When I think of a trailblazer, I think of a person that does things on their own terms, by their own rules, and is defiant to the status quo. With that being said, few people in the premium cigar industry fit that description as well as Steve Saka—master blender and owner of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust. His mastery of the tobacco leaf as well as his brazen and unapologetic attitude has led to the creation of some of the best cigars on the market today. His latest creation—StillWell Star—is a testament not only to his keen blending skill, but also his ability to create experiences that he enjoys—on his terms. Enough with the accolades, I know you are reading this to find out what the StillWell Star cigars are all about and if they are worth a go. So let’s get to it.
The cigar smoking world and the pipe smoking world have always been parallel universes, with those that enjoy both being surprisingly few in number. Though not unheard of, the use of pipe tobacco in a cigar blend has been very limited, with most being made up of lesser-quality tobaccos, often leading to disappointing results. Being a pipe smoker himself, Steve Saka had blended premium long-filler tobacco with high-quality pipe tobacco in the past—made only for his own personal enjoyment—but had never released one to the public. When he had made mention of this to Jeremy Reeves, head pipe tobacco blender at Cornell & Diehl (and a cigar smoker himself), the two set out to make the world’s first luxury pipe tobacco premium cigar—a cigar that would be greater than the sum of its parts. Enter the StillWell Star, which gets its name from the state of mind experienced when pipe smoking. In an interview with Cigar Dojo, Saka elaborated, “[Pipe smoking] is kind of one of these moments where, when I’m being still, it makes me feel well. I took the ‘be still, be well’ [mantra] and Frankensteined them together and called it StillWell.”
To create this hybrid cigar, Saka tapped long-time friend Reeves to provide the pipe tobacco component. For those of you that aren’t familiar with the Cornell & Diehl brand, let me give you a little background. Cornell & Diehl has been producing pipe tobacco since the early 1990s. What started as a dream when Craig and Patty Tarler purchased an old pipe tobacco company has grown from a handful of recipes and flavorings into a high-end boutique pipe tobacco manufacturer that focuses on quality over quantity. This business model has grown them a customer base that spans the globe, establishing Cornell & Diehl as a premier name in the pipe tobacco arena.
The combined knowledge and strength of Saka and Reeves has led to the initial release of four very unique and altogether different blends of the StillWell Star series. I say initial, as Steve has stated in interviews that there may be more blends coming in the future. With so much intrigue and hype behind the StillWell Star, I wanted to give an idea of what each blend currently available brings to the table. This is an abridged review of each: the Aromatic No. 1, English No. 27, Bayou No. 32, and Navy No. 1056.
StillWell Star Aromatic No. 1
The finest of aromatic Black Cavendish, Golden Virginia and Burley pipe tobaccos added to a mild, Nicaraguan puro to provide a delightfully smooth and room pleasing smoking experience. Each cigar is delicately finished with a cabeza dulce.
Pre-light aromas vary greatly on this cigar. Notes from the foot are predominantly sweet, aromatic pipe tobacco. Notes of chocolate-covered cherry, vanilla, and crème brûlée make my mind want to partake in a sugary treat after I finish. Though, passing the wrapper under my nose, I am greeted with an altogether different cigar. Fresh-tilled earth from the garden and an almost balsamic vinaigrette note completely cover any aromatic tobacco scent. Upon first light, the sweetness from the cabeza dulce (i.e. sweetened head) masks most of the flavors, and I’m only left with an overall aromatic pipe tobacco flavor. As I proceed into the cigar, the word “balanced” keeps popping into my head. Mild-to-medium-bodied notes of vanilla pudding, cherry cordial, and light black pepper are the primary elements I get, with a light pepper making for easy retrohaling. Moving to the mid-portion of the cigar, flavors have deepened slightly, taking on a light, earthy tone. Milk chocolate and a floral black coffee are now present, and the black pepper remains ever present but not overwhelming. Closing out the StillWell Star Aromatic No. 1, I am slightly disappointed, as all of the sweet, dessert-like, aromatic flavors have dissipated, and I am left with wet coffee grounds and black pepper—now a detractor rather than an amplifier to the smoking experience.
StillWell Star English No. 27
A quintessential mix of Burley and Turkish leaf with a generous portion of Cypriot Latakia pressed cake paired with Nicaraguan cigar tobaccos. Rich and decadent, this is a Latakia-lover’s puro worthy of being smoked in an English Manor House.
This cigar pulls no punches on the pre-light aroma. The smell of fire-cured tobacco is prevalent and almost completely covers up a wet earth note on the wrapper. The foot of the cigar is even more intense, with the aforementioned note being the only thing I’m picking up. The draw has a slight resistance, coming in at a respectable 8/10. Barbecue smoke with a slight sweetness comes through on the draw, and not much else. I give the foot an extended toast so as to adequately light the varying density of tobaccos and take my first few puffs. The fire-cured tobacco dominates the palate, though is not as intense as some other such cigars on the market. It’s light enough to allow for a savory, almost meaty note to come through—not unlike the smell of the inside of a well-used BBQ smoker. By this I mean that homogenized experience of wood smoke, cooked meat, and slightly burnt BBQ sauce that all combines when you lift the lid. Approaching the halfway mark, what was more of a balanced BBQ smoker flavor—mixing smoky and savory elements with a touch of sweetness—is now tipping the scale over to a more fire-cured smoky profile that is running over the meaty notes and sweetness. Closing out my smoking experience with the English No. 27, the fire-cured tobacco flavors are now completely coating my palate, taking on a harsh and bitter profile. My mouth feels like there is a light, oily coating to it that causes these flavors to remain present between puffs. If you have ever bumped the side of your smoker with the food you were cooking, then you know what I’m talking about.
StillWell Star Bayou No. 32
A combination of Bright and Red Virginia leaf with the most select St. James Parish Perique pipe tobacco added to a medium-bodied Nicaraguan puro. This liga begins the mildest of all, but the Perique really kicks up in the end with a spicy finish. It rewards the smoker with that classic “VaPer” combination of zest and umami that is entrancing for the discerning palate.
This cigar is the one that I was most intrigued by in the series. Being a pipe smoker myself, I have dabbled in many varieties of pipe tobacco; but at the time of writing this, I have rarely smoked perique blends. A quick backstory on perique: it’s a type of tobacco from Saint James Parish, Louisiana, known for its strong, powerful, fruity aroma. After experiencing the unique tobaccos cultivated by the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes during the late 1700s, a farmer named Pierre Chenet reportedly tweaked the tobacco into what is now known as perique in 1824 through the labor-intensive technique of pressure-fermentation in hickory whiskey barrels. Perique has been shipped out of New Orleans for more than 250 years and is considered to be one of America’s first export crops.
The pre-light aroma on this cigar is very pungent. A vinegar-like quality zings my sinuses and a musty sweetness dances behind it. The overall smell is very mellow and not much else can be discerned. A straight cut to the head of the Bayou No. 32 reveals a mushroom note along with a stewed prune sweetness that is faintly noticeable. The draw has matched those of its counterparts: slight resistance, 8/10. Upon first light I’m greeted with an altogether unexpected smoking experience. A fresh-cut grassy note mixed with orange rind zest come to the forefront, followed by a slight white pepper that lingers on the finish. I’d characterize the body as medium, but on the low end for sure. The smoking experience for all of the StillWell Stars has been nice and slow, so as I cross the mid-point I have had time to really take in the flavors. The citrus zest note quickly deepens into a baked apricot flavor, and the vinegar note present on the wrapper before light has now made itself present on the smoke as well. It goes well with the baked apricot sweetness. The white pepper finish has shifted into a slightly harsher black pepper, and is balanced by an umami/raw mushroom note. The low-end medium-body presence leaves me wanting for more. As I finish out the Bayou No. 32, the sweetness has left and now only an earthy, raw mushroom note paired with the light vinegar and black pepper remain. This cigar is a solid example of perique pipe tobacco, but I can’t help but look at it from the perspective of a premium cigar smoker and find that the overall balance of the cigar actually detracts from the smoking experience. I wanted more peaks and valleys to give the cigar complexity, instead they seemed to be smoothed out and almost monotonous.
StillWell Star Navy No. 1056
A crumble cake of stoved Red and Golden Virginia tobaccos with a touch of “Naval Rations” combined with Orientals and Latakia expertly blended with dark air-cured black cigar leaf. This puro rewards the smoker with a unique, medium bodied aromatic indulgence.
I had to check the foot band on this cigar to be certain that I hadn’t confusedly chosen another English No. 27 after giving the cigar a pass under my nose. The smell of fire-cured tobacco is immediately recognizable, though significantly lighter by comparison to the English No. 27. With the Navy, a sweetness almost matches the fire-cured tobacco note. It’s a raisin flavor, but when playing with the smoky, fire-cured profile, gives the cigar a “BBQ sauce burning on the smoker grate” quality. I kind of dig it. I have straight cut all four blends of the StillWell Star, and all four have matched draw consistency with an 8/10, showing the production quality of the lineup. A few slow and deliberate puffs after first light give a swirl of flavors. The Latakia smoky flavor is present but very subdued. The main elements catching my attention are a rich tobacco sweetness alongside a dried grassy hay note. I found it akin to summers growing up on the farm during the haying season. Moving to the halfway mark of the Navy 1056, the sweetness has lessened but is still present, and has taken on a plum brandy note. The fire-cured Latakia matches this sweetness and gives the cigar a “night spent around the bonfire passing homemade plum brandy around” type of vibe. As I finish out the Navy 1056, the sweetness has completely dissipated—only the smoky Latakia remains dominant. It’s kind of poetic, as the plum brandy tended to run out first on those bonfire nights as well. There is also a wet oaky flavor now appearing along with a pepper zing on the retrohale, causing the Navy No. 1056 to take a much darker finish than I would have expected.
The StillWell Star series from Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust thus far has been a very interesting take on what the term “hand-rolled, premium cigar” can mean. The construction of all four cigars was very well executed and very few touch-ups were needed on any of the blends. This is not to be taken lightly, as the varying densities of the tobaccos used for each means burn rates will vary as well; to be able to truly enjoy each of these cigars without having to constantly even up the burn is a testament to the overall quality of these cigars. I found it interesting while smoking all four blends that I started off using the word “balanced” a lot (and in a positive light), but by the end I found that “balanced” isn’t inherently positive. I understand that Steve intended these to be nuanced and not in your face, but for a couple of the blends it seemed that sanding down the peaks and valleys of the flavor profile left the cigars a little flat.
Speaking as a pipe smoker, I thoroughly enjoyed his decision to start with these four blends, as they are probably the most popular pipe tobacco styles on the market. Of course, there are many different takes on each of these styles on the market, but I felt that the collaborative efforts of Dunbarton and Cornell & Diehl really encompassed the overall expression of pipe tobacco in terms of being used in a premium, hand-rolled cigar. I’m excited to see where this line goes and what new blends are in store for the future. However, the price point for the StillWell Star is a little higher than I would like to see for this hybrid-style cigar, I will say that I encourage everyone to give all four blends a shot. Even if you are not a pipe smoker, the flavors on each are distinctly unique, and may even have you picking up a pipe and a pouch the next time you are at your favorite tobacconist.