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James Suckling

The End of a Great Event

Posted: Mar 1, 2010 6:00pm ET
The president of Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing company in Cuba for cigars, came up to me during last Friday’s gala dinner and asked me how I liked the Cohiba Behikes that were being debuted to the world that night.

“So, Suckling, what do you think of Behike?” said Oscar Basulto Torres, the Cuban president of Habanos. I had just finished the BHK 52, which was in a black lacquered box with two other examples of the new Cohiba range. Participants of the fancy dinner were supposed to take them home as a memento of the evening. I couldn’t wait! Besides, it was my journalist duty to smoke them.

I already smoked a Behike 56 that fell into my hands a few days before the debut dinner of the blockbuster range. As I explained in former blogs, the robust BHK Cohibas use a full leaf in the blend of medio tiempo, which is stronger than seco but not as strong as ligero. In any case, the full leaf of medio tiempo delivers loads of richness and flavor in all the Behike range.

“I will give you my Behike 56, if you score it 100 points like you did the Cohiba Siglo VI Gran Reserva last year,” he joked. I wouldn’t be drawn on the score. He gave me his cigar anyway.

“You don’t have to give it 100 points,” he added as he walked backed through the smoke to the head table. “Just 99.8 would be fine.” I am not sure he was joking completely.
I am not allowed to score young cigars in my columns or blogs, because the magazine does that in blind tastings. However, I don’t think that Basulto’s evaluation of the BHK 56 is that far off. I smoked another one during the dinner and it was even better than the one I smoked at lunch a few days before.

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The Mysteries of Cuban Cigars

Posted: Feb 26, 2010 2:27pm ET
I unraveled more of the mystery of the great new Cohiba Behikes that will be launched tonight at the gala dinner in Havana during the 12th Festival Habano. The attendees of the dinner will receive all three cigars. I can’t wait to try one of the smaller ones.

I smoked the BHK 56—the largest of the three—the other day and I couldn’t believe how rich and powerful it was. It just about blew my head off, but then came into its own at the end of smoking These three Cohiba Behikes seem like ones to age and enjoy for years ahead, like the great cigars of the early 1990s from the island.

I went to the Cohiba factory yesterday—El Laguito—and I spoke to a number of rollers who were making the various Behikes. They said that they were using a whole leaf of the medio tiempo, which is the hallmark of the three cigars. There is no super powerful ligero, or the strongest leaf, in the blend. Instead, the medio tiempo is used. Most cigars have half a leaf of ligero, or less, in their blend. No other cigars in Cuba are blended this way.

I had an interesting conversation with the sub-director of the La Corona factory yesterday about medio tiempo. He said that the leaf is right in between the seco and ligero strength of filler, sun-grown tobacco used for Cuban cigars. “It’s neither seco or ligero,” he said as we were standing in the color sorting room of his factory. If you remember, seco is medium strength, medium flavor and aroma for a blend. Meanwhile, the ligero is for the strength.

I confirmed with him that the medio tiempo is usually classified as the lightest ligero. The strongest filler tobacco in Cuba is usually put in three classifications. If I remember correctly, it’s number 14, 15 and 16. Thus, most medio tiempo would be classified as 14, or the lowest grade of ligero.

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The Renaissance of the Blockbuster Cuban Cigar

Posted: Feb 25, 2010 1:24pm ET
I finally got my lips around a Behike. And it almost blew my head off. A couple of bad-boy-chocolately BHK 56 cigars (6 1/2 inches by 56 ring gauge) came my way, and I tried one following a heavy lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in La Havana, the awesome chicken shop El Aljibe. Usually a powerful smoke is just the right thing after a mega-dose of juicy roasted chicken, black beans and rice. Maybe I should have had more black beans before? Or next time I will order a whole juice-dripping chicken for myself?

But I must admit that I felt a little stoned about one-quarter of the way into the BHK 56. I was lightheaded at first. I also must say that I like the big gauge of the smoke. It’s got to be one of the biggest Habanos going. It’s bigger than the Cohiba Siglo VI, which is one of my all-time favorites coming out of Havana. In fact, I lit a VI up against the new bad-boy BHK, and at the end of the two smokes, it was the BHK 56 that won.

“This is a smoke for the professional,” said someone from Habanos S.A., who took part in developing the amazing smoke. Apparently, a panel of professionals in the tobacco sector on the island worked for months developing the blend of the new line extension of Cuba’s most prestigious brand.

The three Behikes underline how Cohiba is the super brand for Cuba. No smoker can say that the yellow, black and white colored band is just a status symbol now. It truly is “the selection of the selection” as the late Avelino Lara, a former manager of the Cohiba factory, told me in the early 1990s.

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The Cuban Cigar Scene

Posted: Feb 24, 2010 10:01am ET
Most of the participants of the 12th Festival Habano went to the Pinar del Río to see tobacco plantations yesterday, but I stayed in Havana to write a blog and check out the cigar scene. Plenty of good boxes in shops. And loads of people were hanging out and smoking.

I went into one of my favorite cigar shops in old Havana, the Hostal Conde de Villanueva, and I could barely find my way through the tiny shop! It was like someone had been running a smoke machine in the place.

I said hello to a Canadian couple that was at last night’s Chuco Valdés gig, which was extraordinary.  I didn’t catch their name but they were from Calgary and were totally digging the experience. “I have been smoking about eight cigars a day while I have been here,” said the husband with a smile. His wife was smiling and happy that her husband had been puffing on so many great Habanos. (Where do you get one of those?)

Ran into some Germans I knew who showed me one of the new Cohiba Behikes: BHK 56 (6 1/2 inches long by 56 ring gauge). The cigar looked amazing, with a darker and oily wrapper. It smelled like honey and chocolate. It’s obviously made with fabulous tobacco. I was hoping he would let me smoke it. “I would have to kill you if I told you were I got the cigar,” the German said. I decided not to ask him if I could have the smoke as a regalo, or present.

I keep on thinking back a few years ago when Habanos was considering Behike as a stand-alone brand. Now it is the rock star line extension for Cohiba. Funny world!

I am now hearing that the new Behikes (check out my blog from Monday for the skinny on them) are going to be 40 percent more than in price than the normal high end Cohibas. That sounds scary. I spoke to a European cigar merchant and he didn’t expect to be selling many. Who cares? I can’t wait to smoke them on Friday night at the gala dinner.
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Good Start in La Habana

Posted: Feb 23, 2010 1:24pm ET
Piano jazz legend Chucho Valdés blew me away at the opening night of the 12th Festival Habano at the Gran Teatro de la Habana. The only bad news was that we couldn’t smoke anything. There are limits for smokers even in Havana!

The big man from Havana is a maestro on the piano and is able to master anything from classic to fusion jazz. I loved his piece “Basema Mucho” with Portuguese singer Mariza. He also played a number of songs with Brazilian composer Ivan Lins, who admitted to the crowd of about 800 that “he was a big consumer of Cuban cigars.”

If only I could have smoked a cigar during the gig. I am sure Chucho and Ivan felt the same way, because they love puffing on Cohibas.

Apparently a lot of Chucho’s music last night came from his new album: “Chucho’s Steps.” It’s real Latin fusion, with edgy intensity to it. He played with a new band called Afro-Cuban Messengers. “The idea about the concert has a lot to do with the perspective of my new concept, I mean, adding two brass instruments to the band, plus percussionist Dreisser Durruti, a guy who knows the African drums pretty well, let alone he can sing and dance,” he told Habanos S.A., the organizers of the event and global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars, in an interview for its in house newsletter.

Prior to the show, talking heads from Habanos told participants what to expect in this year’s five-day event. I wrote about the key new cigars for this year in yesterday’s blog. There was talk of also debuting the new Edición Limitadas as well. I am sure some of you have seen postings on the Internet of the expected trio: Montecristo Grand Edmundo, measuring 5 7/8 inches by 52 ring gauge; Partagas Serie D Especial, 5 1/2 by 50; and Trinidad Short Robusto T, 4 inches by 50. Apparently, they are not coming in boxes of 25 anymore, but simply 10s, or 12s with the Trinidad.
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Going to The Habanos Festival

Posted: Feb 22, 2010 3:48pm ET
I am arriving in La Habana this afternoon in time for the opening event of the 12th Festival Habano. Not only will I get my first glimpse of the new line-extension of Cohiba—the three Cohiba Behike cigars—but also the piano jazz legend Chucho Valdés will be providing the entertainment at the Gran Teatro de la Habana. Chucho is an awesome jazzman.

I heard the Behikes are going to be very expensive. I don’t think you are going to get much change back with one hundred bucks per smoke, but we will see. They are supposed to be 30 percent more expensive than the normal Cohiba line.

The new Cohibas will be made in limited quantities, which normally means a minimum of 5,000 boxes in Cuba. They are rolled exclusively at the Cohiba mother factory, El Laguito. What’s supposedly special about this line is that the blend of tobacco includes a large percentage of tobacco from the medio tiempo of the plants grown on farms near the towns of San Juan y Martínez and San Luis. These are upper primings, thus they should be stronger and more flavorful cigars. I would guess that the new Behikes are going to be along the lines in flavor as the Cohiba Reserva, which I think is a perfect smoke.

The three sizes are named with numbers, each referring to its ring gague. The BHK 52 is 4 11/16 inches long by 52 ring; BHK 54 is 5 2/3 inches by 54; and BHK 56 is 6 1/2 by 56. The cigars come in lacquered boxes of ten.

The five-day festival is always a great time. It’s full of events, seminars, cocktails, visits to plantations and factories and well as the usual schmoozing, which is probably the most important reason to go. It’s become the Woodstock or Cochella Music Festival for Cuban cigars. If you are into Habanos, you have got to go. And it’s in Havana no less.

I am particularly interested in what the Cubans have to say about their new cigar that is being headlined as “a special tribute to womankind.” It’s something that is called a “Wide Churchill,” and it’s being produced under the Romeo y Julieta band.  The cigar is a thick 55-ring gauge by 5 1/8 inches. How it is a tribute to woman, your guess is as good as mine. I didn’t think women like things that thick?
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The Last Bottle?

Posted: Feb 11, 2010 9:53am ET
What do you smoke with the last bottle of wine on Earth? I am not talking about the last bottle—it is not Armageddon yet. Nor do I think it will come any time soon, despite all the predictions from the freaks out there.

But I was in London a few weeks ago and some great friends of mine decided to organize a mega-blowout guys dinner. The key wines for the dinner were a small range of extraordinary 1989 Bordeaux, including the legendary oh-my-God-100-pointers Petrus and Haut-Brion as well as Lafite and Montrose. The Dom Perignon 1996 (one of the best ever DPs) as well as a mag of 2002 Jean-Noël Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets were going to be incredible.  So, the line up suggested a very special night to remember.

What could I possibly bring to complement what my good friends were laying on? I am a poor scribe. Besides, I have very little wine left in England—my ex-wife saw to that in our divorce when she sold my collection at Sotheby’s. But I still have about five cases of various bottles stashed in the cellar of a wine merchant buddy. So I went through a case of vintage Port and I found a dusty stout bottle with the roughly painted words “Niepoort 1927.” Yes, the legendary vintage of 1927. I didn’t even remember I had one.

Photo by James Suckling

I remember speaking to the owner of Niepoort a few months ago and he said that they didn’t have any 1927 in his Port house’s cellars. So, I believe I had the last bottle on Earth. The production of Niepoort in 1927 was tiny, and nobody would still have any now. It’s already almost impossible to find the big name 1927s like Fonseca, Taylor, or Graham.

I looked at the bottle and thought how those few ounces of sweet nectar would be gone forever when I drank them with my friends. But what the hell? That’s what they are there for. As I wrote in a blog in our sister publication, Wine Spectator, great old bottles shouldn’t be kept like relics in a museum. They are made to be drunk with friends and family. They are time machines that when you drink them they take you back to places and moments that you have never experienced.
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Back in the Land of the Free

Posted: Jan 12, 2010 9:41am ET
Getting caught with two Cuban cigars crossing the border between California and Mexico can really upset officers of U.S. Customs and Border Protection—among other things. I found out the hard way last weekend on a road trip to Baja California with some friends.

I organized a quick trip down to the wine region of Baja, which is about an hour’s drive east of the coastal town of Ensenada. I bought a barrel of old vine Grenache in September 2008 with three friends, so I wanted to go down and get my share of the gorgeous red wine.

The wine is called El Sueno, or “the dream.” But my El Sueno turned into la pesadilla—the nightmare. I never thought I would get into so much trouble over five cases of red wine.

I was traveling with a buddy from high school and my nephew, and we decided to travel back to Southern California through the border crossing of Tecate after the 24-hour trip to a number of wineries.

The major checkpoint in Tijuana is too busy on Sundays due to the huge traffic of Mexicans traveling back to work in the states following visits to family. Sometimes the crossing can take four or five hours. So we opted for Tecate, and it was only about an hour’s drive from the town of Porvenir, where we were staying in the Valle de Guadalupe.

Once we were at the border, it only took about 10 minutes of waiting to reach the first CBP officer. She was friendly and business like. She said I could only bring into California one liter of wine. I explained to her that I was not a resident of California. So according to state law, I could bring into the state up to five cases, or 60 liters, of wine for personal consumption.

I had documents from the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control proving my point. I showed her the documents and she sent me through to the secondary inspection area.

The people working in this area were definitely not friendly. They told us to “wait in our vehicles,” which we did for about 45 minutes before anyone spoke to us. Finally, an imposing CBP officer arrived at the car and proceeded to tell me the same information about one-liter limits. I responded with my explanation as well as the documents from the ABC.
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A Sad Day for Dining

Posted: Jan 8, 2010 2:19pm ET
What was one of the last great cigar-gastronomic experiences in the world is over. La Guarida, arguably the best restaurant in Havana, closed its door for good in December. Its owner cited the difficulty of the current economic climate as the main reason.

“It was just too difficult to keep La Guarida going,” said Enrique Nunez, the owner of the third floor restaurant in Central Havana on Calle Concordia. “It didn’t make sense anymore.”

La Guarida was first known as the location for the 1995 Oscar-nominated Cuban film, Fresa y Chocolate. Just about the same time Nunez took over the space in the crumbling town house and started his famous private restaurant, which the Cubans call in general a paladar. The word comes from a Brazilian sitcom popular on Cuban television.

As I wrote a few years back in a report for the magazine, paladars by law can seat only 12 people, because the government does not want competition with its tourist restaurants. These small restaurants sprouted up like weeds in the mid-1990s when the Cuban economy was struggling and the owners hoped to make a few dollars to supplement their tiny incomes. At one point, Havana alone had close to 1,000 paladars.

Today, the number has shrunk to a few dozen or so. Most of the would-be restaurateurs found the work too difficult and the government regulation and taxes too stifling. Moreover, many of them deserved to be out of business, because they offered poor and sometimes unhygienic food. Stories of tourists whose holidays were ruined by bad stomachs following a meal are well known among those who frequent paladars. Also, taxi drivers often dictate which paladars are popular since they receive a kickback from the owner.

Paladars are completely different from the large restaurants designed for tourists that are run by the government or hotels, which are usually overpriced and offer dull food. Paladars are tiny, family-run establishments that can consist of anything from a handful of tables in the dining room patio of a family's 1950s-era Miami Deco house in the quiet neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, to a cluster of round wrought-iron tables in the garden of a manor house in the posh area of Miramar. These places are fun, welcoming and satisfying.
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Christmas Past

Posted: Dec 30, 2009 3:10pm ET
You might think that I am slightly old fashioned at times but I think that a photo is worth a thousand words in some cases. Please check out my photo of my Christmas Eve smoke while staying at my father¹s house in North County San Diego. Granted, it was not as cold as it was in Europe (about 25 Fahrenheit at my house in Tuscany), but it was cold enough to be wearing a thick coat while smoking my Padrón Anniversary 1964 outside on his terrace.

I have written this so many times. But this really sucks. I hate smoking outside and freezing my ass off. It really takes the pleasure out of the experience. It¹s sort of like having sex in the snow. It can be pleasurable, but you freeze your ass off.

I just want to write yet another blog in sympathy for all of you who had similar smoking experiences this Christmas. What ever happened to the true yuletide spirit? Does this only apply to non-smokers? What a treat it would be to have a nice smoke with family in front of a roaring fire during Christmas. Only in my dreams.

I am curious what cigars you were smoking this Christmas. I imagine most of you smoked short, fat cigars. I have robustos and dalias in my travel humidor. I think that the double corona, or a big torpedo, is the right smoke for the holidays. They are cigars to relax with, and take your time with. And the holidays should have plenty of those moments.

I remember when I was married and used to spend my Christmas in England with my ex-wife's family. They had a big house in Bath, and it was cold, but each room had a roaring fire going each day. My father-in-law was a pipe smoker, and he enjoyed the occasional cigar. I always smoked large cigars there. They were the right smokes after a big meal. I also enjoyed a Punch Double Corona following a brisk afternoon walk in the English countryside.
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