Posted: Feb 26, 2014 11:00am ET
Cuba's capital city is the heart of Cuban cigar production, where most (but not all) of the nation's handmade cigars are rolled. But it's also a tourist mecca, and many of the travelers here are looking for cigars. The city has an abundance of cigar shops, including a host of exceptional La Casa del Habano stores worthy of a visit.
This fact makes Havana a rarity in the cigar world. If you consider all the major premium cigar-producing cities, Havana stands alone as a cigar-buying paradise. Santiago, Dominican Republic, may roll more cigars and Estelí, Nicaragua, may be booming with new factories, but neither has a cigar shop that would turn an aficionado's head. Miami has many great cigar shops, but to call it a major cigar producer would be quite a stretch.
Here in Havana, they make cigars and they sell cigars, many that can be had for about 10 convertible Cuban pesos or less. (Cuba's tourist currency, the Cuban convertible peso, is known as a CUC. The government sets its value as equal to the U.S. dollar, but tourists who exchange dollars for CUCs get charged a 13 percent fee when changing money, making the effective exchange rate 0.87 CUCs to each U.S. dollar.)
To get a pulse for what's on the shelves, Gordon Mott and I have been visiting several of the city's finest cigar shops since our arrival on Monday afternoon.
Our first visit was to the Casa del Habano on Fifth Avenue, known as Quinta Avenida. It's a large shop, with many rooms, a bar, a restaurant, and a uniquely shaped walk-in humidor that hugs the wall in an angled fashion.
I've never seen the shop so busy, and it was absolutely brimming with cigars. The black boxes of Cohiba Behikes shouted at me from the humidor—there were dozens of them. We spoke with Carlos Robaina, one of the men who runs the shop, and he took us into the back to show off cardboard shipping boxes stacked in the locker area, each one full of more boxes of cigars. Judging by the clientele in the shop, he would need them soon.
Posted: Feb 25, 2014 10:45am ET
It was the biggest of cigars, it was the smallest of cigars...
A bit of an exaggeration? Yes. But my tobacco-take on the opening of A Tale of Two Cities shows the contrasting sizes of the two new cigars introduced last night at the opening event to the Habanos Festival.
Let's start with the big guy first, the Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo de San Juan. You might not be terribly familiar with the Le Hoyo series of Cuban cigars, and that's forgivable. They aren't exactly high-profile cigars, despite being quite good. I remember first being introduced to the line on my first trip to this island, back in 1996. I puffed on intriguing cigars, most of them quite small, most of them quite good, with ear-catching names such des Dieux, du Député, du Maire and du Prince. It's been ages since the line has been expanded, and in fact many are getting harder and harder to get in cigar stores. That changed last night with the introduction of the new Le San Juan.
Unlike the traditional Le Hoyo cigars, this Le Hoyo San Juan is quite large, just over 6 inches long with a plump 54 ring gauge. I saved one for after the event, and lit it up in the tranquil setting of a table at El Aljibe, the Cuban restaurant that has become the traditional first stop for Gordon and myself while in Cuba. (Trying to get an impression of the cigar in the chaos of the opening party, an outdoor, breezy affair, would have been pointless.)
I found the San Juan quite good, a beautifully made cigar with a wrapper the color of cappuccino, and just the right amount of oils. The draw was just right. Flavorwise it was a very well-balanced smoke, with notes of coffee bean and savory almond. Gordon enjoyed his as well, and found some very light leather notes in the smoke.
Cigars this early in the process are often young and harsh; this one certainly had elements of youth but without any harsh notes, and with great promise of what it could become. This won't be a flavor bomb, but something with medium-bodied balance and sophistication. I kept on puffing it right back to the Melia Cohiba, where I finished the night with a bit of Havana Club 7 Year Old. I look forward to smoking the final product later in the year.
Posted: Feb 25, 2014 10:00am ET
Far below, the blue of ocean was slowly replaced by the green of earth as the big jet dipped toward terra firma. Less than an hour ago we took off from Miami International Airport, and now we were about to land in Havana. The wheels touched down, and a few minutes later, I stepped down the gangway and onto the runway, hit by the heat of the tropics and the bright sky above. I was back in Cuba.
I'll be in Havana all week with executive editor Gordon Mott for the Habanos Festival, the annual gathering of retailers, distributors and cigar lovers from all around the world. This is the week we'll find out what's new and coming your way over the rest of the year.
I wasted little time getting a cigar. Minutes after my bags were in my room at the Melia Cohiba hotel, I went down to the hotel's cigar shop (it has a fine Casa del Habano) and grabbed two recent production Bolivar Belicoso Finos, one for me, one for Gordon. The cigar (which rated 93 points in its most recent Cigar Aficionado taste test) was youthful, but delicious, with great oils to the wrapper, a hearty, bold flavor—just what you would expect from a Bolivar. Great way to start our smoking week
We stopped in at one of Havana's best (and best known) cigar shops, the La Casa del Habano at Fifth Avenue, known as Quinta Avenida. The shop was fuller than I've ever seen, with people in each and every room. The humidor was brimming with smokes, with an especially strong amount of Cohiba Behikes. Carlos Robaina, one of the men who runs the shop, said he had many cigars, and showed off boxes full of smokes that had yet to be placed on display in the humidor.
Tonight, we're off to the first official function of the festival, a dinner where we expect to try the new Hoyo Le Hoyo and the ultra-short Partagás Serie D No. 6 that Gordon wrote about yesterday.
We're just getting started. Keep checking back from updates from Cuba. We'll keep you informed.
Posted: Feb 22, 2014 11:30am ET
Making premium cigars isn't an easy business. Making them in quantity is even harder, and it requires staggering amounts of aged tobacco leaves.
It's a basic premise, but one that goes on behind the scenes at cigar companies, so it's easy to forget. Cigars smokers only see the final product, a neat array of boxed cigars, each cylinder the product of a handful of leaves rolled around one another into glorious, aromatic tubes that deliver savory smoke. But think for a moment about what it takes to make such a product, again and again, year after year.
On Thursday I spent several hours with the father-son team of tobacco men behind Jose Mendez & Co. Srl, who provide much of the raw material for Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd., one of the world's largest cigar factories. The factory, owned by Altadis U.S.A. Inc., makes millions upon millions of cigars by hand, among them Romeo y Julieta and H. Upmann. Altadis is Mendez's largest customer.
Mendez was formed in 1972 in the Dominican Republic by the Maruschke family, the descendants on their mother's side of Spaniard José Mendez. Mendez fought in Cuba during its war for independence, married a Cuban and stayed. As a grocer, he found his customers often didn't have the money to pay, so they bartered for goods with tobacco. He went into the tobacco business himself before setting up what was called the largest cigarette factory in Cuba. The machines making the cigarettes were still new when the Castro government nationalized Cuba's tobacco industry, seizing the assets and setting the family on the search for a new home.
Their new home is the Dominican Republic. Mendez contracts with farmers around the Dominican Republic to grow tobacco for them. They direct the process, giving the farmers the seeds and the financing, sending agronomists to check the fields and see what is needed to coax the most out of each parcel of land.
"We are producing 1,300 hectares of tobacco," says Siegfried P. Maruschke Méndez, the director of tobacco for Jose Mendez & Co. That translates to about 2,500 acres.
Posted: Feb 20, 2014 3:30pm ET
I've left behind the ice and snow in New York for the tropical heat of Santiago, Dominican Republic. The ProCigar Festival is in full swing, and many of the nation's cigar companies are showing some 300 visitors all there is to know about Dominican cigars.
Last night was the annual white party, a grand affair held at the Santiago monument where everyone dresses in white, typically guayaberas for the men (watch those cigar ashes) and the drinks and cigars flow freely. This year many of the makers chose to unveil new smokes in a fine sampler box handed out at dinner. Litto Gomez had a maduro version of his La Flor Dominicana Air Bender, the Quesadas, who are celebrating 40 years of making cigars in the Dominican Republic in 2014, handed out their 40th anniversary smoke, and Davidoff handed out a special perfecto I'll tell you more about in a later blog. It was quite the evening.
While the nights in Santiago are centered around celebratory dinners, the days involve tours to cigar factories and tobacco fields. New for this year are visits to the operations of (relatively) new ProCigar members Fuente, La Flor Dominicana and Tabacalera Alianza.
The people here at the Festival include many retailers from the United States and abroad, and cigar enthusiasts from various countries. Everyone here is in the cigar spirit—big time. After the dinner, I ended up with a large group staying at the Camp David Resort, and despite having smoked cigars all day and night, no one wanted to call it quits. A little rum came out, more cigars were clipped, and we puffed away into the night, looking down upon the twinkling lights of the city of Santiago.
The cigar spirit is quite strong here in the Dominican Republic.
Posted: Jan 31, 2014 12:30pm ET
I walked up the stairs, turned to the left, and headed down the long alley to the main event. I ignored the racks of bright orange robes and stepped out into the glare of artificial lights and exhaled deeply, watching my breath come alive in the frigid air like a cone of cigar smoke.
It was a cold one last night on the roof of 230 Fifth, a nightspot that combines indoor space with an unrivalled rooftop lounge on the East side of Manhattan on Fifth Avenue. It was the fifth annual Jaws Cigar Party, held before the biggest game in football by ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski. He’s a cigar lover, and he throws this party each and every year before the Super Bowl to raise money for his charity and enjoy a cigar or two with friends and fans alike.
The rooftop was more crowded than I expected, given the temperatures in the 20s, and everyone was smoking cigars. Most had opted for the robes, and all were huddled around the heaters spaced throughout the rooftop. I found a suitable, somewhat warm spot and fired up a Rocky Patel Royale.
Rocky was one of several cigar sponsors for the evening. General Cigar was also there, as were Quesada Cigars, Ventura Cigar Co. and Miami Cigar & Co. Xikar provided gifts, and all the cigar companies involved, plus Camacho, donated cigar lots to a silent auction dominated by a wide array of football memorabilia. (I put in a bid for a pigskin signed by former New York Giant running back Ottis Anderson, he of the legendary stiff arm, but I don’t think I won.)
The event was a lively one, with plenty of Johnnie Walker Scotch, Zacapa Rum, Ketel One vodka, Don Julio tequila and a new beer called Miller Fortune. I saw such football notables as Bill Cowher and Mike Golic milling about downstairs, and a huge crowd gathered around New Jersey rocker Jon Bon Jovi. Jaworski, who had a storied career as the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, was the center of attention, shaking hands, stopping for photos, and being a gracious and enthusiastic host.
Posted: Jan 6, 2014 12:30pm ET
I'm a bit of a weather junkie. I frequently check my weather apps on my iPhone, I'm guilty of turning on the weather on the television on a regular basis, and I'm adamantly opposed to naming winter storms. Part of my interest is occupational. Weather can play a major role in the cigar industry, with hurricanes, El Niño and volcanoes all posing risks of one sort of another to tobacco crops. But the major reason is just good old fashioned interest. I enjoy knowing about the weather, and its extremes fascinate me. Today, like many of you reading this blog, I'm thinking about the weather extremes in the Midwest United States.
Severe cold has closed schools in hardy Minneapolis and Chicago, which had temperatures of -18° and -11° Fahrenheit when I was writing this blog. Fargo, North Dakota, legendary for its cold, was 23 below. International Falls, which calls itself the "Icebox of the Nation," is 27 below.
I grew up in the northeast U.S., so I'm used to chilly weather. I remember camping in single-digit temperatures in an old army tent that didn't have a floor. I go to Vermont a few times a year with friends, and two years ago I opened my car trunk to find it covered in what looked like snow. I was confused, as it hadn't snowed the previous night, then I found a can of Fresca soda that had exploded from the cold and instantly turned into frozen chunks. That was cold.
On that trip, my buddies and I puffed cigars outside (it was a no-smoking house) and made it about 20 minutes as the temperature came close to zero Fahrenheit. That was, for me, extreme smoking weather. This weekend, with the weather well below freezing in the Northeast, and in the single digits much of the time, I didn't smoke at all.
But many cigar smokers only puff their cigars outside, and weather like this makes it all but impossible. This dip in the mercury sent me to Twitter over the weekend, where I asked the question: "How cold is too cold to smoke a cigar?" Some of you are a lot tougher than I am. Justin from Canada said it's never too cold. New Jersey Chef Scott built an igloo (with four chimneys) so he could have a cozy outdoor venue in which to smoke his cigars. And a cigar lover named Curtis smoked a La Flor Dominicana in Ottawa, Ontario, with temperatures of 22 degrees below zero.
Posted: Nov 15, 2013 4:30pm ET
It was the last day of a weeklong business trip. I had eaten red meat nearly every night, and smoked cigars each and every day. So what to do on that final night? Yes—a steak and a cigar.
It was Sunday, and the Big Smoke Las Vegas weekend had concluded. I set out from the Mirage Hotel with senior features editor Jack Bettridge and headed to Paradise Road, home to Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse.
I've been coming to Vegas for years, and back in the heyday of cigar smoking this particular restaurant was cigar central. The smoking section was large and lively, and we would puff away at our tables before, during and after our meals. Changing smoking laws ended the indoor smoking in 2007, and management at Del Frisco's searched for a way to accommodate people (such as yours truly) who enjoy a great cigar with a meal.
The answer came in the form of a patio, located just outside the front entrance of the restaurant. It opened in 2010, and I visited it for the first time less than a week ago.
It's a fine space, with three tables of four, plus some couches off to the side. The tables allow for the full dining experience to take place with cigars. A roof keeps the rain away, should it fall. Heaters take the chill away on cool Vegas winter nights. I chose the new San Cristobal Revelation Prophet (made by My Father Cigars for Ashton Distributors Inc.), which I lit while pondering the menu and sipping a gin Martini.
Time stood still on that patio. The waitstaff was there to help, but never pushed. The meal was not rushed. After a time, we ordered some kumamoto oysters. Later, we tucked into steaks. Mine, a sirloin served on the bone, was tender, delicious and aggressively seasoned, a Del Frisco's style that I appreciate. It was presented a true medium-rare.
The cigars were delicious. No one complained about the smoke. For a little while, it was as it I had stepped into a time machine that took me back 15 years. (Sadly, my hair remained gray.) It was a fine dinner, and one I wish could be replicated more often.
Posted: Oct 28, 2013 4:30pm ET
I stepped out my door this morning and was greeted by the dark cold. The air was chilly enough to make my breath visible—it looked like I was having a Cohiba before breakfast. Fall is here in the northeast.
I think about the weather on occasion, but it's always on the mind of cigar guys like Eric Newman, the president of Tampa's J.C. Newman Cigar Co. When he asked "How's the weather?" over the phone last week, he wasn't making idle conversation, but looking for business insight.
You probably know that severe weather can wreak havoc on cigarmakers and tobacco growers, whether it be hurricanes, tornadoes or floods. But even something as seemingly innocent as an extra cold winter or a very late spring can have a negative impact on premium cigar sales.
Eric described how the United States cigar business has become quite subject to weather in recent years. Warmer temperatures, no snow in months that typically have snow, a lack of rain on weekends—that type of weather is good for the cigar business. When it gets very cold, when it snows quite a bit, that slows business down.
The reason? The great outdoors. More and more people in the U.S. now have their regular cigar—whether it's daily, weekly or monthly—in some outdoor spot, such as a golf course.
"The business is so dependent on the weather," said Eric, a longtime cigar industry veteran. His company owns the Diamond Crown and Brick House brands, among others, and J.C. Newman has been selling cigars for well over 100 years.
"With all the smoking ban legislation, we're so dependent upon good weather," he said. "If you talk to a manufacturer everyone tells you the same story."
Cigar smokers are quite unlike cigarette smokers. The typical cigar aficionado smokes when he or she relaxes, not out of habit. With many indoor smoking spots gone, that spot of relaxation is often an outdoor spot such as the golf course or on a beach. If your regular golf game is rained out, maybe you don't smoke that Fuente you had saved for the 10th hole. If a cigar lover doesn't have his regular cigar on Friday, said Newman, "that doesn't mean he smokes two on Saturday to make it up."
Posted: Oct 11, 2013 12:30pm ET
Twenty-five years of anything calls for celebration, for a quarter century is a major milestone. In the world of weddings, tradition dictates that it be honored with a gift of silver. For Davidoff, that benchmark was celebrated with cigars.
On Wednesday, I joined Davidoff in honoring 25 years of their flagship store in New York City, the Davidoff shop on Madison Avenue. The store has gone through relocation and redesign over the past quarter century. Today, it's a beautiful cigar-smoker haven with a comfortable smoking lounge and a large variety of handmade cigars for sale, not only from the Davidoff group but a host of other companies. It's a fitting testament to the Davidoff name.
The dinner was a grand four-course affair and cigar smoking was allowed and encouraged. I made my way through a Davidoff Nicaragua Toro (93 points, Cigar Insider) and Davidoff Nicaragua Robusto (91 points). I enjoyed them both.
Luis Torres, who manages the Davidoff Madison shop, spoke about the first visitor to sign the guest book—Zino Davidoff himself. If you have smoked cigars for some time, you no doubt know the name. Zino Davidoff (1906-1994), the son of a tobacco merchant, traveled to Cuba as a young man to learn about cigars and tobacco. He opened a shop in Geneva in 1929 under his own name, and created the Davidoff cigar brand in 1969, which was acquired by Oettinger Imex AG in 1970. Davidoff today is a global brand, with a considerable cigar portfolio including Davidoff, Camacho, Avo, Room 101 and Cusano cigars, among others.