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David Savona

A Yankee Fan In Cuba

Posted: Dec 15, 2010 12:00am ET

I work in New York City, and I root for the New York Yankees, so you would be forgiven for assuming that I work in an environment surrounded by others who share my allegiance for the boys in pinstripes. Not so. In an odd twist of fate, I recently found my baseball fandom far more appreciated in Havana, Cuba, then here in the city that never sleeps.

Last Tuesday night I was sitting at a table in the very good La Imprenta, a government-run restaurant (read all about it in Gordon Mott's blog), when a waiter came up to us and asked where we were from. When we mentioned New York City, his face brightened. "The New York Yankees!" he said proudly. I smiled. Gordon frowned.

A little backstory for those of you new to this blog; I love the New York Yankees, and always have. I remember watching the 1977 World Series in my pajamas (I was nine years old, and sat with my mitt in my hand, as if a foul ball might come through the screen) and screaming as Reggie Jackson hit three, count 'em, three home runs in one game. Working in New York City, home of the New York Yankees, one might assume that I toil alongside fellow fans of the world's greatest baseball team.

But no. In fact, I'm surrounded by Yankee haters. My good buddy Jack Bettridge is an Orioles fan. (Tough life for Jack, but I suppose it's fair, since he ought to pay some price for all that fine booze he drinks.) Gordon Mott, my boss and Cuba travel companion, loves the Boston Red Sox.

Remember the 2004 baseball season? The one where the Red Sox broke the curse of the Bambino? Well, Gordon has a stuffed bear outfitted in a Red Sox uniform that he keeps in his office (don't ask why) and when the Sox came back and beat my Yankees, he called me into his office and made me kiss the bear's feet. (You see? It isn't all roses working here at Cigar Aficionado.) So it's safe to say he's a fervent Red Sox fan, and one who has no love for the Yankees.

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Freedom To Smoke In La Habana

Posted: Dec 13, 2010 12:00am ET

I had just finished a memorable dinner at El Aljibe, the must-see Cuban restaurant specializing in savory roast chicken, black beans and rice, when the urge hit me—I really wanted a cigar. I reached into my shirt pocket for a Montecristo Petit Edmundo, removed it from its metal tube and clipped off its head. A few flicks of my lighter and the heady aroma of good Cuban tobacco began wafting around the dining room.

A waiter appeared at my side within moments—bearing an ashtray. He set it down without a word, and walked away.

This is the reception given cigar smokers in Havana, and for most cigar lovers from around the world, it's a completely foreign concept, or a vestige of an age long gone by.

Cuba is a cigar smoker's paradise, not only for the stocks of fine cigars found in the city but for the appreciation and respect given cigar smokers. I puffed away on that very same Petit Edmundo as I wrote this blog while sitting in the lobby of the Melia Cohiba Hotel. No one blinked at my smoke, and the busy lobby had at least five other men smoking away in peace as I wrote.

It wasn't always so. In 2005 Cuba, like far too many other countries, went through it's own non-smoking movement, banning smoking in certain places in February of that year. But unlike other smoking bans, this one seems to be largely ignored. On my Sunday through Friday trip to Cuba, the only places I encountered no smoking signs were in the main breakfast restaurant at the Melia Cohiba (and even I don't wish to smoke while eating breakfast, at least not on most occasions), elevators and in taxicabs.

But signs don't necessarily stop a person from smoking. I've lit up in most of the cabs I've travelled in here with not a single complaint, and I've taken my cigar into the elevator a couple dozen times. No one blinks. This is a city where you can smoke.

At dinner at El Aljibe, I noticed a variation on a very familiar sign. It was the familiar black-and-white image of a burning cigarette one sees in the United States, but this sign was missing one very important thing—the red circle and line. This wasn't a no-smoking sign, it was a smoking sign.

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The Secret of Behike

Posted: Dec 10, 2010 12:00am ET

The secret ingredient to Cuba’s superb new cigar brand, Cohiba Behike BHK, is a rare kind of tobacco called medio tiempo. While you may have heard the name before, it’s likely that you don’t know precisely what it is—it has been described improperly.

First of all, medio tiempo does not come from the middle of a tobacco plant. Some have described it this way, perhaps due to the word “medio” in its name. Second, it doesn’t come from below the ligero grade of leaves. After several interviews in Havana, the tobacco growing region of Pinar del Río and even outside of Cuba, here is a detailed description of medio tiempo tobacco.

Tobacco leaves are classified by their position on the plant. In the world of Cuban cigars, working up the bottom of a plant, there is volado (the most mild), seco (somewhere in the middle) and then ligero, which is powerful. On some plants, but far from all, two additional tobacco leaves grow at the very top, above the ligero. Those leaves are called medio tiempo. And medio tiempo is in every Cohiba Behike BHK cigar.

The highest leaves on a tobacco plant take the longest amount of time to ripen. They also get the full benefit of sunlight—tobacco plants are by nature leafy objects, and the upper leaves provide some shade for those that grow below. Medio tiempo leaves get more light than any other on a plant.

“It’s a very complex leaf that comes from the two top leaves of the plant,” said Habanos subdirector of marketing Gonzalo Fernández de Navarrete Gonzalez-Valerio during an interview in Havana on a rainy Thursday morning. “Not every plant has it.”

Carlos Fuente Jr., the maestro behind Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars, once told me that medio tiempo leaves turned raisiny in the sun. He spoke of these rich, small leaves almost as someone would describe a most beautiful woman.

Medio tiempo is very rare. Some farmers estimate that fewer than one in ten tobacco plants grows medio tiempo leaves. So there are only so many. They’re also very small. I saw several leaves of fermented and aged medio tiempo at El Laguito, the factory where all Cohiba Behikes are made, when I visited the factory this week with Gordon Mott. They were considerably smaller than ligero leaves.

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A Tale of Two Cuban Factories

Posted: Dec 8, 2010 12:00am ET

The waves were crashing high over the Malecón seawall on Tuesday morning as I stepped out of my hotel here in Havana. A cold front was blowing through, and the mercury had dropped to 50 degrees. For the locals it was a seriously cold day, but for a visiting Yankee like myself it was just a cool breeze. No chill could bring a frown to my face—I was heading to El Laguito.

I've been travelling to Cuba since 1995, but this would be my first visit to El Laguito, the smallest of Cuba's major cigar factories but perhaps the best. This is where Cohibas were born and where Cohiba Behikes are made. The factory is seldom visited by outsiders, as it is off-limits to visitors without special permission. I'd been looking forward to this day for a long time.

Our taxi pulled up to the stately building, located in the classy Miramar suburb of Havana. I walked inside with Gordon Mott, Cigar Aficionado's executive editor, and the first thing I noticed was the oversized Cohiba logo in gold, black and white hanging over the receptionist's desk. We sat down with Arnaldo Ovalles Brioñes, who has run the fabrica since 2009, and he offered us Behikes. As I clipped the pigtail off the head of the perfectly rolled Cohiba BHK 52, I smiled—this was desayuno perfecto, the perfect breakfast in Havana.

El Laguito has been rolling cigars since 1966, first only Cohibas, then Trinidads as well. Today, only Cohibas are made here (Trinidad was moved to Pinar del Río some six year s ago) although not every Cuban Cohiba comes from El Laguito. The so-called mother factory of Cohiba, it sends tobacco to other fabricas to roll Cohibas when required, as the little factory simply can't make enough cigars to meet the need for Cohiba. But every Behike is made in these halls.

A former school, El Laguito is not set up like a typical cigar factory. The workers roll, bunch and sort in small rooms better suited for classes. While it would make a student of just-in-time delivery shudder, it adds soul and style to the factory. Each section is like a little world, separate from the outside. Perhaps 20 rollers work in each area, carefully bunching Cohiba Robustos, Behikes and Lanceros, and wrapping leaves from Pinar del Río over the bunch. The cigars made here are beautiful. There are only 262 workers and just 101 of those make cigars.

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Cigar Shopping In Havana

Posted: Dec 7, 2010 12:00am ET

Any cigar aficionado writing out his bucket list needs to include one item right near the top—buying a Cuban cigar in Havana. I live my life surrounded by cigars, but when I walk into a humidor that's loaded with fine Cubans I feel like a kid on Christmas morning. Today was like Christmas over and over again.

I'm spending all this week in Havana with Cigar Aficionado executive editor Gordon Mott. We're taking the pulse of the Cuban cigar industry, and a big part of our job is to see what's for sale here on the island. After arriving Sunday night after a long, long day of travel (see Gordon's blog for details) we set out early Monday morning eager to smoke some more cigars and check out the shops in Cuba's capital city.

Buying a Cuban cigar in Havana means paying a visit to one of the city's Casa del Habano cigar stores, which deal exclusively in Cuban smokes. These stores are franchises of Cuba's cigar export organization, Habanos S.A., which counts the millions of cigars sold ever year in Cuban cigar shops to be export sales, as nearly all are purchased by tourists.

The wind was whipping from the ocean this morning, and the waves were spraying sea mist high over the Malecon, Havana's famed seawall. It rained late Sunday night, and a cold front has moved through, making it a bit chilly for locals but the breezy air felt good to my northern bones. Gordon and I headed out, and the first shop we visited was not only Cuba's newest but also the largest Casa del Habano on the entire island—the Casa del Habano at the Habana Libre Hotel, which opened for business in February. When you enter the cigar shop, the first item that catches your eye is the fountain, complete with turtles, about 15 feet from the door. (I think this is the only cigar shop in the world that has a fountain.) The bubbling water makes for a tranquil scene inside.

All Casa del Habanos are required to stock 95 percent of Cuba's cigar brands, have at least 60 square meters of space (duty-free shops can be smaller, due to the size restrictions of airports); walk-in humidors, humidified lockers, a cigar roller, seats for smokers and a small (at least) bar area. The Casa at the Habana Libre has several comfortable seating areas, a small bar serving coffee and Havana Club rum, a huge walk-in humidor, a cigar roller outside, and an outside veranda that, for now, is empty but will later be outdoor smoking space, which is a fine idea. The shop is stocked with all manner of Cuban cigars: Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, Trinidad, Hoyo de Monterrey, H. Upmann, Vegas Robaina—you name it. Prices in Cuba are fantastic, among the lowest on the planet. Cigar shop prices in Havana are set by the government, so they're supposed to be identical from shop to shop. A diminutive Montecristo No. 5 sells for 3.60 Cuban Convertible Pesos (about $4.25) while a Cohiba Esplendido is 17.95 CUC ($21.50).

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Ultra-Fat Smokes—Love ‘Em Or Hate ‘Em?

Posted: Oct 28, 2010 12:00am ET

Sixty ring gauge smokes have been on my mind lately. They're everywhere you look, and they're the hot new thing in cigar shops.

Most premium cigar companies now offer something (or many things) in a 60 ring gauge, a size that was once unheard of in the cigar world. Back in 1992, when Cigar Aficionado was created, 50 ring gauges were about the maximum you could find in most cigars. Sure, there was the occasional oddity, such as the Casa Blanca Half Jeroboam (I believe Robert DeNiro smoked one to great effect in the remake of Cape Fear) and Cuba Aliados always had a few incredibly fat figurados, but most cigar brands were no thicker than 50 ring. Diamond Crown pushed the boundary by launching an all 54-ring gauge line in the 1990s, but today 54s seem downright slim compared to a 60.

The preferred length for these 60 ring gauge smokes is six inches. There isn't a standard name for a six by 60, but many cigar companies call them grandes, gigantes, or gordos. Gordo, Spanish for "fat," certainly fits. Ring gauges are measured in 64ths of an inch, so 60 ring is close to one inch thick. Cigar smokers seem to love them, because they're buying them up in droves.

As we reported in our summer survey of tobacconists across the United States in Cigar Insider, the six by 60 has emerged as a top seller. The six-by-60 size climbed into third place among the best-selling cigar sizes in America, behind longstanding winners toros and robustos, which ranked first and second, respectively.

I'm not a huge fan of the format myself. I find that 60 ring gauge smokes take a very, very long time to light, don't feel terribly comfortable in the mouth and seldom offer the flavor I enjoy in other formats. But cigar smokers certainly like them. So I used my Twitter account the other day to ask what other people think. The results were mixed.

"I LOVE the bigger ring gauges," wrote Michael Forry. Another called the six by sixty his "my favorite size when I have the time. Perfect at barbecue."

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Cigar Dinners

Posted: Oct 18, 2010 12:00am ET

I love cigar dinners. Always have. Whether it's a black-tie affair with vintage wines and four-star cuisine, a business casual meal at a steakhouse, or a casual get together, let me smoke a cigar at the dinner table and I'm likely to be happy.

But today's anti-smoking regulations make it tough to host a cigar dinner. Few restaurants around the United States and in other parts of the world allow smoking, which nixes many cigar dinners. So throwing one nowadays takes a little creativity.

Recently I attended the Alec Bradley New York cigar dinner at Cigar Inn on Second Avenue in Manhattan, where Alan Rubin gave the crowd a sneak peek at his new Alec Bradley New York cigar.

Was New York ready for a cigar dinner?

"It was sold out in less than two hours," Billy Fakih, who owns the store with his brothers Gus and Bass, told me the other day.

Cigar Inn is a cigar shop. For the evening they transformed the space into a restaurant, bringing in tables and chairs, and waiters brought in a three-course meal of salad, shrimp with pasta, and steak au poivre. Throw in some wine and a cigar-friendly atmosphere and you have a recipe for a fun evening.

"It's not dinner where you eat for a half and hour," says Billy. "This goes on three, four hours. It creates friendship."

I didn't stay the entire night, but I had a great time catching up with Alan, George Sosa and Barry Blonder of Alec Bradley, my fellow Cigar Aficionado co-workers (Marvin Shanken and Gordon Mott even paid a visit) plus the staff of Cigar Inn and the 200 or so cigar lovers who were in attendence.

Cigar Inn is hardly the only New York City cigar shop that turns into an eatery on special occasion. De La Concha does the same trick, changing its Sixth Avenue store into a restaurant for cigar dinners. I've attended ones for Padrón and Rocky Patel cigars, and they're fantastic. Davidoff on Madison Avenue has done plenty in the past, usually with hearty porterhouse steaks from Rothmann's. And the Grand Havana Room and Club Macanudo do them on a regular basis.

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Celebratory Smokes

Posted: Oct 7, 2010 12:00am ET

Years ago, long before I worked at Cigar Aficionado, I went to a party at a friend's house. A member of his family had just given birth, and it was time to celebrate. A tent was put up in the backyard, long tables brought out and huge bowls of pasta with red sauce and sausage were passed around, with plenty of red wine and loud conversation. After cake and coffee, after the meal was cleared away and the sun had set, someone passed out cigars. The men lit up, laughter ensued, and a new child was welcomed into this world the way it had been done time and time again, surrounded by relatives bonding over a smoke.

The cigars were far from fancy, the wine no award winner, but it was a memorable night. Cigars are for celebration. I smoke cigars all the time, and if you're reading this blog I suspect you enjoy a great smoke on a regular basis as well. But when there's a wedding, or a birth, or a big deal to commemorate, even casual cigar smokers and a few brave non-smokers might grab a Churchill from the box that is passed around, light up, and celebrate in style.

This age-old ritual (who knows when it began?) was brought to the forefront last week when the Cincinnati Reds, a baseball team that has been denied a postseason berth for 15 years, grabbed the National League Central Division with a walk-off home run and celebrated the milestone with big cigars in the locker room

A few people watching on TV called to complain. (Read our story here.) People watching adults celebrating a team's biggest win since 1995 with a few cigars called to complain, prompting Cincinnati officials to send an inspector to ensure such a transgression doesn't happen again.

What a great use of city resources.

Cigars have been lit to celebrate the finest things in life for ages, and some of my fondest moments have been paired with celebratory smokes. The type of cigar being smoked isn't what's important-I've been handed Cubans, Nicaraguans, Dominicans, even machine-made smokes and have puffed away happily to commemorate happy occasions. Births. Weddings. Promotions. New homes. The list goes on and on.

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A New Cigar Aficionado Online

Posted: Sep 20, 2010 12:00am ET

Flash back to 1997. The space station Mir was in orbit, the Dow Jones Industrial Average broke 7,000 for the first time, a computer program called Deep Blue made history by beating champion Gary Kasparov and Cigar Aficionado magazine launched its website, CigarAficionado.com. Today, after 13 years, all of us here at Cigar Aficionado would like to personally welcome you to the completely new beta version of CigarAficionado.com. It's a very modern take on your favorite cigar website.

We released the beta version of our new site this morning, while leaving our old site intact for a few more days. We hoped to ease you into the new site, rather than making an abrupt change, and also allow you to compare the differences between the two. We've been opening up the two homepages side-by-side to make comparisons.

The differences are striking. The most obvious change from a visual standpoint is our new slider of photographs. Our old homepage typically had images that were the size of a mini Post-It note, about 1 1/4 inches square. The photos on our new slider are huge-6 1/2 inches wide and more than three inches high. (In fact, the width of the new photos is identical to the length of the celebratory cigar I'm smoking right now.)

Our cigar ratings are improved-there are more than 13,000 cigars in our database-and they're easier to sort and use so you can find the best cigars to suit your palate. You can search by price, tasting date, country of origin, even the type of wrapper you enjoy.

The new site is engineered to make you a bigger part of what we do. On the original site, any user feedback only happened in our forums. Now you can comment directly on any story we've written. And registering to comment is entirely free.

Speaking of registering, the process is much easier than in the past. Have a Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, AOL or Yahoo account? You can use any one of those to log in, or simply create an account with an email address.

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Saturday Report: 122 Cigars

Posted: Aug 14, 2010 12:00am ET

I’m home from the IPCPR trade show going through my notes and all the cigars I brought home from the trip. I thought I’d put together a few numbers about what I found in New Orleans:

122 Cigars (all singles, none in boxes) brought back in my carry-on bag from the trip. This is fairly typical for me. I'm happy that I didn't have to go through a bag search this year. One year it happened, and I got a kick out of the inspector's face as she pulled Ziplok bag after Ziplok bag of cigars from my satchel, her eyebrows rising higher with each discovery.

60 The hot ring gauge of the trip. Ultra fat cigars, specifically those measuring six inches long by 60 ring gauge, are becoming the hot size in cigar shops. Some call it a Gordo, and more and more cigarmakers are adding them to their lines, if they haven’t already. Xikar had a 6x60 banner as tall as me in their booth announcing the addition of the sizes do their line. As one retailer told me, “If they make it in a six-by-60, I buy it.”

11 The amount of pounds gained by my suitcase while on the trip. Most of that is press materials. 

2 Number of times I ate alligator on Tuesday. Alligator po boy at Mulates? Very nice. Fried alligator with chili aioli at Cochon? Amazing.

12 The amount of pounds I feel like I gained from all the fine New Orleans food I ate while in the Big Easy.

0  Number of raw oysters I ate while in NoLa. (I love raw oysters, but I never eat raw Gulf oysters.)

3  Number of people I know who got sick on this trip from eating raw Gulf oysters.

6,400 The weight, in pounds, of the segment of Berlin Wall on display at the show.

138 Pages of notes I took in my reporter’s notebook on the trip. More than one cigarmaker thought I write in shorthand, but it’s just bad (and quick) handwriting.

2 The number of La Aroma de Cuba Mi Amors that I smoked. Ashton’s Sathya Levin wanted my second opinion, as I wasn’t blown away by the first one. The second truly impressed, and it had that Pepin-like intensity that I’m used to.

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