Posted: May 20, 2011 12:00am ET
On my latest trip to Cuba, I was reminded of my first visit to the island, back in 1996. I was a relative cigar rookie back then, and the first time I stepped into a Havana cigar store I was awed at the sight of all those great Cuban cigars staring at me when I walked into the humidor. To me, it looked like paradise.
I was with a couple of Cuban cigar
veterans on that trip, and I paid attention. The first thing they did
was flip the boxes over, to take a look at the codes on the bottom. They
were hunting for older stock.
Today, cigars in Cuba have easy-to-read dates on their boxes, but in those days, the dates were coded with a system known as NIVEL ACUSO. We broke that code in the February 1996 issue of Cigar Insider (and boy, were the folks at Habanos mad, but that's another story). That code is no longer used, but if you happen to stumble across some old Cuban boxes it's good to know, so I'll repeat it here.
So the letter N stands for 1, I is for 2, and so on down the line. S stands for 9, and the letter O is the number zero. Back in those days I remember flipping boxes of my own and uncovering a box of Sancho Panza coronas with the code NSSO-1990. They were six years old, and were priced at all of $55 for the box of 25. And they were absolutely delicious.
I visited every Casa del Habano in Havana during my one-week visit to Cuba in early May, and while there's nothing left from 1990 that I could find, I did uncover several boxes with a few years of box age on them. Cigars tend to get better with age, so it pays dividends to flip your boxes and take a look for something that's a little old.
I did a little video at the superb Casa del Habano at Club Habana, the fabulous cigar shop run by Enrique Mons, to illustrate this point. Take a look.
Posted: May 12, 2011 12:00am ET
When we arrived in Havana last week, Gordon and I were expecting to hear that the Partagas Cigar Factory had closed for its much-needed renovation. When we were in Cuba in February, everyone was talking about how Partagas would soon be shut down, the jackhammers brought out and workers would start the arduous task of undoing the damage done by years of hot, Cuban summers, drenching tropical hurricanes and years of salty sea air on the Real Fabrica Partagas, which has stood since 1845.
Not so. Partagas is
still open, although its closing is (still) expected soon. But instead
of seeing a shuttered Partagas, Gordon and I visited a different factory
that has been moved to temporary digs-H. Upmann.
H. Upmann, which is also known by the post-revolutionary name José Martí, is now closed, and the factory's staff and production has been moved to the Romeo y Julieta factory. The Romeo y Julieta factory has been completely transformed into the new-albeit temporary-home of the H. Upmann brand. So all H. Upmann cigars are now being rolled at Romeo, along with some Montecristos, some Romeo y Julietas and a number of Cohibas. While the factory is also in charge of the diminutive Diplomaticos brand, none were being rolled at the time of our visit. Some notable new smokes are being made here, including the H. Upmann Half Corona and the soon-to-be-released H. Upmann Royal Robusto.
For the past five years, Romeo has been closed to tourists, and has been used primarily as a rolling school. Now it is decorated with banners and posters touting the H. Upmann cigar brand, and H. Upmann factory manager Miguel Barzaga Maceo is running the factory.
Barzaga Maceo came here at the end of January, and by February 10 he said the facility was ready to roll cigars. It was in full production upon our visit, and was even open to tourists.
Posted: May 4, 2011 12:00am ET
I'm back in New York after my week in Cuba. I
spent most of the time in Havana, visiting 14 cigar shops, including
each of the city's nine La Casas del Habanos. These are stores that sell
Cuban cigars, of course, but there's more to a La Casa than just
cigars. Being a La Casa del Habano means you have to stock a certain
number of smokes, have a staff that is well informed about them, need a
place where your customers can smoke and a bar serving drinks. They're
Most shops had decent stocks of Cuban cigars, with some notable exceptions. The only Cohiba Behike sighting was at the La Casa del Habano at the Habana Libre Hotel. That shop only had a partial box of Cohiba Behike BHK 52s and a box with some Cohiba Behike BHK 56s. (We relieved them of a few of those.) I asked if there were any more in the back, and there was a quick shake of the head. These cigars are hard to come by in Cuba.
The La Gloria Cubana jar, the regional edition for Cuba itself, is also sold out. On our December visit, they seemed to be everywhere, and in February, during the Festival, we also saw good stocks. On this visit the only ones I saw had been reserved for customers.
The prices in Havana, as always, were quite good. All the prices are in Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs), which are now priced on equal parity with the U.S. dollar. Here's an example. Prices range from 3.60 CUCs ($3.60) for a little Montecristo No. 5 up to 26 CUCs for a Cohiba BHK 56. Monte 2s are 7.60, Cohiba Robustos are 10.40, Partagas Serie D No. 4s are 5.70 and Partagas Lusitanias are 10.30. The most expensive box of cigars I saw was a box of 25 Montecristo As for 500 CUCs.
We filmed lots of video on this trip, including one that that shows you inside and out of the La Casa del Habano at the Partagas Cigar Factory. (I misspoke in the introduction—I don't think this is actually the world's busiest cigar store, but it's the busiest of the more than 140 La Casa del Habanos around the world.) You no doubt have heard that the Partagas cigar factory is closing for renovations. (It was still open during this trip, but could close very soon.) The good news is that the store is going to remain open during the renovation.
Posted: May 4, 2011 12:00am ET
This is day four of my week-long trip to Havana, Cuba. I've been here all week with Gordon Mott on assignment for Cigar Aficionado.
During my trip I've visited just about every quality cigar shop in the city and toured three cigar factories. I've done quite a bit, but there's still more to do.
Most of the cigar shops are Casa del Habanos, stores that have a serious selection of Cuban cigars, comfy chairs for smokers, and a bar serving Havana Club and other fine spirits. And many have lockers.
If you're a serious Cuban cigar lover, having a locker in Havana is the ultimate indulgence.
Imagine a place to store your favorite box purchases, with superb humidity, in a secure facility, and upon each visit to Cuba your cigars will be waiting for you. Sounds good, right?
I shot this video at the Casa del Habano at the Havana Libre hotel, a real nice cigar shop.
Cuban cigars taste better in Havana. When they age carefully in your locker, what could be better?
Take a look:
Posted: May 2, 2011 12:00am ET
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.
Posted: Apr 28, 2011 12:00am ET
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.
I fondly 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 torn jeans.
I enjoyed my cocktail, the company and setting was superb, but something was missing. And that's a little bit sad.
Posted: Apr 11, 2011 12:00am ET
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 business.
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.
Nicaraguan factories 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 look inside.
Posted: Apr 8, 2011 12:00am ET
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 well.
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.
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.