La Palina Excellentes (1920s)

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If you’ve been in a humidor or read pretty much any cigar publication in recent years, you’re undoubtedly familiar with La Palina, the brand owned by Bill Paley.

If you’re familiar with La Palina beyond by name, you might very well know that this current incarnation of La Palina is the second go-round for the company, with its history dating back to 1896 and Sam Paley, an immigrant from the Ukraine who began working in a cigar factory in Chicago, first as a lector and then as a roller and blender. After several years and with a burgeoning interest in cigars, Paley opened a cigar shop and factory in 1896, the Congress Cigar Co. The first and most prominent cigar to come out of that factory was La Palina, a cigar made with Cuban filler and American wrapper.

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In 1910 the company moved to Philadelphia, with Sam’s son William S. Paley joining the operation. But the younger Paley was more intrigued with radio than cigars, and eventually purchased five radio stations that would become the foundation of the Columbia Broadcasting System, or what we know today as CBS. After Sam retired in 1926, Congress Cigar Co. was liquidated and La Palina appeared to be left to the annals of history.

Yet besides the current incarnation of La Palina, there are some artifacts from its former life. Occasionally one will come across a sign or other piece of advertising from La Palina, and then there are times when one has the fortune of coming across the cigar itself.

Several years ago, Brooks Whittington purchased a La Palina Excellentes dating back to the 1920s, though specifics beyond that weren’t available. Having the chance to pick this rarity up, he jumped on it, for what he thinks was about $40.

La Palina Excellentes (1920s) 1

  • Cigar Reviewed: La Palina Excellentes (1920s)
  • Country of Origin: U.S.A.
  • Factory: Congress Cigar Co.
  • Wrapper: U.S.A.
  • Binder: Cuba
  • Filler: Cuba
  • Length: 4 7/8 Inches
  • Ring Gauge: 50
  • Vitola: Perfecto
  • Est. Price: $40
  • Release Date: 1920s
  • Number of Cigars Released: n/a
  • Number of Cigars Smoked For Review: 1

As evidenced by the band sliding easily on and off the cigar, this La Palina appears to have shrunk a bit since its production some 90 years ago. It’s incredibly firm and dense, though it doesn’t feel particularly heavy in the hand, and while its historic beauty is apparent, its construction leaves a bit to be desired when compared to modern cigars. There are a couple of prominent veins that show the tug-and-pull of wrapper leaves, while another vein is tucked under the foot and creates a small ridge of the otherwise decent looking figurado. I’m by no means surprised that there’s hardly any oil on the wrapper and now shows a matte claro color. There’s hardly any prelight aroma to speak of, save for a touch of caramel and butterscotch, but thankfully the cold draw has more to offer by way of peanuts and white toast. The cold draw is on the open side, which is a bit surprising given the incredibly small opening on the foot; small enough that you could easily confuse which end is which once you take the band off.

The first puffs of the La Palina are loaded with what I found on the cold draw: peanuts and white toast, along with very dry wood flavors and a decent bit of pepper that isn’t prominent at first encounter, but hangs around in the background to provide a bit of a tingle on retrohales. The draw is a bit loose but nothing to complain about. Not long after being lit, the cigar develops a bit of a crack on its backside, something that doesn’t appear to be problematic immediately but will be monitored closely. The ash does a very good job of holding on through the first inch, while smoke production is adequate, and makes me wish I could block out the breeze that carries it away so quickly. With retrohales occurring on nearly every puff, the pepper becomes the most intriguing part of both the flavor and aroma in large part because I’m amazed there is so much of it and it is so bright and clean on the senses. A bit of a cereal note comes in during the final puffs of the first third, delivering a note of unsweetened Corn Flakes, while the ash has held on the the split in the wrapper doesn’t appear to be an issue at all.

La Palina Excellentes (1920s) 2

Moving into the second third of the La Palina, pepper is still front and center while the draw remains beautiful and smoke production becomes even more abundant. The ash finally comes crashing down near the midpoint ,an impressive showing from this nonagenarian. Flavor-wise there hasn’t been much of an evolution other than the flavors becoming a bit more intense through this third; peanut and toast are still very prevalent, and the drying effect from the wood and a bit of soil is very noticeable. The flavor continues to get more intense with each puff, and the pepper shows no signs of wanting to give things a rest. Technical performance is also very impressive, with the draw squarely on point and plenty of smoke production, this cigar isn’t shy in showing off how well it was made.

La Palina Excellentes (1920s) 3

With the next clump of ash breaking off at nearly an inch in length, the final third gets the green light to commence, and it packs the fullest flavor to date, easily able to compete with many cigars you’d find on a store shelf. Pepper continues to lead the way, but the wood is becoming much more prominent and pushes the peanut and toast flavors nearly out of the equation entirely. I get an occasional whiff of orange marmalade sweetness, but it’s fleeting at best and worth only a quick mention. The heat further intensifies the flavors, getting them sharp in a high-proof spirit kind of way, but with a slower and more spaced out draw they remain perfectly manageable. A bit of subtle caramel comes along in the final puffs to add some appreciated sweetness to the flavor, with a bit of warm peanut butter following as the La Palina burns down to as small of a nub as I can get it, showing flavors down to the very final puff.

La Palina Excellentes (1920s) 4

Final Notes

  • There really is no way to adequately prep yourself to smoke a cigar like this, or any cigar that has significant provenance or age. I believe the best bet is simply to clear both mind and palate as best as possible, remove all distractions, and enjoy it. As it’s been said before, cigars are made to be smoked, not looked at.
  • I would love to know what the people involved with the production of this cigar would have to say if they found out it made it 90 years and to me.
  • While I hate a cigar band that is glued down too tightly, I’m also not a fan of having to leave a loose one on while smoking. The only reason I did so was for the photos, otherwise I would have taken it off prior to lighting.
  • If this exact cigar were available today, I’d have no issue picking some up to smoke.
  • While a minor thing, I’m also impressed by how much shine the band still has.
  • Smoking this cigar had me thinking back to Brooks Whittington’s review of a 1920 Lords of England, and in particular a line about how cigars of this age can taste like pretty much anything, including an old lady.
  • Also in that review, Brooks mentions that he figured that each puff was about a year’s worth of age on the cigar. I should have been counting them, but that feels about an approximate estimate.
  • Hopefully you noted this in the introduction, but the thought of a cigar factory in Chicago is a bit mind-blowing in these days.
  • As you might recall from my coverage of the Festival del Habanos XVII, I have a bit of a soft spot for cigar factory lectors.
  • Final smoking time was one hour and 10 minutes.
  • The cigars for this review were purchased by halfwheel.
  • Site sponsor Cigar.com has the La Palina Excellentes (circa 1926) available in its Luxury Collection.
97 Overall Score

Pretty much any cigar is a gamble as to what it will deliver when its lit up, but the stakes seem so much higher with a cigar such as this La Palina Excellentes. Fortunately, it didn’t just deliver, it did it in spades, packing as much flavor and strength as you would expect from a cigar plucked off your local retailer’s shelf. In fact, and as evidenced by the score, it delivers quite a bit more than what you’d be able to find from your local shop. While I highly doubt that this will go down as the best cigar I’ve ever smoked, it certainly will be one of the most memorable and one that I will look back on fondly whenever I see its band.

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Patrick Lagreid
About the author

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.

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