Five years ago, brothers Billy and Gus Fakih returned to the cigar industry. The pair, along with their brother Bass, were the founders of Cigar Inn, a pair of stores in Manhattan that was frequented by many, perhaps disproportionately by those in the cigar industry when they were visiting New York City. In 2015, the brothers sold the stores to the same entity that owned Altadis U.S.A. and JR Cigar and the stores were eventually rebranded to Casa de Montecristo.

They returned to the business not as retailers but as brand owners. Their new company was called Artesano Del Tobacco, and the first brand was Viva La Vida.

To celebrate the occasion of the company’s fifth year of operation, Artesano Del Tobacco worked with AJ Fernandez, which makes the company’s cigars, for a 5th Anniversary cigar, which is a modified version of the Viva La Vida. The internal blend is the same—Nicaraguan tobaccos aged for at least three years—but the habano oscuro wrapper that is found on the regular Viva La Vida is replaced by a habano-seed wrapper grown in Connecticut.

“It has been 5 years since we launched the Viva La Vida cigars and to celebrate it, we asked Abdel Fernandez to help us create a unique blend that celebrates the success of Viva La Vida line,” said the company in a press release when the Viva La Vida 5th Anniversary was announced in March. “Abdel was able to find a beautiful aged dark, oily Habano Connecticut Maduro wrapper that was grown here in the USA, and for that we chose our most famous selling 2 sizes of the Viva La Vida line…”

As for those two sizes, they are:

  • Viva La Vida 5th Anniversary Jester (5 1/2 x 56) — $19 (Box of 10, $190)
  • Viva La Vida 5th Anniversary Club 500 Sabroso (5 1/4 x 56) — $18 (Box of 10, $180)

  • Cigar Reviewed: Viva La Vida 5th Anniversary Club 500 Sabroso
  • Country of Origin: Nicaragua
  • Factory: Tabacalera AJ Fernandez Cigars de Nicaragua S.A.
  • Wrapper: U.S.A. (Connecticut Habano-seed)
  • Binder: Nicaragua
  • Filler: Nicaragua
  • Length: 5 1/4 Inches
  • Ring Gauge: 56
  • Vitola: Diadema
  • MSRP: $18 (Box of 10, $180)
  • Release Date: March 2024
  • Number of Cigars Released: Regular Production
  • Number of Cigars Smoked For Review: 3

While not as gnarly as some of the new broadleaf-wrapped cigars I’ve seen of late, the dark wrapper on the Viva La Vida 5th Anniversary Club 500 Sabroso has some texture, larger-than-average veins, and discoloration. I find the aromas of the different cigars’ wrappers to be fairly similar: some fire-cured tobacco smells along with something that reminds me of a burning campfire. Depending on the cigar, one could be stronger than the other, but each wrapper has those two scents, and those are the only two scents I can detect. The aromas of the feet aren’t consistent, as the strongest of the three cigars—medium-full for the first cigar—has graham cracker scents, the second cigar has a medium aroma with a roasted smell that reminds me of the smell of grilled corn, and the third cigar is medium-plus, led by a muted permanent marker smell. If there’s one consistent aspect of the feet’s aromas, they are one-dimensional. Not boring, but not a bounty of flavors. The cold draw of the first cigar is led by some cola-like sweetness over sourness, charred woods and a chemical flavor that somewhat reminds me of the smell of a Sharpie, though not quite there. Concerningly, the second cigar has paint-like flavors joining cocoa and berries. Given that I smoke each cigar on a different day and not side-by-side, it’s tough to definitively make a nuanced comparison, but I think the third cigar has less of a paint flavor than the second one. That said, it is still part of the “primary flavor” group, along with raisin and cocoa, and stronger than the mild grain flavor. That cigar also caused an extremely high amount of tingling on my lips, a sensation that was powerful and lasted for at least 30 seconds after I stopped taking cold draws. Intensity-wise, the cold draws range from medium-full to full; draws are good except for a slightly loose draw on the second cigar.

There’s not much consistency between how the three Viva La Vida 5th Anniversary Club 500 Sabrosos start. The first cigar is led by woodiness and red pepper over bread and leather; overall, it’s around medium. The second cigar has paint and nuttiness over leather, earth and a milder white pepper; it’s medium-full, and like the cold draw, I find the draw to be somewhat open. The third cigar has lots of earthiness over toastiness, grains and a cream cheese-like sweetness at the end, around medium-full. There’s also not much consistency as to where the cigars go next. The first cigar is the easiest to explain: a classic AJ Fernandez power bomb with red and black pepper joined by sweet earth and toastiness. Those flavors are all quite intense and leave little space for anything else. About five minutes into the second cigar, I’m no longer able to taste any signs of paint. Roasted woods and nuttiness edge out a pepper that is much crisper and more restrained compared to the first cigar. Like the first cigar, the third cigar has some of the spicy and toasty earthiness, but secondary notes of herbs and yellow mustard make for a radically different profile. Interestingly, the finishes of the cigars are quite similar. A Ritz cracker-like flavor leads minerals, burnt coffee, pepper and, on the final cigar, a flavor that reminds me of processed gravy. That third cigar is also the most likely to get metallic, which happens on the occasional puff. Retrohales have a cleaner version of the earthiness—one that isn’t as intertwined with the toasty elements—joined by leather, dry peanuts and some white pepper. At times, bready flavors—less defined as the Ritz cracker sensation—lead red pepper, lemon tea and earthiness; other times, a retrohale delivers a heavy dose of red pepper. Flavor is full, body is medium-full—full on the first cigar—and strength is medium. Construction-wise, the draw of the second cigar fixes itself pretty early on, meaning there’s not much to complain about. One final construction note: all three cigars are burning very quickly.

The first cigar is pretty close to what it was before. Too many puffs have earthiness joined by amped-up pepper with little room for other flavors to show themselves and very little differentiation. Fortunately, the other two cigars are proving to be much more dynamic. The second cigar has dry terroir flavors with black pepper, a more generic earthiness, creaminess and citrus as secondary flavors. Certain puffs are led by Ritz crackers or coffee beans, always accented by red pepper and a milder saltiness. The final cigar is similar to its first third, though it’s more nuanced. The cigar’s core seems to be a bread flavor, but it tastes surrounded by red pepper, black pepper, earthiness and burnt caramel. At times, the bread flavor is strong enough to overcome one or two of the other flavors, but it’s never strong enough to be the leading flavor. Retrohales vary from puff to puff. Sometimes, it’s just red pepper and burning woods; other times it’s those two flavors but with lemon and creaminess as secondary notes. Still other puffs are different, with floral leading burnt woods and the red pepper serving as accents. As time passes from when the smoke leaves my nose, the pepper fades, which allows more exotic flavors like lemon, bread and black tea to shine. None of them are ever as impactful as the pepper, but when given the ability to show themselves, I enjoy it. Flavor is full—the second cigar teeters between full and medium-full—body is medium-full, and strength ranges from medium to medium-full. Oddly, I think the strength is getting milder as the cigar goes on. I need to touch up the first cigar to help with combustion, but the other two cigars are burning quite well with good draws and even ash formation.

Most of the time, I find myself disappointed when a cigar gets drier. Perhaps that’s because the dryness is joined by off-putting flavors, perhaps it’s just the basic concept of salivation. With the Viva La Vida 5th Anniversary Club 500 Sabroso, I don’t mind the profile getting drier. First of all, it’s only slightly drier. But more importantly, it’s a subtle change that provides a decent bit of contrast. While the flavors of the final third—earthiness, white pepper, red pepper, terroir, nuttiness, and creaminess—aren’t all that different from before, the drying of the flavors makes for a very noticeable change. I find the intensity levels of the individual flavors tend to get closer to one another, though the pepper and earthiness are still the most impactful flavors. For the second and third cigars, the finish can add some tartness and bitterness. I’m less fond of the latter, but the former is a welcome change to add some dimensions. Retrohales end up with red pepper before terroir, hay, and lemon join the mixture. I’m curious to know what tobacco causes this sensation, as it’s a flavor I consistently find when retrohaling. The finish is slightly different as the terroir and hay flavors are muted, allowing the lemon to come through. Flavor is full, body is medium-full and strength is medium. While the first two cigars avoid any construction issues in the final third, I make two minor corrections with my lighter to the final cigar, mostly to help with combustion.

Final Notes

  • While the leading flavors, construction, smoke time and other aspects were similar between the first cigar and the other two, the experiences were pretty different. For the first cigar, whatever flavors were present in the first 10 minutes were what I tasted for the rest of the cigar. They changed intensities, and sometimes a flavor would disappear for a brief amount of time, but there wasn’t much added to the experience. The second and third cigars were more like what I tend to find in a cigar: as time goes on, some of the flavors remain, new ones join, etc.
  • I tend to find that the nicotine levels of a cigar get stronger as the burn line progresses, but that wasn’t the case here. I felt like the first third was delivering the strongest version of each cigar and the final third had clearly the least amount of nicotine.
  • Inevitably, a lot of my belief that nicotine levels rise is due to the fact that the nicotine—like alcohol or sugar—will build on itself.
  • There’s the Viva La Vida Club 500, which is a 6 x 60 size of the regular blend. It is noted as the first box-pressed size for the line and was made as an exclusive to the company’s first 500 retailers.
  • I’ve never studied this, but I tend to think of diademas as being longer and skinnier cigars, at least proportionally. This is an example of a pudgier version.
  • For whatever reason, the first cigar’s cap was much more difficult to clip. I use the same cutter for pretty much every review, but this particular cigar required a lot more force than normal.
  • The pepper burn on my lips that was very aggressive once I cut the third cigar faded pretty quickly. There was still an above-average tingle on the lips, but I might not have noticed it had the beginning part not been so aggressive.

  • Cigars for this review were listed at 5 1/4 x 56. This is one of the first reviews when the cigars were smoked in the same order as you see above. That means the cigar that weighed 15.82 grams was the one that I found to have the most pepper.
  • Artesano del Tobacco advertises on halfwheel.
  • Cigars for this review were purchased by halfwheel.
  • Final smoking time was very quick. Less than a half hour into each cigar, I found myself removing the secondary band, the main band was getting removed before the 45-minute mark, and I was wrapping up each cigar at right around an hour and 15 minutes.
  • Site sponsors Atlantic Cigar Co. and Famous Smoke Shop carry the Viva La Vida 5th Anniversary Club 500 Sabroso.
90 Overall Score

If someone told me that the first cigar I smoked was a modified version of the other two cigars—or vice versa—I’d believe you. While not a completely different set of flavors, the experiences between the first cigar and the other two were pretty different. The first cigar tastes like a lot of cigars made by AJ Fernandez, especially those with darker-colored wrappers: lots of pepper, lots of earthiness, lots of flavors. It was not the 11/10 amped up profile that I sometimes find, but it was a cigar that seemingly sacrificed nuance in the name of power. While I can appreciate that style of cigar, I rarely am impressed by it. The second and third Viva La Vida 5th Anniversary Club 500s are examples of the cigars I enjoy from AJ Fernandez: there are still strong flavors, but there’s enough room in the profile that I can taste the secondary and tertiary flavors. On a more practical level, I think profiles like the first cigar I smoked are less ideal experiences because AJ Fernandez makes many different cigars that taste like it. What’s the point of seeking out a Viva La Vida 5th Anniversary Club 500 if I can get the same basic profile from an AJF-made cigar for Altadis U.S.A., Foundation, General Cigar Co., Southern Draw, AJ Fernandez or even another cigar from Artesano del Tobacco. Cigars like the second and third are not only more unique but, in this case, objectively better than the homogenous powerbomb that was the first cigar.

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Charlie Minato

I am an editor and co-founder of halfwheel.com/Rueda Media, LLC. I previously co-founded and published TheCigarFeed, one of the two predecessors of halfwheel. I have written about the cigar industry for more than a decade, covering everything from product launches to regulation to M&A. In addition, I handle a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff here at halfwheel. I enjoy playing tennis, watching boxing, falling asleep to the Le Mans 24, wearing sweatshirts year-round and eating gyros. echte liebe.