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David Savona

Cuba, in Bullet Points, Part One

Posted: Dec 22, 2010 12:00am ET

It's been almost two weeks since Gordon Mott and I returned from our trip to Cuba. We sat down this morning for a chat and compared notes. Here are some small details about the Cuban cigar industry and Cuba in general that we thought you'd enjoy. Gordon is going to follow up with some more items later on.

Not Every Cuban Cigar
One might think that traveling to Cuba would mean you could buy any and all Cuban cigars. That's largely true, but not entirely true. A reader asked in our blogs if the Regional Edition cigars from around the world were available in Cuba. They are not. The only Regional Edition cigar we saw on sale in Cuba is the one made specifically for Cuba, the La Gloria Cubana Delicioso, which is 5 inches long by 48 ring gauge and comes in a lovely white ceramic jar of 25 cigars. They were selling for 246.30 CUCS (about $308) per jar. Cuba was also low on Cohiba Behike BHK cigars. Several shops we visited had none in stock, others had a few boxes.

Fakes
Fake cigars are still a problem in Cuba. We were only approached in one location, but it was quite blatant, as we walked into and out of the Partagas Cigar Factory. "Sir, I work here," said a man in a baseball hat. I was puffing on a cigar. "Good cigars, good price." Don't believe the stories, and suspect any cigar sold outside of a traditional outlet will be counterfeit.

Lots of Flights
People were shocked when we told them we were flying directly from the United States to Cuba. I'll admit, it was bizarre watching the silver 737 with the American Airlines logo coming in for a landing at José Martí Airport in Havana (it was a chartered flight). We were told some 60 charters a week are flying between the United States and Cuba, and the pre-Revolution peak was 70 flights. There are people going from the U.S. to Cuba and back, primarily people visiting their families back in Cuba.

No Booze/No Cigars
Just because there are lots of flights doesn't mean there are boxes of Bolivars and bottles of Havana Club coming back. One used to be able to come back to the United States on a direct flight to Cuba with up to $100 worth of Cuban goods. No more. You can't bring back a single item. "You can't even bring in a bottle of cologne this big," a Customs agent told me, holding his fingers all of a quarter inch apart.

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Cigar Report: Current Cubans

Posted: Dec 16, 2010 12:00am ET

Spending last week in Cuba gave me the opportunity to smoke many of the island's current production cigars. Gordon Mott and I puffed away each and every day, starting early in the morning (I joked that our Cuban breakfast was a Cohiba and a cup of Cuban coffee) and ending sometimes fairly late in the evening.

These were hardly scientific tastings. The cigars were not smoked blind, as we do here in our offices. We smoked them in various places, sometimes during or after meals, sometimes with libations and some cigars were bought in stores or bars while others were given to us in factories or by officials from Habanos S.A. I don't give scores for cigars that we taste this way, but I will give you a description of the smokes to provide you with a snapshot of how the current production Cubans are smoking right now, in the country in which they're made. And I even added a little video footage taken from one of Cuba's best shops so you can see some of the cigars we smoked.

We puffed two of the three Cuban ELs for 2010, the Trinidad Short Robusto T Edición Limitada and the Montecristo Grand Edmundo Edición Limitada (we didn't smoke the Partagas Serie D Especial EL 2010 while in the country.) The Trinidad was, for me, a slow starter. It measures four by 50 and had some oily notes at first and was fairly aggressive, but it warmed up beautifully about a half an inch in and really improved. The dark, thickish wrapper didn't burn so well throughout the smoke, but I'll forgive some burn problems for good flavor. Gordon and I both enjoyed the cigar.

I enjoyed the Montecristo Grand Edmundo even better. From the first puff this cigar wowed me with balanced, intense flavors. The Grand Edmundo is a canonazo size, same size as the Cohiba Siglo VI, and Cuban cigars in this size always seem to impress me. This cigar was delicious from start to finish, very flavorful and nicely balanced with a medium to full body. The construction on these (I smoked two while in Cuba) was also exceptional. If I had been scoring these, it would have rated "outstanding."

Montecristo Grand Edmundo
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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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