Major League Baseball, plus I'm a voice over artist. Prior to joining halfwheel, I covered the Phoenix and national cigar scene for, and was an editor for Cigar Snob magazine.