When the Montecristo brand of Cuban cigars was introduced in 1935, it was listed as a super-premium brand. The Rolls-Royce. The Michelin Star. The Cohiba. Made with the choicest tobaccos, under the watchful eye of Alonso Menéndez, it was a great smoke. Montecristos produced from the 1970s such as the rare Montecristo “B” are  collectible cigars now, and will punch a deep hole in your wallet if you go hunting for them.

It’s apt, in a way, that the best selling Cuban cigar, the Montecristo #4, carries the name of such a prestigious brand. Habanos SA doesn’t release any production numbers, but it’s estimated more than 20 million #4s are sold and smoked worldwide every year. That’s a staggering number of cigars, approximately 8% of the total output of the island.

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The attraction of the cigar lies in several areas. The first of course is the familiarity with the Montecristo brand. For those in the know, the brand has a distinct flavour profile that is widely loved — woody, medium floral notes, with a burst of dark tea and vanilla spice. For those who are new to Cuban cigars, the name Montecristo is a stroke of branding genius: name your cigar after a wildly popular fictional character, and not just anyone, but a character whose personality oozes charm, power and charisma. No way in hell the cigar isn’t going to do well with that type of name recognition. So if you don’t know anything about Cubans, and don’t want to fork out the premium for the Cohiba (Cuba’s other ubiquitous brand), then you’re likely to choose Montecristo.

The other thing this petit corona has going for it is it’s size. At 5.1 inches with a ring gauge of 42, it fits in the average hand perfectly. It just feels right, the size, in hand and in mouth. Those who prefer the thinner 38 ring gauges are probably ok to step up to the 42 (though they don’t like the 50 ring gauges of the robustos). Those who prefer the 50 ring gauges of the robustos, are alright to step down to the 42s. The length also ensures a leisurely 45-60 minute smoke, not too short to be inconsequential, not too long to take an age.

And lastly, the availability. Every cigar merchant worth his salt will have the Montecristo #4 stocked by the truckload. So it’s almost always available whenever you feel like having one.

But it must be a good cigar, right? To be worthy of such demand, of such a lofty status as Cuba’s #1 cigar. Yes and no.

Over the years, i’ve had a love hate affair with the Montecristo #4. I hated that loved it so much, because it invariably meant that i kept on going back to it, only to be bitterly disappointed. Every once in a while, i’d be surprised out of my wits by a particular stick from a particular box that just renewed hope for me the cigar would be turning the corner. But the period between 2005-2010 have been mostly a wash. I blame the high production demands Cuba places on this cigar for the inconsistency. Draw issues. Blending issues, when i had one taste like mottled straw. There was one time when i thought i was smoking something that had been dipped in raw ammonia. But i kept going back because of hope that the next one would be great. When they’re great, they are just the best. Almost the perfect smoking experience.

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The last couple of years have been good to me for the Montecristo #4. But i think it’s also because i’ve changed my buying patterns. For the longest time i didn’t really pay attention to the source of the cigars, except to ensure that they were authentic. A Cuban cigar was a cuban cigar, was the thought. Oh how wrong i was, amongst equals, some are more equal than others.

For the popular cigars, the Montecristo #4 among them, i’ve decided that the best stock that Habanos SA has is sent to where it commands the best dollar (or EURO or British Pound). In a way it makes sense — when you have enough of the stock to meet supply, distribution optimization means that you send your best stock to where it can fetch the best price. In the case of Cuban cigars, this generally means Europe (though this is slowly changing as China becomes a consumption juggernaut).

There are many ways to judge what is “best”, but to me, it’s stock where everything stays true to what is expected. For the Montecristo #4 this means the blend is spot on, the construction excellent, and wrapper the most beautiful. The next time you’re able to, take Montecristo #4 from a box meant for the European market and compare it against one from the Asia Pacific market. There are subtle, and noticeable differences. For me, the European stock takes the cake, 8 times out of 10.

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This particular cigar smoked for this review came from a box that was shared around during a meeting with friends. I wasn’t surprised when everyone looked at me in surprise — this wasn’t the #4 that they are used to. It was significantly better — beautiful to behold, impeccable construction and draw, and bright and bold flavours reminiscent of the Montecristo brand. Bought during my recent trip to Europe, i knew it would be something different to what they were used to, and so it was. Draw after draw of thick flavoursome smoke. It was a great evening, matched by a lovely cigar.

Verdict: 90/100. When the Montecristo #4 is on, it’s a real treat. Generally speaking, the last couple of years, since 2010 have been good to this mainstay of the Cuban cigar industry. But if you want something really special, do a bit of hunting, and look for a box from Europe. I’ve compared many, many sticks between those found in Europe and those found in Asia Pacific, and found a noticeable difference (this difference extends to other popular cigars, such as the Hoyo de Monterrey #2 and Partagas Serie D 4). It’s a bit troublesome, but well worth it.