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Pete Johnson of Tatuaje and Havana Cellars has never been shy about creating limited production releases and exclusives for retailers, whether it be the well-known Monster Series, the regional Tatuaje Verocu No. 1 Lado Occidental and Verocu No. 2 Zona del Este, as well as a number of cigars made just for individual retailers.

But there has always been one line that was seemingly unavailable for retail exclusives: the Tatuaje Black Label.

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Formally known as the Private Reserve, the line debuted in 2007 with a backstory that should be pretty familiar to fans of the line, but for those who do not know it:

On a recent trip to a famous island known for historic cigar making, I spent my time in a small town enjoying the simple life. Every day was peaceful and every night was festive, with both having cigars involved throughout. My favorite cigar was not a cigar bought at the local store or factory, but a cigar that was handed to me every morning.
Mornings, after taking a shower with a bucket of water warmed with what looked like a curling iron, I would walk to the front of the house and sit on the fence to get some sun and take in the fresh air. I also took in the fact that I was miles from home and no one knew where I was. My phone didn’t work and I had no cares in the world other than trying to decide what to smoke.
My first morning on the island an older gentleman came along on his bike. This was not a motorcycle but something like an old Schwinn that he had likely been riding for decades. This gentleman was well dressed, almost dapper, and I probably appeared to him to be a strange character. My usual outfit of jeans, t-shirt, loads of silver jewelry, and an arm full of tattoos didn’t seem to faze him. He saw I was enjoying myself so that morning, and every morning after that, he would stop and give me a cigar from his shirt pocket.
This cigar was far from being a ‘pretty’ cigar but that did not bother me a bit. It was a treasured and unexpected gift that I was thrilled to be given. After smoking this cigar I realized that this was one of the best cigars I smoked on the island. Later that day in speaking with my host on this trip I came to understand that these cigars were something special to every person who carried them. They were cigars that they made for themselves. Even the guys who worked hard in the cigar factories all day would return home at night and make their private cigars. Simple cigars with flavors they personally enjoyed. Over the course of the next few days my host and I visited his friends and asked for cigars that they made. Before I left I had cigars from a few locals who all used different tobaccos from the different growing regions. They were all great but there was one that really stood out for me as special.
I decided when traveling to Nicaragua to work with the Garcia family that I would try to recreate this special cigar for myself. Together we spent quite some time working on the blend and looking at different leaves for wrapper. The marbled toothy wrapper was perfect for this cigar, rustic looking but with tons of aroma. After smoking the first sample, I was immediately brought back to that island relaxing on a fence, enjoying life, smoking a great cigar. A great cigar that will always in my mind represent the place, the time, and the experience of the purity of the simple life. This cigar may be considered ugly by some but inside that surface roughness it contains such rich flavor and aroma.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. This is a tribute to that cigar.

Beyond that, however, it has been a consistently well-regarded cigar. Since that first Black Label Corona Gorda, which has become a holy grail of sorts for collectors, there are now 18 releases in the Black Label line, the most recent of which is a 7 x 48 Churchill released for Ambassador Fine Cigars in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Tatuaje Black Label Collections

1The original Tatuaje Black Label Robusto featured a closed-foot and nipple cap. The cigar was packaged in a three-pack sampler containing only the Robusto. Subsequent releases were packaged in a three-pack sampler featuring a round head and traditional open foot.
2There were only two shipments of the Tatuaje Black Label CRA Toro, but five samplers. Many cigar manufacturers, including Tatuaje, have shipped the CRA fewer batches than have been samplers.
3There was no exact number of Black Label Tubos released, it was estimated at around 46,000 cigars.
4The Tobacco Grove release of the Petite Lancero featured a closed foot, the regular production version featured an open foot.
5The following cigars have been released as part of the samplers given to the members of Saints and Sinners. They use the Black Label blend.

The store and the brand have a long history together, as Ambassador Fine Cigar’s owner, Vartan Seferian, was the first retailer in the state to bring in Tatuaje, as well as one of the first in the country. He proudly tells of hosting a Tatuaje dinner on the sidewalk in front of his store and his humidors are always full of seemingly every Tatuaje release he can obtain. In mid-November, Ambassador Fine Cigars hosted Johnson for a pair of events as well as a cigar dinner, all of which were marked by the release of the Tatuaje Black Label AFC.

Johnson says he and Seferian got to know each other at the 2004 RTDA trade show, which is when Ambassador placed its first order from Tatuaje, making just its second trade show appearance. Johnson told halfwheel that “Vartan has been a loyal supporter of my brand since the early days and I would do almost anything for him; pure class is the only way to describe him.”

Tatuaje Black Label AFC 1

  • Cigar Reviewed: Tatuaje Black Label AFC
  • Country of Origin: Nicaragua
  • Factory: My Father Cigars S.A.
  • Wrapper: Nicaraguan Sun Grown Criollo Estelí
  • Binder: Nicaragua
  • Filler: Nicaragua
  • Size: 7 Inches
  • Ring Gauge: 48
  • Vitola: Churchill
  • MSRP: $12 (Boxes of 20, $240)
  • Release Date: Nov. 13, 2014
  • Number of Cigars Released: 250 Boxes of 20 Cigars (5,000 Total Cigars)
  • Number of Cigars Smoked for Review: 3

There’s a certain visual interplay happening with the Tatauaje Black Label AFC, as this sizable cigar is banded by a small, simple black band that lacks much of the flair and shine of others common to cigars today. For this release, Tatuaje returns to the more basic look after Johnson created a slightly new style for 2013’s Black Label Corona Gorda release in an attempt to indicate which year was which and avoid confusion in the marketplace. After the band, my eyes go to the fairly sizable and almost perfectly round single piece of tobacco that sits on top of the cigar, then I remember the closed foot the cigar offers. When I invert the cigar, I see that the AFC might have one of the most thoroughly and best presented covered feet I can recall seeing on a cigar, as not only is not a single piece of filler visible, the folds are crisp and clean, as sharp as what you might see on a hotel bedsheet or professionally wrapped gift. As for the rest of the cigar, the wrapper is an earthy brown color with generally a single prominent vein and a number of smaller offshoots. While there is just a bit of sheen, I’m more inclined to describe it as being on the dry side of things, as it’s certainly not oozing with oils. It’s a thin leaf that at times struggles in the dry desert air, with one splitting before being lit. The covered foot makes it tough to get the entire pre-light impression that the AFC will offer, but a few sniffs reveal a bit of dry, almost dusty earth and the slightest suggestion of baking spices as well as a touch of sweet bread. The cold draw appears to be limited a bit by the wrapper leaf blocking the end of the cigar as air moves with a good bit of resistance and shows an enjoyable donut sweetness but a fairly subdued flavor.

Within just a few puffs of the Tatuaje AFC, I’m reminded of Charlie Minato’s review of the 2013 Corona Gorda and his comments about understanding what may be considered the harsh notes of the current Black Label blend. While there are a number of flavors and aromas coming at me in the first few puffs, it’s the underlying robustness that stands out most of all as it is what made that cigar really stand out. Beyond that, there are subtle notes of orange and citrus that come from the cigar along with touches of a subtler and richer sweetness in the background, while each retrohale in the first half inch feels markedly more powerful than the one before. A distinctive gray smoke wafts off the cigar with each puff, but what grabs my attention most is the ash—an almost alabaster white color that is only hampered by its natural breaks and cracks. The first third continues to be marked by an earthy edge and robust strength delivered through good amounts of pepper on the palate and in the nose, while dashes of orange citrus entertain both taste and smell. An increasing amount of chalk starts to come out as the burn line approaches the second third.

Tatuaje Black Label AFC 2

An increasingly complex pepper note hits the nose from the smoke drifting off the Tatuaje AFC as it rests—a note sure to get lost in a crowded lounge or with anything else in the air or distracting the senses. The flavor profile continues to evolve from the underlying earthiness and pepper, which stays front and center while the orange notes back away and concedes the spotlight to the cigar’s core flavors. If there’s something that’s beginning to become clearer with each puff is the that even with the underlying gruffness of the cigar at times, the smoke remains very smooth. There no issue with the burn line whatsoever, but combustion seems to be a bit problematic as I’m not quite sure if I’m puffing too slowly or the cigar is having problems staying lit; either way I do touch up each cigar a few times.

Tatuaje Black Label AFC 3

The orange citrus starts to come back in the final third, presenting a distinct sweetness that is singularly enjoyable but also works incredibly well with the rest of what the Tatuaje Black Label AFC has to offer. While it gets overshadowed at times, the smoke from the cigar shows a gentle creaminess and smoothness; the robust notes tend to overshadow it, but it’s fairly easy to distinguish those notes from what would be considered a harsh smoke, which this cigar simply does not have. I’m not getting nearly as much complexity as I did in the first third of the cigar, and at times each puff comes across exactly like the one before it throughout much of the final third. It’s still a very enjoyable and full flavored cigar heading into the final inches, just lacking a bit in terms of palate excitement. There are a few more combustion issues which require the lighter’s attention, but you can smoke this fairly far down without any ill effects, assuming it stays lit, of course.

Tatuaje Black Label AFC 4

Final Notes

  • The second cigar was the one that developed a crack prior to lighting; after coming out of a humidor at about 72 degrees and humidity in the mid-60s, it went outside to 70 degrees and about 9 percent humidity, with the wrapper splitting after a couple of minutes of rest in the ashtray, and that was before it was lit.
  • All three cigars had issues with the wrappers staying in tact from start to finish, with the first and third samples splitting at points during the smoking process.
  • While finishing up this review, I smoked a Black Label Corona Gorda for the sake of comparison, and I was surprised by the lack of upfront pepper that cigar offered. I’m not quite sure how much the age of the two cigars played a difference in addition to the differing vitolas, but the Corona Gorda didn’t start as strong as the AFC but ramped up to some good strength at the start of the second third.
  • Incidentally, it too had an issue with the wrapper splitting.
  • I also smoked a Tatuaje Black Label Petit Lancero off the shelf of a local retailer and while I wasn’t taking notes on it, it still had a good amount of strength yet it felt like time was helping the cigar evolve into something softer and more finesse based.
  • Ambassador Fine Cigars will soon be moving to a new location in Scottsdale, just across the road from its current store. If you decide to visit in the near future, best to confirm which location is open.
  • If you happen to be coming out for Spring Training next year, Ambassador’s West Valley location in Peoria is just a few blocks from the Peoria Sports Complex, where the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres play.
  • Final smoking time was two hours and 20 minutes on average.
  • The cigars for this review were purchased by halfwheel.
  • Ambassador Fine Cigars in Scottsdale and Peoria, Ariz. is the only place to get the Tatuaje Black Label AFC. For more information, call 480-905-1000, and be sure to mention you heard about it on halfwheel.
88 Overall Score

Short of a few burn issues and a wrapper that didn't respond well to the cool and dry Phoenix air, there's not much to complain about when it comes to the Tatauaje Black Label AFC. The big and complex start ranged from very good to downright phenomenal, with a interesting peeling back of layers to end up at a robust core that may not have been the most complex flavor I've ever tasted but is still very enjoyable. There's bound to be the inevitable question of how the AFC compares to the other releases in the Tatuaje Black Label line, a question I don't know if I can adequately answer other than to say that I'm still leaning towards the smaller ring gauges in general. That said, after three AFCs, I'm heading back to buy a few more and look forward to seeing how these evolve in the immediate future. If the flavor evolution of the corona gorda since its release just over a year ago is any indication, the Tatuaje Black Label AFC should make for an interesting cigar to return to on a regular basis.

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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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