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James Suckling

Montecristo Open and Habanos Surrealism

Posted: Feb 24, 2009 11:47am ET
It was sort of surreal last night sitting in the Karl Marx Theater in Havana and watching a presentation for the line extension of Montecristo –Open– during the XI Festival Habano. Images of pristine golf courses, sleek yachts and powerful motor racing machines were mixed with polo tournaments, tennis matches, international regattas, and Grand Prix races to the background music of Coldplay and a number of other popular rock bands.

Modern dance numbers with a Cuban troupe followed each introduction of the four Montecristo Open sizes including the small Junior, 38 ring gauge by 4 1/3 inches, the sleek belicoso Regatta, 46 by 5 1/3 inches, the robusto Master, 50 by 4 7/8 inches, and super-charged super robusto Eagle, 54 by 5 7/8 inches. The four cigars carry the traditional brown and cream Montecristo band, but they also don a second green band with gold and white lettering. Check out the photo.

Photo by James Suckling

Habanos S.A., the global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars and organizers of the festival, also mentioned the introduction of the new Trinidad Robusto T, which will be first smoked tomorrow at an event at the Havana Libre Hotel.

But last night’s event, which moved to the Club Havana afterwards so that guests could actually smoke the Opens, was all about the good life. The young, affluent beautiful people living the la buena vida are what Montecristo Open are all about. As I wrote before, it’s about the Montecristo Generation, mostly men in their 30s or 40s who want to enjoy the good things in life, which obviously includes a good cigar.
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Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

Posted: Feb 23, 2009 4:56pm ET
I just finished lunch at El Aljibe restaurant in Havana, and I noticed a table of a dozen or so dudes wearing various U.S. baseball uniforms, from the Dodgers to the White Sox. They looked like they were having a great time. They had smiles from ear to ear and a number of them were smoking cigars. I guess it was after their baseball game.

I didn’t want to be too nosy, but I went over and asked them what they were up to. I approached someone wearing a Dodgers uniform because I am born and raised in Los Angeles. “We are here playing baseball,” he said with a friendly voice.

“Where are you from in the states?” I asked.

“We are mostly from California,” he added.

They said that they had officially come to Cuba on a cultural exchange to learn more about Cuba and play baseball with the Cubans. Sounds good to me. I didn’t want to pry. And the more time you spend in Cuba, the more you realize that anything is possible.

Just think what happened this weekend. Who would have thought that Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) would have released a report over the weekend saying “that the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of 'bringing democracy to the Cuban people…”

The Senator apparently believes that travel restrictions to Cuba should be relaxed, U.S. remittances to relatives on the island should not be limited and American agricultural products should be available to Havana with credit. Cuba already buys something like $440 million worth of American agriculture per year but has to pay cash in advance. The U.S. is Cuba’s fourth biggest trading partner.

Anyway, it is all a move in the right direction. And I don’t see why I should have all the fun here, or my newly found friends in baseball uniforms.

I wonder what the Habanos cigar festival, which officially begins tonight, would be like if Americans could legally travel to the island? I think it would be packed!
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Let the Festivities Begin

Posted: Feb 22, 2009 6:32pm ET
I went over to the Nacional Hotel this morning to pick up my registration for the XI Festival del Habano. José Antonio Candida from Habanos S.A., the organizer of the event and the global distribution and marketing company for Cuban cigars, had my package in hand with a Bolivar Royal Corona in tubo. Breakfast of Champions, I say. 

The Nacional has one of the best places to smoke on the island, the courtyard of the hotel, with its Spanish colonial style arches and view on the garden.It’s great to drink a mojito or cortado and smoke.

I ran into some new friends from Australia with J.A.. Arthur and Rob were very keen cigar smokers and had just arrived from Sydney. They deserve an award from Habanos for traveling the farthest to get to the event. We sat down and smoked Royal Coronas. I always love smoking a Royal Corona with its spicy and coffee character and beautiful tobacco. And it always draws well. The Aussies were a laugh and stoked to be in town.

I spoke to a number of festivalgoers at the Nacional. Many are from the United Kingdom and Italy. I heard that 120 were coming from the Far East. But I thought it was sort of strange that most of the key cigar shops were almost empty during the weekend, or at least, they had very little traffic considering the festival was gearing up. I heard the event is sold out, but where was everyone? Maybe they are all arriving today and tomorrow?

In the past, there has always been a fringe attendance during the festival. People would be hanging out at cigar shops, restaurants and private houses, but would not be attending the events. That’s up to them. But there already seems to be less of the “fringers.” Maybe it’s the down economy?

It is certainly not helping sales of cigars in Havana. Most of the people in the cigar shops I spoke to had long faces when I brought up the question of how sales were going. But I have to admit that the selection of cigars was less than spectacular in most shops. Traditionally, the shops are packed to the doors with excellent cigars and new releases. Not this year.
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Conference Calls and Regional Cigars

Posted: Feb 20, 2009 2:23pm ET
A friend just about had a heart attack this morning. He had what he called a “global conference call” connected to “eight countries” for a “huge business deal,” but, unfortunately, his mobile phone from Cubacell ran out of credit halfway through the conversation. Doing business in Cuba can be a challenge for foreigners on just about every level. But think what sort of opportunities could be possible for American businessmen if the U.S. government drops the trade embargo? Vamos a ver. We will see.

Yesterday, I smoked a Juan Lopez Short Torpedo for the Carribean (50 ring gauge by 4 inches), one of dozens of regional smokes from last year. I found a list of the proposed 2009 releases of regional cigars on the Internet and I believe it is accurate. Habanos SA, the global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars, would not confirm 100 percent but sources say it is correct. I will add it to my blog at the bottom.

I love the idea of regional editions. It just adds to the variety and interest of Cuban cigars. The problem is that a number of the cigars lack character. They are good smokes but nothing exciting. I am not sure if this is by choice or the factories that make the blends and cigars just don’t really care.

Regional editions are cigars made for particular markets over a two-year period with a minimum order of 600 boxes of 25 cigars per year. The Cuban cigar agent who orders the cigar decides on the shape, or vitola, as well as the blend – in theory. Maybe the agents like relatively bland blends.

Apparently, a regional edition is on the way for the Cuban market as well and it is to be sold in cigar shops around the island. I hope that smoke is a serious one.

Granted, I have had some great ones recently. I have been really enjoying the Edmundo Dantes Conde 109 (50 ring gauge by 7 inches) for Mexico and the Ramon Allones Grandes (49 ring by 7 inches) for Spain. Both have loads of flavor and character. They are serious smokes. The latter was introduced last year and the former in 2007.
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Thoughts on Cuba

Posted: Feb 19, 2009 1:00pm ET
I was in Aljibe, the famous chicken, rice and bean joint in Havana last night, and ran into a couple of Americans who were on a fact-finding mission. I am not sure what they were looking for, but it was a little of the ugly American and it wasn’t pretty. I wonder how much of this will go on when the airports and docks of the city are open to my fellow countrymen?

Of course, the two beautiful local women sitting next to their tables were happy to see my fellow Americans. I am not sure that there was a meeting of the minds following our conversation.

Maybe it doesn’t matter? But there is a lot more to Cuba than sun, mojitos, music, pretty girls and cigars – not necessarily in that order. It’s why I brought my 14-year-old son to the island to listen and learn about jazz piano. And it’s why he wants to come back and is questioning his traditional education of classical piano.

Cuba is a place saturated in history and culture. Walk down the streets of old Havana and feel the centuries-old cobble streets under your feet. Look at the Spanish colonial architecture. Listen to the traditional jazz coming from the bars and smell the bouquet of Afro-Caribbean cuisine. To understand Cuba is to simply walk the streets, live in the city for a few moments. I hope you get the chance soon to experience it yourself.

The cigar embodies this magic of the island. The act of lighting and smoking a cigar is a symbol, a remembrance of what is special about Cuba. It gives you time to reflect on your life as well as the life on the island. I am not sure why I am so philosophical today.

Anyway, my Canadian friend who arrived at José Martí Airport yesterday afternoon was totally elated with the Ramon Allones Special Selection. The robusto satisfied in every way. “It was delicious,” he said.

My friend first came here 14 years ago, and he says that the “innocence” of the island has been lost already and that it seems in Havana that Cuba is competing for tourist dollars like every other island and beach in the Caribbean. Before, it was like falling down the rabbit hole into an Alice and Wonderland World of innocence and complacency, he said.
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Cuban Trips

Posted: Feb 18, 2009 2:02pm ET
My back is still in pain. If I move the wrong way, I have a sharp pain spike through my lower back. Maybe I should try some Santiago 11-year-old rum? The Bolivar Belicoso did not remedy the situation, but it sure was a lovely smoke.

Another friend is considering organizing a santero to get rid of the pain and evil spirits. This is the Afro-Caribbean religion practiced by many in Cuba. Some of the rituals include making sacrifices of animals and drinking strange things. Cigars are also used a lot. I THINK I WILL KEEP THAT FOR MY LAST RESORT!

A friend of mine is arriving from Cancún in a few hours. I will meet him at the José Martí Airport VIP lounge where you can smoke cigars as you wait for your baggage to arrive. I love the idea of smoking a cigar in an airport. That seems so civilized. It makes me think when I used to travel in business class on Pan Am in the early 1970s to the Bahamas with my father, who was an international tax attorney. There was something so sophisticated and urbane about those days of high-class air travel. It doesn’t have much to do with how most people travel now.

I am going to bring to the airport a couple of Ramon Allones Special Selection robustos from a cedar cabinet of 50. I have been totally en amor with those smokes. I love the subtle spicy, cappuccino character of the cigars, and they draw beautifully.

I think that most Americans traveling to Cuba come through Mexico or Canada. The Bahamas is not a good place. Immigrations and customs are actually done in the Bahamas before passengers board their planes for the U.S. And the officers there are very unfriendly. I remember getting grilled by one following a trip to Havana during the Pope’s visit to the island in 1998. Christiane Amanpour was on the same plane, and she walked right past immigration and customs. I think they asked her for her autograph. Meanwhile, I had to unload all my bags and talk about travel licenses from the Office of Foreign Assets Control. Makes me laugh now that I think about it, but I was pissed off then!
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The Cigar Brotherhood

Posted: Feb 17, 2009 4:22pm ET
I have been hanging tight in my friend’s apartment in La Habana thanks to a pinched nerve in my lower back. It happened on Sunday night. I will not go into the details. But it hurts “como un desesperante.” I am pretty desperate with the pain but it seems to be getting better.

Luckily, I know a good physiotherapist and I brought some aspirin laced with codeine from Italy. But the drugs are running out.  There are common painkillers around—aspirin and the rest—so I should be able to get what I need. My therapist gave me a shot of B complex in my rear this morning, saying it would quicken my recovery. They say that it is good to repair damaged nerves. But now it hurts to sit as I write this blog!

I will survive. Don’t worry. You haven’t gotten rid of me yet.

I did smoke an amazing young cigar Sunday night before my back went out. It was the Bolivar Belicoso from 2006. This was UFB – that’s my shortened description for something fabuloso. It stands for “un f…. believable.” It was how I remembered the Boli Belis in the mid-1990s. It was rich and powerful delivering plenty of coffee, tobacco and cedar character. It was long and flavor with lovely flowers and tea on the finish. And the draw was like kissing the love of my life. (I haven’t done that for a while.) I’d score it 91 points, unblind.

In fact, I just smoked one a minute ago with a well-known cigar producer from outside Cuba who wishes to remain nameless. I think it’s cool that he comes to Cuba once in a while and hangs with cigarmakers and tobacco growers and shares the wealth.

I remember when non-Cuban cigar manufacturers were much more aggressive and competitive with their Cuban counterparts. But it all seems to be changing. That was a waste of energy. Cigarmakers are cigar brothers. It’s a big world out there. And it’s great to share. That’s what cigars are all about – joy, pleasure and camaraderie.
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Cigars, Cigars Everywhere

Posted: Feb 17, 2009 9:17am ET
A lot of important people are talking about changes in travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba. I have even heard that some representatives from the states were here in Havana last week discussing the ramifications of Americans legally visiting the island with the Cuban government.

I already touched on this in an earlier blog on how it might be difficult at the beginning for the island to adapt to a huge influx of tourists from the states. I wonder where all of them would sleep or eat? As I have written before, there are only about 1,500 high quality rooms in Havana alone, and about a couple dozen acceptable restaurants. Forget about most other things for the independent traveler. However, I think this could all be upgraded very, very quickly— maybe in just a year or two.

Cigars are not going to be a problem, though. I predict a huge increase in premium cigar sales on the island, which currently is probably between 4 million to 6 million sticks a year in premium cigar shops. The increase could be double or triple that. This does not include the millions of fakes that are sold on the streets and would be even more popular when more tourists come here.

I get offered boxes all the time when I walk in La Habana. “Hey my friend,” one says in English. “Do you want cigar? Cigar my friend.”

I usually tell him in my bad Spanish that I don’t want his fake smokes.

"‘They are real. Come and see,” he says.

The other day I told one seller of cigars that I worked for Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing company of Cuban cigars, so that I didn’t need any of the cigars that he was selling. “So do I,” he says, showing me a Habanos work tag. I don’t know if it was real or not. But he was a real wise guy – cabron!

The selection in official cigar shops in La Habana is always excellent, and there is nothing better than just hanging out in one, having a smoke and checking out the cigars. Some cigar shops even offer a service of storing cigars. Probably the most picturesque is the shop in the Partagas Cigar Factory, but it is often packed with people from tour buses. So I go elsewhere.
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Chucho and La Bomba

Posted: Feb 13, 2009 4:09pm ET
I went to a Chucho Valdez concert last night with my son Jack, who is taking lessons with a jazz pianist who plays for Buena Vista Social Club. Jack is really enjoying it and digging on the whole music scene here in Cuba. It is a long way from classical piano in the depths of Northern England.

Chucho was amazing. He plays the piano with such power yet with finesse and elegance at the same time. The big man is agile with his rhythm and finger work. He is truly a master.

I have never smoked a cigar with the man but I am pretty sure he smokes. I smoked a Cohiba Siglo VI in his honor after the gig in one of my favorite restaurants in Havana: Doctor Café. The food is fresh and hearty. Just good grilled food like you find in Italy.

The Siglo VI delivers fabulous flavor with subtle cappuccino, tobacco and spicy character throughout. It¹s powerful yet has a balance and freshness on the palate. If you have never tried one, you must get your lips around one. I scored this one 96 points, unblind. Granted, I might have been on a high after the Chucho gig, but it is still a great smoke.

The cool thing is that a new Siglo VI is going be introduced at the cigar festival at the end of the month. It is going to be a Gran Reserva made with five-year-old tobacco. Apparently 5,000 boxes of 15 cigars each have been produced. This should be the bomb. And it is the first time a cigar with five-year-old tobacco is being produced as a Gran Reserva on the island.

I still remember the Reserva Partagas Series D No. 4s released a couple of years ago. They are fabulous to smoke now. And those were made with three-year-old tobacco. Que rico!
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El Futuro

Posted: Feb 12, 2009 9:09am ET
I ran into a fan in the Iberostar Hotel lobby as I was waiting to get picked up by a friend to go out for the day in a boat around Varadero. I think he was Canadian, if I properly picked up his accent.

“Hi,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you that I love your work.”

That was really nice of him. And I felt really happy. It was a good way to start the day. He said that he was there for a week just hanging at the beach, enjoying the sun and smoking cigars. The Iberostar, as I wrote in my last blog, was not really my thing, but it was great to see a fellow cigar smoker enjoying it all.

Americans may be enjoying the same in Cuba sooner than they think if a new bill one day makes it into law. It’ s bill HR874IH, which was introduced on February 4 by Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.). It is called the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.” And it states, among other things, that “the president may not regulate or prohibit, directly or indirectly, the travel to or from Cuba by United States citizens or legal residents, or any of the transactions incident to such travel.”

If I am not mistaken, similar legislation in both the House and the Senate have passed a few years ago, and a proposed law was agreed on in Congress, but former President Bush vetoed it. I know that most legislation never makes it out of committee but I think this one has a very, very good chance, and if it ends up on President Obama’s desk, it is not going to get vetoed.

That’s why I found the construction in Varadero all the more impressive. There are a half dozen more hotels being built as well as an enlargement of the marina at the end of the island. Right now it holds something like 300 boats, but in the next three years, about 1200 boats will be able to dock there. There will be high-end bungalows to stay in and a 300-seat fish and steakhouse. The large building at the beginning of my video is the restaurant, which is supposed to be done at the end of the month.
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