Posted: Apr 30, 2015 12:00am ET
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.
While I was there living the life, I thought it would be fun to do some things that departed from the usual touristy activities of visiting museums, riding around in vintage U.S. automobiles and digging around the shelves of the city's great cigar shops. So I figured if I was going to sound like a Cuban and eat like a Cuban, I might as well take a stab at really looking like a Cuban. And, what is more symbolic of how we view the island's people than their dances and their dress?
How does a middle-aged journalist learn how to dance like a Cuban? Some wags might say that's impossible. But, of course, he hires a young dance teacher for a lesson. Her name was Yakima, and she is a professional dancer at the Club Parisien in the Hotel Nacional, where she performs in a nightly dance extravaganza. For an hour in the living room of a friend's house, we worked on the moves for "casino," the most popular dance among Cuba's youth today, but also two more traditional dances, Cha-Cha-Cha and the Conga. By the end of the hour, she was very diplomatic: "You need to work on it every day for another 364 days and you'll have it." Yakima can be reached through the tour agency, InCloud9.
If you don't have a living room, or the free pass to hire a pretty young dance instructor, there is a dance studio in Habana Vieja where you can pay by the hour. It's called La Casa del Son, and it's on Empredrado No. 411 on the corner with Aguacate.
Posted: Apr 16, 2015 12:00am ET
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.
By 6 p.m., the invitees were lined up on Presidente Masaryk, a broad avenue that runs in front of the embassy, and through the city's ritzy Polanco neighborhood. The Cuban Embassy, a large block square piece of land, is a modern design from the 1970s that is beginning to show its age around the edges. But after passing muster with the guard at the gate, the visitors walked around a large empty fountain, up a set of stairs and into a large entry hall. There were booths from Omas pens, Xikar cutters and lighters, and, of course, bars filled with Havana Club 7 year old; mojitos were the order of the day. I chose my usual—7-year-old on the rocks with a squeeze of lime.
The first of the evening's events was a by-invitation tasting of Havana Club Selección de Maestros paired with a Montecristo Open Master, a somewhat milder cigar that reached the world market six years ago. The cigar is aimed at a segment of the market that doesn't automatically like big, robust cigars. I thought the smoke was overpowered by the rum, which is a 90-proof version blended by the top rum masters in Cuba. It is an overpoweringly delicious rum with the higher alcohol definitely filling the mouth with a spicy sensation, and lingering on the palate.
By the end of the tasting, the room and the terrace immediately outside were filled with hundreds of people milling around smoking cigars and drinking rum and talking. They came from a wide range of ages, both young and old, men and women. I was amazed by the number of people who knew Cigar Aficionado magazine, and were excited to have a representative of the magazine there. Yes, I even gave a short presentation in Spanish to the crowd, hopefully not embarrassing myself too much, but reminding everyone about why cigars are one of the great unifiers in this crazy world we live in.
Posted: Feb 27, 2015 1:00pm ET
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.
The rationalization, in this case, also has a solid foundation as a culinary test. Octopus can be easily screwed up. Cook it too long and it turns rubbery. Lay on too much seasoning and you can wipe out the subtleties of its origins from the sea. But, in the hands of creative chef, you can discover the extent of their skills—raw, marinated in citrus juice, cooked in the just the right amount of oil and garlic, or grilled on a hot coal fire. Properly prepared, and showing off its freshness, it can be a revelation.
So, how many times have I had some version of octopus this month? Hmmm. I've lost track. I can only hope it doesn't have some still undisclosed concentration of mercury, or some other ocean pollutant, because I've exceeded the monthly quota by a mile. I have had it in just about every cookbook version I've ever read about. Grilled, lightly warmed and then thin-sliced with a lime marinade, garlic and chopped potatoes, cut into small pieces and served with sliced peppers and a green salad, steeped in a small ceramic dish with olive oil and garlic. There have been a couple of misfires. A large tough octopus. One overcooked. But the vast majority have been outstanding.
Posted: Feb 25, 2015 2:00pm ET
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 .
For the next two hours, I smoked each of the two cigars and sipped the rums, looking to find the perfect match of flavor and aromatic characteristics of each, trying to determine the perfect marriage of the two.
The cigars represent a new style of product for Habanos. The Añejado line has cigars that have been aged between five to eight years; both boxes in the tasting had been packed in late 2008. The cigars already show the characteristics of an aged cigar. They were elegant and well-balanced without any sharp edges of fresh tobacco.
Although I had a plugged Romeo y Julieta Pirámides, I replaced it with a second cigar that performed well, with a long, tight ash and a perfect draw. Looking around the room of about 40 invited guests, I had the only flawed cigar. The Pirámides was a full-flavored smoke, with some deep notes of spiciness and earth, and a long finish. Although it already has a lot of box age, this cigar will continue to evolve and shows good aging potential.
The Montecristo Añejado Churchill ended up being the favorite of the 40 people in the room. It presented a classic Montecristo flavor, elegant and refined with a solid core of light earthiness and coffee notes on the palate. It performed flawlessly, holding a long ash on a perfect draw. This cigar has tremendous aging potential, and will only continue to get better.
Oh yeah, the rum. Yes, I smoked and tasted the cigars with each of the two rums, two of the finest in the Havana Club line. When I ran out of Selección de Maestros, the glass magically refilled. In the end, my preference was the 15-year-old with the Romeo y Julieta; I thought the Selección de Maestros overpowered it. And, I preferred the Selección with the Montecristo. The majority linked the Montecristo with the 15-year-old.
Posted: Feb 10, 2015 2:15pm ET
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.
But the new Edición Limitada releases from 2014, including Cohiba Robusto Supremos and Partagás Seleccion Privada, are in the shops, according the managers of several of them, just not out of shelves yet. Why? Habanos has managed to get the cigars there but without the new bar code and pricing information so the stores can sell them. Most expect that information this week, and certainly, those cigars will be on sale before the annual Festival de Habanos, which begins on February 23.
But beyond those specific shortages, five of the Casas del Habanos that I visited on Friday were not only well-stocked but most said they were expecting additional inventory this week. They also reported that they usually don't have to wait for fulfillment of any orders. Prices haven't changed that much since last year, so there are still some bargains.
My other observations were that the cigars on the shelves are predominantly from mid-year to fall 2014. The remainder of the boxes are mostly 2013 dates, with smaller percentages from 2010 to 2011. And, nearly all the major brands in their principle sizes—things like Montecristo No. 2s, Partagás Lusitanias, H. Upmann Sir Winstons and Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas—could be found most everywhere.
Here is a quick rundown by shop of what was available, with an attempt to note some of the unusual items, some with a bit more age on them, and their prices. (Prices have been converted from CUCs to U.S. dollars, and include the exchange fee.)
Posted: Feb 9, 2015 10:15am ET
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.
The cigar was Cigar Aficionado's Cigar of the Year in 2010. I lit it up in the patio of one of Havana's many thriving late night bars, Espacios. No doubt about it. What better place to smoke one of the greatest current production cigars of the last five years than in its home country.
I've been in Havana for a week, navigating around tour groups and finding hotel after hotel full of tourists, seemingly most of them Americans, and discovering top restaurants booked, or the streets in front of them lined with tour buses. One friend wanted to change hotels and couldn't find a room at the small group of hotels that offer lodging at international standards in and around central Havana. I will be writing a lot more about what's happening on the ground here in the months ahead, but suffice it to say the impact from President Obama's announcement to loosen travel restrictions and establish full diplomatic relations can already be seen.
Back to the Cohiba Behike. I had pulled it out of a locker I have here, and had it tucked safely away in a humidor bag, while I smoked, among other things, a Romeo y Julieta Churchill (It was well-balanced with a solid cocoa bean note), a Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo de San Juan, one of last year's new releases (Still showing some youthful tastes and flavors), and some private cigars given to me by a friend. But the Behike 52 kept beckoning.
Thursday night turned into the perfect moment. Havana had been drenched all afternoon in a major thunderstorm, which had let up by the time I headed for an early music concert in a small venue in Miramar. Our table finished off a bottle of Havana Club 7-year-old before we went to dinner at a great new restaurant called Otra Manera. I still had the Behike in my pocket. We left dinner and headed over to another incredible art gallery and music venue called the Fabrica del Arte, but the only smoking space was outdoors. (Yes, cigar lovers, there are indoor spaces now in Cuba where you are not allowed to smoke), and it had started sprinkling again. I said enough. Let's go find a place to smoke.
Posted: Jan 18, 2015 1:30pm ET
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.
A.J. Fernandez, with brands such as San Lotano and New World, has been working in Estelí for nearly a decade. But two years ago, he built a cigar-producing palace on the edge of town, set back from a bumpy dirt and stone road. The factory sits behind a 10-foot cream and rust stucco wall with fancy wrought iron along its top edge. The entrance is a circular driveway surrounded by the factory's buildings.
For Fernandez, the factory represents a long-term strategy of vertical integration, which is also highlighted by a tobacco farm just a few hundred yards down the road, behind the same imposing wall. "This is a marathon," he said, "and keeps getting better every year."
The A.J. Fernandez factory produces between 10 to 12 million cigars a year, and with 170 two-person teams of rollers and bunchers, they are currently at peak production level. When you make 40,000 to 45,000 cigars daily, it demands a huge infrastructure of workers and tobacco inventory, all of which are under the same tile roof. Room after room are beehives of activity, with strippers pulling the veins of big, aged tobacco leaves, sorters finding subtle shades of color in each leaf and piling them together, and workers lifting and restacking pilones, the big stacks of tobacco going through the fermentation process. In the aging rooms, the nylon packs of tobacco from Nicaragua, Indonesia, Dominican Republic, Peru, Paraguay, Brazil and Pennsylvania reach halfway up to the 25-foot high ceilings. And, of course, it all feeds into the gigantic rolling room, which feels as big as a football field. The bent-over teams race to finish their daily quota of 400 to 450 cigars each. It is a factory designed to be as efficient as possible.
Posted: Dec 18, 2014 4:30pm ET
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.
We at Cigar Aficionado have been arguing for this moment since the magazine was launched in 1992. It was not very complicated for us. We saw that the Cuban people suffered the most under America's policy. And, we have always believed that the best way to get the Cuban government to open up was to lift all restrictions on both economic and personal interactions with the island, just 90 miles to our south. The rigid U.S. stance served as the boogeyman for the Cuban government, giving it a convenient scapegoat for any shortages, lack of economic development or almost anything that didn't work right inside Cuba. And, by restricting trade and all economic contact, the United States denied itself its greatest weapon—the strength of its capitalist system.
We have never glossed over the deficiencies and shortcomings of Cuba's current regime. Nor have we ever dismissed the deep emotions of Cuban-Americans who fled the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Those are realities that will only be resolved over many years. But over the years, we have pointed out repeatedly that after more than 50 years of a policy that failed to produce any obvious positive results for America, it was time to try the only thing that had not been tried—dealing directly with the Cuban leadership and opening up links between the two countries.
Posted: Dec 15, 2014 10:30am ET
It's that time of year again. The Top 25 reveal started this morning. I can tell you that it takes a lot of extraordinary effort to put together that final selection. As one of the tasters this year, I know how seriously we take this part of our job. But the reveal makes it all the more fun for those of us involved because we finally get to see your reactions to our picks.
Some of you must be saying he is a masochist. After all, not everyone agrees with the choices. And, sometimes the responses, or attacks, on the Cigar Aficionado tasting panel, makes one wonder about what's going on in the world. So, it's a good time to remind everyone how the process works, and how objective and fair we try to make it.
We taste more than 700 cigars a year. At the end of our calendar year—after the November/December issue is put to bed and we have the final tasting results from it—the editors go over the list of the top-scoring cigars. We keep updating that list through the end of October as issues of Cigar Insider are published; that often gives us a chance to get cigars into the Top 25 which were introduced at the IPCPR show and often don't reach the market until September.
We select a representative cross section of cigars, trying to include every company and region with qualifying scores, with a focus on the best in each brand. Those selected cigars are put through another blind test—the bands removed, numbered bands put on them and then smoked. Once that test is done, we typically have a top 10 (sometimes that number is as big as 15, or perhaps as small as seven or so) and those cigars are smoked blind once again to determine the top cigar of the year. Occasionally, as with this year, there's yet another round to determine that final winner.
And that's when the fun begins. We get to shoot videos with the cigars, smoking them for the camera. And we get to smoke them on our own to revel in the quality of the cigars in the Top 25. And, we wait for your feedback.
Posted: Oct 30, 2014 1:00pm ET
It has been a month of firsts. But Saturday night ranked up there as the best of the best. It was my birthday. And, it was the first night my wife and I stayed in our new home in Querétaro, Mexico. It has been a three-year odyssey, with a lot of twists and turns, but it all came together on October 25, 2014.
Needless to say, such a momentous occasion deserved a cigar worthy of the moment. I'll be frank—Saturday night I was so tired I nearly fell asleep in my food at the small nearby Italian bistro where we had dinner. That evening passed without the cigar. But after another long day of unpacking on Sunday, I was ready to treat myself.
Smoking the first cigar in my new home couldn't be done without the proper adult beverage accompaniment. I hadn't forgotten. During the long day of hitting Costco and Home Depot (yes, they have huge ones here in Querétaro) and a gigantic grocery store, I stumbled on a bottle of 7-year-old Flor de Caña, which given my journalistic roots in Nicaragua back in 1978, seemed to offer symmetry, as well as it being one of my favorite rums.
At 6:45 pm on Sunday, I found my wife and asked her what she wanted to drink. I prepared her a rum and tonic, splashed with fresh squeezed orange juice from the tree in our back patio (Do I hear house cocktail?), and I poured myself a generous portion of Flor de Caña over ice.
The sun had just set, leaving a broad swatch of orange and pink in the sky over the rooftops of the city, and a crescent moon was sliding toward the western horizon. Jet contrails slashed across the darkening sky.
The cigar? I had a 2008 Partagás Lusitania given to me by a friend here in Mexico. The wrapper was a shiny reddish brown; a classic Colorado color. The burn was perfect and the draw had just enough effort to keep the ash even. The flavor reminded me of great Lusitanias I've had in the past; deep coffee notes with a hint of a sweet spice like cinnamon. On the finish, there was that telltale note of Cuban ligero, a little punch to the taste that lingers on the palate. In other words, it was a near-perfect cigar for a near-perfect moment.