CAO has a unique foothold in the premium cigar industry. Started as an independent, boutique cigar company that was eventually purchased by a tobacco behemoth, many had decried the brand to be dead sell-outs. The thinking makes sense; how would a small brand maintain a unique identity under the umbrella of a company that hasn’t historically brought to mind the ideas of originality or creativity? Apparently, if you’re CAO, you end up creating a legacy of uniqueness that seems pretty much untouchable.
And we aren’t talking about random little one-off blends here, or the old “same blend, new vitola” trick; no, these guys have come up with some absolute blockbusters. The Flathead series, with it’s unique (and very pleasant) shape and tribute to American motorcycle culture; the Amazon trilogy, which incorporated different kinds of native Brazilian tobaccos; along with a host of other country-themed (World Series) releases that utilize unique country-of-origin tobaccos; to the famed Sopranos tribute and it’s iconic packaging; it seems that CAO has been on the right side of creativity.
But, if you aren’t keeping track, it can almost seem like a gimmick, simply because there are so many unique cigars. I find myself asking the question, “Which unique, undiscovered, special cigar am I smoking now?” This is even recognized by Rick Rodriguez of CAO when he says, “With CAO, our blends encompass so many countries and growing regions, it’s sometimes hard for people to keep track of what they’re smoking.” Depending on your point of view, that could be seen as a positive or negative, but honestly, I have to hand it to General (CAO parent company) for the way they’ve handled and grown the CAO brand. They are genuinely making unique cigars without gimmick. And yet, somehow, this is the first time they’ve utilized a Mexican San Andrés wrapper. Go figure.
CAO Zócalo Breakdown
- Wrapper: Mexican San Andrés Morron
- Binder: African Cameroon
- Filler: Nicaraguan
- Factory: STG Estelí (Nicaragua)
- Production: Limited Edition (3,500 boxes of 20 cigars)
- Vitola: 6″ × 60 “San Andrés” (Gordo)
- Price: $8.49 (MSRP)
Absolutely (capital G) Gigantic. That’s what I think when I hold this in my hands. A gordo isn’t even obscenely large, by today’s standards, but it just goes to show how different it seems compared to my preference. So yeah, it’s big and meaty in appearance. Oily. Veiny. The cigar looks like a maduro that didn’t listen to its parents, hung out on the wrong side of the tracks, and eventually grew up to be a big, burly biker.
Construction wise, the seams are tight, but the rest of the marks for Zócalo’s build are written in red ink… The foot is sloppily cut and uneven. The cap is a big, sloppy double. And the cigar is not only lumpy, but somehow crooked… it looks like it spent some time in someone’s (rather large) sweaty pocket. The band is nothing special; starting with a glossy, bright white paper rectangle, there’s a CMYK overlay that gives the paper a faux-aged appearance, perhaps an attempt to conjure thoughts of Mexico’s adobe walls. The type used for “Zócalo” is significantly more interesting than the artwork. It’s not terrible, but it looks like something I could’ve made.
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The first thing I notice is that the cold draw is pretty tight, worryingly so with a cigar this big. The cigar smells of big-time coffee and a sweet, earthy note present that I couldn’t quite break down. There are some generic tobacco notes from the foot and cap, something that hints of cream and pepper. The cold draw tastes, somehow, juicy… mouthwateringly so. Finally, notes of dried apricots and leather are present.
Once lit, there’s an immediate attention given to a multilayered spiciness: a spicy chile pepper zings the front, a piquant fresh peppercorn middle layer, with a base of hearty, earthy, muddy, dark-roasted, French-pressed coffee. Separate from that whole thing is that mouth-awakening juicy flavor that reminds me of pink lemonade bubblegum. What? Interesting flavor combination that really hits a lot of points. Not much else happens in the first 20 minutes, and I’ve barely burned through an inch. The tight draw and whopper size combine to have my puffing muscles getting a little sore already. After 35 minutes of smoking time, an inch of ash falls off, leaving a pretty large-sized cone of ember. This leads me to believe there is simply too much tobacco crammed into the bunch. I’m fairly certain this is also affecting the flavor profile as well, which has yet to open up or show any real transitions. The profile can be broken down into two big lumps of flavor: the peppers and coffee earthiness over here, and over there, the sweet/tart fruit.
The second third shows some changes rolling in. The earthy peppercorn is gone, but there is a mild remainder of the chile heat. Creaminess joins in, and the fruitiness has shifted from the lemonade tart and is revealed as fresh, ripe berries. The earthy/coffee flavor from before has mighty-morphin’ed itself into a very dark chocolate. This is a big improvement over the first third. At the halfway point, I experienced a pleasant surprise (considering this is a Mexican San Andrés maduro); there’s a floral note, alongside a new, sweet cedar flavor that is pleasantly soapy. This sounds strange, but it works. The burn and smoke output has increased, as the draw has opened up a little. Very pleasant and dominant chocolate raspberry flavors swirl around, seeming to touch different areas of the tongue. One puff it’s sweet, the next it’s bitter, then tart, then creamy. I had expected more earthiness, especially moving farther into the cigar, but at this point it’s MIA, and I’m not disappointed in the least. Now there’s kind of a two-way flavor thing happening, as there’s the raspberry as I draw in, and mint as I blow out and enjoy the long finish. Strength has kind of jumped out from behind a bush and scared the bejeezus out of me; suddenly this is full speed ahead, while the flavor (medium-plus) and body (medium) are slowly picking up.
Into the final third, the chocolate intensifies to bring in the missing earthy component, and there’s a slight uptick in spice on the retrohale. All I can say at this point is, “Holy moly this is a very strong cigar.” I recommend a hearty meal before smoking this, or keep sugary snacks or drinks nearby (I don’t do that during a review; I don’t want to taint my tongue… and yes, I’m aware of how that sounds). The burn line has been flawless throughout, and ever since entering the second third, performance has been very good. The same core flavors are happening here: ripe red raspberries, an earthiness that is equal parts dark, dark chocolate, and sludgey coffee, and a refreshingly clean herbaceous mint. At nearly two hours of smoke time, I surrender to the ass-kicking this cigar has been giving me for the last 30 or so minutes. There’s still an inch, or more, before even getting into nub territory, but I don’t want to get the room-spins. At the finish, the flavors were very pleasant, steady, and hovered right at the medium-plus level. Meanwhile, the cigar’s body was surprisingly right around medium, with the strength at a generous “full.”
Would I Smoke This Cigar Again?
On one hand, I enjoyed this cigar, despite the slow start. During the middle portion, when this cigar was at its best, flavors expressed themselves differently with each puff. Other cigars may have an “everything and then some” approach to flavors, but this one stuck to it’s core offerings, while allowing them to change in the manner in which they present themselves. So while the actual flavor notes may make for a short list, the manner in which they combine and are experienced increases exponentially. That being said, I’m not a big fan of the gordo size, and I probably wound’t reach for one of these simply because of that fact. Price wise, it’s on par with several other offerings from CAO in terms of the “simple and good” performance that this cigar exemplified. But, personal preference aside, I did enjoy this cigar.
- Flavor: Medium-Plus
- Strength: Full
- Body: Medium
- Dark chocolate
- Fresh mint
- Smoke Time: 2 hours
- Pairing Recommendation: Walking Stick cocktail, OK Kola Champagne, a big meal
- Purchase Recommendation: If you like big honkers, buy a box before they’re gone. Otherwise, try one
- CAO’s first foray into Mexican San Andrés territory
- Good bang for the buck
- Fruity and non-earthy (muddy) Mexican maduro
- Size (unless you’re a fan of the gordo)
- Strength (can lay you out)
- Limited flavor profile