The first release of Edición Limitada (EL) in 2000 was special – the RyJs, the Partagas and the Montecriso ELs that year were really outstanding cigars and highly prized in the aged cigar market today. But since then, the ELs have been a hit and miss affair. 2001-2003 were forgettable (2002 had no ELs). The 2004s were notable because of the Cohiba Sublimes (an amazing cigar). Then 2005-2006 were misses. Then 2007 was kinda fun because of the uniquely creamy Trinidad Ingenios (and since then, you won’t be able to find another cigar that matches that blend). 2008-2009 were horrible. 2010 saw the introduction of the Partagas Serie D Especial – a great cigar, and devilishly difficult to find in the market nowadays. 2011 was fantastic with the Cohiba 1966 being a massive homerun; the Hoyo de Monterrey Short Piramides aren’t too shabby either. 2012 looks like another homerun with the Montecristo 520s and the Partagas Serie C No. 3s being great smokes.

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Two good years in a row? What have they been smoking on isla Cuba? (pun intended)

The Montecristo 520 EL 2012 was created to celebrate the 520th anniversary of Cuban tobacco’s arrival in Europe, after being discovered by Columbus. It’s been that long since the royalty of Spain puffed daintily on smoke rolls of tobacco, and the ladies wearing white gloves to avoid staining their fingers. Certainly worthy of celebration! And what a way to celebrate.

The Montecristo brand began life in 1935 as a premium brand – it commanded the best tobacco the island had to offer, the best rollers, the best top dollar. So it’s not surprising that the brand was picked as the one to hold such an illustrious title – “the 520”. But many long time aficionados will tell you a sadder tale: the Montecristos of today pale in comparison to the Montecristos we smoked in the late 1990s. Sometime in 2001-2002, something changed and the blend, while still tasty, became less espresso and more cardboard-tasting. Theories abound about what happened: some say it was a change in the wrapper leaf seed. Some say it was due to the hurricanes forcing upon Habanos a change in the blend. Some say that the best leaf were being put aside for the Trinidads, which at that time started expanding their vitola offering (the same people swear that the new Trinidads taste uncannily close to the Montecristos of old). Whatever the reason, the blend changed, and it left many people disappointed.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the 520s are so popular. I’ll say it up front: the taste profile of the Montecristo 520 is the closest Habanos have come to the “classic” Montecristo flavour of days gone by. It’s almost as though they decided, “Hey, it’s the 520th anniversary, let’s give it a real blast from the past” – and thus the 520 was born.

Some of the earliest cigars i smoked were Montecristos from 1997-98-99. Those were incredible smokes, and i remember them clearly for that hint of smokey vanilla spice; depending on the vitola, from the #1s to the #4s to the Torpedos — that smokey spice was found in variable abundance. It disappeared altogether in 2002, replaced by a more deep cocoa infused flavour. With the 520s, the vanilla spice is back, and it’s just oh so good.

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Compared to the Montecristo Grand Edmundos, the 520s is huge, and the wrapper is certainly less dark. There seems to be a trend towards larger ring gauge cigars lately. I’m not sure i like where the trend is going, but i can understand how it plays on the buying patterns of the consumer: bigger is better is better value for money. You’re getting more for your dollar, how can that be a bad thing, right? Wrong. But that’s a debate for a different blog post. 55 ring on the 520s. It’s only a matter of time before the 60 rings appear, and, god forbid, larger.

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Construction is immaculate, as is most ELs. The tobacco very healthy, oily to the touch and supple. Even without lighting up the cigar, i knew that this was going to be a good smoke. The first few draws were heavenly! It made me sit up, and take notice. Rolling the cigar between my fingers, it felt as though i was being transported back in time to when i had my first Montecristo. It was quite a moving experience.

Sweet and subtle, refined dark cocoa, laced with earthy rawness and a large twist of spicy vanilla bean, right off the stalk. Oh my goodness. The Montecristo flavour profile in 15 words or less.

The complexity on the cigar is to be admired. Through half way, the cigar takes on a very chilli spicy bite on the palate. I found this delightful, and the manner in which is was done marveled me to no end. Very refined bite, not rushed, not over-eager. Pleasing. But this is also where the 520 showed a weakness — after the half way point, i noticed some tannicity, that scratchy sensation at the back of the throat. It’s common in tobacco that isn’t perfectly ready to be smoked yet; on the plus side, it indicates a willingness to age very well (which is something that not all cigars can do). So put these sticks down, and in about 3 years or so, you’re going to be richly rewarded for your patience.

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Verdict: 91/100. Classic Montecristo. If you ever wanted to know what the fuss is all about the Montecristos from the late 1990s (and why they are so prized today), then smoking this cigar will answer your questions. Try this — smoke this cigar side by side with a more recent Montecristo such as an Edmundo. You’ll notice the difference immediately. Extremely tasty cigar, the spicy vanilla bite alone is worth the price of admission.