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.
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.
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