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.
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.
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.
I have had a lot of fun during the last decade testing some great cars for Cigar Aficionado. There was the Bentley Continental GT (big and brawny), the Aston Martin Vantage (sexy and smooth), the Audi RS6 (a twin-turbo dynamo), a Mercedes E-series AMG (fast and steady), a Corvette Stingray (slightly randy and rocket-like), a Jaguar F-type coupe (sexy and feline quick)... and that's just to name a few.
A master chef. A group of 10 of her childhood friends from Ensenada, Mexico. A PBS Frontline producer and his wife. Me and my wife and our hosts, Antonio Arelle and Pepe Homs. All sitting around a table on the patio, under the stars, of the hosts' apartment.
In the words of Jackson Browne, "All good things, gotta come to an end."
This is an ending, of sorts. But it is a beginning, too. New challenges. New opportunities. New ways of seeing, and being seen.
There is usually no easy explanation for the why and how one reaches a moment in time, a decision, a fork in the road. A spouse who argued for sooner rather than later. Some unfulfilled dreams. A clear sense that wheels need to turn, and past successes should never engender current complacency.
When was the last time you were on a trip, with a travel humidor or cigar sleeve packed with your favorite smokes and, too late, you realized you were in an antismoking city like Boston or St. Louis or Chicago and had no familiar place to smoke? Usually that happens around 10 o'clock at night when you have just finished a great meal that has doubled as an important business negotiation, and you're flat out of luck finding a place. You not only feel bad, but you worry that it might make you look bad since you promised your new partner a great smoke to end the night.
When I smoke a great cigar, and give it an extremely high rating, I almost always have a seed of doubt that my impressions were formed by something other than just the cigar. The setting. The company. The time of day. What I had for lunch, or dinner. The beverage I was drinking along with the cigar. When it is one of our Connoisseur’s Corner offerings, it’s often doubly worrisome because we do not smoke them blind and my objectivity just can’t be the same as smoking a cigar with the band removed.
So many cigars. So little time.
At the end of my first full day here in Havana, I sat down to write a blog about what I had smoked, and I couldn't remember how many, or which cigars, I had enjoyed that day. It may have been the medicinal effect of Cuban rum, or the accumulation of caffeine in numerous Cuban coffees. Whatever.
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