You can imagine that Cuban cigar retailers have little trouble selling Montecristo brand cigars. Even before the Montecristo No. 2 was named Cigar of the Year by our magazine in January (with a stellar score of 96 points) Montes were among the best-selling cigars in the world. The yellow box with the brand name in red, the sextet of fancy swords intertwined in a triangular pattern around a proud fleur-de-lis—Montecristos are as iconic as can be.
But there was a time, many years ago, when some cigar smokers weren't familiar with the brand, and building new markets required salesmen who showed off the cigars in hopes of finding a sale.
Several weeks ago, over lunch in Havana, I was shown an amazing piece of history, a box of Montecristos from 1949. What made this extra special was the fact that this was no typical box, but a sampler box built for five sizes of the Montecristo line, a salesman's tool to show off the entire brand to customers at a time when Montecristo was not as famous as it is today. And inside? One remaining cigar, a wrinkled, rumpled and somewhat banged up Montecristo No. 2.
"Back in the day, different people repped different brands. There was competition," explained Rob Fox, of James Fox cigars in Dublin, Ireland, the owner of the precious box of Montes. "Reps from Hunters [and Frankau] came to Ireland and could have called on tobacco shops, and back then there were a lot more shops."
As old as this box is, James Fox Cigars is far older, having been in business for more than 125 years. Rob Fox and his colleague David McGrane (who himself has been selling cigars at Fox for more than 40 years) explained the nuances of the old Montes as we dined at El Litoral, a new paladar astride the Malecón in Cuba.
The trip had been a long one: ten nights on the road, with nearly every evening ending with a long dinner. Speeches, songs, conversation and cigars each and every night, and at the end I was ready for a break. Then the voice hit me.
It was a strong, ambitious rendering of Adele's "Someone Like You." The singer's powerful voice, sung alone, with only a piano to give it company, sliced through the chitchat of 1,000 people, through all the smoke, and woke me up, bringing a smile to my face.
The moment took place on Friday night in Havana, perhaps an hour-and-a-half into the gala dinner closing the Habanos Festival. The night, which honored the H. Upmann brand, featured four courses of cigars bearing the Upmann name, culminating in the first ever Reserva for the brand, the H. Upmann No. 2 Reserva.
The singer wasn't announced, so I didn't get her name. She was far from the star act of the evening. That honor went to superstar Tom Jones, who was a special guest. He performed three songs before dinner, charming the crowd with such hits as "It's Not Unusual."
"I started smoking Cuban cigars in the 1960s, and I haven't stopped yet," Jones told the crowd between songs. All those cigars haven't had an impact on his voice—the 74-year-old sounded great.
The featured cigar of the night was the H. Upmann No. 2 Reserva. The cigar is said to be made with tobacco from 2010, and it has the same dimensions of a traditional H. Upmann No. 2.
I hate to judge cigars in these situations, but duty called, so I lit up one of the Upmann Reservas after dinner. The start was unimpressive, but about a half-an-inch in it woke up to take on some sweet, tasty notes. I caught a faint hint of milk chocolate. The cigar was mild, but H. Upmann is meant to be a milder Cuban brand. One shouldn't expect Bolivar- or Cohiba-style flavor from this marque. I polled some of the other people in the room who smoked it, and most seemed to be pleased with what they had, and used the word "mild" to describe the cigar. Of course, this was a sample, and it will be many months before this Upmann reaches stores.
Havana Cuba is so rich in fine cigar stores that it's hard to cover all the good ones in one blog, or one visit. I wrote about several shops earlier in the week; to complete the picture of shopping for Cuban cigars in Havana I hit several other stores, which I'll cover here in this sequel of blogs. I even shot a little video.
You probably know the Hotel Nacional as the most famous of Cuban hotels (speaking of sequels, it served a role in the best sequel ever made, The Godfather Part II). It also has quite a decent La Casa del Habano. The store has two levels, and the serious stuff goes on downstairs.
Cohiba Behikes were in good stock here, even better than in Quinta Avenida. There were more than 50 boxes of Behike BHK 56 (310 CUC for a box of 10), well over 100 boxes of BHK 54s (Cigar Aficionado's No. 5 cigar of the year, 94 points, 300 CUC a box) and at least 30 boxes of BHK 52s (220 CUC), which has been my personal favorite.
The store also had plenty of the new Montecristo Petit No. 2, in various boxes. I shot some video inside the humidor, which you can see below.
The store has several areas to smoke, but I've ever had a cigar there, and I can't remember ever seeing anyone else smoking there either. It's not that the smoking areas are horrible, but they're far from glorious. Being located in the basement limits the view. The bigger reason is that the Hotel Nacional has a stunning back patio with comfortable chairs and couches that is a lovely place to enjoy a fine cigar. At night there is often music. A little Santiago de Cuba 11-year-old rum and a great Cuban cigar—very hard to beat.