Posted: Feb 25, 2014 10:00am ET
The soft, magical lighting bathed the circular entrance to Club Habana, a former yacht club in the Miramar section of Havana. The guests entered through a phalanx of costumed dancers with headdresses, receiving elegant black packages of the two cigars spotlighted on the evening: the Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo de San Juan and the Partagás Serie D No. 6. There were bars serving Cuban rum and Spanish Cava, and canapés were passed through the crowd. It was the gala opening dinner for the 16th annual Festival del Habanos, Cuba's yearly extravaganza celebrating one of the country's principal products: cigars.
The event then got started with a video presentation projected onto the façade of the Club Habana, a beautiful building built in the 1920s. The video included graphic representations of tobacco barns, and the new cigars being presented that night.
The crowd then filtered into the building, where there were buffets for dinner—chicken, lobster, squid and beef with more rum and more wine. There were more than 1,000 people milling around the club's beach, and hanging on the huge balconies. There were small bands performing in some rooms, and a rock and roll band off in a cabana at one end of the club. The aroma of fine cigars wafted over the entire crowd, many of the women decked out in beautiful gowns.
The highlight of the evening finally kicked off about 10:30; A performance by the world renowned Cuban salsa band, Los Van Van. It was the first time the group had performed at the Habanos Festival.
The Festival continues today with visits to Pinar del Río, and the Vuelta Abajo.
Posted: Jan 30, 2014 3:00pm ET
Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca pointed up at the pock-marked brick facade of the Joya de Nicaragua factory, outlined with mustard-yellow pillars up to the peak of the roof. When they removed layers of paint, the bricks revealed the damage done by mortar fire, and probably .50 caliber machine gun fire, during the Sandinista uprising in Estelí in 1978. Dr. Martinez Cuenca, himself a former Sandinista presidential candidate and the owner of Joya de Nicaragua today, said they had decided to leave the evidence of war as a reminder to everyone how far the country had come.
Dr. Martinez Cuenca had invited some guests to the factory, in advance of a tour given to attendees of the Nicaraguan Cigar Festival, to show off the renovation that had just been completed during the last weeks of 2013, and to talk about his plans for the future. The renovation coincides with the company's 45th anniversary.
The renovation is an accomplishment of reframing an old building with many inefficiencies into a small but modern cigar factory. There are now large rooms on the floor plan, and more room to expand in the future. The rolling room today has about 50 pairs of workers—one man and one woman in each team doing the bunching and the rolling of the wrapper onto the cigar. The factory is currently producing just over four million cigars a year.
But as fascinating as the refurbished factory is today, there is a deeper allure because of its connection to the history of cigars and tobacco in Nicaragua. Black tobacco, the type used in premium handrolled cigars, wasn't even planted in Nicaragua until 1965. The Nicaragua Cigar Co., the forerunner to the Joya de Nicaragua brand, was founded in 1968. The original owners were Juan Francisco Bermejo and Simon Camacho, two Cubans who had spearheaded the cultivation of cigar tobacco in Nicaragua. They had quite a bit of early success, and by 1971, Joya de Nicaragua had become the official cigar at the White House.
It was there, the story goes, that Nicaragua's dictator, Gen. Anastasio Somoza, discovered the cigar, and upon his return to Nicaragua, he exerted pressure on Bermejo and Camacho, taking a majority stake in the company. Over the next few years, he acquired total control of the company. In the years preceding the Sandinista Revolution, the factory had begun to produce more than nine million cigars a year. But its connection to the Somoza regime made it a target in the uprising and it was destroyed. Within four months of the Sandinista victory in 1979, the factory had been rebuilt and was up and running.
Posted: Jan 22, 2014 3:00pm ET
Jorge Padrón stood in the damp furrow between rows of tobacco planted just five weeks before. He fondled the velvety leaves, already nearly waist high, between his fingers, and said, "Isn't this beautiful?" It was; a field of luminescent-green tobacco stretched several football fields away, with the leaves moving seductively in the light morning breeze under the brilliant tropical sunshine.
For Padrón, the president of Piloto Cigars, the parent company of the Padrón cigar brand, the field represents more than just a pretty place to grow tobacco. It's an investment in the future.
"This is about protection for us," he said. He later explained the two new fincas—small farms—that he had shown me that morning were part of a long-term strategy to give the company control over nearly all the tobacco the Padróns use, and to ensure the supply as they begin to plan for expansion beyond the approximately six million cigars a year they are making now.
Padrón said that the two fincas—Villa Vieja and Donoso—will primarily be used to grow ligero tobacco, the strongest leaves in the filler blends for Padrón cigars. Ligero has been in short supply in recent years, making Padrón's decision to take total control of the farms all the more important.
Villa Vieja had been part of the Padrón's tobacco mix, but they had been renting the property from the owners. The Padróns also built a new tobacco processing facility on the property, all painted in the signature yellow and brown of Padrón properties, and renovated the farm's tobacco barns.
Donoso is a new acquisition, but it is also located in the flat, volcanic soils around the city of Estelí. The Padróns have also built several new tobacco barns on the property
Posted: Nov 8, 2013 12:00pm ET
If you were born as part of the post-World War II baby boom, you remember where you were on November 22, 1963. This year, the events of 50 years ago—maybe more so than ever before—strike me as so surreal that they should be part of a fantasy, or a bad nightmare.
I was headed to a doctor's office when the news came on the radio. My mother started crying in the front seat. And, as we waited for the appointment, I can remember the adults in the room were just in shock. We spent the next two days glued to the television, witnessing a true national tragedy. This was America. How could such a thing happen in our country?
The National Geographic Channel will air a docudrama this weekend, Killing Kennedy, starring Rob Lowe as President Kennedy, and Ginnifer Goodwin as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Mercifully, it steers clear of the seemingly endless stream of conspiracy theories about who killed the president, 50 years of wild stories that have laid the blame at the feet of everyone from the Mafia, pro-Vietnam military officers, Cuba, the Soviet Union and disgruntled segregationists. At some point in the last 50 years, the attempts to explain that day have done more to muddy the waters around the event than provide any lasting proof of anything. For more on the conspiracy tales, check out "The Darkest Day" in the Nov/Dec issue of Cigar Aficionado, written by Peter Kornbluh.
Killing Kennedy focuses on the things we do know. The reason for President Kennedy's trip. The shooting. Lee Harvey Oswald's murder of a Dallas policeman. His subsequent assassination by Jack Ruby. We are not spared the now widely accepted rumors about JFK's dalliances with women other than the First Lady, nor does the film avoid the death of their newborn son Patrick or the president's own health problems with his bad back. In the end, probably to the chagrin of some historians, the film burnishes the image of the Kennedy White House as Camelot, an image that has endured through the decades.
Posted: Nov 6, 2013 2:00pm ET
The best moment came as my wife and I drove down the Taconic State Parkway on a fall Sunday afternoon. We came up over the crest of a hill with a lookout that has a panoramic view of the Hudson Valley west to the Catskill Mountains. I glimpsed a row of vintage Corvettes with their drivers standing next to the cars, chatting. I honked, and as I drove by it was like a ZZ Top video—the entire line-up of six drivers turned in unison and waved.
Those who read my car blogs regularly know that one of my benchmarks is how much attention a new car gets. The Corvette club drivers were just one in a never-ending sequence of turned heads, thumbs-up and big smiles. There was the guy in the gas station who asked if he could take a picture. And there was the New York State trooper, sitting in a car in his speed trap site who had a big grin on his face as I drove by at a stately 58 mph, which barely gets the V8 turning over; he was probably laughing, knowing that I hadn't been going 58 the entire length of the Taconic. I hadn't, but then I also know where almost all the favorite hiding spots are along the entire highway, and I know where to slow down.
The object of everyone's desire? The new 2014 Corvette Stingray, or in Corvette parlance, a C7, which stands for the seventh generation of the car since it's inception in the 1950s. This may be the best Corvette ever built. It answers some of the long-standing critiques of the car that wondered how a world-class sports car could have such an average interior. My fire-engine red Stingray had bright red leather interior with black accents and looked like a top German or Japanese car. For the Corvette purist, the loss of some of its brusqueness may be too much to bear, but the added little touches of comfort, the relatively quiet interior and the not-too-hard ride make for a better day-to-day driving experience.
On the other hand, the 6.2 liter, 455-horsepower V8 doesn't take much coaxing to turn this two-door into a beast. At triple-digit speeds (and I swear I didn't get beyond that magic threshold more than once) there's a feeling that there's a lot more power left to run out. And, there's excellent road feel at all times. My test car had a six-speed, paddle-shifted automatic transmission, and I can see where the 7-speed manual would make the car much more appealing to a driving enthusiast; but trust me, it's a quibble—not a deal breaker—to have the automatic, even though I didn't find the shifting as smooth as some other high-end, paddle-shift systems.
Posted: Oct 15, 2013 12:00pm ET
Dress code: Black tie. The room: Wood paneled with high ceilings. The food: shellfish stations and filet mignon for dinner. The drink: open bar and bottomless wine glasses at the meal. Sound like the good old days? It was. Maybe even better than the good old days. It's happening regularly at the Union League in Philadelphia, and the bow to the past was on full display there the last week of September.
There are nostalgic events that are melancholy remembrances of times past. And, then, there are moments that honor and glorify the past in a present day showcase, a reminder that what was, can be again and again and again. The event was the Union League Heritage Cigar Club's formal dinner; this year, they honored Robert Levin, owner of Holt's Cigar Co. and the Ashton cigar brands, with the club's "Cigar Industry Family Service Award." There are almost too many reasons why Robbie, as all his friends in the business know him, should be given an award like this: the Levin family's nearly 70 years in the cigar business in Philadelphia; Holt's dedication to Philadelphia's downtown; and the family's true devotion to creating some of the best cigars on the market today—Ashton, La Aroma de Cuba and San Cristobal. And those are just the obvious ones.
About 125 people gathered that night at the Union League. It reminded me of the great Ritz-Carlton smokers that were held through the early 1990s, all true tributes to the good life associated with a fine, hand-rolled cigar. The men, as noted, were decked out in formal attire, and the women were dressed to the nines, too. The aroma of fine cigars filled the cocktail hour, held in one of the club's great ballrooms. I had the honor of introducing Robbie, and took the opportunity to tell the crowd about the many wonderful families that dominate the hand-rolled cigar industry. Robbie's family was in the room: his wife, Suzanne, his son Sathya, and his daughter Meera. Members of the Fuente family were there, too: Carlos Fuente Jr. and his daughter Liana, Cynthia Fuente and her son Carlos.
Posted: Sep 16, 2013 12:00pm ET
There are more than a few perks of being a magazine editor in New York. For the most part, I write about the cool cars I get to drive, the golf clubs I get to test and, sometimes, the weird things sent to me to try out. I also used to attend wine tastings, but I have not done that much in recent years. However, when the invite for a lunch at Krug House arrived in my email, I couldn't say no. If you love fine things, tasting the current releases of Krug Champagne is like playing Augusta or dining at Per Se or getting fitted for a Savile Row suit.
I set off to the location, which changes every year, one of those relatively new marketing concepts called a pop-up. This year, Krug House was in a spectacular West Village townhouse, just off Washington Square; when I googled it, the address appeared on some real estate listings. (If you have to ask, you can't afford it.)
The house was a lovely, completely renovated six-story townhouse on a tree-lined block. Each floor of the building was decked out by Krug with its current marketing and promotional idea, "Stirring the Senses," which touches on the five senses (taste, smell, sight, touch and sound) with a sixth one, Enlightenment, added for the rooftop level, which had a partial view of the Empire State Building. The lunch was held in conjunction with one of New York's leading wine retail shops, Sherry-Lehmann. Three guys there—Shyda Gilmer, Matt Wong and Chris Adams—are cigar lovers, too.
The wines were spectacular. We started with the Krug Grand Cuvée, a non-vintage Champagne that nonetheless uses much older wines in its blend than most non-vintage Champagnes. We also drank a 2000 Krug, a 2000 Clos de Mesnil, which is a single vineyard in Champagne and a Krug Rose. With desert, we drank a 1989 Krug, from the Krug Collection, a stunning example of how well good Champagne can age.
I won't give you all my tasting notes. Let's just say that I could drink every one of those Champagnes every day of the year, and never get tired of them.
Posted: Sep 10, 2013 4:00pm ET
I grabbed a Cigar Aficionado baseball hat from the closet on Saturday as I set out to forage for dinner in the local farmer's market. Early September harvests are bountiful this year in the Hudson Valley, so it was great to pick through the heirloom tomatoes, the last of the sweet corn crop and fresh peaches. The stalls were packed with people on a sunny morning.
We're lucky to have a Long Island fishmonger at the market, too. I had already cleared a scallop entrée for dinner with my wife, and sure enough, he had some fresh scallops waiting for me. As he began to fill up a plastic bag, he said, "Cigar Aficionado, I read that magazine all the time."
Although I usually don't say much, I said, "Yes, I'm the executive editor of that magazine."
"Really," he said. I apologized for not having some cigars with me to give to him. We had a brief conversation about what kind of cigars he liked, and then I went on my way.
But I was reminded later just how often I'm surprised when I'm out in public by people saying they love cigars or that they read the magazine or both. They love to talk about cigars, and want to know everything they can.
In the magazine's early days, back in the mid-1990s, it was always exciting to hear from readers, in part because it made us feel like we're weren't alone. It felt good to know we were building a community.
I'm gratified to know that the cigar clan has spread far and wide. Whether it's on a golf course, in an airline terminal, walking down the street or buying fish at a farmer's market, it is always fun to know there are fellow lovers of the leaf in every walk of life. If you're like me, and there's some hint that the person shares your passion for cigars, take the time to stop and talk with them. We may not be a huge community, but it is important to keep the clan alive and thriving.
Posted: Aug 20, 2013 4:00pm ET
Awesome is the first descriptive word that comes to mind after a weekend in the new Jaguar F-type sports car. What does that mean? I guess it is just a more succinct way of saying spine-tingling, jaw-dropping, neck-snapping, eye-popping and just outrageously fun.
The fun starts as you approach this car. The sleek, low-slung, two-door sports car was dressed in white for my weekend test drive, and the black convertible top set off the smooth arcing lines, the front air intakes and the oval Jaguar grill. There was a subtle hint of what I was about to experience—a small "S" next to a green and red emblem. The gentleman who delivered the car to me smiled devilishly and said, "Be careful, it's very powerful."
Yeah, right. If you've read my blogs, and car reviews in Cigar Aficionado, I've had the great fortune to drive some of the fastest supercars in the world during the last 20 years: Lamborghini Gallardo, Bentley GT, Aston Martin Vantage and a Corvette ZR-1. I'm also lucky to have friends who own Porsches and even an Audi R-8. So, I've been behind the wheel of 400-plus horsepower beasts enough to know they can surprise you with how quickly you can lose control if you're not careful. Guess what, the guy was right.
The F-Type V8 has a supercharged engine that churns out 495 horsepower. The official zero to 60 time is 4.2 seconds, but I'd wager that is a few ticks slower than what you could do under ideal conditions. And if you make the mistake of punching the accelerator while turning a corner, you'd better be sure there's enough room for the rear end to quickly come around to where the front of the car was a second earlier. Trust me on that one.
But once you get the feel for this car, only superlatives suffice. The F-type does what you're thinking it should do, almost before the thought is finished. Pass quickly? You're around the car in front of you before they even see you coming. Stop on a dime? It does. Take a corner faster than you normally would? It will probably do it even faster than you can imagine.
Posted: Jun 3, 2013 12:00pm ET
The late afternoon sun had bathed the 18th green at the Squires Golf Club in soft yellow light, and the intense heat of summer's first heat wave on the East Coast had dissipated just enough to make the outdoor seating comfortable. Around the table were good friends of my buddy, Dr. Matthew Stern, who had been asking me to join him for years at one of Squires' Thursday afternoon get-togethers. It's a simple idea: a tee-time around 1:30 or 2, a round with a group of friends, and then a 19th hole libation followed by a sumptuous dinner.
I had finally said yes to Dr. Stern after a charity golf outing had been cancelled, thus opening up a spot on my calendar. I drove from my home in Westchester County, New York, in an Audi RS5, on loan from the company (check out my review in the next issue of Cigar Aficionado), and without any traffic on the Garden State Parkway or the New Jersey Turnpike or the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I arrived "quickly." The doctor and I grabbed lunch, hit some balls to warm up and then played a fast 3:30 round; I'm told there is only one rule at the Squires Golf Club—don't make the group behind you wait. How refreshing.
After a less than stellar round on my part, we showered quickly, and I walked into the bar at the club, a dark wood-paneled lounge area with wide-screen televisions. It was packed with guys who had taken the afternoon off to attend the weekly event. I should explain: Squires is a men's golf club, and the ambiance really is of a private home with a locker room and a golf course. And, in the men's rooms, there are ashtrays on the walls. When was the last time you saw an ashtray in a public bathroom? Need I say more?
I'd been dreaming about a steak all day long, so I ordered a New York strip and served myself a green salad and sipped on first a California Chardonnay and then a fine bottle of Silver Oak Cabernet. Finally, the moment I'd been waiting for all afternoon was there: an after-dinner cigar at the table.