In my most recent review, I mentioned that I don’t think there’s a company that uses its own history and legacy for naming its cigars as much as La Aurora. Similarly, I’m not sure there’s a company that leans on history at large for the names of its cigars quite like Foundation Cigar Co. Perhaps my favorite part of Foundation’s use of history is how wide of a range the company draws inspiration from, both geographically and time-wise. Its inspirations have included the biblical story of David and Goliath to Connecticut’s agricultural history to a British castle made famous in the television show “Downton Abbey.” More recently, a new release has honored the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, while this cigar, Olmec, pays tribute to the earliest known Mesoamerican civilization.

The Olmecs lived in what is now known as Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico from 1600-400 BCE. That area includes the San Andrés Valley, where Mexican San Andrés tobacco is grown. The tobacco from that area is not a modern invention, as the San Andrés negro varietal is believed to be one of the oldest tobacco seeds in the world, though historians have found evidence of humans using tobacco in what is now Utah during a time period believed to be prior to 10,000 BCE, meaning the Olmecs are substantially closer to the present than they were to the discovery of tobacco by humans.

As for the cigar, Foundation is releasing the Olmec line in two different versions, both of which use a Mexican San Andrés negro wrapper, though the wrappers do not look the same. The Claro uses a lighter wrapper while the Maduro uses a darker wrapper. This is a bit of a throwback to how cigars lines used to be sold, particularly because the diversity of tobaccos used today oftentimes means that the different offerings within a line will use wrappers from different countries and/or seed varietals, not just a different color grade. Underneath the wrapper choice are a Nicaraguan binder and Nicaraguan fillers from Estelí and Jalapa, which are aged for at least three years before rolling.

Regardless of wrapper selection, Olmec is offered in the same five sizes at the same prices:

  • Olmec Corona Gorda (5 1/2 x 48) — $12.50 (Box of 12, $150)
  • Olmec Robusto (5 x 50) — $13.50 (Box of 12, $162)
  • Olmec Toro (6 x 52) — $14.50 (Box of 12, $174)
  • Olmec Grande (6 x 60) — $15.50 (Box of 12, $186)
  • Olmec Double Corona (7 x 52) — $16 (Box of 12, $192)

The line is made at Tabacalera AJ Fernandez Cigars de Nicaragua S.A. in Estelí.

  • Cigar Reviewed: Olmec Claro Robusto
  • Country of Origin: Nicaragua
  • Factory: Tabacalera AJ Fernandez Cigars de Nicaragua S.A.
  • Wrapper: Mexico (San Andrés)
  • Binder: Nicaragua
  • Filler: Nicaragua (Estelí & Jalapa)
  • Length: 5 Inches
  • Ring Gauge: 50
  • Vitola: Robusto
  • MSRP: $13.50 (Box of 12, $162)
  • Release Date: September 2022
  • Number of Cigars Released: Regular Production
  • Number of Cigars Smoked For Review: 3

The Olmec Claro Robusto’s wrapper immediately stands out to me thanks to its dark brown color and the great red hues that accent the brown. It’s very consistent color-wise with some mild veins that are well hidden. The shape is a rather aggressive box-press and the cigar feels rather dense when squeezed, though outside of the firm center there’s some give to it. Aroma-wise, I struggle to pick up much beyond a trio of pretty common traits: acidity, earthiness and barnyard. Smelling the foot reveals a much more intense aroma with a soft cedar that reminds me a bit of wood cleaning products along with something that smells like mud after a large storm. Cold draws are decidedly different with french fry flavors over sweet cedar, black pepper, walnuts and creamy chocolate, a combination that reminds me I haven’t had any hot cocoa yet this winter. It’s around medium-full in intensity.

Lots of different aggressive earthy flavors emerge during the first puff, then there’s black pepper—particularly on the center of the tongue—and some muted cocoa flavors. While there’s some reshuffling, that’s the general tone of the profile for most of the first third: a spicy earthiness and red pepper lead oak and some buttermilk creaminess. The profile itself is thick, though the body isn’t as thick. The finish has lots of earthiness and generic wood flavors over charred pepper and cacao. However, while neither are the most intense flavors, red and white pepper sort of sit at the front of the profile, which means they accent everything on the finish. The earthiness has pepper, the woody flavors are accented by pepper and the cacao note tastes spicier than just cacao. Retrohales are brighter, allowing the red pepper to add some dimensions and gain intensity, outpacing a more mulch-like earthiness, cacao and toastiness. Retrohales finish quite similarly, though I think the pepper and earthy get even stronger, drowning out the cacao and whatever else might be present. Flavor is full, body is medium-full and strength is medium-plus. Construction is excellent.

At times, the pepper really reduces its commanding presence over the profile, and on some puffs, it seems like maybe the overall intensity—not the lead over the second strongest flavor—is cut in half. But then there are other puffs where the pepper mixture is back and as vibrant as ever. I am pretty sure that regardless of where the pepper is, the earthiness gets a lot chewier, joined by campfire flavors and some artificial creaminess. When that becomes less clear are the times when the pepper isn’t reduced and instead dominates the profile. The finish is a similar story: there’s either a lot of pepper that can drown most other flavors out or there’s more of a sharp earthiness that’s joined by some spices and toastiness. On some puffs, I get a distinct—but mild—French baguette flavor during the transition between when the smoke is in my mouth and when it’s left. Retrohales are much more consistent with nuttiness and red pepper leading a poultry-like meatiness and some pink lemonade. There are a lot of places where I feel like there’s probably more going on than what I’m able to detect—largely due to the red pepper—and the retrohales during the second third are certainly one of those times. They finish with red pepper dominating a spice mixture, oak, a tzatziki-like creaminess, cedar and something that reminds me of the smell of bird seed. Flavor is full, body is medium-full and strength is medium-full. Construction issues emerge on two cigars, one of which has a cracked cap that I saw develop during the first third, though it didn’t immediately cause issues. It seems the friction between my lips and the cigar has dislodged more of the cap and it’s getting worse, producing an open draw and a need for a touch-up. Another cigar needs touch-ups to help with smoke production while the third cigar continues to be flawless in terms of construction.

While the red pepper might have been inconsistent during the second third, during the final third, there are now very few puffs when it leads the dance. The profile gets sweeter, though the leading flavors aren’t all that sweet. Earthiness and campfire flavors sit atop a french fry flavor, fresh mud and a greatly reduced pepper sensation. While the burning sensation of the pepper can still be consistently felt, I can’t find the pepper-like flavors on every puff. The finish answers the question as to where the sweetness comes from, as the Olmec Claro Robusto develops a mild honey flavor that emerges on the sides of my tongue about 15 seconds after the smoke leaves my mouth. Other flavors include hard pretzels and a generic earthiness. Red pepper and orange combine during the retrohale, reminding me a bit of some Americanized Chinese food versions of Szechuan food dishes, though I don’t know what the food in Sichuan actually tastes like, so perhaps it’s like the real version too. During the finish, my nostrils can feel a bit like I might have consumed ground black pepper in my nostrils, though there’s also some generic earthy and wood flavors. At this point I’m not sure if my taste buds are a bit worn out or whether the cigar itself has calmed down, I’m guessing it’s a combination of both but the end result is that the cigar is not as lively as before, especially on the retrohale. Flavor is full but not as aggressive as before, body is medium-full and strength is medium-plus. One cigar makes it to the end without any construction issues, another sample needs a couple of touch-ups during the final third to help with smoke production, and the sample with the cracking issues gets worse and worse to the point where I stop smoking it a bit prematurely, though I’m able to get it to the final third.

Final Notes

  • I absolutely love the idea of releasing this line in both Claro and Maduro versions while using the same seed varietal to illustrate that Mexican San Andrés is not just one thing. That said, I think I would have added some identification on the bands themselves to help tell the difference in case a consumer wasn’t sure.
  • Nicholas Melillo, Foundation’s owner, did an interview with Small Batch Cigar—a California-based retailer—that goes in-depth about Mexican San Andrés tobacco.
  • For those wondering, I have not smoked the Maduro version.
  • This is going to be an interesting cigar to age. What happens if the pepper doesn’t reduce but other flavors become more noticeable? What happens if the pepper reduces dramatically and the end result isn’t as good? What does this cigar taste like without a dominating red pepper? These are all questions I have and all questions I plan on answering during a redux review at a later date.
  • When I first started smoking cigars and learning about the concept of aging cigars, I was naïve and thought the goal was to get the cigars to be more balanced over time. I also thought that the most likely outcome for a cigar like this was that the pepper would reduce during aging. Over time, I’ve learned a number of things that contradict these theories. First, neither I nor many others publicly do aging experiments where they track their many experiences over time, which means the guidance people have is from a very limited sample size heavily influenced by selective remembering. Second, many times the pepper doesn’t reduce, sometimes, it actually gets stronger. Third, the goal is to produce the best end result, which isn’t the most balanced cigar.
  • After writing the tasting notes, I looked up which factory was making this cigar and was not surprised to learn that it’s AJ Fernandez. This profile, with the aggressiveness of the pepper, is something that I find in a lot of AJ Fernandez-made cigars. I think the blending of the aggressiveness has gotten a lot better over time.
  • That said, I’m curious what it’s like being a client of the factory because the aggressiveness is a signature and there’s not a cigar that AJ Fernandez makes that I can think of—outside of some Connecticut shade-wrapped blends—where that aggressiveness isn’t on display. The lack of diversity in the blending style could be great—Padrón is a company with a very singular profile that it does very well—but it would seem to be a limiting factor for a client wanting to make different styles of blends. Fortunately for Nicholas Melillo, Foundation works with other factories.
  • I found it tough to judge the body of this cigar, particularly because I think it’s a bit thinner than my initial impressions of the heavy doses of pepper would imply. The texture of the smoke itself is certainly not all that thick and the way the flavors get to my taste buds is not consistent with the types of aggressive flavors that it delivers.
  • I’m not sure what to make of the damage to the second cigar. The cracked cap could have been caused by the cutter, though I think it’s likely due to issues with the wrapper and a lack of cellophane. I say this because the cigars do not come in cellophane and one of the cigars I intended to smoke had cracks on its cap that were visible before I even cut it. As soon as I pulled it out of the tray from a humidor, I could see the cap was cracked.
  • There is also the possibility that I damaged it, but it’s rare for me to see cracked cigars in the review and I don’t have issues with cracking caps all that much, though it has been a greater issue of late. I’ve switched cigar cutters temporarily to see if that fixes things, though I’m skeptical it’s because the Fox 749 Cutter is to blame. I’ve switched from a 749 I’ve been using for the last 18 months to a more-or-less brand new 749 cutter—it was maybe used a dozen times before last week—to see if that fixes the problem.
  • Cigars for this review were purchased by halfwheel. After we purchased the cigars for this review, Foundation Cigar Co. sent halfwheel some samples of the Olmec but those were not used for this review.
  • Final smoking time averaged one hour and 45 minutes.
  • Site sponsors Atlantic Cigar Co., Cigar Hustler, Corona Cigar Co. and JR Cigar carry the Olmec Claro Robusto. Site sponsor Famous Smoke Shop does not list the Robusto, but does list the Gordo size.
90 Overall Score

The Olmec Claro Robusto is not balanced, nor will this be a cigar for everyone, but it’s a great example that you don’t need a cigar to be balanced—I’d argue very few cigars are truly balanced—in order for it to be enjoyable. Sometimes, you walk up to the ice cream sundae bar and decide you’d rather consume more chocolate syrup than ice cream, and that can be okay, so long as you weren’t all that interested in the ice cream. In this case, there’s neither chocolate nor ice cream to be had, but there is a lot of red pepper. While not particularly balanced, I found the Olmec Claro Robusto to be an enjoyable cigar because of how in command and vibrant the red pepper was for most of the cigar. If I'm going to smoke a cigar oftentimes led by a red pepper flavor, I appreciate the sesnation being nuanced like this. Fortunately, the secondary flavors—at least the ones I could detect—were rather good enough that the overall package kept me interested from start to finish. Much like I wrote when reviewing the New World Dorado Toro a couple of months ago, I suspect this will produce rather polarizing reactions from people; when you take this path, it’s going to be a love it or hate it reaction.

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Charlie Minato

I am an editor and co-founder of Media, LLC. I previously co-founded and published TheCigarFeed, one of the two predecessors of halfwheel. I handle the editing of our written content, the majority of the technical aspects of the site and work with the rest of our staff on content management, business development and more. I’ve lived in most corners of the country and now entering my second stint in Dallas, Texas. I enjoy boxing, headphones, the Le Mans 24-hour, wearing sweatshirts year-round and gyros. echte liebe.