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Gordon Mott

Doing the Rum Thing

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.

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Cigars of the Week

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.

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A History Lesson

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."

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My First Behike

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.

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Havana Envy

Posted: May 1, 2011 2:55pm ET

I got a voicemail from a friend who is a big cigar smoker. He said, with a plaintive note in his voice: "I can't believe you're going to Cuba again without me." After a few more grouses, he ended his voicemail with, "but have a good time. Just make sure you get it ready for me." And, I could tell, he sincerely meant it.

That wasn't the only envious comment I got. My country club's golf opening day was Saturday, a day-long event with a tournament and a big, outdoor grill-lunch after golf. Since I'm the food and beverage chairman there's a good reason, even beyond the golf, for me to be there. But I kept telling people I was going to miss it because I was traveling. When they asked where, I said, "Cuba." Without exception, it was like I touched a nerve. Everyone wanted to know why, and how easy was it, and how could they get there. There was a fire in their eyes, like they had dreamed for years about being able to visit Havana; some were cigar smokers, but not all. And they all understood why I, even as obsessed a golfer as I am, was missing opening day.

Havana occupies a mythical place in the minds of Americans. It has echoes of Valhalla, or El Dorado, Camelot or Atlantis. The capital of Cuba lives only as a mirage, a fantasy in the mind's eye for most citizens of the United States. They long for the opportunity to see it for themselves, to get a taste of the forbidden fruit, a pleasure that has been denied to them for more than 50 years.

I stopped years ago predicting when the Cuban trade embargo and travel ban might be lifted. Even if you accept the idea of the Cold War and that decades long struggle when Cuba was a satellite of the Soviet Union, the rationale for the embargo ended nearly 20 years ago. But the emotions among Cuban Americans still run high, and they may never accept the idea that the embargo should be unilaterally lifted.

That's too bad. Because in the lifting of the veil, Americans could see once and for all the wonders of the small island just 90 miles off our southern shores. It is a land unlike any other place in the world today, locked in a relative time warp created by a stalemate between two diametrically opposed political philosophies.

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Dominican Days

Posted: Mar 11, 2011 12:00am ET

Thank god I have a cigar to smoke. Because if I had to focus on my golf game right now, the first three rounds of the season after a four-month layoff, I’d be going crazy. Yes, a group of my friends and I are at Casa de Campo this week. We got smart this year, and decided to take Friday afternoon off from a 36-hole-a-day routine, and I’m sitting on the pool terrace, checking email, enjoying a Presidente beer and smoking a Vega Fina cigar made by Jose Seijas at the Tabacalera de Garcia factory in La Romana.

We had dinner with Jose and his wife, Carmen, and some of their friends. It was a traditional Dominican dinner: roast pork, stewed goat, rice and black beans, yucca and a great avocado and tomato salad. We all ate too much, and, of course, had enough rum and red wine to wash it all down. We actually had a pre-dinner cigar last night, as we sat out on the veranda with the warm evening breezes keeping everyone comfortable. It was a great night.

If you’ve never played Teeth of the Dog, one of the world’s top golf courses, now is the time to do it. They have done some outstanding work on the course, and the greens are as hard and fast as I have ever seen them in the 15 years that I’ve come to golf here. There are a number of just simply great golf holes, and since the wind never dies down here, there are always additional challenges with figuring out distance and club selection.

If you play early enough, you may get through the first three ocean holes that are among the seven holes that give the course it’s name before the wind comes up. Each of the seven holes—four on the front nine and three on the back—either play over water or the fairways run alongside sharp cliffs that drop down to the water. And each of the three par 3s basically have greens that seem to hang out over the ocean. We didn’t exhibit complete wisdom today, choosing to play from the tips, which put one par-3 over water at 230 yards, all carry, and another on the back nine playing dead into a two-club wind at 190 on the ground…playing about 210 to 220. It was a long day. Let’s just say I’ve done some good work to get my handicap back up a couple strokes. But we’ve still got three more rounds to go, two on Teeth and one more on Dye Fore, which is another great test of golf.

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Cuba Dreams

Posted: Feb 28, 2011 12:00am ET

The vision still remains; the flowing black and gold walls emblazoned with the Montecristo Gran Reserva emblem, the beautiful, tall models in floor-length, black gowns with gold bling and the elegant table settings with gold tablecloths. The sounds of traditional Cuban music floated around the room, with the ceiling draped with “tapado” cloth, the fabric used for shade tobacco, as the top names in the Cuban cigar business entered the room. Everyone was shaking hands and talking with everyone in attendance, from Cuban government ministers, to Casas del Habano shop owners and Habanos’s worldwide distributors, to simple consumers from everywhere, even the United States. Whether it was David Tang or President of the National Assembly Ricardo Alcarón, the evening was electrified by the shared perception: this was the pinnacle of the world of Cuban cigars.

The Gala dinner was dedicated to the Montecristo cigar. We were served Montecristo No. 5s, the Montecristo Open Series, the Edmundo, and then the piece de résistance for the evening, the Montecristo Gran Reserva No. 2, a pyramid-shaped cigar with specially selected and aged tobacco from the 2005 harvest. I’m not a fan of rating cigars on the spot, especially when they are handed out as part of a special event like the gala dinner; we know that some of the cigars presented at the Habanos Festival are specially selected, and often rolled in different factories than the brand’s normal factory. But on top of that, by the time the Gran Reserva arrived at my table, I had consumed a glass of rum, a few glasses of wine, and was working on my after dinner glass of rum, all after a rich meal with well-spiced food. It’s a great time to have a cigar, just not a great time to be objective about it. That said, my first impression of the Gran Reserva  I smoked was that it still needed a bit of time for the tobaccos to meld together; it was a beautifully balanced cigar that acquired more depth after the first part  was smoked and promises to age well. But we’ll wait to rate it until Greg Mottola, our tasting coordinator, can find it in the global marketplace and we can judge like we judge all cigars—blind.

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The Cuba Buzz

Posted: Feb 25, 2011 12:00am ET

By 10 A.M, I had the full Cuba buzz going on. Three cups of black Cuban coffee, a small corona size Partagas Mille Fleurs, and then a Behike BHK 52 lit in my hand got me up to full speed. Now, don't get me wrong. It was a good buzz, and when you´re in Havana, it is the only way to start the day. Somehow, it all seemed sweeter, lighting up that first cigar of the day sitting on a terrace outdoors in February overlooking a pool.

Marvin, Dave and I began with a private tour of El Laguito, the home of Cohiba. Our hosts gave us the full tour—Dave and I had done it in December—but for Marvin it was a trip down memory lane. Like every time we've visited, the workers smiled and waved and showed the pride they feel in making one of the world´s great cigars. The factory manager, Arnaldo Ovalles Brioñes, who has run the fabrica since 2009, proudly flipped through the pages of the January/February issue of Cigar Aficionado and took a long look at the page with the Cohiba Behike BHK 52, the number one cigar of 2010. He already knew about the honor, but the smile on his face said it all. And his oversight of the factory is clearly working; on a wall in one room was a tally for the month's production and they were meeting all their targets. The world should be glad to know this because the demand for Behike is overwhelming. We haven´t seen one box yet on the shelves of the five Casa del Habanos that we have visited.

From there, we headed off to the convention center and the trade show part of the festival. There were impressive exhibits from Habanos and Havana Club, and the aisles were filled with cigar lovers and cigar industry people from around the world. The seminar rooms were quiet yesterday morning as most festival attendees were off on factory tours in the city. We then headed to lunch at Cocina de Lilliam, one of the oldest paladars in the city, to meet with some local representatives in the spirits industry. Dave was at the Festival working hard—drinking rums and matching them up with cigars. See his blog later today about the seminars. We ordered the malangas fritas, a tuber kind of vegetable and eggplant lasagna to start off the meal, and then I had a fantastic baked dish of shrimp in garlic. We washed down the meal with mojitos.

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First Day in Cuba

Posted: Feb 23, 2011 12:00am ET

I started out with a Bolivar Belicoso Fino. Marvin had a Paratagas Serie D No. 4. David Savona had a Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill. We all had an icy cold Bucanero beer. They were our first cigars in Havana today.

We arrived shortly before noon, and by 1 p.m. everyone was starting to crave that first smoke. The first time you light up in Havana, it always seems the cigars are better, and then, the world seems right. You are in Havana, smoking a great cigar. We sat around a small table at the Melia Habana Casa del Habano, talking about where we wanted to visit and what we wanted to do during our visit to the Habanos Festival.

Lunch was lobsters and shrimp at a great little restaurant in Miramar called Vista Mar. We had a table looking out at the Atlantic Ocean, watching the waves roll in and the windsurfers zipping across the water. The water was so blue it melded into the sky on the horizon.

We left and touched down briefly at several cigar shops, the fabulous establishment run by Carlos Robaina at 5th Ave. and 16th St. Then, we dashed off to the Club Habana run by Enrique Mons, one of our oldest friends in the cigar shop world.

We checked out the shelves, which by midweek here at the festival had been stripped pretty clean by cigar lovers from all over the world. Robaina, in fact, showed us boxes of cigars that had arrived in his shop today to replace the inventory that he had sold.

Finally, it was time for a rest. We retired to a terrace and lit up Montecristo No. 2s, from November 2009. They are still quite young and could use a little time resting before reaching peak smoking performance. But with a glass of Havana Club 7 year old and the soft, late afternoon breeze, the cigar still tasted great.

Just another day in Havana. And, the night is young.

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Random Cuba Thoughts

Posted: Feb 3, 2011 12:00am ET

Any time reporters head home after a productive trip, there is a final assessment of what made it into a story and what didn't. You've gotten pretty much everything that Dave Savona and I tapped into on our last trip to Cuba, but there are a few things that haven't seen the light of the day ... some never will, but that's another story.

There is also a story slated for the March/April issue of Cigar Aficionado that came from a great morning spent with the top officials of Habanos S.A., Cuba's global marketing company for its cigars. But here are a couple of items that work better at this point as stand-alone items.

Cigar Roller Ratings

Cuba evaluates the cigar rollers at every factory in the country on a monthly basis. As a roller becomes more experienced and qualified to roll unusual shapes or the country's best cigars, those ratings can rise up a scale that used to top out at nine. So, a roller charged with making a Cohiba Esplendido might be touted as a "9." There's been talk in Cuba that the ratings have been changed so that the top rank is now an "8." Sources say a roller doesn't necessarily stay permanently at the top level, because if their performance rating isn't good enough, they can be moved back down to a lower rating. Some rollers also like to specialize in certain cigar sizes that earn them a particular rating, such as a level 7, and they prefer to remain at that level, instead of being moved up to a higher rating where they might be asked to roll a different size cigar.

Seed Types

"We want to make one thing very clear, we only use natural hybrids for our cigar tobacco. Nothing is genetically engineered," said Buenaventura Jiménez Sánchez-Canete, the co-president of Habanos S.A. He said that any new tobacco hybrids that are being used are the result of a natural cross-pollination between plants that have been selected by the experts. He said it can 10 years to produce a new hybrid using this method, but it is only way they believe in producing the new seeds. He declined to specify which hybrids are currently being used in the fields, but in conversations with several local growers, they said they were planting for the 2010-11 crop both Criollo ‘98, and some Corojo '92, which has been known to have some susceptibility to blue mold infestations. Jiménez Sánchez-Canete of Habanos did say that all the current hybrids are directly derived from traditional Cuban black tobaccos.

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