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David Savona

Smoking Like Churchill in Cuba

Posted: Jun 21, 2012 12:00am ET

My last trip to Cuba—during the Habanos Festival in February—was a blur of dinners, meetings, interviews and cigar after cigar. I left many great stories in my notebook. This is one of the best.

One of the wonderful things about the annual Cuban cigar festival is the amount of free time built into the schedule. For every night with a festival event, there’s a free night that follows. That leaves time for visitors to enjoy Havana, gather with friends they’ve made over the years, and to meet new ones.

One calm, beautiful, free night during the week I joined the crew from Sautter of Mount Street, a London cigar store that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The shop was long-owned by Desmond Sautter, a gentlemen I had the pleasure of meeting many times during my years working for Cigar Aficionado. Sautter built a business that was known by cigar aficionados, and he always seemed to have a knack for finding rare and old Havanas. One of his customers was a man named Laurence Davis.

“I bought cigars every day,” Davis told me while we were puffing away on Partagás Festival Edition cigars made a few years prior, while sitting on the very spacious balcony of the Presidential Suite of the Nacional Hotel in Havana. The Churchill-sized smokes had a delicious toasted almond flavor with a faint hint of chocolate, and with a little kick of leather. “I phoned Desmond every day for 25 years, saying ‘Desmond, it’s time to sell,’” said Davis. Finally, his persistence and phone calls paid off, and in 2008 Sautter sold Davis the store.

Davis smokes cigars at an amazing rate. He told me that he puffs 14 cigars a day (!), a figure that puts him firmly in the league of cigar-smoking legends, including the near-insatiable level of smoking perfected by the late, great statesman Sir Winston Churchill. Which brings us back to this particular story.

We all know that Sir Winston smoked Cuban cigars with great enthusiasm. In our Autumn 1995 story about Sir Winston, author Peter Welsh included a Churchill quote that went like this: “…my rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them.”

chef in cuba
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Memorable Memorial Day Cigars

Posted: May 29, 2012 12:00am ET

I’m back at my desk after a wonderful Memorial Day weekend. I’m a little more tan, a little more achy yet far better rested then when I left the office on Friday.

Here in the United States, Memorial Day serves as the kickoff to summer, even though summer doesn’t begin for 22 more days. Here in the northeast, the weather complied. It was as if a switch went off, with the mercury zooming. We immediately went from a rainy spring to summertime temperatures, and just in time.

I spent much of the weekend outdoors, with several parties and family activities that worked well for smoking cigars. My first great cigar of the weekend was an old classic, an Arturo Fuente Don Carlos No. 3. This is a cigar that’s been on the market since the 1970s, and it’s one of the best made by the Fuente family, who are celebrating 100 years of history this year. It’s cigars like this that have made Fuente cigars so popular—the Don Carlos is rich, refined and balanced, with a touch of orange peel flavor. What a wonderful cigar. I smoked it on a leisurely car ride on Saturday morning, just before watching my son march with his fellow Little Leaguers in our town parade.

Later that day, I took the family to a nearby beach. At first I thought it would be a rainout—thunderclouds were threatening, but the storm stayed clear. One of my friends, who loves cigars, saw a few stogies in my shirt pocket and suggested we fire up. Soon there were about five of us, pulling together chairs on the beach and smoking cigars. I lit a Flor de las Antillas Robusto, a great new cigar made by the Garcia family in Nicaragua.

This may sound funny, but my best cigar moment of the weekend involved a cigar that I didn’t smoke.

Yesterday I played golf with my brother, my cousin and a friend. The day was spectacular, very hot, with not a cloud in the sky. My brother is a chef, so he works most weekends and holidays, and his schedule makes it hard to him to get out on the course as often as I do. I always love a day on the golf course, but when I get to play with my brother it’s a very special day indeed. He was hitting the ball very well. We chose a long drive hole on the back nine, and our two drives were considerably farther than those of our playing partners. I thought I had him, and I joked that my ball took a photo of his as it flew over. When we got out to where the balls had landed, his was 15 yards past mine. And I was proud to lose to him.

de las antillas cigar.
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I’ll Have Another

Posted: May 14, 2012 12:00am ET

Derby Day was a little colder than normal, but the cloudy skies were predicted to hold their rain throughout the day, making me and my friends smile. We were heading to Derby Day at the Harris Household.

Jay and Tammy Harris throw an incredible party for the Kentucky Derby. Tammy, a southern girl, typically makes country ham and biscuits, which is as delicious as it sounds. Jay ensures there are plenty of bourbon mint juleps to get everyone in the true spirit of the day. And the two of them have the amazing talent of making everyone feel like they’re the most important person at the party. They are, in short, the consummate hosts.

Much of the party takes place outdoors, making it smoker friendly, so I brought a selection of cigars for a variety of tastes: some H. Upmann classics for those looking for something easygoing, Partagas 1845s for a solid medium body, and some Viaje Super Shots for those looking for a spicier smoke.

I showed up late (my son was playing baseball) and the party was in full swing. The women were decked out in their derby best, with big, colorful hats and vibrant dresses. A few of my friends were wearing seersucker suits (perfect for the day) and I put on a pair of red shoes to add a little color to my ensemble.

I found my lovely wife, Manuela, and we clinked our glasses, just as the charity auction to benefit the local firehouse was beginning. People were bidding on each horse. She liked the name of one in particular, and she bid heavily to get it—“I’ll Have Another.” (Those of you who read Jack Bettridge’s pre-Derby Day story on bourbon will remember that the horse was his call, too, based on the name alone.)

You know how this story ends. “I’ll Have Another” won, from the 19th position, taking down the heavy favorite. Manuela and I celebrated, and she was so exuberant I fear I spilled my drink more than one time on the feet of one of the guests standing beside us. I lit another cigar to celebrate.

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Smoking the New Partagas 1845

Posted: Mar 21, 2012 12:00am ET

I spent some time yesterday smoking with two of the biggest names in cigars from General Cigar Co.: Johnys Diaz, vice president of operations for the company’s main Dominican Republic cigar factory, and legendary cigar man Benjamin Menendez, who is working in his 60th year around cigars. They were bringing Greg Mottola and myself an exclusive first taste of the new Partagas 1845, which goes on sale April 9.

Partagas is a storied brand. Created in Cuba in 1845 (hence the name), it was overseen by Ramón Cifuentes until the Cuban government nationalized the country’s tobacco and cigar industry. Cifuentes later helped create the non-Cuban version of his brand with General Cigar, making a cigar with Cameroon wrapper. This “main” Partagas brand is still sold to this day and comes in a familiar yellow box.

General Cigar felt Partagas needed something new, something with more oomph than the “yellow box” Partagas and something with a story, something distinctive. About a year ago Diaz, Menendez and the General Cigar Dominicana team started testing new products, set on making a Partagas with a wrapper leaf other than Cameroon that would make people sit up and notice.

“We wanted something medium in strength,” Diaz told me, “but with robust flavor.”

He handed me a dark corona gorda, and the first thing that I noticed was the band. Designed to be looked at when you hold the cigar horizontally, rather than vertically, it has a beautiful gold eagle in the center, printed by Vrijdag in the Netherlands. The dark, oily wrapper was Ecuador Habano grown by the Oliva Tobacco Co. of Tampa, Florida. The binder is a leaf of Connecticut Habano that General has been tweaking for nine years, and the filler a mix of Dominican and Nicaraguan tobaccos.

It took 50 blends before they decided upon this Partagas 1845, the first new Partagas in years and the first one made with Ecuador Habano wrapper. It was very tasty, with a sweet, nutty flavor, good balance, and—as intended—a medium body. The smoke was quite pleasant. Look at this video to hear Johnys and Benji describe the project, and to get a look at the cigar.

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Buying Cigars in Cuba

Posted: Mar 16, 2012 12:00am ET

When I visit Havana, one of my greatest joys is walking through the humidors of a Casa del Habano and taking a look at the selection of cigars. On my last trip a few weeks ago, I found that many of the shops were in decent supply.

With the (notable) exception of the Montecristo Gran Reserva, which I didn’t see on sale anywhere, and Cohiba Behikes, which were hard to find in most stores save for that in the Habana Libre Hotel, there were plenty of good cigars from which to choose.

The 2011 Edición Limitadas were in good supply, including plenty of Cohiba 1966 (they scored 94 points in a recent Cigar Insider; wonderful smokes), plenty of Hoyo de Monterrey Short Hoyo Piramides EL 2011, and Ramon Allones Allones Extras. The regular production new smokes from last year’s Festival were also there, such as the Partagas D5s and E2s.

I shot this video inside the humidor of the always superb Casa del Habano at Club Habana. Take a look at the stock in the video below.

There were tons of Montecristos, and a huge amount of one of my favorites, the Montecristo Petit Edmundo, including some 2008 production.

The shop had every size of Cohiba, but the Lanceros and Esplendidos were in short supply. There were also low stocks of Cohiba Maduro Genios and Secretos (no Magicos in stock). There was also a very large number of Cuaba Salomones in stock.


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The Pig Roast

Posted: Mar 13, 2012 12:00am ET

I recently spent 10 days out of the office, bouncing between the Dominican Republic, Miami and Cuba. The weekend in Miami gave me the chance to take in part of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Our company is a sponsor of the event, and my colleagues at Wine Spectator have long participated, but my schedule never allowed me to take part. This time, I was in.

I landed in Miami on a Saturday afternoon and checked into the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. This is one of my favorite hotels—they adore cigar smokers. I began with lunch by the pool (one of the world’s largest) while waiting for my room, and when I finished I was really in the mood for a cigar. A group of poolside tables, mere steps from the restaurant, had cigar ashtrays. I sat down, fired up a Tatuaje Havana Cazadore, and all was right with the world. If I was out of cigars, I could have bought one in the well-stocked Biltmore cigar shop.

The Biltmore isn’t on South Beach, but it played a major role in the festival, hosting the event closest to my heart—Swine & Wine. This was a pig roast, where 14 teams of chefs would each roast a pig and compete against the others, with the hungry audience serving as judge. I couldn’t wait.

I’d be up for any pig roast, but I knew one of the competitors, and so do you—Jorge Padrón, the president of Padrón Cigars Inc. of Miami. You know Jorge as a man who knows his cigars, who learned the art of turning tobacco leaves into delicious smokes at the side of his father, the legendary José Orlando Padrón. But you may not have known that Jorge is also quite the pitmaster. He cooks a pig almost as well as he can make a cigar. I’ve had his lechon asado on several occasions in Nicaragua, and it’s always been delicious.

Roasting a 60 pound pig is a slow process. Jorge woke at dawn to get started, and since all the pigs were being cooked at a courtyard at the Biltmore, where I was staying, I was able to get a view of lengthy process, from near-start to finish. Each of the teams started with a Duroc & Hampshire pig from Pat LaFrieda Meats, and most opted to cook on a La Caja China box, but the Padróns were cooking on their own rig, an impressive steel roasting box they made themselves. I went to the courtyard at 9 a.m., lit up a Padrón Serie 1926 No. 35 (it’s never too early) and checked in with Jorge and his team, called the Bar-B-Cubanos, which included Richard Pérez and Willy Pujals. They had marinated their pig in the traditional Cuban mix of sour orange, salt, garlic and oregano, was on the fire, basking in the Padrón’s custom-made metal roasting box. A grill at the side was the staging area for starting new charcoal. There were tools, and a tent above (scattered showers were in the forecast.) Plenty of beers were on ice—these were clearly professionals with a plan.

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The New Cigars of Cuba

Posted: Mar 2, 2012 11:00am ET

Much of the excitement surrounding the annual Habanos Festival surrounds new cigars. The Festival is a stage for Habanos S.A. to present their new creations to the hundreds from around the world who gather for this event. Some of the cigars are available for preview, but it will be many months before they appear on store shelves.

Every year, Cuba releases Edición Limitada cigars. They’ve done as many as five in a year, but now the number is fixed at three. The 2012 Limitadas will be all big brand smokes: a Partagas Serie C No. 3 (5 1/2” by 48), H. Upmann Robusto (4 7/8” by 50) and Montecristo 520 (6 1/8” by 55).

The Monte was one of many cigars handed out last night at the 520 dinner. (If you didn’t read about the wonderful performance by Jim Belushi, read Gordon Mott’s blog.) At first glance it appeared similar to the 2010 Montecristo EL, the Grand Edmundo, but this new cigar is a few ring gauges fatter (a very odd 55—a fact that Gordon and I each checked against different members of Habanos) as well as a bit longer. I really enjoy the Grand Edmundos, so I was happy to light this one up.

I think the Monte 520 EL (named for the 520th anniversary of Columbus coming to the Americas) will be a fine smoke in the future. It was a gutsy smoke, with tons of nose spice, but it tasted fresh. With time, a cigar like this should be wonderful. Expect it in the fall along with the two other ELs.

If you recall my blog about the trade fair, I spied a lovely box in the style of a book filled with giant Cuabas, their upper ends wrapped in foil. To my delight, my bag for the evening included one of those. I slipped off the foil of the nine-inch-plus smoke, which is an immense figurado known as a diadema. It bears the name Bariay. I clipped the pointed end and lit up.

I loved the cigar. Full of wood, leather, earth and mineral notes, with a ton of coffee bean flavor, especially after it warmed up, it went on and on with full flavors. It’s a book edition smoke for 2012, and it won’t be cheap, but if these samples are the same as the regular production smokes they are cigars worth aging and savoring. We don’t give a score to cigars that we smoke in this type of non-blind tasting, but I can tell you it was considerably impressive.

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A Day at the Cuban Trade Show

Posted: Feb 29, 2012 4:00pm ET

It was a bright, sunny day here in Havana, but the weather would have to wait. It was time for the Habanos Festival trade fair and seminars about Cuba and the world of Cuban cigars.

After a simple breakfast with hearty coffee (and another aficionado lighting up at 8 in the morning in the restaurant, with no complaints) Gordon Mott and I headed to the convention center in Miramar. We began walking around and getting the lay of the land.

The Habanos Festival is quite the international affair, with visitors from 70 countries. The trade fair and seminars take place at the Palacio de Convenciones, which is attached to the Hotel Palco. The trade fair is an interesting mix of booths with various products aimed at the many retailers from around the globe who attend.

There’s an intriguing mix of products, from high-quality humidors and jewelry to antique cigar labels, boxes and prints. It’s a mix ranging from the luxurious to the downright odd. One booth had an artistic rendering of a map of Cuba, where the island was represented by two (or three, it was hard to tell) intertwined naked women—I’m not sure that one is ready for the home or office.

Habanos, as can be expected, had the largest booth, with a display of the new cigars coming to market and a cigar roller showcasing the art of making a cigar by hand. There was also a book edition of Cuaba diademas measuring at least nine inches long that looked amazing.

We took seats in the seminars to listen to the presentations. Gordon’s Spanish is beautiful, so he didn’t need a translator, but I partook of the headsets and clicked onto the English feed. A row of interpreters above gave translations in English, French, Russian and German. I lit a Montecristo Edmundo, as the seminars allow smoking, and began to listen.

The featured speaker for the morning was Eusebio Leal Spengler, the historian of the city of Havana, who spoke emphatically at length (and without notes) about how tobacco was intertwined with the history of Cuba. He spoke colorfully and poetically (describing the Caribbean as a “necklace of islands”) and spoke against the demonization of tobacco despite the fact that he doesn’t smoke. “I am obligated as a man of Havana,” he said, “to defend the art of choice.” He received a standing ovation.

Cuaba diademas habanos festival.
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Cigars—Old and New—In Havana

Posted: Feb 29, 2012 12:00am ET

My first full day in Cuba is behind me. As I sit in my room pecking away at this blog, it’s a bit past midnight, and I’m reminiscing after a long, smoky start to my trip.

My first cigar of this Habanos Festival was one that’s been around for some time, a Montecristo Edmundo. I’ve long preferred its truncated cousin, the Petit Edmundo, but this Edmundo smoked beautifully, full of rich wood notes, touches of leather and a long, succulent finish. One of the best Edmundos I’ve smoked. It is a current production smoke and indicative of the high quality of new Cuban cigars.

I heard many people complain about the lack of cigars in shops, but the two I visited today had cigars in good supply. The Casa del Habano at the Meliá Habana was packed when I arrived, but the humidor had a decent supply of smokes. I chose a few cigars (more on those later) and was off to the next stop.

The Casa del Habano at the Meliá Cohiba hotel had decent stocks of cigars, including several boxes of Cohiba Behikes, which have been rare of late. I ran into Frederic Dechamps from the Casa del Habano in Belgium. He had just bought one of Cuba’s newest cigars, the H. Upmann Robusto. Each cigar is adorned with an elaborate secondary band commemorating Columbus’s journey across the Atlantic.

I was given one in the Casa del Habano at the Melia Cohiba this evening, and I puffed it in El Aljibe as we sat down to dinner. (You have to love the smoking laws in Havana.) It wasn’t so impressive at the start with tart notes, but it really turned into a lovely cigar about an inch or so in. The price is right, too; they were 76 CUC for a box of 10, or about $8 per cigar when you factor in the loss upon a dollar-for-CUC exchange.

In between all these new cigars, I had something very old. My friend José Antonio Candia set up a tasting with folks from James Fox Cigars in Dublin. They brought some cigars that were nearly as old as me, 40-plus-year-old Partagás Fox Seleccion No. 1s, made in the Conde 109 shape, which is a double corona with a slightly tapered tip. The wrapper was like fine silk, the draw sublime The cigars had a delicate start and picked up steam as the cigar progressed. You’ll hear more about that one in a later blog, and in Connoisseur’s Corner.

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Something New and Something Old in Santiago

Posted: Feb 24, 2012 12:00am ET

I’m in Santiago, Dominican Republic, attending the fifth annual ProCigar Festival. The weather is warm, the cigars are copious and everyone seems to be having a good time.

My first stop was the new MATASA factory, owned by the Quesada family. MATASA has been in Santiago since 1978, in the original Free Trade Zone, but after paying rent for nearly four decades and realizing it could never own a building there, the Quesadas decided to move the entire factory out to the Santiago suburb of Licey, where it had a leaf storage facility. “We had to raise the roof of a 100,000 square foot building,” Manuel Quesada told me as we fired up Quesada España cigars. “We’re still painting and hammering.”

The factory looked great to me—far more spacious and better laid out than the original MATASA factory, which had been expanded time and time again as the company grew over the years. Rollers were working on Fonsecas and Quesadas, and one talented worker wearing a New York Yankees hat and puffing on a fat cigar was rolling the artful Q Detat Molotov, a cigar shaped like a Molotov cocktail.

The factory has been rolling since the last week of January, and the last cigars at the old MATASA were rolled in November. The Quesadas made extra cigars at the end of the year to make up for the lack of production during the move.

Michael Herklots and Bill Sherman of Nat Sherman cigars led a deconstruction tasting of the new Nat Sherman Timeless, which is made by MATASA. The ProCigar group smoked the four filler components (three of them Dominican, one Nicaraguan) to see the differences in the types of tobaccos. All were quite different, despite being grown from the same seed, and that’s due to their placement on a tobacco plant. The Timeless is a tasty smoke. At the conclusion of the test (which turned the small room into a cloudy affair making it hard to see the speakers at the front) Sherman presented the Quesadas with a plaque commemorating the opening of the factory.

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