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David Savona

A Trip To The Past With A Montecristo

Posted: Apr 14, 2014 5:00pm ET

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.

Old Montecristo cigar box.
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The Final Night In Cuba

Posted: Mar 1, 2014 11:00am ET

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.

H. Upmann No. 2 cigar.
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Cigar Shopping In Cuba, The Sequel

Posted: Feb 28, 2014 11:00am ET

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.

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The New Cohiba

Posted: Feb 27, 2014 11:00am ET

If there was any doubt about the fat cigar trend spreading around the world, it was erased last night here in Havana at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Around 10 p.m., as the band played and the waiters poured a bit more of the 2010 Chateau d'Esclans, a troupe of gorgeous models bearing wooden trays emerged from the back, handing each seated guest a fat, dark cigar the size of a roll of quarters.

It was the Cohiba Robusto Supremos Edición Limitada 2014, and it was a historic smoke. It's a bit over five inches long, but that's not the important part. The smoke has a ring gauge of 58, making it the thickest cigar created by the Cubans in modern memory.

The cigar was the final smoke passed out at the Trinidad dinner, which also saw the release of the fat Trinidad Vigia, which has a ring gauge of 54. Both are expected to debut later in the year, so it's hard to fairly judge the samples we were given last night, but I tried each one to give some perspective on how they might smoke when they reach the retail chain.

First, the Trinidad. It was a beautifully made smoke, with an oily, nearly flawless wrapper and that familiar Trinidad pigtail. Some of us were a bit confused by the focus on Trinidad, a brand that's not exactly in the mainstream here in Cuba. On my shop visits, I saw few for sale, and the brand has been pared down in recent years. But where Trinidads have been traditionally slim (after all, the first size in the line was a lancero) the Vigia is more in line with the type of cigars preferred by many of today's cigar lovers—quite plump. I smoked two last night, one during the dinner, and the second back at the hotel over a drink in the lobby. It was evident the cigar was quite young, and it seemed to have been rolled very recently, with a rather waxy taste. I think it was just too young to judge. I would bet the final product will be quite different.

Cohiba Edicion Limitada 2014.
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Cigar Shopping In Havana

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.

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A Tale of Two Cigars

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.

Hoyo and partagas.
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Back In Cuba

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.

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Tobacco By The Ton

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.

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Cigars in Santiago

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.

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Cigars And The Super Bowl

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.

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