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In recent memory, there are few cigar lines that have gained the seemingly near-instant notoriety of the Leaf by Oscar. The cigar went from being a house exclusive for “Island” Jim Robinson’s Leaf & Bean Strip cigar shop in Pittsburgh to being in humidors across the country seemingly within two years, and if I remember the number correctly, it had found its way into approximately 2,000 stores.

While a perfectly good line in its own right, with four blends available in the standard robusto, toro and gordo sizes as well as a limited-release lancero, the cigar quickly became known for one distinguishing trait: being wrapped in a loose tobacco leaf. Its fairly affordable price didn’t hurt its chances either, and the cigar seemed to be everywhere, even earning a place on Cigar Aficionado’s 2018 retailer survey of the hottest brands, checking in tied for 11th with Davidoff.

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Of note though, the Leaf by Oscar was not the first cigar with that name; both Noel Rojas of Guayacan and Esteban Disla of RoMa Craft Tobac had created versions, the Leaf & Bean by Noel and the Leaf by Esteban, respectively, though neither offered the tobacco leaf wrapping.

The Leaf by series added a new chapter this summer when “Island” Jim Robinson enlisted the help of James Brown of Black Label Trading Co. and Fabrica Oveja Negra in Estelí, Nicaragua

For his version, Brown went with a Pennsylvania broadleaf wrapper over an Ecuadorian habano binder and Nicaraguan filler. Fans of the Leaf by Oscar lines should notice means the omission of Honduran tobacco, which made up the binder and filler of each of those four blends. Additionally, Honduran Connecticut and Corojo leaves were used as the wrapper on those lines, while the Sumatra has an Ecuadorian wrapper and the Maduro’s comes from Nicaragua’s Jalapa region.

However, it’s not like Honduran tobacco has been a constant in the Leaf series; the Leaf by Esteban didn’t use Honduran tobacco either, going with an Ecuadorian habano wrapper over a Nicaraguan binder and filler.

The first size in the Leaf by James line is a 6 x 50 toro, one that is common to the other lines as well. It’s priced at $9.95 and is available in both bundles and boxes, with the latter costing a bit more due to the additional materials. It launched at Robinson’s Leaf & Bean Strip retail store in June before being shown off at the 2018 IPCPR Convention & Trade Show and heading to retailers around the country shortly thereafter.

Also of note is that the Leaf by James does not get the loose tobacco leaf as an outer covering; that is something that Robinson reserves exclusively for the Leaf by Oscar line as a signature flourish from Valladares.

  • Cigar Reviewed: Leaf by James
  • Country of Origin: Nicaragua
  • Factory: Fabrica Ovea Negra
  • Wrapper: U.S.A. (Pennsylvania Broadleaf)
  • Binder: Ecuador (Habano)
  • Filler: Nicaragua
  • Length: 6 Inches
  • Ring Gauge: 50
  • Vitola: Toro Grande
  • MSRP: $9.95 (Bundles of 20, $199; Boxes of 20, $209)
  • Release Date: June 8, 2018
  • Number of Cigars Released: Regular Production
  • Number of Cigars Smoked For Review: 3

The Leaf by James is a substantial cigar on the hand, a toro with good weight, a fairly dark wrapper leaf and minimal presentation to distract. The band brings me back to my trip to Oscar Valladares’ factory where the Leaf by Oscar is made, and where nearby the bands are made using the stems of tobacco leaves in an interesting process of stewing and drying before they are ready for printing and usage. The wrapper is a bit rustic looking, with some lighter colors appearing near the veins, some variance in the overall color that shows along the seams, a good bit of tooth and a textured feeling on the fingers that varies between dry and slightly oily. The roll quality is near immaculate on each sample, firm and consistent with no bumps or visual imperfections, and each cap is applied almost flawlessly. The aroma from the foot is surprisingly sweet, delivering a pepper-backed note of dry chocolate brownies, mixed with an occasional dark berry sweetness. The cold draw can skew just a touch loose but is generally spot on, with flavors leaning more towards chocolate syrup and showing almost no pepper.

The first puffs of the Leaf by James are surprisingly rich and not surprisingly peppery, give the track record that Black Label Trading Co. has with its own portfolio. But there is more than just a pepper bomb being set off by my lighter, rather the cigar is earthy, subtly sweet with some chocolate undertones, and a quality black coffee note that comes in just shy of the one-inch mark. Through the nose, the cigar is equally as peppery while also being equally as restrained; I braced myself for something much punchier on the first one, only to be pleasantly surprised that the smoke wouldn’t be singeing the skin of my nostrils in the process. The section closes out with the beginnings of a coffee bean note that has supplanted the black coffee note from earlier. The draw, smoke production and combustion have all been incredibly good.

The second third of the Leaf by James opens up with the coffee note shifting yet again, this time towards espresso and espresso beans, depending on the particular puff. The pepper component has died down a bit, with the espresso flavor providing a slightly acidic note that works the tongue much the same way as the pepper did early, so the net physical effect seems almost negligible. There is a bit of increased earthiness starting to develop, a profile I have generally associated with Black Label’s blends, and while the Leaf by James has been a fairly distinct profile to this point, it is now showing its roots a bit more. It gets ready for its final third with less espresso and more earth, gentle touches of the chocolate sweetness, and a return to the black pepper with which the cigar began, which makes the profile a good bit more gruff on the palate, and almost all of the physical sensation happening between the middle of the tongue and the top of the throat.

In addition to the flavor changes starting the final third of the Leaf by James, the intensity also picks up by way of some dry woods that leap to the front of the tongue. Retrohales are also noticeable stronger here, and the singeing effect I feared earlier is now beginning to occur. While I’m hesitant to call the cigar stronger—though my unwillingness is weakening—it is certainly a much more potent profile with the band off, thanks to tons of pepper now at work, including some red chili pepper through the nose. It’s a level of strength and flavor intensity that I tend to associate with the Black Label portfolio, and something that while I’m not inherently a fan of, works as the closing crescendo of the Leaf by James. The technical performance of each sample was stellar, never needing a relight or touch up and offering an easy draw and plenty of smoke. The one thing that did surprise me was how quickly the cigar burned, progressing through the entire six inches in just over 90 minutes.

Final Notes

  • This is almost certainly a full-stomach cigar, given the strength that it can deliver. I didn’t feel that way after the first cigar, but the second cigar sold me on that recommendation and the third sample confirmed it.
  • This is also the one of the handful of aspects where the Leaf by James varies from sample to sample. The other is the concentration of pepper and earth the defines the final third. For my palate, the cigar was at its best when those were restrained and didn’t push out the bit of sweetness that the blend contains. It’s by no means a sweet cigar, but at its best, it offers enough to balance the strength and really dive into complexity.
  • Several years ago, there was also a Leaf & Bean by Noel, made by Noel Rojas of the Guayacan brand and Tabacalera Aromas de Jalapa factory, and later Tabacalera New Order of the Ages (NOA). While there isn’t much about the cigar available online and it has since been discontinued, Robinson told me that it was a real thing and that he “may bring it back one day.”
  • If there’s one thing I look for in collaborative cigars like this, it’s that it shows touches of both parties as opposed to just one, which I think the Leaf by James does for the most part. It starts off unlike most of the Black Label Trading Co. cigars I’ve had before developing the strength that I associate with the line. There’s no mistaking Brown’s signature being on this cigar, but it also doesn’t feel like something that’s squarely in the company’s portfolio.
  • One of the things I love about the Leaf by Oscar’s tobacco leaf wrapping is that it might very well be the first time many cigar smokers were able to hold a tobacco leaf in their hands.
  • I’ve become a bit of a cigar band geek, in particular, how hard or easy it is to remove them without damaging the cigar. The bands on the Leaf series are made from the ground up stems of tobacco leaves, stewed, spread on wire trays and then left to dry in the sun. I’m inclined to think that they are incredibly porous and as such the glue really saturates them, making it seemingly impossible to remove them cleanly. Fortunately, they all slid off without causing any damage to the wrapper.
  • The oveja negra in Fabrica Oveja Negra means black sheep, which explains the design in the center of the band.
  • I also love the fact that the band is made from cigar leaves, or at least the stems of cigar leaves, which brings the Leaf name to another part of the cigar, while also finding a creative use for the stems and providing jobs for the people who make them. They also make other paper products
  • Final smoking time was one hour and 35 minutes on average.
  • The cigars for this review were purchased by halfwheel.
  • Site sponsors
  •  Cigars.comJR Cigar and Serious Cigars carry the Leaf by James.
91 Overall Score

During the annual IPCPR Convention & Trade Show and in the weeks immediately following, the halfwheel team gets asked countless times which new cigars they found most exciting or intriguing, and I for one am always hesitant to provide an answer until the dust has settled and I've had a chance to try as many of them as I can. The Leaf by James certainly got some attention on the floor, and now that I've had the chance to smoke three of them, I can say that this collaboration ranks near the top of new cigars to hit shelves this summer. It's a much bolder spin on the line, which is to be expected given James Brown's blending track record, and while sometimes it goes a bit overboard in strength and vibrance of flavor, it hits a number of high marks in terms of balance and complexity, with the construction among the best I can recall in recent memory. For fans of full bodied cigars, this is a must-try; just be prepared for a much stronger take on the Leaf name than what you've become accustomed to from the other blenders in the series.

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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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