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James Suckling

A Christmas Tale

Posted: Dec 23, 2009 11:25am ET
I am ready for Christmas. I thought that I should leave a nice Cuban smoke for Father Christmas when he comes down the chimney on the 25th in San Diego instead of the normal milk and cookies, which my dear parents taught me to do at a very early age. I admit that the milk and cookies were changed to a good glass of vintage Port about two decades ago while living in London. But the idea is essentially the same.

I am just wondering where in the world will dear old Saint Nick smoke his prized gift from yours truly? You know that the People’s Republic of California is about as anti-smoking as you can get—at least with tobacco products! If only someone would come up with a bogus reason to smoke cigars for health purposes. I would be more than willing to register my name with the FBI, or whatever police organization it would take to allow the pleasure of smoking a great cigar in my home state.

I am probably already in their computers anyway for bootlegging Habanos into the land of the free. I am sure that that there are folks in Maryland who have a computer file on me for being in Cuba on a regular basis for the last two decades. But let’s think about something a little more festive with Christmas upon us.

I was passing by the cigar shop in the Duty Free of Heathrow Terminal 3 before flying to Los Angeles on my Virgin Atlantic flight. I was eyeing a cedar box of 10 Montecristo Petit Edmundos. They were 82 quid (about $130). I thought that was not too much to spend, considering one was going to the great man of Christmas. Santa has been giving me presents on Christmas Day for almost a half a century. Man. I figured it was about time I returned the favor.

I was reaching out for the box on the shelf when I noticed something else below and off to the left. It was a cedar cabinet of 10 Montecristo D Edición Limitada 2005. What? How could these smokes still be lying around unsold? Were they rejects from Hunters & Frankau, the U.K. Cuban cigar importer? Were they cigars that the head of the company, Jemma Freeman, first wanted to smoke but then had second thoughts and dumped them in Duty Free?
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Big Smokes: See You There

Posted: Nov 11, 2009 2:10pm ET
Is there any sense in bringing cigars to The Big Smoke? I asked myself this question again and again as I packed my bags to fly to Los Angeles and then Las Vegas from my house in Italy. The event is this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There are going to be so many cigars, and many awesome ones at that.

I still threw in a number of smokes from the forbidden island that I thought a few buddies might enjoy smoking. There's nothing better than exchanging smokes with fellow editors, or hermanos, back stateside. I placed in my travel humidor a handful of Montecristo Petit Edmundos, Trinidad Robusto Rs, Montecristo Open Eagles, and H. Upmann Edición Limitada Magnum 48s. On second thought, maybe I won't share any and smoke them all myself!

You have heard me rap on about the new Trinidad. That¹s my go-to smoke. And the Montecristo Open torpedo is a hell of a smoke too. I really thought that I wasn't going to like the market-driven cigar, which was supposed to attract a new generation of smokers—blah, blah, blah. But the line is actually really good. It seems that the larger the smoke the better the flavor in the four-cigar range. The Limitada is the bomba in a small, spicy Habanos. Petit Edmundos estan rico.

I try not to smoke Cubans during the Big Smoke. It seems uncool, even showy. And what's the use? There are so many great smokes to try. If you are going, let me know what you are going to smoke, or if there is a special smoke I should try. See you all there.
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Breaking through Customs in Havana

Posted: Oct 22, 2009 10:56am ET
Cuban customs really gets to me. It’s not that the agents at Jose Martí Airport in La Habana are particularly unpleasant, or even aggressive, but they make me nervous. I begin getting edgy a few days before I have to leave the island, and by the time I get to the airport, my right eye is already twitching. My palms get sweaty. And I am not even doing anything illegal, or dicey.

But I keep on thinking about the film “Midnight Express.”  I keep on thinking about that guy busted in Istanbul with heroin taped around his torso, and all the bad crap that happened to him afterwards. Plus, I think about how there are no cigars in prison, not even in Cuba. It’s really stupid that I feel this way. Maybe I should talk to my therapist? 

(Unfortunately, I don’t have one anymore. She didn’t like cigars, so I had to get rid of her. I explained to her that a cigar is not just a cigar…but this is for a later blog.)

When I made it to Cuban customs I had two boxes of the absolutely amazing, perfect quality Cohiba Gran Reservas and a box of 1998 Trinidad Fundadores. In addition, I had three tiny bronze sculptures from one of Cuba’s greatest artists, Yoane Capote. I had export documents for the art, and I had receipts for the Cohibas. I didn’t have crap for the Trinis. But that didn’t matter.

I was holding a copy of the new three-page legislation for taking cigars out of Cuba. In fact, I am looking at it now as I write this. It’s Resolution No. 323-2009. It went into effect about two weeks ago.

This is what it says:
• If you are leaving the island, you have to declare if you are carrying smokes—both in carry-on luggage and checked-in bags.
• If you have have up to 20 cigars, you don’t have to present customs with any type of document. Nada, hermanos y hermanas!
• If you have up to 50 cigars, you can also leave without showing documents, so long as the cigars are in an unopened box (or boxes) with all the right seals and holograms.
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Spice of Life in Cuban Cigars

Posted: Oct 16, 2009 12:03pm ET
Sometimes I get the idea that people think Cubans are not very savvy with their marketing and product development and that they spend most of their time just sitting around, reading the national newspaper, Gramma, and contemplating life. They think that the Cuban cigar industry is in some sort of time warp.

This couldn't be farther from the truth. The Cuban cigar industry, especially with the help of their Spanish partner in Altadis S.A. in Madrid, is doing just fine, in my opinion.

I continue to be surprised with the latest releases from Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing organization for Cuban cigars in Havana. Take a look at the new release for duty-free shops in airports that is hitting the market in a few weeks. How cool is this? Twenty-five short Partagas Torpedos in a black ceramic jar. Where do I buy one? It's called the Partagas Serie P No. 1. Only 4,000 jars were produced. I don't know the price, but they shouldn't be stupidly priced.

Or how about the new tubes for the Trinidad Robusto T? I have written this before, but the Robusto T is one of my go-to cigars now. I love the rich and beautiful flavors, but they remain balanced and refined. I can't think of a better tube to put in my jacket pocket for a night out.

The packaging for the new Cohiba Gran Reserva is certainly nothing to turn your nose up at. I still believe it's a perfect smoke. But looking at the dark wood case, beautiful bands and sub-bands for the smoke, they say class.

Anyway, I am always looking forward to the latest release from Habanos. It keeps smokers on their toes and adds to the spice of life that we are all seeking.
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The Fact of the Matter

Posted: Oct 14, 2009 9:40am ET
People in the Cuban cigar industry were not pleased with recent reports in the foreign press on the reduction of this year’s tobacco plantings. Among others, Reuters reported that the plantings of tobacco on the island was being cut by 30 percent, which would mean a 16 percent reduction in the tobacco harvest. The drop was attributed to falling sales of Cuban cigars in the global market.

“They got it all wrong,” said one cigar merchant in Havana. “The reduction is going to affect the sales of tobacco in bales, mostly for cigarettes. It has nothing to do with cigars.”

Added Ana Lopez, head of marketing for Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing organization for Cuban cigars: “Cigars only represent about 3 percent of the total tobacco crop on the island. The reduction in the tobacco harvest this year shouldn’t affect cigars.”

I didn’t speak to anyone who had the exact figures of how much of a reduction in tobacco planting there would be in Pinar del Rió, the key tobacco-growing region for Cuba’s premium cigars. I doubt any reduction will come with the vegas finas, the best tobacco plantations on the island. As one Cuban cigar man told me, “We need the tobacco for our reserves. As you know, cigars are a blend of different tobaccos from different years, so we need to collect and age the tobacco.”

I don’t understand the stigma about admitting that cigar sales are on the decline. It’s obvious that Cuban cigar sales are falling. The global economy is in worse shape this year than last, and in 2008 Cubans sold fewer cigars than in 2007. As I already reported, last year’s cigar exports revenues were down to $390 million from $402 million, but exports were still larger than in 2005 and 2006. Sell less but pay more seems to be the idea for Cuban cigars at the moment. But price reductions may come if they need to generate more sales. Who knows?

I have heard that warehouses in Havana are full of cigars. And that pressure has been put on global distributors to step in and buy, even if their markets are slow. But shipments of cigars from the island are not the key factor in all this. Depletions, or sales to consumers, are what really count, and apparently they are picking up a little. “We have to see what happens this autumn,” said a friend at Habanos. “But we feel positive. The last quarter of the year is always better for us.”
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Back in the Smoke in Cuba

Posted: Oct 12, 2009 8:23pm ET
It’s good to be back in Havana. It’s been too long. I haven’t been back since early March, but I am right back into the smoke.

I had an interesting meeting with the new head of marketing for Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing organization for Cuban cigars. Ana Lopez, just returned from a number of years in London working with the U.K. agent for Cuban cigars, Hunters & Frankau. Ana is a very switched on lady. Gonzalo Fernández de Navarrete and Jose Antonio Candia, the dynamic marketing duo from Habanos, were also there. We covered a lot of ground.

As always, some of the coolest conversations came out after the cigars were fired up. We smoked a number of Cuba's new 2009 Edición Limitadas. I smoked the Bolivar Petit Belicoso as well as a Romeo y Julieta Duke. I prefer the former. For a baby torpedo, the Bolivar is packed to the wrapper with rich and flavorful tobacco. It has so much to offer in a small smoke. I gave it 93 points, non blind.

I was hanging in the cigar shop at the Meliá Habana after lunch with Gonzo and J.A., and we were talking about tasting cigars, and how young cigars can taste different than slightly older ones—at least with Habanos. The two hombres often are on tasting panels for new cigars coming out of the various export factories including some of the regional smokes as well as the Limitadas and new launches such as the Montecisto Open.

Gonzo said that Habanos has have found that cigars fresh off the benches of the factories often have a slight bitterness due to the youth of the volado in the blend. I have never heard this, and I find it fascinating.

I have always been under the impression that volado doesn’t really contribute much to the character of a cigar. It’s used more for combustion. In other words, it keeps the cigar smoking, or burning.

If you remember, the filler of a Cuban cigar has three types of tobacco: volado, seco, and ligero. I had always thought that the later two are the key components in the flavor and character of a smoke—the ligero in particular because it is the strongest type of tobacco.
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The Legend Lives

Posted: Sep 28, 2009 10:13am ET
I smoked one of the greatest cigars ever produced on earth last night: the Dunhill Cabinetta. The robusto was produced in 1989 and was one of the last Dunhills to be made on the island before the Cubans dumped the British company and Davidoff.

I have written about this before, but the Cubans wanted to control all their trademarks, or brands; so they told Dunhilll and Davidoff that they would no longer make their smokes. Davidoff came up with some story about how the cigars were no longer good quality, so they decided to move the production to the Dominican Republic. Not true. Dunhill just kept its mouth shut in a polite British manner.

I think that the Dunhill Cabinettas, which came in a cedar cabinet box of 25 smokes with a yellow ribbon around the bundle and unique cream and brick red bands, were made at the Partagas factory. But I was never able to confirm this. I remember years ago being at the factory and David Tang, Hong Kong promoter and part owner of Pacific Cigars, the Far East distributor of Habanos, was trying to elbow a few more boxes from the head of Partagas. I think he succeeded. "It¹s my favorite cigar," he said smugly at the time to the manager. "So I need as many boxes as possible."

I think David ran out a long time ago and now he bums Cabinettas off of one of the greatest cigar collectors of all time, Peter Lam of Hong Kong. He and David do some business together like high-end restaurants in Hong Kong and London. Peter is one of Hong Kong's top businessmen. He is also one of China's most important film producers. Plus, he's a good friend.

Anyway, Peter laid on the Cabinetta over the weekend after an amazing dinner that included a 100-point Jaboulet La Chapelle and 99-point Le Pin. Who says fabulous Chinese food doesn't go with great wines? So goooood.
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The Killer Cigar

Posted: Sep 22, 2009 9:20am ET
I have a drippy sinus this morning and my head doesn't fell all that well. I am a bit clammy and I can't breathe perfectly well. If I was passing through the airport, a health official might stop me. They might think it is swine flu, or some strange respiratory bug.

But it is the aftereffects of a very strong Cuban cigar that I smoked after a dinner at my friend's house in Hong Kong. My friend warned me. And now he simply says it is the effect of the killer cigar ­—a 1994 Ramon Allones Gigantes. The double corona was like a double-barreled shotgun to the head.

I haven't found a Cuban cigar like that in a long time. In fact, it was Habanos from about 1991 to 1995 that I remember being the most powerful. I still remember smoking a Bolivar Belicoso Fino in 1995 in London that made me dizzy. I had to put it down.

Honestly, I am not a great fan of such strong cigars. I like the better-balanced smokes. A great cigar is not about strength but harmony and balance.

I heard a story about an American who came to visit the tobacco grower Alejandro Robania at his plantation in Pinar del Río. The big man said that he wanted to taste the strongest cigar the veteran tobacco man could make with his family reserve of tobacco. So Alejandro made one with almost all ligero—the strongest filler tobacco.

Alejandro said he turned green after a few puffs and puked. The old man still laughs when he tells the story. "Stupid man," he chuckles. "The man was really crazy."

Maybe some people like getting stoned on cigars. But I can't say I do. I am going to take note next time my friend tells me "I have a special cigar for you," even if it's after a few bottles of great wine.
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Takin' Care of Business

Posted: Jun 25, 2009 1:28pm ET
I came across a couple of Montecristo Petit Edmundos a few weeks ago in one of my spare rooms at home. I am not sure where they came from but they were in a Ziplock bag. The three cigars were dry and needed to be rehumidified. So I stuck them in my Dunhill humidor at about 68 percent humidity and let them soften a little. (I used Humidipaks.)

About a week later, I was having dinner with a friend from Los Angeles, restaurateur David Haskell, who was hanging at my house for the week, and we decided to fire up the Petit Edmundos. From the moment I lit mine up, I knew that something was not right. I hate that!

The cigar was not the spicy, creamy Monte that I love. I know this smoke well. It gives plenty of milk chocolate, cream and light pepper character. The one I was smoking was harsh and tasteless.

“Cubans can be so inconsistent,” I thought to myself.

I was worried that David’s sucked too. But he was kicking back and enjoying the evening. He had a big smile on his face. (I was jealous!)

“Just my luck,” I thought. “Luck of the draw. I wonder what he would of thought if he got my smoke?”

So we decided to switch cigars. We were smoking outside after a barbeque in my courtyard. David’s PE was smoking like a dream. I gave it back to him. I didn’t want to ruin his night. Shame about mine.

The next day after lunch I decided to try the last PE in my humidor. I gave David a Partagas Serie D No. 4. His smoke again was a killer. Mine blew. It was harsh and flavorless, like a big fat cigarette.

I was not a happy camper. I stormed into my living room and took a closer look at my humidor. There were some Padróns and OpusX’s and a couple of Cubans. One was a big Montecristo A that had a slightly cracked wrapper. I grabbed it and smelled it. It smelled like paper and dry wood.

I remembered that the PEs had been laying ON the Montecristo A. So perhaps it had imparted its nasty, dry wood character into my lovely PEs. I immediately lit the A, and, sure enough, it was harsh and tasteless. I tried to smoke it for a few minutes but just couldn’t.
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Sometimes They Get it Right

Posted: May 22, 2009 9:44am ET
I hung out with a cigar buddy of mine in Chicago last week when I was in the Windy City for Wine Spectator¹s Grand Tour, a super wine tasting event with more than 240 excellent wines on pour.

So I sneaked in a smoke after lunch on the day of the evening tasting. And my friend brought a number of amazing Cuban smokes. ­ I have no idea how he got them—and I would not tell you even if I did!

He pulled out a double corona that looked like pure chocolate out of a Humidipak pouch. He said it was a cigar that was made for him in 2003 at the Casa del Habano at the Club Habana in Havana. A roller at the cigar shop rolled the smoke, which was made from three-year-old filler that the shop head, Enrique Mons, had selected from one of the Havana factories. I am not sure how legal that was, but the tobacco Mons had at the time smelled like coffee and chocolate when I saw it in a cupboard in his shop. He made me a bundle of coronas, his favorite size, and they still smoke like a dream.

Just to give you an idea of how good the smokes are, here is the smoking note for my bud¹s double corona: Smoking this is like eating chocolate pudding. It¹s so soft and flavorful yet balanced and fresh. It keeps the palate moist and clean. The flavors of tobacco and milk chocolate go on for minutes. 96 points, unblind.

I know lots of guys that get their cigars made in various shops in Havana. Some also get them from "chinchalles," ­ slang for small cigar makers who work from home ­ to make their smokes. They go on how the cigar makers make "the Cohiba blend" or the "Partagas Serie D 4" or even the "Behike." But that is a complete joke. First, those rollers don¹t get the best tobacco, and, second, the rollers don¹t know the blends. Of course, they can roll the size, or vitola, of a specific cigar, but they can¹t replicate the great Habanos we love.

But, now and again, they come up with a great smoke in itself, like the double corona my buddy, Captain Jack, gave me.
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