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David Savona

Inside Cuba's Newest Factory

Posted: May 12, 2011 12:00am ET

When we arrived in Havana last week, Gordon and I were expecting to hear that the Partagas Cigar Factory had closed for its much-needed renovation. When we were in Cuba in February, everyone was talking about how Partagas would soon be shut down, the jackhammers brought out and workers would start the arduous task of undoing the damage done by years of hot, Cuban summers, drenching tropical hurricanes and years of salty sea air on the Real Fabrica Partagas, which has stood since 1845.

Not so. Partagas is still open, although its closing is (still) expected soon. But instead of seeing a shuttered Partagas, Gordon and I visited a different factory that has been moved to temporary digs-H. Upmann.

H. Upmann, which is also known by the post-revolutionary name José Martí, is now closed, and the factory's staff and production has been moved to the Romeo y Julieta factory. The Romeo y Julieta factory has been completely transformed into the new-albeit temporary-home of the H. Upmann brand. So all H. Upmann cigars are now being rolled at Romeo, along with some Montecristos, some Romeo y Julietas and a number of Cohibas. While the factory is also in charge of the diminutive Diplomaticos brand, none were being rolled at the time of our visit. Some notable new smokes are being made here, including the H. Upmann Half Corona and the soon-to-be-released H. Upmann Royal Robusto.

For the past five years, Romeo has been closed to tourists, and has been used primarily as a rolling school. Now it is decorated with banners and posters touting the H. Upmann cigar brand, and H. Upmann factory manager Miguel Barzaga Maceo is running the factory.

Barzaga Maceo came here at the end of January, and by February 10 he said the facility was ready to roll cigars. It was in full production upon our visit, and was even open to tourists.

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Inside the World's Busiest La Casa del Habano

Posted: May 4, 2011 12:00am ET

I'm back in New York after my week in Cuba. I spent most of the time in Havana, visiting 14 cigar shops, including each of the city's nine La Casas del Habanos. These are stores that sell Cuban cigars, of course, but there's more to a La Casa than just cigars. Being a La Casa del Habano means you have to stock a certain number of smokes, have a staff that is well informed about them, need a place where your customers can smoke and a bar serving drinks. They're wonderful places.

Most shops had decent stocks of Cuban cigars, with some notable exceptions. The only Cohiba Behike sighting was at the La Casa del Habano at the Habana Libre Hotel. That shop only had a partial box of Cohiba Behike BHK 52s and a box with some Cohiba Behike BHK 56s. (We relieved them of a few of those.) I asked if there were any more in the back, and there was a quick shake of the head. These cigars are hard to come by in Cuba.

The La Gloria Cubana jar, the regional edition for Cuba itself, is also sold out. On our December visit, they seemed to be everywhere, and in February, during the Festival, we also saw good stocks. On this visit the only ones I saw had been reserved for customers.

The prices in Havana, as always, were quite good. All the prices are in Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs), which are now priced on equal parity with the U.S. dollar. Here's an example. Prices range from 3.60 CUCs ($3.60) for a little Montecristo No. 5 up to 26 CUCs for a Cohiba BHK 56. Monte 2s are 7.60, Cohiba Robustos are 10.40, Partagas Serie D No. 4s are 5.70 and Partagas Lusitanias are 10.30. The most expensive box of cigars I saw was a box of 25 Montecristo As for 500 CUCs.

We filmed lots of video on this trip, including one that that shows you inside and out of the La Casa del Habano at the Partagas Cigar Factory. (I misspoke in the introduction—I don't think this is actually the world's busiest cigar store, but it's the busiest of the more than 140 La Casa del Habanos around the world.) You no doubt have heard that the Partagas cigar factory is closing for renovations. (It was still open during this trip, but could close very soon.) The good news is that the store is going to remain open during the renovation.

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The Locker Lowdown in Havana

Posted: May 4, 2011 12:00am ET

This is day four of my week-long trip to Havana, Cuba. I've been here all week with Gordon Mott on assignment for Cigar Aficionado.

During my trip I've visited just about every quality cigar shop in the city and toured three cigar factories. I've done quite a bit, but there's still more to do.

Most of the cigar shops are Casa del Habanos, stores that have a serious selection of Cuban cigars, comfy chairs for smokers, and a bar serving Havana Club and other fine spirits. And many have lockers.

If you're a serious Cuban cigar lover, having a locker in Havana is the ultimate indulgence.

Imagine a place to store your favorite box purchases, with superb humidity, in a secure facility, and upon each visit to Cuba your cigars will be waiting for you. Sounds good, right?

I shot this video at the Casa del Habano at the Havana Libre hotel, a real nice cigar shop.

Cuban cigars taste better in Havana. When they age carefully in your locker, what could be better?

Take a look:

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First Cigar in Havana

Posted: May 2, 2011 12:00am ET

Cuba begins to get quiet in May. The onslaught of snowbirds from Europe and Canada who flock here during the winter months in the northern hemisphere begins to slow down, and the weather begins to turn from pleasantly warm to downright hot. Thick, gray clouds climb higher in the sky during the afternoon, often releasing a cooling rain. The tourists might not be here in droves, but, as always, this is a great time to come to Havana to smoke cigars.

I'm here all week with Gordon Mott on assignment from Cigar Aficionado magazine. And we can't do it without cigars.

Our first cigar stop on the trip brought us on a Sunday night to the Casa del Habano at the Melia Cohiba Hotel. This is a Cuban cigar lover's paradise, with a large smoking lounge (complete with a band when we arrived) a well-stocked bar and a triangular walk-in humidor brimming with fine cigars.

What to pick? There were no Cohiba Behikes in stock (all of Cuba seems to be out of them at the moment) and the 2011 crop of Edicion Limitadas were not yet in stock. I love Monte 2s, but I wanted something different, and I thought the first cigar for the evening should be a big one.

Enter the Lusitania.

Partagas Lusitania

There she was, wearing a chocolate-brown wrapper the texture of silk, perfect three-seam cap, a rich, dusky aroma before being lit. This major league Partagas double corona is, when good, among the best big cigars made in Havana. The price in the Casa? About 10 Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs), or $10.

Gordon took two from the box. He looked at me. "What are you going to smoke?" he said with a smile. I reached into the box and selected a good looking one for myself.

Cuban double coronas such as Partagas Lusitanias, Punch Double Coronas, Ramon Allones Gigantes and Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas are smoking beautifully right now. The new production big smokes are superb. (See our ratings for some proof of how good they are right now.) The Partagas Lusitania seemed like just the right thing to puff.

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A Merry but Incomplete Bar

Posted: Apr 28, 2011 12:00am ET

Last night I dropped in on one of New York City's grandest, most storied bars, the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel. Back in 1932, the bar received its signature item, a 30-foot-wide, eight-foot-tall mural painted by Maxfield Parrish depicting the merry old soul himself, surrounded by jesters and his court. If you've never been, you should go.

But an aficionado doesn't come here solely for the mural. This is where cocktails are made in careful (albeit, very expensive) fashion. This claims to be the birthplace of the Bloody Mary (it was born as the Red Snapper) and the bartenders truly know their drinks. I remember my first visit, years ago, when I ordered a Tanqueray and tonic and was surprised to be served a highball glass with a generous portion of gin and a great amount of empty space. Then came a small bottle of tonic water. I could temper the drink with as much (or as little) tonic as I wanted. Last night, I went with Jorge Padrón and Cigar Aficionado's associate publisher Barry Abrams and had a wonderfully mixed Knob Creek Manhattan, served straight up. This is no place to order a beer. (And truth be told, I'm not even certain they carry beer.)

As much as I enjoyed the drink and the glorious surroundings, my evening was far from complete. For it evoked my earlier visits to the bar, and the cigars that I smoked while sitting in the view of the legendary King.

I fondly remember puffing away on a Juan Lopez Selección No. 1 while sipping that bracing gin and tonic so many years ago, and the Fuente Fuente OpusX I smoked with my wife in the same room on a visit many Christmas seasons ago. This was a bar where cigars were welcome. Today, of course, like all bars in New York City aside from the few cigar bars, cigars are as unwelcome at the old King Cole Bar as a visitor wearing a tank-top and torn jeans.

I enjoyed my cocktail, the company and setting was superb, but something was missing. And that's a little bit sad.

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A Tale of Two Factories

Posted: Apr 11, 2011 12:00am ET

My trip to Nicaragua last week was short and sweet. I was there for the Nicaraguan Cigar Festival and file a story for Cigar Aficionado (you'll read more about that soon). You saw my visits to tobacco fields, but I also took the time to visit two very different cigar factories in Estelí, the town in northwestern Nicaragua where most of the country's cigars are made.

The first time I visited a cigar factory in Nicaragua (back in 1999) I was surprised by its relative silence. I was five years into the job at that point and had visited several factories in the Dominican Republic. Dominican cigar factories are quite festive. Loud music often plays and cigar rollers converse loudly with their fellow workers as they go about their business.

Not so in Central America. The factories aren't quite silent, but the workers tend not to chat as they roll or bunch. You hear noise of course, but that tends to be the slap of chavetas on rolling tables, the squeak of chairs moving as people get up to move to cigar presses, the closing of doors—that sort of thing.

Nicaraguan factories make phenomenal cigars, and I had the pleasure to visit two very nice ones on this last trip. My first stop was at one of the mid-size factories in Estelí—Tabacos Cubanica, owned by the Padrón family. This is where all Padrón cigars are made. (Padrón once made some of its cigars across the border in Honduras.)

At this facility, which makes around 5 million cigars a year, the workers are divided between rollers and bunchers, with the rollers (all female) sitting in front, and the bunchers (all male) sitting in back. They make everything from Padrón 2000s to Padrón Family Reserves here, using dark, rich tobaccos. The cigars from this relatively modest cigar factory have won our highest accolades, winning Cigar of the Year three times. Take a look inside.

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In the Fields of Jalapa

Posted: Apr 8, 2011 12:00am ET

Daybreak came all too soon Thursday morning in Estelí, Nicaragua. It had been a late night at the Nicaraguan Cigar Festival—or early morning, since I didn't hit the sack until 2:30 a.m.—and the cacophony of cigarmakers coming to work roused me out of bed before 7 a.m. The workday begins early in Nicaragua, and this is no place for a person to sleep in.

I needed to be up anyway, as I was due to spend the day with the team from Aganorsa, one of the largest growers of cigar tobacco in Nicaragua. If you smoke Casa Fernandez, that's one of their brands, and it's made entirely from their tobacco leaves. If you smoke other cigars made with Nicaraguan tobacco—Illusiones, Padillas, even Padróns—if might have Aganorsa in there as well.

Aganorsa grows 1,200 acres of tobacco in Estelí, Condega and Jalapa. I joined up with Aganorsa owner Eduardo Fernandez, his dynamic duo of Cuban tobacco experts Arsenio Ramos and Jacinto, and his cousin Paul Palmer. After a quick stop in an Estelí field, we went on the long, bumpy drive to Jalapa.

Jalapa is in the north of Nicaragua, right near the border of Honduras. It's a rich, vibrant valley with reddish-brown soil similar in many ways to that found in the Vuelta Abajo of Cuba. (Jalapa is at a higher elevation and is much drier than the Vuelta Abajo.) This is the region of Nicaragua that yields the most wrapper. The tobacco from here tends to be more elegant, thinner and better for wrapper than anywhere else in the country. When we arrived at a shade-covered field, I took out my video camera and had Eduardo describe the genetic traits of Corojo-seed tobacco.

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Back in Nicaragua

Posted: Apr 7, 2011 12:00am ET

The blast of sultry, tropical air hit me as I walked off the American Airlines jet in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. I was a bit bleary eyed—on Tuesday night Cigar Aficionado held its Night to Remember charity dinner, which meant only two hours of sleep for me to make my 6 a.m. flight—but a smile came to my face when I felt the heat. I'm happy to be back in Nicaragua.

I've come to this Central American country many times for Cigar Aficionado, touring the country's rich tobacco lands and walking through its cigar factories. I was last here in December 2009, and I'm back for the same reason—the second Nicaraguan Cigar Festival.

When I joined Cigar Aficionado in 1995, Nicaraguan cigars weren't a major factor in the U.S. market. Today they loom large for cigar smokers and are one of the largest producers of cigars by hand in the world. In terms of quality, their presence resonates even more. Cigars from Nicaragua, and those made with Nicaraguan tobacco, do very well in Cigar Aficionado taste tests. The soil here is amazingly rich, and the nation is blessed with three distinctive major-growing regions, as well as smaller ones.

I saw one of those regions on Wednesday, touring a tobacco field called Villa Vieja with José Orlando and Jorge Padrón, the father-son team that makes Padrón cigars. It was nearly 5 p.m. by the time we reached the field, typically a poor time to see tobacco because it tends to droop that late in the day. But these plants looked great. There was a nice breeze in the field, and the leaves were big, wide and healthy. I had Jorge describe the tobacco for a bit as I shot some video.

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A Smoke with Camacho’s Christian Eiroa

Posted: Mar 14, 2011 12:00am ET

Christian Eiroa, president of Camacho Cigars, dropped by the Cigar Aficionado office on Friday. I've known Christian for years, but his visits up this way are few and far between. It had been a while since I had seen him in Manhattan.

He brought something new with him, a triangular box of Camacho cigars with a shiny, black exterior. He asked for a little screwdriver, the type you use on a pair of eyeglasses.

These cigars—called Camacho Super Limitados—aren't meant to be sold on an individual basis, so Christian has made it tough for a person to get at the smokes. You actually have to unscrew the four screws that secure the box in place. Christian took the screwdriver, went to work, and before long we were puffing away.

The Super Limitados are the first in a series of new blends Christian is coming out with. These particular smokes were made in 2007, using wrapper grown on the Eiroa farm in Jamastran, Honduras, using a seed variety named after Christian's grandfather Generoso. The wrapper was delicious, says Christian, but the yield was far too low to allow it to be made into a big brand. And its rarity meant it had to be a pricey smoke, so Christian has sat on it for awhile, waiting for the economy to improve. He thinks this is the time. The cigars, which are made in Camacho's curious 11/18 perfecto shape, will retail for about $350 for the box of 18 (making them about $20 apiece) and Camacho will only sell 6,000 of the cigars. Christian thinks it's the best blend he's ever made.

I shot some video of Christian describing the smokes.

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Havana, the Humidor

Posted: Mar 1, 2011 12:00am ET

I was standing outside of the Palacio del Conventiones, the Havana Convention Center, with Marvin Shanken and Gordon Mott, when a man walked up to us. I shook his hand and said my name.

"I've met you before," he said, and it was then that I recognized him. "You're Valerio, from the La Casa del Habano in the Cayman Islands," I said. We had last shook hands 11 years ago when we met inside Cuba's Partagas Factory. Valerio Cornale's memory is solid indeed. "You collect humidors," I said.

"Cigar boxes," he corrected me. "All types of cigar boxes. You don't need a humidor in Havana. Havana is a humidor."

Valerio was right-Havana is a humidor, and you really don't need a humidor while on the island to keep your cigars in smokeable condition, which is a revelation to someone like me who works in New York City. The air here is amazingly dry, and our humidors fight a constant battle with the elements to keep our cigars in fine condition. I don't dare leave cigars on my desk for more than a half hour or so, less they begin to dry out. But in Cuba, cigars are quite happy on your nightstand, on your desk—just about anywhere you leave them.

At the start of our visit we came across some Montecristo No. 2 cigars. The first ones we smoked, fresh from the cigar shop, seemed a bit young (despite their code) and perhaps a bit moist. They were far from bad, but they weren't Monte 2s at their best. A day or so into the trip, after sitting out in the open air, the cigars tasted better. We all noticed the change.

As a cigar smoker, it's hard to beat the convenience of having an open box of great smokes always on hand, especially something as classic as the Montecristo No. 2. We didn't smoke the entire box, but we did a fair job on it, and shared many with friends. And Valerio wasn't the only one to mention Cuba as a big humidor.

People often speak about how cigars taste better when you smoke them in the country in which they were made, be that country Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua or somewhere else. There's just something about being inside a giant, tropical humidor that makes cigar smoking seem perfectly natural. We found ourselves reaching for the first cigar soon after breakfast, and puffing the last cigar well into the night, paired with a little bit of fine, aged rum.

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