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