In previous editions of our educational emails, we talked about how tobacco is fermented before taking the final steps to become a cigar. During the fermentation process and prior to rolling, the level of nicotine is reduced, along with proteins and acidity in the tobacco leaves. Typically, this is done in piles called pilónes, but some manufacturers choose to put their tobacco through a second fermentation process. This is what’s called barrel aging.
Barrel aging is the process of aging tobacco leaves inside a barrel that previously contained alcoholic spirits, like bourbon. This secondary aging process allows further fermentation, which results in a significantly smoother taste and even lower levels of nicotine content. It also imparts some of the barrel’s taste to the tobacco. It’s important to note that these don’t produce what are known as “flavored” cigars. Instead, this is a completely natural process that uses no additives.
The most commonly used barrels are bourbon barrels. The reason for this is the result of the legal definition of bourbon. According to official legislation, bourbon must be aged in new American oak barrels. This means that when aging their spirits, bourbon manufacturers can’t reuse their casks, resulting in an excess of barrels that can no longer be used. This is also why most tequilas are aged in bourbon barrels. This is different from scotch, where barrels can be reused.
Because these bourbon barrels have only been used once, they impart their flavors much more quickly than scotch barrels, resulting in shorter aging time requirements. These bourbon barrels are also located much more closely to tobacco manufacturers, resulting in lower transportation costs to get the casks to the factory where the tobacco aging takes place.
The cigar manufacturer that uses this process the most is Perdomo Cigars. Their Double Aged 12-Year Vintage is aged twice, first for 10 years in pilónes, then for an additional two years in bourbon barrels. Nick Perdomo believes these barrels add a beautiful caramelization and creaminess to the wrappers for the 12-Year. Perdomo offers the 12-Year Vintage in three different wrappers (Connecticut, Sun-grown, and Maduro), offering the consumer the ability to taste the impact the barrel aging has on the different wrappers on the same blend.
While manufacturers most often use bourbon barrels to age their tobaccos, there aren’t the only types of barrels used. For example, the Arturo Fuente Añejo uses a Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper that’s been aged in cognac barrels. And while wrappers are the most common leaf to be barrel aged, it’s not a process that’s unique to wrappers. The Davidoff Late Hour uses a filler tobacco aged in scotch barrels for a total of six months. The Davidoff process is also slightly different because they press their leaves into the barrels and then flip the leaves after three months.
Spirit manufacturers have also decided to get in on the game by branding their very own cigars. And although it’s pretty much impossible to track down a bottle of the notorious Pappy Van Winkle, the Pappy Van Winkle Cigar can be found much more easily. The tobaccos in the Pappy Van Winkle cigars spend between 12-18 months in the barrel, imparting the famous Pappy taste upon the leaves. Buffalo Trace and Maker’s Mark have also done co-branded cigars (Maker’s Mark eventually discontinued the project).
While barrel aged tobaccos don’t suit everyone’s palate, they can certainly add a unique twist to the cigars in which they’re used. If you’re a fan of the spirit, try picking up a cigar that uses barrel aged tobacco in the aging process.