There are trends in just about every arena. If a new and innovative show crops up on TV, you know it won’t be long before a half-dozen “clones” make their way to the small screen. If a wine critic writes glowingly about a dry red wine made with anchovies, by the time the review hits the newsstand, your local stores will have created an anchovy wine section.
We don’t tend to think in terms of trends when it comes to pipe or cigar smoking, but they definitely exist. Just looking at cigars shapes, the perfecto was the big thing in the early nineteen-hundreds. By the time the twenties had rolled around, the corona had become the most popular shape and remained so (with a bit of a challenge from the Churchill) up until the sixties. At that point, the even thinner panatela became very common, and the longer Lonsdale (a long corona) and lancero (a long panatela) also had a decent share of the market. Torpedos made some headway in the seventies and eighties, and during the boom years of the nineties we saw the birth of the larger ring gauges, primarily the 50 ring robustos and toros which caught on and saw the development of the huge 60 ring monsters that have become increasingly more common. Perfectos are also making a comeback during this time when we have more variety in shapes and sizes than at any time.
Pipes have gone through the same ebb and flow, with straight pipes and smaller shapes being the most popular, mainly because the pipes with straight shanks are easier to drill, and small pipes are more convenient, but in the later fifties with the emergence of the Danish school of pipe design, more bent pipes and organically-influenced shapes began to sell well. In the seventies, the plateaux-topped freehands and, as a result, larger pipes became the rage. The style, today, still leans heavily in the favor of bent pipes and sandblasted finishes. Due to the influx of new artisanal pipemakers, there are more different styles available, and there’s a definite audience for all types.
Going beyond size, shape and appearance, trends come and go in both pipe tobacco and cigars. Back in the early part of the last century, the popularity of pipe tobacco blends had more to do the availability of different strains of leaf than consumer preference, but as more varietals became accessible and the use of flavorings came into play, clear preferences appeared. Aromatic and semi-aromatic blends have consistently topped the sales charts, with semi-aromatics dominating up until the sixties, and then as brands like Captain Black emerged, full aromatics took over. In the non-aromatic segment, Latakia blends held the largest share of that market, but Virginia blends came on strong in the last twenty years or so. Overall, the diversity of pipe tobaccos seems to be greater than at any period, despite the much smaller audience we have today.
For pretty much the entire 20th century, machine made cigars, which tend to be quite mild, and relatively small, were the dominant share of the market. Up until the embargo, Cuban cigars dominated the premium side of sales, and the flavor profile showed a much greater gulf- the machine mades were pretty light, but the Cuban handmades had robust flavor in comparison.
After the flow of Habanos was eliminated, machine made sticks became even more dominant, until cigar makers established themselves in other countries throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America. And since candela (green) wrappers became popular, the desire for mild premium smokes grew rapidly through the sixties and seventies. So when the companies re-established themselves in new environs, the bulk of premium cigars sales went to brands like Macanudo (at that time made in Jamaica) that were lighter and smoother in flavor. Mild but tasty wrappers from Cameroon began to show up on cigars made in the Canary Island and the U.S., and the tendency for cigars that are easy on the palate continued through the eighties, especially with the appearance of top-quality smokes from the Dominican Republic. When the boom years of the nineties arrived, the tastes of American cigar smokers began to move toward more robust vitolas, especially those from Honduras and the re-emergence of powerhouses from Nicaragua which was struggling to rebuild the industry. For the last twenty years or so, cigars have gotten bigger and bolder, although more complex medium-bodied products are becoming quite popular.
So, where are things going to go from here? If I had the definitive answer, I wouldn’t tell you about it here, because I’d be formulating my plan for world domination, but I can make a few guesses. First, based upon the global economy, people will look for value, so reasonably priced, high-quality pipes will certainly be in great demand. Bulk pipe tobaccos will carve out a larger share of sales, due to lower pricing, and more variety of blends will continue to proliferate. Also, pipe sales may continue to make a comeback, as it’s less expensive to be a pipe smoker than a premium cigar smoker.
The economy has had and will continue to have an impact on the cigar market, as hand rolled cigars in the low to mid price range will dominate sales, while the super-premium smokes will still have their place as the connoisseur’s choice and the occasional treat for the mainstream cigar smoker. Additionally, I think that we will see more flavorful mild to medium cigars for the next wave of premium smokers.
In light of the socio-political climate for people who use tobacco, the premium products end of the business, I believe, is doing remarkably well, and the indications are that it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, and we’re always excited to see more and better products coming from our suppliers, and are working on more blends for our pipe smoking customers. Stay tuned, there’s a lot more to come, and it keeps getting better.