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David Savona

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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Cuban Taste Test

Posted: Feb 25, 2011 12:00am ET

Thursday was a busy one for team Cigar Aficionado in Havana. After a smoky breakfast, Marvin Shanken, Gordon Mott and I headed out to Cuba´s premier cigar factory, El Laguito (You can read all about that part of the day in Gordon Mott's blog) I noticed they had some of the Cohiba 1966 Edicion Limitadas at the factory, but these were only made here for the festival. It's not likely that the cigars will be rolled here when they go into actual production much later in the year.

I set off on my own around midday, walking the streets near El Capitolio Nacional, a nearly 100-year-old building that was built to mirror the look of the U.S. capitol dome, and which served as Cuba´s government building in the days before the Revolution. Today it´s home to Cuba´s Academy of Sciences. The streets were teeming with locals on a bright, sunny day; bustling with cars, about a fifth of them gems from the 1950s, some in absolute pristine condition. I walked past a theater and various shops, then through a park where a few people were engaged in an energetic conversation. I stopped for a little lunch then hopped into a cab to drive back to Miramar and rejoin the festival.

The driver was puffing on a cigarette when I got into the cab, and he threw it out the window. I offered him a Montecristo No. 2, which he happily accepted. A quick bite of the tip and he fired up. I took out the new Partagas Serie D No. 5 and lit up as well.

It was a smoky (and quite pleasant) ride from downtown Havana to Miramar and the Palacio de Conventiones, or convention center. I paid the driver, shook his hand, and went back inside.

It was just about time for the afternoon sessions to begin, and I made my way into a large conference room with long tables outfitted with microphone stands every few seats, plug-ins for the translation devices (five languages were offered, but I was told the Russian translation wasn´t working). I puffed away on my Partagas, enjoying it immensely. This short, squat smoke measures 4 3/8 by 50. It began as an Edicion Limitada back in 2008, but now it´s being put into regular production. It is among the best cigars I´ve smoked while here in Havana-very rich, a bit sweet, with enough power to keep me very interested. I preferred it to the larger (and new) Partagas Serie E No. 2, which is not a pyramid as the name would suggest but a 5 and a half inch long, 54 ring gauge parejo. The Serie E I smoked wasn't bad, by any means, but it just didn´t have the intensity of the Serie D No. 5.

Pepin, Janny and Jaime Garcia.
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Smoking a Trio of New Cuban Cigars

Posted: Feb 24, 2011 12:00am ET

Wednesday night at the Habanos Festival was all about new cigars. I puffed a trio of new smokes that are heading to cigar shops soon during a festive dinner held in the Havana suburb of Miramar. And while top billing for the night went to the H. Upmann brand, the cigar that stole the show was a new Cohiba.

The dinner was dubbed the H. Upmann night, and it was held in a large, poolside hall on a gorgeous winter night. As the hundreds of cigar lovers walked up to the building, they were greeted Hollywood style, with flashbulbs popping, bright banners showcasing the H. Upmann name and beautiful models handing out cigars. It was a packed house, with more than 500 cigar lovers from around the world in attendance. Some are cigar retailers, others cigar distributors, but many are simply die-hard cigar aficionados who wanted to come to Havana to enjoy the culture of Cuban cigars.

I was given the H. Upmann Half Corona and I lit it up right away. It´s a tiny smoke, only 3 1/2 inches long and 44 ring gauge. It´s about the size of a Montecristo No. 5, and while the name Half Corona has been used before on Cuban cigars, I´m told this is the only cigar in the entire Habanos portfolio with these dimensions. As dinner was served I puffed away. It has good coffee bean flavors with just a touch of earth on the finish. It´s not very intense, but for a short smoke I found it pleasant. It will come in boxes of 25 or in tins of 5. Habanos intends it as a smoke for when you´re tight on time.

As the live band played killer Cuban music and hammed it up on stage, the irony hit me. The day that New York city Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a law banning smoking in parks and beaches here I was in Havana puffing away with 500 people inside. While eating. I was enjoying full smoking freedom as one of the last places available to cigar smokers was being taken away in the city that never sleeps. Odd indeed.

Cigar number two was another H. Upmann, a new Casa del Habano Exclusive for 2011 called a H. Upmann Royal Robusto. The cigar is the size of an Edmundo, and only 50,000 will be made in 2011 for sale only in Casa del Habanos. It showed promise at first, with a big burst of flavor, but it faded, getting a bit tangy. I think it was young. I´d like to smoke it with some age.

H. Upmann Half Corona
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Final Day of the Dominican Cigar Festival

Posted: Feb 14, 2011 12:00am ET

Friday morning in Santiago, Dominican Republic, I walked into the spacious (and annoyingly non-smoking) lobby of the Gran Almirante Hotel, laptop in hand. As I sat down to write, I watched groups of those gathered here for the ProCigar Festival head out into the sunshine with golf clubs or beach gear. Many were heading over the mountains to Puerto Plata for some R&R. But for me (and for many others) the cigar tours continued.

I love golf, but I'm glad I missed the round, because I joined the folks of La Aurora S.A. for an intriguing presentation on wrappers and cigars.

Guillermo León, who heads La Aurora's cigar division, welcomed us to the small factory, which makes Guillermo León, Aurora and León Jimenes cigars. He introduced Jose Blanco, the vice president of sales for the company, who was going to lead the group of 30 or so through a tasting.

We were given a very special cigar—it had been rolled with five wrappers. Not five atop one another, not intertwined wrappers, but one cigar with five strips of  different wrappers. The cigar was made this way to allow the smoker to taste the change in flavor as the cigar burned from one wrapper leaf to another. Blanco said it was León's idea to make the cigar.

We lit up the cigar (which actually didn't have any wrapper on the foot, so we began by smoking the bunch only). Soon we hit the first little strip of wrapper, which was light in color. The cigar took on a slightly creamy, somewhat hay-like character, and was mild. It was Connecticut-seed wrapper, and we were smoking a textbook example.

I shot a video of the cigar at this point (standing away from the seminar so you could hear better) then walked back to the presentation so you could see a little of Jose in action. Take a look.

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Day Three in the Dominican Republic

Posted: Feb 11, 2011 12:00am ET

Beautiful sunshine and balmy temperatures greeted more than 200 cigar lovers on Thursday here in Santiago. As the day began some headed to cigar factories, others to tobacco fields, and a few set out on tours of the city and other areas of the Dominican Republic.

The fourth annual ProCigar festival was in full swing, and no matter what their agenda was, each was here for one reason-the love of fine cigars. Every tour, every dinner, every gathering included premium cigars made by the member companies of ProCigar.

I went on my own on Thursday, heading to the biggest cigar factory in Santiago on my own—General Cigar Dominicana. This bustling factory (which in actuality incorporates several buildings in the Zona Franca de Santiago Numero Uno, Santiago's original free trade zone) is the place where Macanudo, La Gloria Cubana, Partagas and many other cigars are made.

I spent the entire morning with General Cigar's president, Dan Carr, who explained some of the changes that have been going on at General. One of the things he stressed is how despite its size (General is a unit of Scandinavian Tobacco Group, the world's second largest cigar company), he wants General to operate as if it were several small companies. This dates back to 2008 when General created what's known as the business venture group. "It started to change the way we do things," he said.

I walked with Carr through the huge operation with the team from General that runs the Dominican operation on a day-to-day basis, led by Jhonys Diaz. As we walked from room to room in the vast (and exceptionally clean) facility, Diaz explained the steps General takes to make millions upon millions of cigars each year.

One of the most noteworthy things about General Cigar is the vast amount of tobacco it has within these walls. Bale after bale, crate after crate and barrel after barrel of tobacco from around the world is processed and stored here. "Tobacco processing is a very long and expensive process," said Diaz. "It's a very cumbersome process-but it pays off in quality." One of the ways General tracks how its tobacco is performing is by test smoking leaf in the factory. This means taking a leaf of filler or other tobacco, rolling it into a rustic cigar—not making a blend, but smoking only that one leaf—and puffing away. Viso, seco, ligero—you name it, that's what you smoke. I took a rough little cigar made entirely of dark, thick, Dominican piloto Cubano ligero and lit up, and was hit by the power of the tobacco. It's not for the meek. I shot a little video of the process-take a look.

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Day Two in the Dominican Republic

Posted: Feb 10, 2011 12:00am ET

I found out about the wrapper on Tuesday, the official start of the ProCigar Festival in Santiago. In the morning, I spilled out of the Gran Almirante with dozens of other festival goers and we loaded up in buses to go to whichever spot on the agenda we had selected. I had heard the Quesadas were going to launch something new, so I opted to go to Matasa.

We were ushered into the factory in the Santiago Free Zone (which is being moved—see my previous blog) and after a shot of coffee and a cigar, we were shown into the main rolling gallery, which had been set up for a press conference. The lights were off.

When they came on, they revealed a series of rolling tables, each one slightly different than the other. Each represented a decade for the factory, beginning in the 1970s when it was founded. That modest rolling table represented how things looked in the early days at Matasa, and the woman rolling cigars at it was the very first roller from Matasa back in 1974. Her name is Ana Celia and she's worked at Matasa for 37 years.

The show was impressive, and at the end the Quesada clan revealed the new smoke-the Fonseca 120th Anniversary. It's a one-size line made with a Dominican wrapper, Dominican binder and a mix of Dominican and Nicaraguan filler. I found it nutty, medium bodied and with good balance.

After the morning tours, the heads of ProCigar held a press conference. Hendrik Kelner, maker of Davidoff, led the presentation.

"We have the longest history of tobacco in the world," he said. "The Dominican Republic was the first country to export tobacco to Europe...In 1995, the Dominican Republic became the number one exporter of cigars in the world, and we've maintained that."

Kelner had some interesting facts: 65,000 people work in the tobacco industry in the Dominican Republic (55,000 of them on farms), and in 2010, the industry accounted for around $320 million in exports. He said tobacco is the number one agricultural crop in the country.

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Day One in the Dominican Republic

Posted: Feb 9, 2011 12:00am ET

The fourth annual ProCigar Festival in the Dominican Republic has begun. On Tuesday I landed in Santiago, greeted by bright sunshine and tropical warmth. I've left winter behind. Here, it feels like summer.

The ProCigar Festival is thrown by some of the big names in Dominican cigars-General Cigar Co. (Macanudo, Partagas and many other brands), Altadis U.S.A. Inc. (Montecristo and H. Upmann, to name a few), Tabadom Holding (Davidoff, Avo), La Aurora S.A. (Guillermo Leon, La Aurora), Matasa (Quesada, Fonseca) and Tabacos Quisqueya (Juan Clemente). More than 200 people attend.

My flight included Pete Johnson, owner of the Tatuaje brand, which is made in Nicaragua and Ron Melendi, who runs De La Concha cigars in New York City. At the airport we soon met up with Michael Herklots, general manager of the New York Davidoff stores, and within moments of leaving the terminal we were handed frosty cups of Presidente beer and an open humidor of cigars.

The rest of the group went to check into their hotels, but I was off to a meeting with Manuel "Manolo" Quesada. I rode over with his nephews, Jose Manuel Bermudez (aka Blondie) and Terence Reilly, and Blondie handed me a baggie of unbanded cigars.

"What are they?" I asked.

"They're for you," he said, adding nothing else. I tried to grill him and Terence, but they wouldn't tell me a thing about them. I twisted the pigtail off of one and lit up.

We met Manolo in Licey, an agricultural town where Quesada houses his tobacco operations. He has made cigars in the free trade zone in Santiago for 37 years, but today the operation in Licey was busy with construction, as they are raising the roof in preparation to bring the rolling gallery and all their operations into this one facility. (If you read Cigar Insider, you read about this a few issues ago.)

We toured the facility and I shot a little video of Manolo describing what he's doing. Take a look.

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Smoking in the Cold

Posted: Jan 24, 2011 12:00am ET

I spent the weekend in Central Vermont with my family and a great group of friends. They skied, I didn't (call me crazy, but strapping greased planks to my feet before pointing my toes down an icy mountain sounds like suicide, not fun) but I enjoyed myself quite a bit with some quiet time by a roaring fire. At night, there were bourbon cocktails and great conversation.

Like many households, this one didn't smile upon cigar smoke, so one afternoon my two buddies and I suited up and headed to the deck for a cigar. I lit up a fat Room 101 Conjura Edition and puffed away quite happily. The cigar was delicious. We hung out for a bit, even posed for a photograph, but the thermometer was flirting with one degree as the sun began to set. We lasted only about 20 minutes before the cold got the better of us and we headed back to the (indoor) fire to shake it off.

I feel funny complaining about how cold Vermont was this weekend, because as I sit here in New York writing my blog I find the morning temperatures back in Vermont dropped all the way down to 22 below zero, with considerably colder wind chills. I don't think I would have braved a cigar under such circumstances. I may not have even ventured outside. It's brutally cold throughout the entire northeast today, and few cities will get above freezing. Northern Maine, according to the Weather Channel, will have a high of zero degrees.

Cigar retailers fear abnormally cold temperatures because it affects business. With so many cigar lovers forced to smoke outside, low temperatures often mean reduced cigar sales. When a person's only smoking room is the chair on his deck, and said chair is covered by six inches of snow, he's likely to take a pass on the Padrón for the evening. It was not always so. One imagines that back in the day when cigar smoking was an indoor activity, a little cold weather wasn't likely to hamper anyone's love of a fine cigar. In fact, on cold, snowy evenings, one might have been likely to puff a little more.

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