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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."