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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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