I couldn't believe my eyes. I was in the Mexico City airport in one of those exclusive lounges managed by a big company, and I signed on to my laptop wanting to check to see if my latest blog had been uploaded yet on Cigar Aficionado. I waited about 10 seconds, and suddenly, one of those alert notices filled my computer screen saying that I had been denied access to the site because it was about "tobacco."
By now, you all know I'm living in Mexico. Over the last nine months, I've had the good fortune to meet some serious cigar smokers here in my new hometown, Querétaro. For the most part, they are Cuban cigar smokers. They know a bit about Dominican and Nicaraguan brands, and some of them have smoked brands like Padrón and Fuente Fuente OpusX. But more often than not, they have only heard of those brands, partly because they have such a wide audience around the world.
I spent 15 days in Cuba during the month of February, reporting on hotels, restaurants and the nightlife for the June issue of Cigar Aficionado, which is on newsstands now. That's long enough to start sounding like a Cuban (their accent is, shall we say, a bit difficult), eating like a Cuban (daily doses of black beans and rice) and living every day like a lot of Cubans by staying out late at night and not rushing to greet the morning.
Under the watchful gaze of big posters of Fidel Castro, more than 1,300 people gathered last month in Mexico City at the Cuban Embassy to smoke cigars, drink rum and then dance the night away to Cuban music. It was Habanos Day 2015, a celebration of two of Cuba's iconic products—rum and cigars—held in conjunction with Mexico's importer of Cuban cigars, headed up by Max Gutmann, and the importer of Havana Club rum to Mexico, Pernod Ricard, represented by Noel Adrian, the president and director general in Mexico.
I confess: I love octopus dishes in Cuba. There's no shame in that. Right?
I could try to explain it away by suggesting that when I'm looking for a simple benchmark to compare restaurants for either business or personal reasons, I like to have a common dish that can show off the strength, or weakness, of a kitchen. That would be a true statement for this last assignment that I've been reporting for more than 10 days, and nearly 30 restaurants, in Havana. But it would also be a lie. I love octopus, so it's a convenient choice for a benchmark dish.
I had a glass of water with breakfast. Good thing.
At 10 a.m., I sat down in one of the well-appointed conference rooms at the Palco convention center in Havana, the command center for the 17th Festival del Habano. In front of me were two glasses of rum, a Havana Club Selección de Maestros and a Havana Club Añejo 15-year-old. Right next to the glasses of rum were two cigars, recent releases by Habanos S.A.—the Montecristo Añejado Churchill and the Romeo y Julieta Añejado Pirámides .
That headline might be enough to send cigar lovers into a frenzy. A shortage of cigars? In Havana? What is the world coming to?
Relax. Any rumors of shortages simply aren't true. For now, anyway.
Here's at least part of the real story, and perhaps the origin for some of the rumors. There are almost no Cohiba Behikes in the principle Casas del Habano in the Cuban capital; the shop at the Habana Libre has Behikes 52s and Behike 54s, and the shop at Club Habana in Miramar had a few Behike 52s. But those were the only ones I saw last week and it wasn't a large inventory. It also not clear there will be any, anytime soon.
My first thought, after my first puff of a 2010 Cohiba Behike BHK 52, was why are there only three of these cigars left in my locker? By the time I got down to the knuckle-burning length a little over an hour later, I was amazed at the depth of flavor, and the promise of several decades of aging potential.
Estelí, Nicaragua. The epicenter of the country's cigar renaissance is a mishmash of old and new, thrown together in a haphazard, Third World boomtown kind of way. New supermarkets next to street food stands. Stacks of new tires at a ramshackle roadside shed next to a shiny fast-food joint. And, in the cigar world, brand new factory palaces and older, more traditional edifices sit within arrowshot of each other. The new A.J. Fernandez factory, and the older factory of the Plasencia family, epitomize the juxtaposition.
Is today the day cigar smokers have been waiting for? That day when Cuba is no longer isolated, no longer taboo for Americans who love to smoke cigars? It is really too early to answer those questions.
What is clear is that officials of both nations have been in direct contact with each other, (apparently repeatedly over the last 18 months) culminating in the first direct conversation since the early 1960s between the two nation's presidents—an hour-long phone chat between President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro. They agreed to swap prisoners—Alan Gross for three Cuban spies held in U.S. jails—and to begin discussions to re-establish formal diplomatic relations between the two countries, with a U.S. embassy to open in Havana. It is a historic moment, and has to be seen as the first step in a thaw in the 53-year freeze between the two neighbors.
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