When it comes to cigars In the Netherlands, one of the most prominent names is van Horssen.

It was the van Horssen brothers, Ilja and Sasja, who co-founded Longfiller Company and became the premier cigar importer in the country, building a roster that would include Arturo Fuente, Ashton, La Flor Dominicana, My Father Cigars, Oliva. Padrón, Tatuaje and many more.

This cigar is named for Ilja van Horssen, who passed away on July 14, 2006 at the age of 36. He was the co-founder of Longfiller Company and owner of the Cuesta-Rey and de Graaff cigar shops in The Hague, Netherlands. It was Ilja’s brother, Sasja, who came up with the idea to release a cigar every December in honor of his brother.

The line debuted in December 2007, with this being the eighth release:

  • Ilja I — OpusX A — December 2007
  • Ilja II — OpusX Double Robusto — December 2008
  • Ilja III — Oliva Serie V Maduro Torpedo — December 2009
  • Ilja IV — Padrón 1926 80th Anniversary Maduro — December 2010
  • Ilja V — OpusX Shark — December 2011
  • Ilja VI — Drew Estate Liga Privada A — December 2012
  • Ilja VII — OpusX Angel Share Toro — December 2013
  • Ilja VIII — My Father CIgars Unnamed Blend A — December 2014

None of the cigars in the Ilja series are for sale in the traditional sense; instead the company invites 36 randomly selected people who “really enjoy smoking” according to van Horssen, to one of two shops: Van Dalen Cigars in Rotterdam or the Studio Tobac Cigar Lounge in Den Bosch. Whatever the customer ends up paying goes to charity.

“The reason we do it the way we do it is simple,” van Horssen said. “We want our brother to be remembered by others than us for what he was for them: a person with great passion for handmade cigars who brought a great amount of fantastic smokes into our country and onto the lips of many cigar enthusiasts.”

Ilja VIII Box 1

Ilja VIII Box 2

Ilja VIII Box 3

Whatever the cost of the cigars is gets donated to charity. Of the 36 boxes, one is always reserved for Ilja’s children, one goes to his parents and one goes to Sasja. “I am the only out of the three that always smokes the box,” he said.

This year’s cigar is a blend created by Jaime García of My Father Cigars, S.A. and rolled by him and his father, José “Don Pepín” García according to van Horssen.

Ilja VIII 1

  • Cigar Reviewed: Ilja VIII
  • Country of Origin: Nicaragua
  • Factory: My Father Cigars S.A.
  • Wrapper: n/a
  • Binder: n/a
  • Filler: n/a
  • Size: 9 1/4 Inches
  • Ring Gauge: 48
  • Vitola: Gran Corona
  • MSRP: $14.02 (Boxes of 13, $182.26)
  • Release Date: Dec. 2014
  • Number of Cigars Released: 36 Boxes of 13 Cigars (418 Total Cigars)
  • Number of Cigars Smoked for Review: 2

The gran corona vitola is an impressive specimen to see in person and the Ilja VIII is no exception. Checking in at 9 1/4 inches in length, there are few readily available cigars that compare to it, so its unfamiliarity is certainly part of its appeal. For me, the longer length evokes a completely different—and much more positive—reaction than seeing a cigar with a much higher than average ring gauge, as I see it as the blender having more palate to work with as opposed to being able to stuff more tobacco in a certain amount of space. The Ilja VIII is firm to the touch with no soft spots and an almost perfectly straight line from head to foot. The veins on the wrapper and slightly visible seam lines create a network of paths to follow with your eyes if you so choose, while the leaf itself is a gorgeous shade of brown, slightly darker than medium and with some texture, tooth and a bit of sheen to it. The cap may just be the best part of the cigar’s construction, beautifully applied and about as perfectly round and even as I can recall seeing. The aroma off the foot makes me think of dry pretzels at first though there is more character to it, and indeed further inspection reveals a bit of a floral quality. The cold draw is easy with no overt resistance, just enough to keep it from feeling too loose while delivering a solid flavor of wheat bread.

There are a few things that strike me about the Ilja VIII in the first puffs: the first is that it’s not overly peppery and in fact very smooth and creamy with a subtle nuttiness and hints of nutmeg, and at times even a faint cocoa powder. The second is how unique the air flow feels given the cigar’s length; it’s neither tight nor loose, but I can almost feel the extra distance that the air must travel, which creates its own unique sensation. Third is the smoke production; it’s plentiful but quickly dissipates and makes it tough to capture an accurate picture of just how much is being produced, and that’s without a breeze with which to contend. Pepper doesn’t become much of a factor until I retrohale, and even then it is restrained and fairly easy to manage. While there isn’t much on the first taste of each puffs, I seem to be getting just a bit lingering in the aftertaste, making for a delayed and subtly finish. The burn line stays sharp and even with no burn issues whatsoever, and the ash holds on for just about two inches before detaching when I pick the cigar up from the ashtray. While the pepper hasn’t made its way to the palate yet, it’s becoming more prevalent in retrohales and in the Ilja VIII’s ambient aroma. With the first clump of ash gone, the smoke production picks up a fair amount, this time sticking around just a bit longer but still vanishing fairly quickly. The smoke has slightly nudged up in body and has a bit of apricot coming in, while pepper starts to also become more of a factor in the flavor. Another clump of ash breaks off at about an inch long and seems to signal that the next third is on the way.

Ilja VIII 2

While there isn’t much change in the core flavors, the sweetness has shifted to a sugar cane note, almost as if I was enjoying one that had been put in a cold drink or sold at a roadside stand. It’s about as close as I can recall to that pure of a note in some time, and is absolutely phenomenal. There’s a touch of banana also coming into the equation, and the Ilja VIII has me anticipating each puff quite eagerly; thankfully the aroma keeps me closely locked in as there isn’t any ambient breeze to hurry it away. While the overall flavor profile in the first half has its fair share of gravity, I’m also impressed by how light and nuanced it can be, something that seems to be slowly shifting at the midway point as pepper becomes more prevalent and the cigar offers a touch more strength. Sadly it’s at the expense of the sweetness, which leaves the equation shortly after the burn line crosses the midway point, replaced by a more robust flavor that has a good amount of pepper while new support notes of wood, earth and leather come along. Retrohales are also much more peppery than they had been earlier, and it’s clear that the Ilja VIII could very well end up like smoking two fairly different cigars.

Ilja VIII 3

By the time the Ilja VIII is down to about the size of a robusto, it has taken a turn towards a much more robust cigar, giving the palate and nose a tour through heartier and more pepper-filled notes before showing signs of yet another turn. In many ways, this feels as if I am smoking a completely different cigar from what I was smoking in the first third, almost as if two cigars were fused together near the midpoint but with a seamless transition between them. While the two halves are incredibly different, it’s hard to look back and pick an exact spot where the transition occurred, something that shows just how skilled both the blender and buncher created this cigar. As part of the flavor progression, there are a few touches of sourness that come in briefly during the final third, more of a brief rough patch on a cross-country journey than a major fault with the cigar. It quickly corrects itself and gets the Ilja VIII back on track to an earthy and peppery finish.

Ilja VIII 4

Final Notes

  • The boxes cost €150 a piece this year; the MSRP above uses the exchange rate on Dec. 30, 2014.
  • Ilja van Horssen was born Feb. 24, 1970 and passed away on July 14, 2006.
  • We have reviewed a number of ‘A’ vitolas on halfwheel, including the La Sirena A, La Flor Dominicana Double Ligero Oscuro Natural ALa Flor Dominicana Double Ligero A Oscuro Natural Collector’s Edition, Viaje Roman Candle,
  • However, just because a cigar is called a Gran Corona doesn’t mean it is, as is the case with the Arturo Fuente Don Arturo AniverXario Gran Corona.
  • My Father Cigars also makes an ‘A’ vitola in the Don Pepin Garcia Original, also known as the Blue Label.
  • There’s a video of Sasja van Horssen presenting the Ilja VI here.
  • CigarWeekly.com did this interview with Ilja van Horssen.
  • This is not the first time that a cigar has been described as being bunched by Jaime García and rolled by Pepín, the original My Father Limited Edition 2010 was described that way.
  • The band on this cigar has been used as a footband on other releases, as you can see here in the picture of the OpusX Angel’s Share from 2013.
  • My Father Cigars did not respond to an e-mailed inquiry about this cigar.
  • Final smoking time was just over three hours and 40 minutes on average.
  • The cigars for this review were provided by Sasja van Horssen of Longfiller Company.
92 Overall Score

If someone is going to make a cigar that is over nine inches long, it had better make use of every inch in crafting a flavor journey, and that is exactly what the Ilja VIII does. While nearly four hours is a long time to smoke a cigar, and the Ilja VIII isn't the most practical cigar to fire up, this stick does everything it can to keep your attention with every puff.

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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 the Arizona Rattlers of the Indoor Football League. I also work in a number of roles for MLB.com, plus I'm a voice over artist. I previously covered the Phoenix and national cigar scene for Examiner.com, and was an editor for Cigar Snob magazine.