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James Suckling

Epilogue to the Havana Blog

Posted: Mar 5, 2008 11:07am ET
My friend, Tom Unvert, laughed and said “don’t worry about it buddy. Just get here in one piece for the party.”

But it did suck. I had 19 very nice cigars in my courier bag, including a five-pack selection of torpedos for Tom’s birthday present. The rest were mostly the new limited edition Partagas Serie D No. 5 and the Partagas Serie P in Tubos. It was the first time in 17 years that I had been stopped by customs and had cigars confiscated. Most times the customs guys don’t ask or simply let me go with a few smokes in my bags.

Granted, it is technically breaking the law. Since a few years ago, even licensed travelers to the island are not allowed to bring anything back from Cuba. Before, you could bring to the states $100 or less of Cuban goods from a licensed trip to the island. Today, only a few products are exempted, such as literature and art.

I knew I was in deep shit the moment I arrived at immigration and the officer wanted to know what sort of business I was in. I said I was European Editor of Cigar Aficionado.

“When was the last time you were in Cuba?” he asked.

“This morning,” I replied.

With that, he drew a big red “C” in the corner. I was directed to the customs hall for inspection. I wasn’t that worried about it though. The worse thing that I knew they could do was to confiscate the cigars.

Anyway, the first customs officer didn’t really know what to think. He asked me for press credentials and a license from the Office of Foreign Asset Control, which I told him I did not need to have on me. He had to speak to his supervisor.

“How many cigars do you have?” he said, looking like he was happy that he had a live one on the line.

I told him that I had 15 or so. “Let me see them please,” he said. “Don’t you know that we have an embargo with Cuba?”
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Day 6: A Room Full of Friends

Posted: Mar 3, 2008 11:05am ET
The massive room at the Pabexpo in the chic Havana neighborhood of Siboney was already thick with smoke within the first 30 minutes of the gala dinner on Friday during the 10th annual Festival del Habano. The thousand or so participants were either smoking the Trinidad Reyes handed out at the door by a line of gorgeous Cuban women, or their own stash. I fired up the Reyes and it was delicate and satisfying, as usual.

The room was filled with everyone who loves cigars, from merchants to collectors. And they came from just about everywhere in the world where cigars are sold. I noticed a few Americans also. Plus, a number of key ministers were there, including Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the National Assembly. There was no sign of the Castro brothers. In fact, a Castro hasn’t been seen at the event for a number of years now. The humidors sold for charity at an auction at the event are no long signed by Fidel Castro.

Nonetheless, there was plenty of entertainment and lots of fun at the event. Check out my video. It was almost worth the ticket price of $550 for the cigars alone. There was a nice sampler pack of 10 cigars in a laminated box at each seat. And then there were four other cigars to smoke during the meal including the Trinidad Reyes, San Cristobal Mercaderes, Hoyo de Monterey Epicure No. 2, and Cohiba Maduro 5 Genios. I smoked everything but the Epi. The San Cristobal was very light, almost tasteless, but the rest were excellent. In fact, I love the Cohiba Maduro 5 Genios.

The best cigar of the night, however, was the 150th Anniversary Partagas Robusto. What a cigar!! It showed amazing aromas and flavors of dried roses, cedar and light spices. The palate was full, fresh and super long. It touches every tastebud on my palate. I scored it 97 points, non blind. I also took a puff off a buddy’s 1992 Flor de Cano Diademas, a Churchill that replaced the Davidoff Dom Perignon for a few years after the DP was discontinued. Great smoke too with more of a nutty, mahogany, almost smoked almond character. 99 points, non blind.
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Day 5: Behind The Scenes

Posted: Feb 29, 2008 3:43pm ET
I had planned to hit up some of the key cigar shops this morning, like Partagas and Club Havana. This is where a lot of action happens during the festival. People just hang out, talk and smoke. It’s a good way to get information. Many people simply come to Havana for the festival to do that, they never attend the official events.

Anyway, I didn’t go to the cigar shops because I woke up dizzy and sick to my stomach. I called the hotel doctor and they came up and checked me out. I thought I had flu, or something. It turned out that my blood pressure was high. Not sure why. Maybe too much coffee and Cuban cigars? Maybe I'm too stressed?

The doctors – there were two of them, a pretty woman and a guy – said that I should not drink beer, which I hadn’t, or eat stuff like pasta. (In Cuba? Pasta?) Stay away from coffee too, he said.

"What about cigars?” I asked.

“You are here for the festival,” said the guy. “Of course, you can smoke cigars.”

I gave him a couple of Montecristo Edmundo Tubos, since he said that he liked cigars. I wish I had a doctor like that at home!

I imagine a lot of the cigar merchants at the event have high blood pressure at the moment. It seems everyone is stressing about all the anti-smoking laws being passed. And I don’t blame them. It sucks.

I was talking last night at a party to the head of Pacific Cigars, who markets and distributes cigars in the Far East. And he said that it’s a disaster, particularly in Hong Kong. There is no public smoking allowed in HK and it’s going to be the same very soon in Macau. “I am not sure where people are going to smoke,” he said. “We have very few outdoor areas to smoke.”

He said that he was through trying to fight the anti-smoking laws. Instead, he was looking for ways to work within the rules – in other words, beat the system. For example, they are involved in cigar clubs in Hong Kong where people can smoke and then the drinks are served next door in a self-service sort of place.
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Day 4: The Taste of an Habano

Posted: Feb 28, 2008 4:28pm ET
It was all about taste yesterday in Havana. I attended two tastings. One was a smoker in the El Laguito factory, the home of Cohiba cigars, and another was a tasting in the evening at the Nacional Hotel that I led promoting the idea of drinking Champagne while smoking cigars.

Both of the events were extremely informative and fun.

The Cohiba tasting showed how lanceros, the long, thin and elegant vitola, age very, very well. We smoked a Cohiba Lancero from the 2007 production as well as one from 1997. The younger smoke came from the stock rooms of the factory and the 1997 came from the Davidoff shop in London. Alex Iapichino, a London-based lawyer, brought the old Lanceros, and also organized the tasting.

The factory’s conference room was full of cigar aficionados, tobacco technicians as well as merchants. Check out the video. My conclusions, as you can see, were fairly strong—maybe I overstated my thoughts in the video! But great Cuban cigars age wonderfully. I have been saying this for years. And I feel strongly about it!

I don’t think anyone in the room needed convincing. The 1997 showed lovely creamy cedar and tea with milk character. It was medium bodied, with a wonderful freshness and a long and flavorful finish. It was very refined. 91 points (unblind). I thought it could use another five or six years of box age to really meet it’s perfect smoking point.

By comparison, the 2007 has much less of an aroma but was a little bit fuller bodied and rich on the back of the palate. I actually liked it more than the 1997. It was all there as I expected with dry flowers and a freshness on the palate. It was creamy and spicy with an almost smoked almond character. It was long, rich and beautiful. 92 points (unblind). I think that many of the current production of Cuban cigars are some of the best ever…
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Day 3: From Table to Ash

Posted: Feb 27, 2008 2:04pm ET
Sometimes I find it almost hard to believe that the cigars we buy in shops come from the rollers’ tables of cigar factories in Havana. When we buy the cigar, it’s almost as if we are standing right next to the roller and he or she is handing us the cigar. Look at the video below with Eric Aboulia, whose family owns Raffi Cigars in Geneva, Switzerland. We were together in the H. Upmann factory in Havana yesterday and he saw a friend of his rolling, walked over, and received a fresh smoke. How cool is that?

I, too, have friends in the cigar world in Havana, and one was nice enough to give me a sneak preview of the Cuba's new Edición Limitadas that are coming out later this year: the Cuaba Piramides, Partagas Serie D No. 5 and Montecristo Sublimes. I smoked them together yesterday.

Here are my impressions of each of the cigars, with my non-blind scores:


Cuaba Piramides
6 1/8 by 52 ring
This is the same size as the popular Montecristo No. 2. It is super refined and long with light coffee and nutty character. Full flavored with a long finish. Gorgeous and fresh. All is in balance. Perfect draw.
93 points (non blind)

Montecristo Sublimes
6 1/2 by 54 ring
The strongest of the three, it shows lots of espresso bean, roasted meat and earth under the tobacco. Full and rich. Long and flavorful. Full throttle.
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Day 2: Hola H. Upmann

Posted: Feb 26, 2008 3:00pm ET
I just got back from visiting the H. Upmann factory in Nuevo Vedado with some friends from Geneva, Switzerland. The main hermano was Arek Aboulian, whose family owns Raffi Cigars. The twenty-something spent three months working in Upmann a short while ago, and he knows just about everyone in the factory. I will blog about him later.

Anyway, the new H. Upmann Magnum 50 certainly smoked well in the factory. It was such a cool idea to be smoking the cigar where it was originally made. Look at the video.

As I have already written, the Magnum 50 is one of two cigars that is being pushed this year at the festival. The other is the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial. Both were featured last night during the Welcome Cocktail Party at the Club Havana. A multi-media show and dance production – sort of Broadway meets Havana and cigars – preceded the party at the Karl Marx Theater. Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing company, gave out the two cigars to the participants. I thought it made better sense to smoke them the next day.

And the Magnum 50 smokes wonderfully. It is a big smoke in size but delivers very refined and balanced flavors that verge on floral and cedar. It is very typical for Upmann, not powerful but smooth and fresh. 92 points. I will smoke the new Epicure Especial later today.

I visited all the departments at the Upmann factory this morning and I was impressed with what I saw – the one exception was the wrapper. It looked a little marked and unclean. This must be because they didn’t have a very good harvest last year due to extremely dry weather. But one of the quality control people at the factory said that they were selecting good wrapper, nonetheless. The texture and thickness was very fine and it felt very elastic.
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Day 1: Morning View from La Habana

Posted: Feb 25, 2008 4:04pm ET
I woke up this morning in Havana in my hotel, the Melia Cohiba, and after a quick café con leche in the bar, I walked out onto the Malecon boulevard that skirts the sea in front of the city, and breathed the fresh sea air with a mixture of diesel and other smells of a bustling city.

There’s a special feeling when you are standing on the Malecon and first looking at the sea towards the United States and then back at the old buildings on the boulevard. It is like a lifeline to the city with most of the major traffic of Havana taking it to cross from one end to the other. There’s an energy, a vitality that is hard to describe.

It’s these indescribable sensations that bring so many people to Havana. This year is shaping up to be one of the best in ten years in tourism. I spoke to the manager of my hotel and he said that they had 96 percent occupancy at the moment and they expected it to continue for the next few months. Cuba and Havana seem to be back on the radar screen for visitors from Europe, Canada and Mexico – the main areas that tourists come from.

A large number of tourists at the moment are here for the Festival del Habano, the 10th annual cigar event for the city. I have already seen cigar smokers and merchants from Europe, North America, the Middle and Far East. In other words, they are here from all over the world and they are smoking up a storm.

After my video making on the Malecon, I went back to the bar on the 20th floor of the Melia Cohiba and it was full of cigar smokers. They had the window of the bar open and it was only about 9 am. There were too many people smoking cigars!

I ran into a friend from Lebanon who had a couple examples of the new regional cigar for the area – a Ramon Allones Sublimes. I smoked it most of the morning. What a blockbuster…a shit kicker. It’s loaded with coffee, spice and espresso bean character. I am going to hook up with the agents from Lebanon on Friday and smoke and video the session. So stay tuned.
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Peace and Love for Cuba

Posted: Feb 19, 2008 10:53am ET
The news last night about Fidel Castro retiring from political duties in Cuba does not come as a surprise. The word on the streets of Havana has been nothing else but that for months. In fact, his brother Raúl has been in real power since Fidel passed the baton to him in July 2006. Everyone knows that.

I am excited for everyone -- Cubans as well as Americans. I can only pray that there will finally be some sort of discourse between our two nations. At the end of the day, we are the same. We are part of the world. And we are close neighbors. I have seldom met a Cuban that doesn’t love America. Honestly, I wish it were the same in the United States. It’s time to reach out.

There is talk in Cuba about Raúl’s ideas on changing economic policies as well as social and political programs. Everyone will have to wait and see. Raúl is going to say some important things at the end of the week during the Congress of the National Assembly.

Just about anything is possible, but it will be on Cuba’s own terms. That I know.

I keep thinking today about my five-hour meeting with Fidel Castro in February 1994. I was with editor and publisher Marvin Shanken and we interviewed the icon. I also took some amazing photos of the man smelling a Cohiba Esplendido. He didn’t smoke at the time but he was in heaven smelling the cigar. Every news organization in the world wanted a copy of the photo.

Anyway, Fidel said something that comes to mind at the moment. In fact, it was the end of the interview, and it still haunts me.

Marvin Shanken: "The American press repeatedly refers to the very poor conditions here in Cuba. The enormous shortages. The human suffering. Some are convinced you will fall soon or your government will be overthrown or perhaps you will step down. Like a great Broadway show, you have had a long run. Is it time to give someone else a turn? Do you have any such plans?"
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Day 10: Goodbye Cuba

Posted: Feb 15, 2008 12:40pm ET
It was a cool trip to Cuba. I am back at home in Italy at the moment and posting my last video blog from the island. And I am sorry I left. There is so much to see and learn there, especially for a cigar smoker.

I hope you have enjoyed the blogging and got as much out of it as I did. As I mentioned in my first blog, the go-to cigar for many in the world is now the Partagas Serie D No. 4. The red-banded robusto is now the cigar many smoke on a daily basis. It even outnumbers the Montecristo Petit Corona in such large markets as France as the No. 1 smoke. Don’t be surprised if you see it being sold in tubes in a very short while!

In my second blog, a trip to the La Casa del Habano cigar shop at Conde Villanueva hotel in Old Havana near the Plaza San Francisco showed how prices on the island have finally come down slightly after years of being too high. It now makes financial sense to buy cigars on the island. For example, the wonderful Bolivar Gold Medals are selling for just over $54 for a box of 10 cigars and the same box may cost three times as much in other markets. Moreover, the Upmann Magnum and Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure lines were expanded with two new additions -- Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial and H. Upmann Magnum 50, respectively.

It never hurts, as my third blog noted, to stop into the El Floridita bar for a quick daiquiri and smoke. I only wish Ernest Hemingway still haunted the joint. How cool would it be hang with the late great writer? Shame he didn’t smoke cigars.

What a welcome from the tobacco grower/guru Alejandro Robaina. The fourth through eighth blogs recounted some amazing moments with who some call the Elvis Presley of tobacco. He and his grandson, Hiroshi grew some amazing tobacco this year, after a tough harvest last year -- 2006/2007 -- due to abnormally hot weather. A good part of the excellent crop this year can be attributed to a new tobacco type called Capero No. 1. The leaves are more abundant, larger and more resistant to disease. More over, they do not produce flowers, which may end a trade in illegal seeds from the area.
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Day 9: Everyone's Lunch In Havana

Posted: Feb 13, 2008 1:59pm ET
Like I didn’t have enough heavy food already after lunch with tobacco maestro Alejandro Robania. But the day after my visit to his plantation, I went to lunch with some friends at a big outdoor restaurant called El Palenque in the Siboney neighborhood of Havana. This is the closest thing to a popular restaurant, considering lots of locals hang here. It’s super cheap where a Cuban sandwich can cost a couple bucks and an ice-cold beer about half that. I have been coming here for 10 years.

The cuisine is rustic and homey with lots of pork. Check out the split suckling pigs on the open grill in the video. They were not cooking this in my honor. It’s grilling away everyday for lunch and dinner. I have the crunchy skin on the plate in the video, which we ate as an appetizer with a couple of frosty Buccanero brews. Yummy.

I have eaten my weight in lechon with the Padrón family in Esteli, Nicaragua. Dave Savona is an aficionado of the stuff as well. But José Orlando Padrón, the partriarch of the great cigar company, is all too right when he says that “no place makes better lechon than Cuba.” Look at the video again my friends.

The main course was perfectly cooked juicy pork with black beans, rice and a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage. My mouth is watering now as I write this. Forget the three-star Michelin restaurants. This is the real deal.

We lit up some Cohiba Lanceros half way through the meal. I don’t normally like to smoke and eat, but I thought why not be decadent with my buddies. And it’s nice to be able to smoke just about wherever you wish in Cuba! I am so tired of the anti-smoking laws!! But I don’t have to tell you that.

I didn’t have a lighter, so the waiter offered to lend me his. One of my friends kept on saying not to use the lighter. I thought he was being a little obsessive about his own Dupont lighter. Do I really need to use his lighter?
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