I'm writing this blog as I'm packing for the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers trade show, better known as the IPCPR. Amazing as it seems, this will be my 20th show. I joined Cigar Aficionado magazine in the summer of 1995, one week before what would become my first trade show. I was as green as a field on a summer day, with a head full of black hair and about 400 freshly printed business cards stuffed in my pockets. It was a perfect way to get immersed in the world of premium handmade cigars.
Fake cigars are a persistent problem for cigar lovers, particularly cigar aficionados who smoke Cuban cigars. And while most of the blame lies on those who prey on consumers by peddling the fake product, some consumers are also guilty of ignorance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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