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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Posted: May 17, 2011 2:55pm ET
Okay, I can
hear everyone mumbling already. But it is a tough job. Someone has to do
it. My goal was to taste all the major Havana Club rums while I was in
Havana last week, and at least as many other rums as possible. Not in
any kind of formal tasting (trust me, it would have taken weeks to get
permission to conduct something official like that), but in a real life,
on-the-street kind of mission. I failed. I missed the Reserva Añejo.
Well, I think I missed it; there may have been a glassful on that first
Sunday afternoon in country. But it was hard. The other versions of
Havana Club and Santiago are so good, I kept saying, "Next time, I'll
have the Reserva."
First of all, let's get one thing straight. Tasting rum in Cuba is like tasting Scotch in Scotland, Cognac in France, Bourbon in Kentucky, Tequila in Guadalajara. You get the idea. This is home territory for rum. And, the Cubans love their rums. The ubiquitous red oval with the Havana Club letters is as common on walls as pictures of Fidel and Che Guevara...maybe more so today.
Let's start with Havana Club three-year-old. To be fair to it, I didn't taste it straight. It is the ubiquitous back bar rum at Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio. Ask Pedro the bartender at Bodeguita how to make their iconic mojito (they don't make daiquiris there), and the starter ingredient is a Havana Club three-year-old. Same is true at Floridita for their iconic daiquiri. In fact, the bar claims to be the birthplace of that drink. In both cases, the rum is so smooth it doesn't interfere with essence of simple syrup and lime, with the addition of the mint in the mojito.
Which of the two drinks did Dave and I prefer? In my case, I preferred the daiquiri. It was more refreshing, partly because it was done up in a blender with ice. The mojito didn't quite deliver the same degree of Havana Happy Hour pleasure: We tried both at the end of two long days. They were both delicious.
Posted: May 11, 2011 2:55pm ET
Cuba tests one's ability to keep track of what you've been smoking. Forgive me. I didn't note down the price or the box date of everything I smoked last week and in more than one case, I was given the cigars by others. But take it as a general rule that most singles in a cigar shop in Havana run between 5 and 8 CUCs, which converts to about $6 to $9.50.
I'd also be a tad suspicious of relying on box dates from an open box in a cigar shop; who knows how long that box had been open, or whether singles from other boxes had been combined in that box. For the most part, the bulk of the boxes on shelves right now are from '09 and early '10-you can stumble across some 08s and there are also a lot of late '10 boxes out there right now too.
The Behikes were more expensive. The BHK 52 sold for 18 CUCs, or about $21. (For reference, don't be misled by the announcement of parity with the dollar; the exchange houses still take a 13 percent cut of every dollar transaction, so to get your dollar equivalent from these CUC prices, multiply by 1.13.) But as you'll read below, it may be worth it. The biggest Behike, the 56, sold for proportionally more, nearly 26 CUCs. We didn't see a 54 anywhere.
Nearly every Casa del Habano, and every other cigar shop we entered, had substantial number of boxes open for single sales. That was fun. It was easy to pick through the boxes looking for your favorite shade of wrapper and pick the ones you wanted. Here's a list of some of the cigars I smoked.
Trinidad Reyes: A nice mellow smoke with a solid core of coffee notes. Smoked perfectly.
Partagas Lusitania: Close to the days when it was one of the greatest Cubans made. Full bodied and full flavored with spice, cocoa notes and a long earthy finish. Note: I bought two, and one turned out of to have a thick vein in the filler down one side, and it simply wouldn't burn evenly.
Bolivar Belicoso Fino: Delicious medium-bodied cigar that performed great. Some sweet, earthy notes.
Posted: May 4, 2011 2:55pm ET
I was finishing up a final walking tour of Habana Vieja, the old Spanish colonial section of Havana that is being restored, when I stopped in again at the Casa del Habano in the Conde de Villanueva hotel. I was looking for a small cigar to have before lunch, and I picked out a Bolivar Belicoso for a little more than six CUCs, the Cuban convertible peso.
An older man came out of the lounge area, and we started talking about the cigars in his shop, the quality of the cigars and how busy they had been. Finally, as I have been doing in all the shops, I introduced myself as the editor of Cigar Aficionado. His face lit up, and he said, "I tried to come see you in 2009. I was in New York visiting some family who live in New Jersey, and I called you, but you weren't in the office." I thought what are the chances of this conversation. I was still drawing a blank on the face, but he introduced himself.
"I'm Antonio Hevea. I was in one of the first issues of Cigar Aficionado because I was at the Partagas shop at the time," he said, smiling. And he triggered my memory of him. He left Partagas in late 1995, he said, because he had some serious health problems and it was a few years before re-entered the retail shop business. But he opened the Conde de Villanueva shop in 1999, and has been there ever since. He said he had been in the cigar business since 1958, now more than 50 years.
He began reminiscing about some of the things he had done. "I was in Paris to help open the Casa del Habano in the 6th Arrondissement section of the city on the Boulevard St. Germain," he said. (For those who remember it, it was a great shop in a great location right across the street from Café de Flore.)
He recalled Marvin R. Shanken walking in the shop one day and exploring the cigars and then saying, "I'll see you at the dinner tonight." He was referring to the Dinner of the Century that Cigar Aficionado magazine held in Paris in 1995. Hevea said he laughed and replied, "Only if you buy me a ticket." Later in the day, Francisco Padron, the head of Habanos, came by and said, "Join us tonight at the dinner, you are invited."
Posted: May 4, 2011 2:55pm ET
Ever since Dave Savona and I arrived in Havana on Sunday, I've been dreaming about smoking Cigar Aficionado's Cigar of the Year, the Cohiba Behike BHK 52. But it turned out it wasn't going to be easy.
The first Casas del Habano we visited were closed on Sunday. It was May Day, a national holiday here in Cuba to celebrate solidarity with the workers of the world. There were early morning crowds in the streets, but by noon, the marches were over and the streets became nearly deserted. We finally found a Casa open in the Melia Cohiba, which is a modern high-rise tourist establishment overlooking the Malecón, the seaside promenade, and the ocean. It was also the only place we could find to change a sufficient amount of money—all transactions here for Americans with U.S. bank issued credit cards have to be in cash; the card won't work—because all the banks and foreign exchange houses also were closed. So, after a couple of failures, we were excited about finding cigars, and I was secretly hoping to stumble across a Behike.
There were no Behikes. They were sold out.
I spent most of the afternoon walking around Habana Vieja, Old Havana, working on the cigars I had purchased at the Melia, a Partagas Lusitania and a couple of others. The Lusitania was a classic, with a beautiful Colorado wrapper and a full-bodied spicy smoke that performed perfectly. The next day, I kept working through some cigars given to us, but still no Behikes. When Dave and I met up again at the end of the day, he said that every shop he had visited was out of Behikes, too. There were none anywhere. I didn't let on my disappointment. After a second Lusitania failed to perform on Monday night while we were listening to a jazz concert, I lit up a cigar that Dave gave me, a special cigar made for the El Aljibe restaurant where we had dined on Sunday night. It was okay, but like many "special" cigars here, it lacked the complexity and depth of traditional brands.