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James Suckling

The Good News in the Bad News

Posted: Jul 6, 2010 12:07pm ET

I am not sure why over the last three weeks the international press has been full of stories about the decline of the Cuban cigar.  The stories have not been about a drop in quality, but the downturn in the sales and production of the famous smokes.

The drop in sales is an old story that I wrote about earlier this year. I wrote that exports of Cuban cigars last year dropped to $360 million, down 7.7 percent from $390 million in 2008, and down considerably from the $402 million exported in 2007.

My sources in the Cuban cigar industry tell me that the value for exported cigars is slightly up the first six months this year, perhaps as much as London’s Financial Times noted in yesterday’s story of 4.3 percent.  The story didn’t say that volume was also up a little, just under 1 percent, according to my contacts.

What's strange are the figures that are being thrown out for annual export volumes. A story in the June 22 issue of The Guardian was a complete joke. It stated “the number of cigars produced for export plunge from 217m in 2006 to 73m last year.” First, Cuba has never in the last half century exported 217 million cigars. Second, my estimate for exports last year was between 80 million and 90 million cigars.

A number of stories quoted figures from Guerrillero, the mouthpiece of the tobacco growers of Pinar del Río, the famous tobacco town and region of Cuba. Guerrillero states in the first paragraph of its June 23 online story that the conclusion of this year’s tobacco harvest was marked by plans to decrease the planting and processing of tobacco. It wrote that the tobacco yields were better than last year.

Nonetheless, I spent some time on the Guerrillero’s Web site and found out that the harvest was down in Pinar del Río in 2010 from about 22.4 million “cujes” to 26 million in 2009. The latter was slightly up from 2008.

“Cuje” is a confusing measurement for Cuba tobacco, but what I gather it denotes the number of leaves on a pole used in the tobacco curing barns. Each pole (or “cuje”) usually has 100 leaves, and are stacked in any large curing barn. Pinar del Río has just over 7,000 curing barns, according to a story in Guerrillero.

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The Allure of A Fine Old Cuban Cigar

Posted: Jun 23, 2010 12:16pm ET
Cigar auctions are a cool thing. You sip Champagne, smoke a Cuban cigar and bid on rare and not-so-rare smokes. At least that’s what happened on Monday night at the C. Gars Ltd. Boisdale of Belgravia in London.

Owner Mitchell Orchant put together an impressive selection of more than 170 different lots of cigars from current production to century-old smokes, with plenty of Cuban Davidoffs, Cuban Dunhills, pre-embargo sticks and rare humidors in between. Almost all the cigars were Cuban. The sale totaled close to $318,000 including the 12.5 percent buyer’s and seller’s premium.

About 50 people sat on the small third floor open-air terrace of Boisdale restaurant. It was warm and fresh with the aromas of Cuban cigar smoke intermixing with flowers and the smell of a warm summer’s day in London. About 138 bidders registered for the sale. Most came from the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Australia and North America.

The Cuban Davidoff and Dunhill cigars were some of the most sought-after lots, with such boxes as Château Latour and Château Margaux selling for about $2,500 and $1,850 respectively. An almost empty box of six of the legendary Dunhill Cabinetta Robustos from the early 1980s (a cigar I scored 100 points many times for Connoisseur’s Corner) went for about $2,200.  A range of Dunhilll Selección cigars from the 1960s were equally expensive with a cabinet of 50 Suprema No. 169 Hoyo de Monterreys 1966 selling for about $6,400.

Pre-Castro, or pre-embargo, smokes from the 1950s, and back were mixed in prices—some high and some low. I thought that prices were much higher 10 years ago, but may be I am wrong. For instance, a cabinet of pre-embargo torpedos from Romeo y Julieta called Piramidos No. 1 sold for more than $10,000 to someone in the room.  That’s expensive. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see them for sale in the cigar lounge of the Lanesborough Hotel in London.) But a box of 25 Juan Lopez Coronas for about $1,000 and a seven pack of Romeo y Julieta Half-a-Corona Selección Superfinas at around $300 seemed like a steal.
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Staying Warm With Behike

Posted: May 13, 2010 2:04pm ET
I smoked a couple of Cohiba Behikes yesterday in London (actually, I smoked one  this morning around 12:30 a.m.), and I was in cigar nirvana.  If you don’t remember, Behikes are the new blockbuster, super-premium smoke from Cuba produced exclusively under its flagship brand. They are just coming out on the market now.

I went to what amounted to the world premiere of these three mind-blowing smokes. Hunters & Frankau, the importer and distributor for Cuban cigars in the United Kingdom, organized the event yesterday evening in the garden of the Goring Hotel. I hadn’t stepped foot in there since the beginning of my honeymoon to my now divorced second wife. But that is another story.

The big story was puffing away on the exclusive Cohibas. Hunters gave out a gift of each of the larger smokes and two of the smaller ones. Attendees had to shell out £150 ($220) to attend, which seemed a relative bargain considering all the Krug Champagne that was flowing and various other drinks, as well as the four cigars. Jemma Freeman, the head of Hunters, said that Krug was the perfect drink to pair with the Behike, and I wasn’t about to complain.

The three Behikes are the following sizes and names:  BHK 52 (4 11/16 inches long by 52 ring gauge), BHK 54 (5 2/3 inches by 54 ring gauge) and BHK 56 (6 1/2 inches by 56 ring). They come in lacquered boxes of ten. Suggested U.K. retail per cigar is £28.70 ($42), £37.60 ($55) and £42.10 ($62) respectively.

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Adios Mi Abuelo

Posted: Apr 21, 2010 4:05pm ET
I have been thinking a lot about Alejandro Robaina, the late great tobacco grower of Cuba. It’s hard to think about the 91-year-old no longer being there. He died of cancer last Saturday at home in his bed, and I can’t bear the thought of him not being on his farm,  sitting on his terrace in his rocking chair and holding court with a cigar in his hand.

I don’t exactly remember when I met him, but it has to be close to 20 years ago. I first saw him on a trip to Pinar del Río in the early 1990s at the beginning of Cigar Aficionado magazine. Some representatives of Cubatabaco, the name then for the global distribution company for Cuban cigars, Habanos S.A., took me to his small farm to show me what an independent tobacco grower on the island was like.

I couldn’t believe how welcoming he was with his wife, sister, brother and children all living on the farm. They all lived in a couple of block-like houses of four bedrooms around the perimeter of the building and a simple sitting room and kitchen in the center. There were no glass windows, just shutters. And they had one lone light bulb hanging from the sitting room and one in the kitchen. I remember the bathroom didn’t have warm water and toilet paper and their toothbrushes were frayed like steel wool from years of use. Sometimes there was no soap as well.

I think you get the idea. It was a very simple life as a farmer in Pinar del Río. “It’s difficult,” he would say. “But we do the best we can.”

Yet Alejandro was so warm, friendly, and generous. I felt a little guilty back then coming for lunch, as he and his family would serve a hearty meal of roasted chicken, fried pork, crunchy green banana slices, rice, black beans, and tomatoes. It all came from their farm. It was some of the best food I ever ate in my life–full of flavor and affection.
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A Heartfelt Rumba

Posted: Mar 11, 2010 10:07am ET

A Cuban musician friend of mine named Ernan Lopez-Nuzza, one of the island’s best jazz pianists, and his wife, Wendy, reminded me the other day during lunch of a rumba called “La Muerte Me Llama Que Es Esto?”  The song, loosely translated, means Death Calls Me But What Is That?

I was thinking of that last week when I was hanging with the great tobacco man Alejandro Robaina at his farm in Pinar del Río. The 91-year-old is like a grandfather to me. I spent many days over the last 15 years or so with he and his family, talking and smoking, and comparing notes about tobacco, love and life. He hasn’t been well lately, and apparently he has cancer in his kidneys, which could be spreading. But he says he is feeling okay for the moment.

“Many people say I am already dead. What are they talking about? I am fine,” Alejandro joked. “It’s really cold this year. It’s the coldest in 20 years. So I have been staying indoors more than usual. This is not normal weather and it’s very hard on me. I am not dead yet!”

It was sort of macabre sitting in the living room of Alejandro’s small house and talking about his death. I really didn’t know what to say other than just treat him with the same respect and love that I always have. We spoke for about 10 minutes about his health and his grandson’s new tobacco growing venture in Ecuador.

You can listen to the video that is posted with this blog. I will loosely translate the conversation. I was light and fun—I didn’t want it to be too serious. Alejandro has a great sense of humor. Cuban humor is very dry, like mine.

Me: “How are you feeling (Alejandro)?”

Alejandro: “Today, I feel well because they gave me an injection. But I feel good…”

Me: “You always look younger.”

Alejandro:  (laughs)

Me: “So is Hiroshi working well here?”

Alejandro: “Well…well. Hiroshi works better than me.”

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Cuba Meets Ecuador

Posted: Mar 8, 2010 3:51pm ET

Americans might finally get the chance to try Robaina grown tobacco in the not too distance future. Hiroshi Robaina, the grandson of Cuba’s best-known tobacco grower, Alejandro Robaina, is setting up plantations in Ecuador.

"The climate is the same level as Cuba," said the 33-year-old last week, during a visit to his family's plantation in Pinar del Río, Cuba. They were tending their shade grown tobacco of about 15 acres. The crop was about three to four weeks behind schedule due to wet weather. “The sun is a little less strong in Ecuador, but the soil, it is like in Pinar del Río. It is very sandy.’

Hiroshi is working with a cousin from Miami, Igmar Robaina, who has organized the project near the town of Quevedo, Ecuador. They are planting about 200 acres of tobacco, consisting of two different farms. One is named Leopoldo and the other Santa Teresa. They plan to grow both filler and wrapper tobacco. And they hope to perhaps one day produce their own cigars.

“I think that Ecuador has even more potential than people think,” said Hiroshi, who has already visited the tobacco area there a number of times. “The problem has been that they have always been focused on wrapper. What I can tell, they can do plenty more with filler as well. “

Hiroshi said that they would be planting various tobacco types including Habana 92, Criollo 98,  Corojo 99, Habanos 2000, and Sumatra. “Everything grows well there,” he said. “We have to see what does best.”

He said that one big difference he found is that tobacco growers in Ecuador use less plants per acre, meaning they plant the tobacco slightly father apart than in Cuba. He said that the sunlight is not as strong, so they need to leave more space to reduce the effects of shade to allow the plants to photosynthesize better. They will also use different curing barns compared to Cuba and hope to use more temperature and humidity control.

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Smoking A Normal Cigar In La Habana

Posted: Mar 5, 2010 10:17am ET
I can spend a lot of time writing and speaking about mega-cigars, limited edition smokes and vintage sticks. But I like smoking mainline cigars just as much. In fact, most of the time I prefer them. Besides, cigar factories (see yesterday’s blog for a video on Cuba’s biggest) spend most of their time making normal smokes.

I was thinking about this last night when I was out with some friends in one of Havana’s small private restaurants called La Cocina de Lilliam. We had a nice dinner outside on the restaurant's (cold) patio. Food wise, Lilliam is now the best restaurant in Havana, although the cuisine is just good home cooking. The best was La Guarida, but it closed for good late last year.

For example, we shared starters of grilled octopus and fresh tuna with sautéed peppers, and main courses of broiled red snapper with a Cuban dish resembling polenta, and salad. It was good, simple, fresh food. I really enjoyed the 2005 Torres Catalunya Gran Sangre de Toro Reserva. It was made with Grenache, Cariñena and Syrah. I am not sure it sells in the states, but it’s cheap and very cheerful.

I brought along some simple coronas from a cedar box of 25 cigars, called Punch Royal Selection No. 11. The box was from June 2003. And they smoked wonderfully. They are mellow, yet flavorful, delivering beautiful chocolate, coffee and spicy character. I think they cost about $125 a box. I would score them 90 or 91 points, non blind.

Everyone at the table enjoyed the cigars as we sat together and talked in the brisk Cuban evening. I little añejo rum didn’t hurt to warm up a bit.

I actually smoked the Cohiba Behike BHK 54 on Wednesday night during another dinner with friends. I thought it was an excellent smoke with a deep and rich palate of milk chocolate and tobacco and just the right amount of spicy power. I only smoked it once, but I thought that I preferred the fresh and aromatically open character of the small Behike BHK52 and the full throttle, in-your-face style of the Behike BHK 56. But the Behike 54 is clearly an outstanding smoke.
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Cuba's Largest Cigar Factory

Posted: Mar 4, 2010 12:49pm ET
I dig going to the cigar factories in Havana. I don’t go as often as I would like because they don’t open them to the public all that much. The one exception is Partagas, which has regular visits each week for tourists.

It was coolio to visit the La Corona factory last week during the 12 Festival Habano. The workers were obviously on their best behavior. This is now the biggest factory in Cuba, according to one worker from La Corona. More than 900 people work there. Just over 250 are rollers, and they can produce between 40,000 and 50,000 cigars a day. Annual production at La Corona is about 10 million sticks.

The factory is the mother factory for San Cristobal de La Habana, among others. But they make just about everything—all the key brands as well as various sizes, or vitolas. Check out my blog from two days ago that explains Cuba’s top brands and sizes.

Fernando Peraza is now the manager of the factory, after working some time abroad, mostly in Cypress. I met him years ago when he was manager of the Romeo y Julieta factory. He is a real pro. He doesn’t talk much, but he is conscientious and very serious.

It was early in the morning when I arrived, so the lector was reading the daily news to the rollers as they worked. This is a centuries old scene, and traditionally the rollers would give a tiny amount of money each day to the lector to render this service. I love such traditions in Cuba.

I looked around the tobacco sorting rooms, rolling rooms and packaging rooms. It’s all standard stuff. I spoke a little with the rollers. They seemed well enough. They didn’t think much of the quality of the wrapper. In fact, the person who showed us around said that they were working only at 60 percent capacity because of a shortage of wrapper.

Last year was a good harvest, but apparently the weather was humid during the drying period. So there was less good wrapper then expected.
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Habanos y Tequila: A Good Marriage

Posted: Mar 3, 2010 2:15pm ET
I must admit that I don’t think very often about Tequila when I am looking for something to drink with my cigar. I usually grab a glass of rum or Port or Champagne, or even red wine or beer. But Tequila?

That’s why I found a blind tasting of two cigars—Montecristo No. 2 and Partagas Serie D No. 4—with two Añejo and two Extra Añejo Tequilas fascinating.  The tasting was done during a seminar last week at the XII Festival Habano. About 200 people packed into the meeting room. Each seat had four glasses of Tequila in brandy snifters and two unbanded cigars.

We first lit up the torpedo, and smoked the balanced and flavorful cigar while tasting the two Añejos. I found the first tequila showed lots of citrus and white pepper character with saltiness on the nose. It was very sweet and round with an almost candied flavor. It was too sweet for me. And it sugar coated the smoke.

The second Tequila showed more vanilla and caramel on the nose and palate, but it was drier, rounder and softer. It was caressing on the palate and seemed delicious with the robusto, preparing your palate for every puff.
Surprisingly, the group preferred the sweet Tequila.  I really couldn’t understand it. But I guess people in general prefer sweet things. And I think Cubans in particular like postres, or desserts. The group’s preferred Tequila was the Leticia Hermosillo Ravelero Añjeo. I preferred the San Nicolas Tequila Espolon Añejo.

It was interesting that the top Cuban sommeliers in the group sided with me on the San Nicolas Tequila. Gracias hermanos y hermanas!

We moved on to the robusto, which was surprisingly richer and spicier on the palate than the Montecristo No. 2.  The two Tequila extra añejos were better with the cigars, but I couldn’t get over how sweet one of them was. It was like drinking tequila with a huge dose of caramel and smoke. It had a sugary finish. The other extra añejo was much more balanced, with a spicy, lightly toasted wood and dried herb character that reminded me of an aged cigar. It was so balanced with subtle complexity.
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A Few Observations on Cuban Cigars

Posted: Mar 2, 2010 6:46pm ET
Do you smoke Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, José L. Piedra, Partagas, or Cohiba? Or all of the above?

You probably smoke one or two of the brands on a regular basis if you are into Cuban cigars, considering those brands account for about three-fourths of the total number of Cuban cigars sold in 2009. Brand figures released during a seminar at the 12th Habanos Festival shows that the above five brands account for the lion’s share of Cuban cigar shipments: Montecristo, 21 percent; Romeo y Julieta, 17 percent; José L. Piedra, 14 percent; Cohiba, 11 percent, and Partagas, 11 percent.

The top five brands were followed by Hoyo de Monterrey, 6 percent; Quintero, 5 percent; and H. Upmann, 3 percent. The remaining two dozen brands or so account for the rest.

If you love the ubiquitous Montecristo No. 4, then your petit corona-sized cigar accounted for about 8 percent of the market, followed by Romeo y Julieta Cazadores with 5 percent, Romeo y Julieta No. 2 with 4 percent, Partagas Serie D No. 4 with 4 percent, and Montecristo No. 5 with 3 percent.

A number of the next five best selling cigars are machine finished, or use short filler, including Partagas Millefleur, 3 percent; Quintero Breva, 3 percent; and José L. Piedra Cremas, 3 percent. The next favorite sizes include Romeo y Julieta No. 3, 2 percent; Cohiba Siglo II, 2 percent; José L. Piedra Petit Cazadores, 2 percent; Romeo y Julieta Romeo No. 1, 2 percent; Montecristo No. 2, 2 percent, Montecristo Edmundo, 2 percent and Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, 2 percent.

One observation I have is that the Montecristo No. 4 is no longer the popular cigar it used to be. In the 1990s, it accounted for almost a third of all shipments of Cuban cigars. In Spain and France, it was synonymous with asking for a puros or cigare. But it’s pretty evenly spread now.

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