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Gordon Mott

A Cigar Dinner Extravaganza

Posted: Mar 5, 2012 12:00pm ET

Riveting! No other word describes Habana Compas, the dance troupe clad in black jumpsuits, long hair swirling, lithe bodies gyrating and the pounding percussion from their drumsticks on the wooden chairs they carried pulsing through the 1000-plus attendees in tuxedos and suits and flowing long gowns.

The dance group, one of the featured performances at the Festival de Habanos closing dinner last Friday night, highlighted an evening celebrating the brand Romeo y Julieta. Instead of the black on gold decor of several recent gala dinners, the banquet hall was vividly outlined with snow-white floors, bright red walls and splashy silver cursive lettering of one of Cuba’s signature brands.

A who’s who of the Cuban cigar universe joined in the festivities. Alison Cooper of Imperial Tobacco, Fernando Dominguez of Altadis S.A. Habanos, Habanos co-presidents Buenaventura Jimenez Sanchez Canete and Jorge Luis Fernandez Maique and vice president Ana Lopez Garcia, one of the longest serving executives of Habanos, and Javier Terres, also a Habanos vice president, were all at the head tables.

There were Habanos distributors from around the world, including David Tang from the Asia-Pacific region, Max Gutmann from Mexico and Jemma Freeman of the U.K’s Hunters & Frankau (who also received the Habanos Business Award of the Year). There were also Casa del Habano shop owners such as Christoph Wolters from Germany and Ajay Patel from England. In fact, they were joined by Casas del Habanos owners and Habanos distributors from virtually every country or region around the world.

One of Cuba’s leading political figures, national assembly president Ricardo Alarcon, also attended the dinner, and he was joined by several government ministers. Hirochi Robaina, one of the country’s most celebrated cigar tobacco growers, also was there. And, the crowd was filled with plain old cigar lovers, from the United States, Mexico Canada, South America, Europe and the United Kingdom, the Middle East and the Far East.

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Cigar Magnet

Posted: Mar 2, 2012 12:00pm ET

I feel like some super-conductor magnet, attracting just about every loose cigar in a country overflowing with a lot of cigars. When I arrived, there was the question in my mind about where I would find my first Cuban smoke, and what it would be. My friend, Max Gutmann from Mexico, answered that worry with an Edmundo Dantes Conde 54, a beautiful cigar made especially for the Mexican market. Quite a way to kick off the week.

Then, I passed through the Casa del Habano in the Meliá Cohiba, and figured I had better buy some smokes so I didn’t run out over the next couple of days. I bought two Montecristo No. 2s and two Romeo y Julieta Churchill Tubos to keep me stocked up.

After those purchases, it seems everyone is worried about me having enough cigars. First, there were two special house cigars given to me by Osmany Rios and Carlos Robaina at the Quinta Avenida store. Haven’t smoked those yet. Then, when I got back to my room, there was a gift box of 10 Cohiba Magico Maduros. I’ve had those in my pocket for the last 24 hours, but something keeps getting in the way.

At the 520th Anniversary dinner where Jim Belushi sang the blues, I decided to tackle the Cuaba Bariay, a huge diadema size double figurado. It turned out to be one of the best Cuban cigars I have smoked. Then, I moved on towards the end of the evening to light up the Montecristo Edición Limitada 2012, a big 55 ring gauge that is just at the beginning of its life—it will be much better after a couple years of box age.

Thursday starting slowly, but as we hit the Casa del Habano owned by Enrique Mons, I was starting to hanker after a smoke. After all, it was almost 10:30 in the morning. Out came a Monsdale, a pigtail head cigar that is made there at the shop. That lasted until lunch with Ajay Patel, the owner of London’s only Casa del Habano. We got through lunch, and then out came a 1992 Partagás Lusitania—read my tasting notes in last year’s May-June issue of Cigar Aficionado’s Connoisseur’s Corner. He also handed an old 1992 Cohiba and a Partagás Serie C No. 1, neither of which I’ve smoked yet, because … I kept running into other cigars.

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According to Jim

Posted: Mar 1, 2012 4:30pm ET

The sharp drum downbeat pounded out over the crowd, and the unmistakable chords of a Chicago blues song rattled the walls and shook the glasses on the tables. Jim Belushi, his Blues Brothers’ persona intact minus the hat and the dark sunglasses, but with a lit cigar between his fingers, wailed on his harmonica, belting out Little Walter’s She’s So Fine.

The central courtyard of the Museo de Bellas Artes, the setting for the 520th anniversary celebration of Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, was suddenly alive with the pulsing beat of an American blues standard. Within milliseconds, executives from Habanos S.A., the Cuban cigar monopoly, owners of Casa del Habano cigar shops worldwide and an army of cigar lovers from every corner of the globe were on their feet swaying to the music. They crowded around the stage, snapping pictures and shouting out encouragement.

Not once, but twice, Belushi asked the crowd if they wanted to hear one more, and each time, the crowd screamed “Yes!” Joined by Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music on guitar, Belushi, the Cuban cigar’s newest favorite fan, gave a great rendition of Let Me Love You Baby, a Buddy Guy tune; the crowd responded to the chorus in unison, especially when he tossed the word Cuba into the mix. Belushi ended the short set with a simple straight blues jam which he topped off with his trademark back flip.

The story behind Belushi’s performance began nearly 10 months ago when I asked my old friend if he’d be interested in being the international celebrity guest, officially hosted by Habanos, for the 2012 Festival de Habanos. We had talked several times over the years about arranging a trip for him on his own, but he jumped at the idea and immediately blocked out the dates on his calendar, even before an official invitation was issued. In short order, Habanos executives said they, too, were interested in having Jim attend the Festival. By early summer, the arrangements were being made and by the fall, the deal was done. Jim Belushi was going to Cuba.

Jim Belushi onstage at Habanos festival.
Jim Belushi, left, jammed with Phil Manzanera last night at the festival.
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Havana Retail Royalty

Posted: Feb 29, 2012 4:30pm ET

He approached me with a smile, and a warm embrace. Enrique Mons, of the Casa del Habano at Club Habana in Miramar, looked like a man reborn after a lengthy bout with an illness. He was attending the morning seminars at the Festival de Habanos, which is taking place this week in Havana. He was walking around like a man in his domain, the world of Cuban cigars.

Mons said he was thinking about retiring, but used a term in Spanish that amounts to something more like a working retirement. He said he wanted to concentrate on the things now that really gave him enjoyment, like smoking cigars from all over the world.

“I say all the time that tobacco is tobacco. You have to smoke everything. I have respect for tobacco from everywhere,” he said, clearly drawing on his 50-plus years in the cigar business. “Each tobacco is different, and each has its own characteristics. But you have to try them all.”

He said one of his dreams is to visit Nicaragua and visit the tobacco farms there. We talked about the beauty of the tobacco lands there around Estelí and Jalapa, and he said he really wanted to see them first hand. I told him he would be pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the land, the richness of the soil, and by the tobacco.

Later, we stopped at the Casa del Habano at Calle 16 y 5 Ave, known by everyone as the Quinta Avenida shop. The shelves were packed with a great selection of cigars, everything from the three sizes of Behike (my favorite the Behike 52 for about $210) to Punch, Cohiba and all sizes of Montecristo. Carlos Robaina greeted us and said he had been signing copies of our November/December issue of Cigar Aficionado for customers from all over the world.

Robaina and the other prinicipal of the store, Osmany Rios, said sales had been brisk this week, with people wanting to try the great selection on the shop's shelves.

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Cuba Questions

Posted: Feb 28, 2012 12:00am ET

The feeling is always the same, and it usually hits me at the same time. The plane leaves the dark greens and browns of the Florida Everglades, passes over the azure Florida Straits and then, on the horizon, a small brown strip appears—you know you’re headed back to Cuba.

The plane often zigzags across the straits—instructions I’ve been told from Cuban Air Traffic Control—and then, it crosses over the coastline, usually with the buildings of Havana out the right side of the airplane.

The feeling? It is a mélange of excitement, uncertainty, a little buzz in my gut. What causes it? Maybe it is knowing that things won’t be as they seem, or for that matter, for what they really are. But the familiar sensation means I am back in Cuba.

What do I expect on every visit? First of all, I look for that signature cigar, one that will mark my visit and provide the experience for all Cigar Aficionado readers to appreciate. Will there be any new releases from Habanos? Will the same people still be running it. Then, there are the questions about what new restaurants and clubs have opened up. And, then, finally, there’s the realization that I still have so much to learn about this place, the people here, and that I will never have enough time on this trip to accomplish everything I want to do.

I learned as a young journalist that feeling never goes away. A veteran foreign correspondent, an award winner for a major U.S. newspaper, met me for breakfast one morning on his first day in Mexico. He was almost in a state of high anxiety, the result he said, of “Not knowing what the hell I’m going to write, what I’m going to find, what I’m even going to do.” He peppered me, a resident correspondent, with questions about everything from the local gossip about the government to the weather.

A few weeks later I saw his dispatches—a wonderful kaleidoscope of snapshots of what was happening in Mexico. And I thought that part of what made his stories so wonderful was driven by his anxiety about getting under the surface, of finding out the real story, of relaying the reality of where he was and what he was doing.

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The Fire Pit

Posted: Feb 17, 2012 12:00am ET

Fire pits. The words conjured up images of Burning Man weekends in the desert, or Jean Auel scenes from novels about prehistoric man’s travails. Sure, in concept, I could see how they might be alternatives to a fireside lounger in a wood-beamed lodge in the mountains. But as a place to enjoy a cigar? Well, I was dubious.

No more.

It was an unusually warm January night in Naples, Florida. I’d been participating in two days of editorial meetings with the Wine Spectator crew, and we had just returned to the La Playa Beach Resort after a wonderful, wine-soaked meal. Marvin Shanken and I walked into the bar at the hotel, and asked the waitress where we could sit down and have a late evening smoke. She said, “I’m sorry. You can’t smoke inside, but there’s the fire pit.”

Through the windows and the open door, you could see the flames leaping up from the ring of stones, surrounded by wooden lounge chairs. Marvin and I looked at each other, and said, "Sure, let’s go." I had brought some cigars from New York; I don’t even remember now what they were, although I do recall I had some fugitives from a just-completed Cigar Insider tasting in my leather traveling case.
We settled into the chairs, lit up and leaned back, the Florida night sky above us, and the sound of the soft Gulf of Mexico surf in the background. The waitress came and took our orders, and as the smoke drifted up, I waited on my glass of Bacardi 8 on the rocks. We chatted, but the moment was as much about being outside and relaxing after a long day as anything else. A few people came and sat around the pit too, and began talking to each other, strangers getting to know each other through those innocuous questions seeking common ground. We listened, but on another night, it was easy to imagine people coming and going, talking, laughing and smoking cigars, all in a pleasant, convivial cocoon.

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My First 2012 Smoke

Posted: Jan 9, 2012 2:55pm ET

I wanted my first cigar of 2012 to be special. The last three months of 2011 had involved a lot of work smoking—yes, people, the editors of Cigar Aficionado receive compensation for smoking cigars. For many of you, that describes a work situation that resembles Nirvana.

I’m not complaining either, but when your humidor is constantly filled with cigars bearing white-numbered bands, and you have no choice other than a decision to smoke #35, or #56, or #11, it does temper the absolute pleasure I associate with a great cigar-smoking moment.

So, when I have the chance to smoke purely for pleasure, I consider all the possibilities; the taste I want to enjoy, the size of cigar, the setting and the people I’m with. Until the elements and the stars are in perfect alignment, I can delay my immediate gratification.

The moment came right after New Year’s in Queretaro, Mexico. I was with my wife and daughter, a couple from New York who are our closest friends and our friends of more than 30 years who are helping us renovate a house in the city on Mexico’s central plateau, about two hours north of Mexico City.

My wife and I had spent the day mulling over tiles and wood floors, and imagining the finishing touches on some of the house’s freshly plastered walls. We ended up on a hotel’s rooftop bar shortly after sunset, still in shirtsleeves following a sunny, 75-degree January day.

The margaritas arrived with the salt gleaming around the edges of the glass. I knew the stars were aligned because the constellation Orion was right in front of me, just rising up over the tops of the many cathedral domes that dot the Queretaro skyline—the constellation is one that I associate closely with winters in Mexico.

My friend Matthew offered me a 2003 Cohiba Robusto that he had received from a diplomat friend of ours for his 60th birthday; I traded him a Edmundo Dantes Conde 54, the new Mexican Regional Edition.

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Mexican Gem

Posted: Oct 11, 2011 2:55pm ET

It is always a pleasure to get an early look at a great new cigar. Thanks to a good friend who was traveling in Mexico and headed back to the United States, and a conversation with Max Gutmann, the importer of Cuban cigars into Mexico, I was able to get my hands on the new Mexico Regional Edition cigar, the Edmundo Dantes Conde 54.

This is a beautiful cigar. The light, reddish-brown Colorado wrapper speaks to the current high quality of Cuban wrapper leaf. And, the construction of this cigar is perfect. While it did show some uneven smoking performance that I associate with the relative young age of the cigar, the flavors were already quite mature and robust, with strong notes of coffee bean and some pleasant toastiness. There’s also a solid backbone of earthiness that I always associate with a healthy dose of ligero leaf in the blend.

The Conde 54, also known as the Sublimes, highlights Habanos S.A.’s new fascination with larger ring gauge cigars. There was an Edición Limitada in 2004 constructed in the Sublimes’ dimensions, and it was one of the first Cuban cigars to exceed 50 ring gauge. Then, the Cohiba Behike was produced in 52, 54 and 56 ring gauges, which represented the first time the Cubans had opted for regular production parejos with ring gauges thicker than 54. The Conde 54 measures 6 1/2 inches by 54 ring gauge. It is a substantial cigar that burns coolly and with an excellent draw.

This is the second Regional Edition cigar for Mexico. The first one, the Edmundo Dantes Conde 109, was about 7 1/4 inches by 50 ring gauge with a tapered head. It was an excellent cigar that was well received in the market and quickly sold out its production. Only 1,000 boxes of the Conde 54 will be made.

Since Cigar Aficionado does not rate cigars non-blind, I won’t give a score to this cigar. But it is an excellent, medium- to full-bodied smoke that approaches our classic rating, and with a few years of box age, it will become a great Cuban cigar.

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Posted: Jul 18, 2011 2:55pm ET

We held our first dinner at the IPCPR in Las Vegas last night for a group of cigar makers and cigar brand owners. During the last few visits to Sin City, we were relegated to smoking on the gaming floors, or in some outdoor terrace at a restaurant. But last night at Bradley Ogden, we were given a private dining room where we could light up cigars. It didn't take long for everyone to realize the smoking light was on, and by the time we were done with our menus, the cigars were going strong.

As I lit up my cigar, I looked for an ashtray to dispose of the clipped head. There was one at one end of the long table, and a much smaller one at the other end. I called the sommelier over and asked, "Could we have some more ashtrays, please." She laughed. "That's all we have. Up until two weeks ago, what you're doing here was illegal. We don't have any ashtrays." I laughed along with her. I asked her for a couple of small plates to pass around the middle of the table so people had someplace to put their ashes. But the absence of the ashtrays was certainly a reminder of how long smoking restrictions have been in place and how they were observed.

The law in Nevada changed two weeks ago. It basically permits bars and restaurants which don't serve people under 21 to allow smoking areas as well as serve food, which had been prohibited. The law was apparently not very specific about where and how to permit smoking, but most restaurants are looking for ways to accommodate smokers, especially if they have private rooms. The sommelier said they probably would not allow smoking in the open areas of the restaurants, but she was glad they could now offer a place to smoke for people.

Is the tide turning? It's way to soon to make any grand statements like that. But it was really nice to be in Las Vegas, eating at a fine restaurant and being able to have a cigar with friends without having to head out on the gaming floor with the slot machines, roulette wheels, crap tables and blackjack stations. Let's hope it continues.

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Random Cuba Reports

Posted: May 19, 2011 2:55pm ET

The scandal surrounding Manuel Garcia, the former marketing guru at Habanos S.A., continues to percolate. The week before Dave and I traveled to Cuba, The Economist published a story about his alleged crimes. The powers that be at Habanos knew all about the story, but universally panned it as pure speculation on the big points, and downright wrong on some details.

The story reported that Garcia had been arrested by Cuban State Security, along with 10 other employees of Habanos, for managing to smuggle 45 million cigars out of Cuba into the gray market of Europe.

We, of course, did a little math. Forty five million cigars equals about 1.8 million boxes of cigars, which at an average price of $200 (a conservative estimate) works out to nearly $360 million. We scoffed at that idea, and the Habanos executives as well as some officials from Altadis, the Spanish partner of Habanos, were incredulous.

Their comments ranged from not possible to not even remotely possible. Those dismissals flew in the face of Cubans who say anything is possible there, but, in fact, it is inconceivable that a clandestine cabal could have arranged for the secret export over a five-year period of that many finished cigars, directly from the factories. Just not possible, especially given the fact that cigars are a guaranteed source of foreign revenue for the government. Furthermore, the story inaccurately reported the number of people arrested; it's only five people, not 10.

So, where is the truth? No one knows. It is serious, and it has shaken Habanos S.A. to the core of what it thinks it is. It is a company that most people would consider hugely understaffed. They work long hours, and they all multitask, for salaries that we could consider low at best. But they also are quick to say that it is business as usual at the company, with good people replacing Garcia so that there has been no disruption in their business.

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