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James Suckling

Best Wishes for Mexico City

Posted: Apr 30, 2009 2:03pm ET
I don't envy anyone in Mexico City right now. It looks bad. I would be freaking out. I have a few friends there. One is the BBC correspondent Stephen Gibbs. I used to see him occasionally when he was based in Havana. I wish he was still there and not in DF! I have been following his work everyday online with BBC.

Cuba has banned all flights to and from Mexico at the moment. And I haven¹t heard for how long the suspension will be maintained. I was planning on
flying to Havana via Cancún on May 20 to check on the development of the new Edición Limitadas, but it looks doubtful now. Maybe things will change?

Max Gutmann, the importer for Cuban cigars for all of Mexico, is also stuck there. He says he's fine and just lying low in his house and smoking a few cigars everyday. Sounds good to me. May be the smoke will keep away the germs?

I spoke to another hermano of mine in DF ­ named Alan Becker. He is a land developer with a big project in Cancún called Nizuc. But he has been stuck in Mexico City and can't get out. He is taking consolation with his cigars. Check out the photo he sent me.

 



I asked him how he was doing, wondering if he was scared or worried. Here is what he answered:

"I'm not scared at all, just desperate since all the city feels like a ghost town," he wrote. "The restaurants and bars are closed. Streets are empty. It makes me wonder how many people spend their lives not enjoying cigars to avoid health problems, and they die from flu.

"On the other hand at these moments is when you think a lot about enjoying life and living it to the fullest," he added. "We are all so vulnerable.
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The Joys of Cost Cutting

Posted: Apr 16, 2009 2:23pm ET
I bought a 10-pack of Romeo y Julieta Short Churchills in the duty free store at Gatwick Airport in England the other day. It was like a half height normal cedar and paper box of 25 with 10 delicious RyJ robustos. I paid £86 for it, or about $125.

It was a gift for a friend in Basel who was nice enough to let me sleep on his couch during the Basel Watch Show. I am cutting back on expenses, but I needed to go to cover watches for the magazine. I don't think any of us are buying many watches at the moment! But watches are still guys' eye candy. They are to guys what jewelry is to women!

Anyway, I love 10 packs for cigars. They are a cool gift, and I think more cigar makers should do them. I remember Habanos SA, the global distribution and marketing organization for Cuban cigars, recently said that boxes and
cabinets still account for 70 percent of all cigars sold but that 10, 5 and 3 packs are on the rise as well as tubos. In fact, Habanos is putting loads of cigars in tubes at the moment. Even the Bolivar Royal Corona (BRC), which is a go-to robusto, is now available in aluminum tube.

The RyJ Short Churchill is more mild compared to the BRC. It's fresh and clean. It¹s just what my buddy from Basel likes. If I didn't have to sleep on his sofa, I might have bought him a normal box!
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The Smoking Respite from a Long Evening of Food and Wine

Posted: Mar 13, 2009 4:43pm ET
I smoked a 2003 Bolivar Belicoso from a cedar cabinet last night with some friends following a long dinner of lots of food and wine at my house in Tuscany. The wines included a bottle of 1995 Mouton-Rothschild and a 1988 Léoville Las Cases, not to mention a number of 1997 Tuscans. The food was rich and heavy with lots of hearty pieces of grilled rabbit, sautéed spinach and potatoes roasted in fresh olive oil.

The dessert of coffee and cream ice cream from my local gelateria was put on the table and I couldn't resist. I pulled the cigars out and four of us cut them and fired them up. They were marvelous smokes showing a rich China tea, tobacco, and cedar character in aroma as well as flavor. The torpedo shaped smokes were elegant and beautiful to look at as well as to hold in your hand or put in your mouth. 91 points, unblind.

But at the same time, I realized that I was drinking a lot less at the end of the meal. The non-smokers were really knocking it back. I was just chilling with my cigar. And I find that I do that more and more, especially at home.

And this morning, my body and mind thanked me for it. No hangover.
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Hollow Victory for Change in Cuban Travel

Posted: Mar 11, 2009 4:03pm ET
I am no expert on legislation in Congress because it has been a long, long time since I have looked closely at various bills in pure form, but I took the time this afternoon to review online H.R. 1105— the $410 billion omnibus spending bill passed yesterday in the U.S. Senate. Now I remember why I felt like I was wasting a lot of time when I was an intern at Scripps League Washington Bureau for a group of newspapers in the early 1980s!

As you probably know, the bill includes a section on travel to Cuba, and the press today has been full of stories on how it has eased travel restrictions that the Bush administration put into place in 2004. It also authorizes "by general license for travel to, from, or within Cuba for the marketing and sale of agricultural and medical goods pursuant to the provisions of this title."

In other words, if you are traveling to Cuba to sell agricultural or medical goods you don't have to apply for a license, which in the past was normally turned down. You can travel to Cuba when and as often as you like, just like me and other (real) journalists, diplomats or others who fall under the parameters of the general travel license of the Treasury Department. Just be prepared to prove to the U.S. government that you were there on medical or agricultural business. I get hassled all the time proving I am a full-time journalist when I am traveling between the United States and Cuba.

This is my interpretation of the bill. But don't hold it as gospel.

The bill also includes provisions that say that "none of the funds made available in this Act may be used to administer, implement, or enforce the amendments made to section 515.560 and section 515.561 of title 31, Code of Federal Regulations, related to travel to visit relatives in Cuba, that were published in the Federal Register on
June 16, 2004."

If I am right, it means ­ that Cuban Americans can travel to Cuba as often as they want and send as much money as they want, and even though it still may be breaking the law, they won't necessarily be held liable for their actions.
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Waking up with a Smile in the Morning

Posted: Mar 4, 2009 1:36pm ET
I don't want to smoke a cigar today. I woke up this morning with a smile on my face. No it wasn't what you think! It was because I smoked another Cohiba Siglo VI Gran Reserva last night with some friends at the Paila restaurant in Havana.

I lit up the canonazo —the name the factory workers use—the moment I sat down at in the small, private outdoor restaurant. It measures 52 ring gauge by 5 7/8 inches. And I was in heaven the moment I cut the cigar and took a draw. Even cold it tasted good with a fresh herb, nut and coffee bean character when I drew. Once on fire, it delivered spice, coffee, milk chocolate, floral, and cedar notes. It kept on changing every moment. And the finish was so long, clean and fresh. 100 points, unblind.

You may not want to believe it. But it is a perfect cigar. I can't think of another young cigar in my life that has delivered such complex, multi-layered character with such length and finesse. The subtle flavors last for minutes on the palate.



I gave my other Gran Reserva to a friend at the dinner. The two cigars were in a small lacquered box from the Habanos Festival Gala Dinner on Friday. The cigar blew my friend away. This is a guy who smokes 1998 Trinidads like Marlboros and has a humidor full of aged smokes. He doesn¹t like big gauge cigars either. But he was in love with the Gran Reserva. "James, it's so complex," he said. "I can't believe it."

I only wish I had had a few others to hand around the table to my friends, including jazz piano legend Ernan Lopez-Nussa, his wife and writer Wendy Guerra; Enrique Nunez, owner of the restaurant La Guarida, Yoan Capote, one of Cuba's greatest young artists; and ballet guru Heriberto Cabeza. They had to "suffer" through their "normal" Cohiba Siglo VIs!
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Ojalá

Posted: Mar 3, 2009 12:24pm ET
I was not surprised to see a change in Raúl Castro’s government yesterday. I think that Castro wants to have people he feels that can really trust as he creates a new future for his country 50 years after the Revolution. Some of the people moved from key positions were closer to his brother than him.

Just what that future is for Cuba, nobody really knows at this time. It will certainly be different than before.

I still have good feelings about what’s ahead between the United States and Cuba. I invited statesman Ricardo Alarcón to dinner last Saturday with author Miguel Barnet and some other friends. And I was happy both men were so upbeat about the situation with America and our new government.

Alarcón is the president of Cuba’s National Assembly of the People’s Power. The 70-year-old is one of the most public and outspoken individuals in the Cuban government and a close confident of the Castro brothers. He also served as Cuba’s ambassador to the United Nations for 12 years, and he was Minster of Foreign Affairs. He is also a keen cigar smoker. I seldom see him without a Cohiba Lancero in his hand.

In any case, Alarcón was sure that President Obama would reinstate more relaxed travel restrictions for Cuban Americans and other licensed travelers as well as unrestricted remittances to the island and credit terms for sales of American agricultural products. It was simply putting policies back in place that the Clinton administration had rightfully established before the first term of George W. Bush, Alarcón argued.

The big question was what Obama will do about travel for other Americans. How can Cuban Americans be allowed to go without any problems while others can’t? That’s unfair—especially in America. So it’s going to have to change.

This, I told him, will be the impetus to allow all Americans to go to the island when and how we choose. Obviously, the Cubans will regulate our travel to their country with visas, airline regulations and other methods. But the U.S. government will not wrongfully restrict our travel.
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Perfect Cigar, Perfect Night

Posted: Mar 2, 2009 4:06pm ET
I smoked the greatest young cigar in my life on Friday night – the Cohiba Siglo VI Gran Reserva. I was spellbound by the cigar’s amazing richness yet beautiful elegance and finesse. This is a cigar that fills your mouth with light coffee, toasted nuts, flowers and aged tobacco, yet it’s fresh and clean and leaves your mouth with a clean and vibrant finish. It’s the perfect smoke—100 points, unblind.

Some of my unbridled enthusiasm for the special Cohiba had to be the euphoric feeling of being at this year’s Gala Dinner on Friday that ended five days of the XI Festival Habano. It was the best festival yet, with the introduction of other excellent cigars besides the Siglo VI Gran Reserva (the Trinidad Robusto T, in particular) and a number of great parties, tastings and factory visits.

The limited production Siglo VI, which was officially launched on Friday night, is made with five-year old tobacco and comes in numbered boxes of 15 smokes. Only 5,000 boxes (for a total of 75,000 cigars) were produced at El Laguito, according Habanos, the marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars. (I originally thought it was made at Partagas!) It is supposed to retail for close to $1,000 a box, depending on the market.

I have to admit (I hope my girlfriend is not reading this) that I smoked way too much that night in Havana. Participants were given the following Cohibas: Siglo I, Siglo II, Maduro 5 Genios and the Gran Reserva. I thought it was my journalistic duty to smoke them all! They were smoked during a four-course meal and a nice lineup of wines that included a well-structured 2005 Carignan, Syrah and Merlot blend named Cordilleria for Bodegas Torres and a 2005 Tempranillo and Merlot from XdT in Rioja. The latter is produced by the family of Gonzalo Navarette, who is in the marketing department of Habanos.

The entertainment was equally delicious with modern dance, fusion Flamemico, and jazz, not to mention the gorgeous models serving cigars.
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Reserved Cigars

Posted: Feb 27, 2009 1:34pm ET
I had the chance to unofficially smoke the Cohiba Gran Reserva last night during a private dinner at La Guarida restaurant in Centro Havana, and I almost fell out of my chair. I was really blown away by the richness and power of the smoke. It had such great length with coffee, tobacco and dark chocolate character that filled the mouth. It had the classic freshness of the Cohiba brand as well.

I can’t wait to smoke it again tonight at the Gala dinner at the Festival Habano. I will save my final judgment until tomorrow. But this could be the perfect young cigar. I heard that it comes in a special box of 15 cigars, and they will sell for close to $50 to $60 a cigar.

As I have already written, the special Cohiba is the same vitola as the Cohiba Siglo VI. It’s called the canonazo in the factories, and it measures 52 ring gauge by 5 7/8 inches. The regular production Siglo VI is my favorite cigar made on the island. It’s no accident that I chose the Siglo VI as my prize when I won the Habanos Man of the Year award a couple of years back.

The Gran Reserva was under heavy lock and key a few weeks ago at the Partagas factory in Old Havana, where it was made. This is, indeed, a rare smoke. I assume that the blend of tobacco for the cigar was perfected in the blending room of Cohiba’s mother factory at El Laguito before the production was initiated at Partagas. Check out my video on what it looks like inside.



Last night I also happened to smoke a Montecristo No. 4 Reserva (released in 2007), and I was impressed with how much better the cigar was from a year ago. It was very spicy with an herbal and light pepper character. I remember being slightly underwhelmed with the smoke a couple of years ago, but it is outstanding now. The big problem is the price—it’s very expensive at about $600 to $800 for a box of 20 smokes, depending on the market.
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My or Your Habano?

Posted: Feb 26, 2009 3:53pm ET
I might have found my new cigar for this year: Trinidad Robusto T. What an awesome smoke. I love the rich and spicy character with a fresh, clean and floral undertone. It has all the Trinidad style that I like and more. I think it’s a 93-point smoke, non blind.

I have always been crazy for the Trinidad Fundadores as well as the first Trinidads that were only available as gifts from Fidel Castro. The latter are called Trinidad Diplomaticos, and they are the same size as the Cohiba Lanceros. The commercial Trinidads were first sold in 1997, and although they are the same length at 7 inches, the Fundadores are slightly thicker than the Diplomaticos at 40 ring gauge instead of 38.

I smoked my first Trinidad Robusto T last night during the Trinidad Night at the Havana Libre hotel to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the brand. (And I just had one with lunch before writing this blog.) The main banquet hall of the late 1950s hotel, which used to be the Hilton, was packed with people. There must have been about 500 partygoers. I sat next to David Soul, better know as Hutch in the television series "Starsky and Hutch." He was a chilled dude and a big lover of Cuba. He is working on a play about Ernest Hemingway and comes regularly to the island from England, where he lives.

The dinner last was another in a string of parties during this week’s XI Festival Habano. The big gala dinner is tomorrow night when the Cohiba Gran Reserva is unveiled. The canonazo, the factory name for the new Cohiba, is made from five-year-old tobacco and limited production. The filler is all from the 2003 harvest. I have not tried it yet (officially or unofficially), but a few friends have and they say it is spectacular. Can’t wait to smoke one tomorrow.

I was over this morning at El Laguito, the mother factory for Cohiba. It was open for the festival for all attendees. I was glad I got there early. It looked like JFK on a Friday evening about an hour after opening this morning. Everything looked in order. The 100 or so rollers were busy at work. The factory made about 2.5 million cigars last year, or about 20 percent of all Cohibas produced. The rest of the production is spread out mostly between the Partagas and H. Upmann factories in Havana.
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Young Is Beautiful

Posted: Feb 25, 2009 4:51pm ET
I am not sure what people learned yesterday in a cigar tasting of new production 8-9-8 Partagas versus 8-9-8 Partagas from 1998. The 10-year-old cigar was smoked first during the tasting in a back room of the Partagas Factory in downtown Havana, across from the capital building that is a twin to our own in Washington D.C. London-based cigar aficionado Alex Iapichino was the organizer.

The aged cigar came from the warehouse of Hunters & Frankau, the London-based U.K. distributor for Cuban cigars. It has an aged cigar program whereby it adds a second band to a cigar with the vintage when it was placed in the box. For example, yesterday’s aged 8-9-8 had a gold sub band that read “1998.”

After about 30 minutes, the room was full of smoke. My eyes were watering and I think that the other three dozen or so people were suffering as well. I was asked to comment on the cigar in front of everyone, and I laid into the 8-9-8. I told everyone in my bad Spanish that I thought it started out really well with lots of strength and flavor but that after smoking it down about two thirds of the way, it turned aggressive and acidic. I didn’t like the cigar all that much. I gave it a mercy 82 points, unblind.

We all had to fill out a questionnaire in Spanish describing our impressions of the cigar. There was one description for overall impressions that said “Would accept if given as a gift.” I added in pen: “depending who gave it.”

 

A few Cubans took offense over my criticism of the aged 898. A technician stood up and spent about 20 minutes lecturing to the group how the cigar was very good and that it needed another 10 years to come around. He said that it needed to oxidize more and complete small fermentations and reduce its impurties. Whatever. The group of tasters, who were mostly cigar aficionados, did not look convinced, and they were from all over the world.

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