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James Suckling

Day 8: Barns of Dreams

Posted: Feb 13, 2008 11:39am ET
Just to give you an idea of what the tobacco looks like going in the barns, check out this latest video. It’s awesome. Hiroshi Robaina, the grandson of tobacco guru Alejandro Robaina, took me for a walk through their three tobacco curing barns and I was speechless. Unbelievable quality.

Hiroshi said that this year they weren’t using any artificial curing barns because the weather was so perfect for naturally drying the leaves. Last year, they had to use almost all artificial curing because it was too hot and too dry. I am not a great fan of artificially cured tobacco. I think it cooks some of the quality out of the leaf.

But last week there was perfect warmth and the humidity was just right to cure the tobacco naturally. The only adjustments made in the barns were a little bit of chopped up moist tobacco on the floor of the barns to assure good humidity and opening and closing the barn windows and doors to regulate the temperature and freshness in the building.

The 32-year-old Hiroshi said that it takes about 10 days to have the leaves turn from green to yellow brown. Then it takes another 50 to 60 days for the tobacco to completely dry. They do a short fermentation in their barns afterwards before shipping the tobacco to close-by warehouses in San Luis, where the tobacco is sorted according to texture, size and strength and fermented another time.

Fingers crossed. Can’t wait to see the end results later this year! I still remember lots of optimistic harvests that ended with the tobacco being improperly processed. Hope it doesn’t happen this year! We need some fabulous wrappers on Cuban cigars!!
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Day 7: Comparing Apples to Oranges?

Posted: Feb 12, 2008 2:14pm ET
It wasn’t the first time that I smoked a “foreign cigar” with Alejandro Robaina, the great tobacco grower from Cuba’s Pinar del Río region. Alejandro is a curious man for 89-year-old and he’s always interested to try cigars from other areas in the world. He wants to know what the competition is like outside of Cuba with cigars. As proud as he is of his tobacco and Cuban cigars in general, he also admits that good cigars can come from other countries, whether Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic.

I brought him a Padrón Serie 1926 No. 9, none other than Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar of the Year, but with a maduro wrapper. Honestly, I smoked a number of the cigars out of the box and I was not as excited by them as the lighter wrapper that I smoked when we rated our top smokes last year. But it was still interesting smoking them with Cubans. In fact, I was worried coming in to Cuba with a box of these cigars. Customs didn’t say anything after x-raying my bags. They must have thought they were Cuban. Who with a sane mind would bring Nicaraguan cigars to smoke in Cuba?

You can tell from the video that Alejandro liked the Padrón. He thought they looked great and the packaging from the white and gold bands to the wooden box were fabulous. He said that the cigar was perfectly constructed and drew like a dream. He loved the fact that the cigar was box pressed. “I haven’t seen cigars in Cuba like this in years,” he said with a big smile. “Most cigars used to be like this before the revolution.”

However, I am not sure he was all that excited by the character of the smoke. He said that it lacked a bit of flavor and remained slightly earthy, like most Nicaraguan cigars. “It’s not really fair for me to say,” he said. “I smoke Cuban cigars all the time and I smoke my cigars most of the time. So my taste is for that.
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Day 6: Robaina's New Wrapper

Posted: Feb 11, 2008 10:17am ET
The tobacco in Robaina's fields looked so good last week. It was bright green, large sized, clean, and ripe. Hiroshi Robaina, 32, the grandson of the legendary tobacco grower Alejandro Romania, said that it was the best tobacco the family had seen in their fields in the last 15 years. Check out the video.

Granted, I have heard such hyperbole before, especially from Alejandro. I don’t think he is a bullshiter. He is just excited about his crop. And last year’s apparently was not very good for him or anyone else in Pinar del Río. So he was very keen about this year’s harvest. The 2006/2007 growing season was just too hot to grow tobacco properly. So the crop, particularly wrapper, was very short. Only God knows what that means for cigar production this year or next. Getting a straight answer on the subject from Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing company, is almost impossible. Sometimes it’s almost easier talking to a paint-peeling wall in Old Havana.

This year’s tobacco crop should make up for the 2006/2007 shortfalls, assuming the good weather holds out. It’s been near-perfect for the entire growing season since the bad rains in October and November. But the rains were worse in the center of the island, where floods were prevalent. The wet weather in Pinar simply delayed some of the planting. The Robainas expected to finish their harvest in the next two weeks. Yields should be at record levels.

I was amazed how beautiful the new hybrid tobacco looked in their fields. Capero No. 1 was first planted on a large scale last year, and the Robainas, and other growers, are very happy with the results. Look for yourself at the video. The leaves on the top of the plant look as large as Conneticut leaf. Unbelievable. Although the Robainas planted some Corojo 99, about four-fifths of the plantation is in Capero No. 1. It is a cross of Habanos 2000, Corojo '99 and Criollo '98.
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Day 5: Smoking Fumas

Posted: Feb 8, 2008 1:28pm ET
Most tobacco farmers in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio, the best tobacco region on the island, have their own fumas. They are the cigars that they make from their own tobacco. You can call it their “home reserve” or “riserva de familia.” They keep a small amount of the tobacco they are growing for the state and make cigars for themselves, family and friends.

I have not had many from other growers but I can tell you that the Robaina family makes amazing fumas. They may be some of the best cigars on the island. I guess in a way they are “fake” cigars because they have not been officially made in a factory, or carry a label of a well-known brand. Pero no importa! (I am making a joke!)

Check out my video. And see what I mean.

Normally, I like to smoke the Robaina's robusto. I love the powerful yet balanced character of the smoke, which has just enough spice, coffee character in the aroma and palate. It is sort of a supercharged Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2. 93 points. (Speaking of which, you may notice soon that the Epicure No. 2 comes with double bands – one saying Hoyo and the other Epicure.)

The tiny amount of cigars the Robainas make are not for sale. They are given to family and friends who visit their finca, or farm. The tobacco in the filler is about four years old and the wrapper is about two years. This is much better aged tobacco that most cigars are made from the key factories in Havana. I am not saying they are necessarily better because the tobacco blenders of the key export factories are magicians with what they have. But the Robaina cigars certainly have class, finesse and character. It’s all about aging the tobacco.

I noticed that Alejandro, the grandfather of the clan, has come up with a new size for his family smokes – the Godfather or “padrino.” It’s essentially like a super double corona, about 7 1⁄2 inches and 56-ring gauge thick instead of the normal 49. And what a smoke! Click here to read yesterday's blog with Alejandro Robaina.
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Day 4: Home Sweet Home in Pinar del Rio

Posted: Feb 7, 2008 11:45am ET
It’s like going home when I visit Alejandro Robaina and his family, the famous tobacco growers in Pinar del Río. Alejandro, 89, is a warm and intelligent man with a heart of gold. I often said that there were three living icons in Cuba – Fidel Castro, Alejandro Robaina and Compay Segundo. God bless the latter’s soul. I knew him well and, of course, his music.

It’s about a three-hour drive from Havana to his plantation, which is located close to the town of San Luis. He grows both wrapper and filler tobacco. The former is grown under cheesecloth-like tents, which diffuse the light to assure fine textured, thin tobacco to cover the best cigars in Cuba. His leaves are gold dust and the Cubans know it. The Robainas have about 250,000 plants this year in the ground in their fields. The harvest was already halfway done when I visited him yesterday. It looks amazing. I will tell you more about it in a few days.

Alejandro’s grandson Hiroshi, 32, actually runs the finca. His father Carlos helps as well as his uncle Frank, who lives next door and grows filler on his land. There’s an incredible family spirit when you visit the plantation. The main house where Alejandro lives, which still doesn’t have windows and only the minimum of modern conveniences, is the center of activity. Children are playing. Workers are stopping in the kitchen for a quick coffee. Mothers and grandmothers are preparing food in the kitchen and washing clothes. And, of course, Alejandro is sitting in his rocking chair smoking a cigar and greeting visitors.

I wasn’t joking when I said on the video that I wondered if they remembered who I was, considering all the people on the property. The place had people and cars everywhere when I arrived. I thought maybe there was a concert, or something, going on. Years ago, few people even knew where the man lived.
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Day 3: Watering Holes and New Cigars

Posted: Feb 6, 2008 9:06am ET
Is El Floridita the best bar on earth? New York has the Café Carlyle Hotel. Paris has the American Bar in the Ritz. And Los Angeles has Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. Sure those are cool. And the ambience, drinks and service are superb. But you can’t smoke in any of them.

The Daiquiris at El Floridita are fantastic – fresh, lemony and light. I always ask Alejandro, the main barman, to use seven-year-old rum, instead of the young
firewater rum most places use for cocktails. I appreciate the story that Ernest Hemingway drink his Daiquiris at El Floridita and his mojitos at Bodeguita del Medio. Not only could the guy write, but he was also a great drinker. And he had good taste.

I went to the El Floridita after bizarre dinner at the Polynesian restaurant in the Havana Libre. The food was a mixture of greasy smoked meats and frozen Chinese food crossed with leather. Did people really eat stuff like this in the 1950s? No wonder my parent’s generation have such high cholesterol now! Frank Sinatra would roll over in his grave, if he knew. To add salt to the wounds, the wine was cooked. This is how I remember “dining” in Cuba in the early 1990s. Terrible.

It’s a shame because the Havana Libre, where the restaurant is located, is beautiful. If I remember correctly, it was completed in 1958 but was soon rebranded after the revolution. Years ago I went to the Penthouse there and saw where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara controlled the island when they entered Havana as victors of the revolution. There are also some amazing paintings in the penthouse from Porto Correos. I'd love to go back there again.

I did get the chance to smoke a prototype yesterday of the new H. Upmann Magnum 50, which is a beautiful and balanced smoke. (I mentioned it in yesterday's blog.) It showed loads of cappuccino, cream, mellow tobacco character. It was super fresh and clean. It was hard to put it down. The Magnum first appeared four years ago as a limitada for 2005 and it’s been a sought-after smoke every since. I am not sure if it is the name more than the actual cigar. Who is not going to be cool and smoke a Magnum? And it’s the second in the line of Magnums -- the other being the Magnum 46. I wouldn’t be surprised if we would see a few other Magnums coming out in the future, just like we have seen other Partagas Serie cigars.
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Day 2: Cigar Shop Talk

Posted: Feb 5, 2008 12:02pm ET
Hit up my first cigar shop yesterday. La Casa del Habano at Conde Villanueva is located in Old Havana near the Plaza San Francisco in a small hotel in a renovated colonial building once owned by a Spanish nobleman about 200 years ago. This place just blows you away with it history and character. Check out the video.

The selection in the shop is great at the moment. I couldn’t believe all the Limitadas. There were dozens of boxes, including Montecristo C from Edición 2006. The most abundant were last year’s Limitadas: Romeo y Julieta Esucdos, the Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos, and the Trinidad Ingenious. Plenty of the Cohiba Maduro 5s are around as well. I love the rich and coffee character of those babies. And then I saw a stack of Bolivar Gold Medals, which are a lovely refined smoke that taste like the refined and flavorful smokes of ten or 15 years ago. And they only cost about $7 a stick. They come in boxes of ten.

It seems that prices are finally better in Cuba for buying cigars. Until recently, very little incentive existed for buying cigars on the island because prices were about the same as in Spain and in Switzerland. What was the use of buying cigars on the island when many people could avoid the hassle (especially the difficulty with Cuban customs) and just get them when they got home? But now prices appear to be about 10 to 15 percent less than elsewhere, maybe even less. I am sure Gold Medals are double the Cuban price elsewhere in the world.

I love the fact that you can hang in a Havana cigar shop such as Conde and smoke, drink a rum or coffee, and just shoot the shit with the hermanos who work there. A good way to spend an hour or two – even if it is work!

I heard there are three new Limitadas for 2008 that will debut during the Habanos Festival, including the Partagas Serie D No. 5, Cuaba Piramid, and the Montecristo Sublimes. Also the H. Upmann Magnum 50, which was a Limitada a few years back, will become a mainstream cigar, as will something from Hoyo that was formally a Limitada. There’s some talk of Cohiba Sublimes becoming a standard for the brand but nothing is sure yet.
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The Sad Truth of It

Posted: Jan 24, 2008 3:56pm ET
Smoking outside is not what it’s cracked up to be! In fact, it mostly sucks at this time of year. I was thinking about this other night when I was smoking a 1995 Bolivar Belicoso Fino by the pool at my hotel in West Hollywood with a friend of mine. It’s cold in Los Angeles right now, and wet.

It didn’t help that some gorilla-sized bouncer came up and threw us out. “Gentlemen, it’s time for you to finish up and go,” he said, looking like he was going to grab us by the collar and throw us on the street if we didn’t put out our smokes and down our drinks.

“Relax. Talk to the front desk. They know me here. Just give us a little more time to enjoy our smokes,” I said. The dude got pissed. It was only 10:05 and he gave me some B.S. about local noise ordinances. We did get 10 more minutes before we were forced to leave...

Service really stinks in Los Angeles. I can’t tell you how many times I have been abused by receptionists, waiters, parking valets—you name it. My only consolation is that they may never get the acting or music gig they think that they deserve because their attitude sucks. But that’s a different column. Let’s talk about smoking cigars.

We ended up sitting on my balcony, smoking and probably making more noise than sitting at the pool. We just quietly spoke about life and stuff brothers do. I was smoking and shivering at the same time. Granted, it was not like smoking outside in Paris before Christmas with a buddy on the terrace of a café with gas heaters blazing away. (I still remember the cream, cedar flavors of the Romeo & Julieta Short Churchill!) It was cold, even in the sunshine. My ass almost froze to the seat. My hands were blue holding the cigar.

I keep thinking about my poor cigar brothers in super cold places like New York, Moscow, Oslo and anywhere else threatened by ice and snow. You get the idea. They must freeze their asses off when they have to smoke a cigar! In addition, many great cigars go to waste when you smoke out in the bad weather. For example, a subtle smoke like the aged BB loses some of its quality, as the perfumed smoke and flavors fly out in the open air. I kept wondering how much better the cigar would have been if I could have smoked inside. I even looked longingly at the partygoers in the bar of the hotel. I felt like a stray cat wanting to come in to sit next to a warm heater.
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Day 1: Listen to the Streets

Posted: Jan 4, 2008 12:00am ET
There’s something mystical, even spiritual, about Havana. I landed yesterday in the great city from Cancún, Mexico, and I immediately felt like I had arrived in a very special place. You have all heard Havana called a cigar mecca, which it is, but it’s much more than that. It’s a place that oozes its opulent history. You breathe the air and it fills your heart and mind with a rich, almost decadent culture. The warm people, soulful music, hearty food, flavorful cigars, and strong rum electrify your senses. Every nook and cranny of the city’s crumbling façade seens to want to tell you a story.

I drove around the street from Old Havana with a couple of friends before arriving to my accommodation and I couldn’t get over how amazing the city is. I have been coming to Havana for 17 years now, and each visit is a new experience, a new adventure. It’s like reading a book and not knowing what each page will bring to you.

I was smoking a Partagas Serie D No. 4, the ubiquitous robusto, in the car, and it tasted spicy and rich, like a thick flavorful Cuban coffee. It was like meeting an old friend, who walks into a room to great you with a big smile and an open heart. You pick up the conversation where you left off and feel like you haven’t even been apart. I know that smoke well and it’s one satisfying cigar. It might be my go-to smoke on a daily basis. It never lets you down.

The Partagas robusto is now the most popular cigar in many of the key markets in Europe, particularly France. It’s hard to believe that the world has changed that much. It used to be the Montecristo petite corona, No. 4. People obviously want a quick smoke but they want more flavor as well. Nothing better than walking down the streets of Paris or sitting outside in a café terrace and smoking a lovely robusto.
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Take It to the Streets

Posted: Dec 12, 2007 1:37pm ET
I think it is happening just about everywhere that smoking is being banned. There is a small underground movement of freethinking people who are determined to exercise their personal freedom to smoke. Granted, I don’t want to impose my smoking pleasure on someone who doesn’t like smoke, but that doesn’t mean governments should legislate in favor or against either one of our preferences.

That’s why I think it’s important that we go to the streets and we find places to smoke wherever we may be. OBVIOUSLY IT'S NOT A GOOD IDEA TO BREAK THE LAW, BUT I AM ALWAYS LOOKING FOR PLACES TO SMOKE. I do it all the time.

Check out my video of a recent trip to Los Angeles, which can be a stronghold for the health fascists. I can’t tell you where, but I have some spots in Los Angeles that I hang out with friends where we can eat, drink and smoke to our hearts’ content. What a pleasure! Like the good old days in La La.

Film producer James Orr, a long time friend who has ived in Los Angeles for years, is right when he says that libertarian philosophies may one day prevail, if we all begin a grassroots movement to smoke despite draconian legislation that says otherwise.

Let’s not forget Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. It didn’t work. In fact, Prohibition hasn’t really worked anywhere. During the Prohibition in the states, speakeasies and other venues flourished where honest people could enjoy a drink. The same is now happening with smoking cigars. And I think it is a positive development.

Are you finding the same?
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