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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Posted: Feb 22, 2012 12:00am ET
Visiting Havana is an amazing experience for a cigar smoker, but making the trek out to Pinar del Río to see Cuba’s prime tobacco growing region makes that experience all the more complete. I make my way out there roughly half the times I visit the island.
I traveled to Cuba four times in the past 14 months with Gordon Mott. You can read the fruits of our research in our Havana cover story, which is going up on our website all week at www.cigaraficionado.com.
Gordon’s fine pieces on the many hotels and restaurants in Cuba went up yesterday; my stories about Havana’s cigar shops and factories went up today, along with a story about Pinar del Río; and tomorrow we’re launching Gordon’s report on Cuba’s music scene and how to tour Old Havana. Gordon and I head back to Cuba next week for the Habanos Festival—if you’re one of the hundreds going, these stories can help you get the most out of Cuba.
Another story went up today: my Cuba Report from the same issue, and that’s the reason for this blog. The article came from one of those visits to Pinar del Río, specifically San Luis, and the best-known tobacco farm in Cuba, Cuchillas de Barbacoa.
I met with Hirochi Robaina, who is a well-known figure in the world of Cuban tobacco, and spent most of the day with him to learn more about him for the story. It was an important time for Hirochi: when we spoke, he had recently finished harvesting his first tobacco crop grown without the aid of his grandfather, the revered Alejandro Robaina. Hirochi had to face trouble in the fields. He planted very early, using a trick his grandfather taught him. He faced poor weather and then was challenged by the growers working on the farm, who wanted to replant. And he used a new organic fertilizer that hadn’t been employed in decades.
Posted: Feb 16, 2012 12:00am ET
Jon Huber made a visit to the Cigar Aficionado offices the other day. It had been far too long. Jon had been a principal at C.A.O. International Inc., and he left that company to form Crowned Heads LLC. Jon has been busy working with the rest of the Crowned Heads crew on Four Kicks, their first brand, which debuted late last year.
It’s a fine cigar brand, made by Ernesto Perez-Carrillo in the Dominican Republic. It’s Ernesto’s first brand made under contract for someone else.
Jon was in town to give Greg Mottola and myself a first look at the newest size in the Four Kicks line. In previous blogs I remarked how it was brave and bold for Huber and company to come out with old school cigar sizes that eschew the thick cigars so popular today. This new size, called Selección No. 5, is the thinnest yet.
The cigar is 6 1/2 inches long by 44 ring gauge, which would be classified as a lonsdale in our taste tests. The samples were stunning, really well made with mounted heads, beautifully stretched Ecuadoran Habano wrappers, Nicaraguan binders and Nicaraguan filler tobaccos. They were young, but tasty, with almond flavor, with a touch of cedar and nutmeg. As it burned, it grew earthier, and remained very balanced and easygoing.
we smoked, I turned on the video camera and let Jon describe the Four
Kicks philosophy, and to talk some more about the new cigar. Take a