Review: Illusione Garagiste
I have to admit I’ve been bitten by the boutique bug. It seems all I’ve been feeding my humidors these days are sticks from small but innovative cigar brands. To be fair, some of these are highly decorated by various industry cigar rags, but that’s not why I’m burning through cash like Harvey Weinstein in a Hollywood law firm. Nope, people are talking about them…no, wait…they’re enthusiastically chanting and sharing bits and pieces of their cigar nirvana as if their prayers have been answered. Hmmm, hard to ignore. So, prior to a recent excursion to my local humidor, I wrote up a short list of cigars on my “to smoke” list. I thought to myself, okay, let’s try and keep it under 15 sticks. Bwahahahaha…gimme a break. While my Hoover-Otter alter egos were duking it out, I kept to my checklist, for the most part, but sniffed around to see what else I might find. Sure enough, under a table were fresh boxes of various Illusione marcas. I’d picked up a positive nugget or two on the brand and was intrigued. I recognized the Garagiste and added a toro to my already stuffed basket. Dark. Oily. Thin, simple, government-issue band. Deceptively enticing? Sold. The more I learned about the brand the farther up my “to smoke” list it went. So, a week or so before Christmas I braved the sub-70 degree Texas weather and sat down for a tête-à-tête with Mr. Illusione.
Once you get to know all about Illusione, its hard not be intrigued, entertained and just a little befuddled all at the same time. Actually, it’s quite fun. I absolutely love the Illusione shtick with its pulp fiction imagery of government conspiracies, tales of UFOs and mysterious secret societies. The bus driver of this wild ride is Dion Giolito. A tall drink of water with a Rock-a-billy pompadour and Elvis-style lamb chop ‘burns, he looks every bit the part of the guy you might run into at the Al-e-Inn diner in Roswell or the guy staked out in the mountains surrounding Area 51 with night vision binoculars and a cooler full of Yoohoo and Slim Jims. Don’t be fooled by the campy vibe as Giolito is all business when it comes to quality and cigars. Hailing from Reno, Nevada, Giolito owns his own cigar shop, Fumare. After years of hawking his own label to Reno regulars, since 2006 he’s built an impressive US distribution and his brands have been featured in Cigar Aficionado’s top 25 no less than 7 times, the Garagiste being the most recent, hauling in a 91 and 90 for the robusto and toro respectively. You will quickly learn that Giolito’s intention behind Illusione is to NOT be an industry standard, but rather a laser focus on a flavor bomb that is deceptively enticing.
Did you know: Dion Giolito got his start making his own sticks with the help of Tatuaje’s Pete Johnson.
- Profile: Medium – Full
- Vitola: Toro
- Length / Ring Gauge: 6.0″/ 52
- Purchased: Local Humidor
- Origin: Honduras
- Wrapper: Ecuador Colorado Habano
- Binder: Nicaragua
- Filler: Nicaragua Criollo ’98, Corojo ’99 and Ligero
- Cutter: Colibri V-cut
- Lighter: Colibri Firebird
- Price range: $9.40 – $10.30
Giolito has often commented how difficult it is to navigate the cigar industry. His tales of lies and deceit from farmers and brokers is not new, but it has forced him to probably spend more time than he wants overseeing contracted rollers get his sticks just the way he wants. And its paid off. Many of Illusione’s cigars are made in Esteli, Nicaragua at the TABSA factory owned by Eduardo Fernandez, co-owner of Aganorsa tobacco growers. Giolito’s cigars are intentionally blended with flavor the only focus, and he favors cigars more mild to medium in strength. Cognizant of this, Giolito bristles at those who think he should produce cigars with more strength, refusing to bend to the wisdom of creating strength for the sake of itself. Unlike many boutiques, Giolito painstakingly blends all his own cigars and has earned the respect of the top blenders in the industry. Again, his savant-like sentience of taste and olfactory appeal has paid dividends, earning him no less than 3 trips to Cigar Aficionado’s top 10 list. The Garagiste comes in 4 vitolas and are packaged in boxes of 20. The firmness of the shaft is rock-hard from head to foot which is a bit disconcerting, but not necessarily a bad thing. To my eyes, the cap application looks a bit haphazard – a little messy. The oily Habano wrapper is very veiny and toothy with semi-visible seams. The rustic bourbon-colored shaft exudes notes of green tea, chocolate and hay. The foot offers a pleasant sweetness punctuated by raisins and cocoa. The draw is excellent with my V-Cutter with the cold draw providing hints of oats and raisins.
Post light, I am treated to a wash of nuttiness and earth with a delicious leathery overlay. As the initial third takes flight, there’s a wonderful creaminess with red pepper, a good spice and a rich coffee finish. The nuttiness evolves into roasted peanuts and there are hints of baking spice in the mix, particularly on the retrohale. The combustion is decent with some oats in the background, but it does burn uneven at times. No touch-ups required. I’m loving the level of complexity and it is so well-balanced!
The transition to the middle third starts early at a little past the 1″ mark. There’s a definite shift to a more earthy profile, but there are still nice nutty and leathery nuances. I love that the oats are more prevalent. Still rich, but less creamy and that’s ok. The pepper is still in the mix along with some wood. As I travel through the middle third, the leather steps it up which adds some awesome texture and adds to the finish. Awesomeness. I noticed the ash is a bit on the flaky side and the combustion is faltering enough to require one touch-up. It recovered nicely into the final third without additional interventions.
Like the earlier transition, I definitely got an earlier than expected profile change, this time into a more cedar and wood character. To be clear, this is not a bad thing. Transitions need not occur at exactly the 2″ mark (in the case of this 6.0″ toro). The heft in body is noticeable with good balance but there is a dip in complexity. Again, that’s ok and the espresso-like finish is warm and comforting. Combustion is perfect in the final round with a nice even char line for the duration.
This was truly a great smoking experience. We are the beneficiaries of some great blending these days and there doesn’t appear to be a shortage anytime soon. I can see why Giolito’s cigars do so well. They are delicious. They are satisfying. Forget the accolades, which I’m sure are important to a point, but Giolito has done an amazing job with the flavor profile. Giolito is known to stroll into the tobacco warehouse, select a particular bale, remove a leaf and roll a “purito” and smoke it to assess the flavor. This isn’t just micromanaging and a gift for finding great flavors and balance – this is love, guys. Overall, the construction is great. I’ll admit I was bit concerned about the lead pipe-like firmness and the gawky cap, but the draw was excellent throughout the smoke. The combustion got off from time to time but it’s not a big deal. So where does the Garagiste land in the vast desert of solid boutique smokes? For the medium and medium-full lovers out there, this should definitely be in your top 10. I will always keep 4-5 in my humi and share them. Pairing won’t be difficult with this baby. The “disinformation”, as Giolito likes to refer to it, is the representation of the anti-establishment facade of Illusione’s artificial nature. In other words, forget the hype. The simple and beautiful truth is in the cigar itself. I hope one day I’m enjoying this, or one of the other Illusione treats at a cigar lounge or bar and someone asks, “hey, whatcha got there?” It’ll be a great story. – In Fumo Pax!