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James Suckling

Vamos a Varadero

Posted: Feb 11, 2009 9:03am ET
I just got back from Varadero yesterday afternoon after spending a couple of nights there with my 14-year-old son Jack. We drove to the beach in my friend’s old Toyota, and despite the bad road from Havana, we made it there and back. It’s about a two-hour drive.

The roads were full of people constantly nagging me for a ride. They looked so upset when I didn’t pick them up. It continues to make me feel guilty. But I am certainly not going to start taking public transport, which can range from an open horse drawn cart to a battered, second hand yellow school bus from Canada. There are always lines of people waiting at bus stops. My son asked “Why does there seem to be so many people waiting around the roads with nothing to do?” He couldn’t believe that they were all waiting for public transport.

It’s not that easy getting around Cuba – by private or public transport!

There are lots of checkpoints and police along the road too. I always think they are going to stop me for something, not that I am doing anything wrong. Apparently, they are handing out more and more tickets these days for everything from speeding to talking on the mobile phone while driving. You can still smoke a cigar and drive though!
I find Cuban drivers very erratic at best. They are either driving too fast or too slow or darting in and out of traffic or hogging the fast lane. I saw a horse-drawn cart receiving a ticket from a traffic cop just outside of Matanzas yesterday. I hope he wasn’t speeding—LOL!

Photo by James Suckling

My son Jack at Cayo Blanco.

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Cigar Centro

Posted: Feb 9, 2009 9:23am ET
I went to a wine dinner on Saturday night at Club Havana for the introduction of wines from Tuscany’s Castello Banfi to the Cuban market. The multi-course meal was full of Havana’s sommeliers as well as diplomats, actors and other celebrities from the island. I said a few words in my bad Spanish about Tuscany, Banfi and Brunello di Montalcino as well as how the various wines went with each course. Believe it or not, there is a small but serious food and wine culture in Cuba, and I am sure it will only grow as relations normalize with the United States.

At the end of the meal, Cohiba Siglo VI’s were handed out and served with 11-year-old Santiago Rum. The latter is made in the original Bacardi distillery in Santiago, and it used to be sold as Matusalem in Cuba until a few years ago. But that’s another column. What was interesting was how everyone was smoking, even most of the women.
The Siglo VI remains one of the best, if not the best, Cuban cigar produced. It delivers so much spicy, tobacco, cappuccino flavors with a elegance and smoothness that can’t be beat. I scored it 95 points, unblind.

I was speaking to a friend about the scene, Ernán López Nussa, the famous jazz pianist, and he said that almost all Cubans smoke a cigar if they are offered one. “Cigars are part of the party in Cuba,” he told me. “Hardly anyone would not smoke one in Cuba, if they were offered one during a dinner or party. It would be considered rude.”
In fact, amigos at Habanos SA, the global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars, told me that the domestic market still accounts for about 250 million cigars a year. Most of those cigars are apparently short filler, hand-rolled smokes, but they are, nonetheless, smoked. At one time, Cubans were offered a couple of cigars a month with their regular ration of food staples, but apparently this is no longer the case. Now they have to buy them for a few pesos each, which would be 10 or 20 cents.
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Cuba and Our New President

Posted: Feb 6, 2009 12:28pm ET
President Obama seems to be one of the most popular subjects of the conversations I’m having in Cuba. The general impression is very, very positive with the average man and woman on the street, from taxi driver to politician, and all of them have high hopes for our new president. I even noticed that Hiroshi Robaina, the well-known tobacco grower, was wearing an Obama wristwatch when I visited him earlier in this week in Pinar del Río. Check out the photo.

Photo by James Suckling

Hiroshi Robaina sports a wristwatch to show his support for President Obama.

Read my blog from earlier this week about this year’s tobacco harvest.

I haven’t spoken to a person on the island who doesn’t wish that the current U.S. restrictions on travel to the island, as well as remittances, be relaxed. This is apparently what President Obama has already promised in his first 100 days. He would allow Cuban Americans to travel to the island when they wish as well as letting them send an unlimited amount of money to relatives in Cuba. Allowing other Americans to travel to Cuba would take some sort of legislation instead of an executive order, if I am not mistaken.

Whether the President actually does anything remains to be seen. He has a lot more important matters at the moment, such as passing a successful stimulus package to bolster the U.S. and global economy. Perhaps changing things with Cuba will be a little easier task?

I noticed that Fidel Castro was even smitten with our new president, calling him nuestro amigo Obama in one of his recent blogs. Of course, most of his blog was spent aggressively asking what our new president planned to do about the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay and the conflict in the Gaza Strip. That wasn’t very original, but the fact that Castro used a term of endearment for Obama is notable.
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Happiness Is A Dark Wrapper Called Edición Limitada

Posted: Feb 5, 2009 4:22pm ET
I have been smoking a number of Edición Limitadas since arriving in Cuba more than a week ago. I am a big fan of the cigars. I can’t say that I have collected, or bought, every edition, but I have most likely smoked them all one time or another in my career.
I think they are getting better and better each year. I remember when they first came out in 2000: a robusto Montecristo, a torpedo Partagas and a gran corona Hoyo de Monterrey. The quality was pretty bad. In fact, the Hoyo was so bad that most key retailers in Germany and Great Britain returned them. They were re-released the year after, if I remember correctly.
I recall trying to smoke a Partagas Pirámide with Desmond Sautter at his shop in the fall of 2000, and I had to light two or three of the smokes to find one that burned properly. They were not a great success.

The 2001 and 2002 editions were better, but I think that the darker colored wrapper dominated the blend too much. This most likely could have been because the blends the Cubans were using at the time were far too bland; so the darker colored wrapper had a bigger influence on the cigar in general.

Some of this year's corona tobacco leaf harvest ripens in the sun.

In fact, I smoked a Romeo y Julieta Robusto Edición Limitada 2001 a few nights ago, and it was surprisingly mild with some spice and coffee character but rather neutral and boring. 87 points, unblind.

I was never a great fan of the RyJ E.L. Robusto anyway. I remember sitting on a panel during the 2002 cigar festival in Havana and comparing the robusto to the Partagas Serie D No. 4. The half dozen, or so, panelists preferred the standard issue Robusto to the Edición Limitada. Looks like we were right all along.
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The Montecristo Generation

Posted: Feb 4, 2009 12:08pm ET
Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing company for Cuban cigars, has been trying to keep a large number of new cigar releases under wraps for this month’s Habanos Festival, including a line extension for the Montecristo brand and a new size for Trinidad.  But it’s failed after some obscure websites reported on a number of the novelties.

Participants of the festival in Havana will have the chance to smoke four new Montecristos on the opening night celebration on February 23. The four cigars in the new Montecristo Open range are the Junior, 38 ring gauge by 4 1/3 inches, the Regatta, 46 by 5 1/3 inches, the Master, 50 by 4 7/8 inches, and 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. My sources at Habanos say that the Eagle and Regatta are unique vitolas for the brand and have never been produced before.

The cigars will be sold in newly decorated boxes compared to the classic line of Montecristo. In addition, all four will be available in tubes.

“We want to give something new to the Montecristo and the Habanos for the new generation,” said an amigo at Habanos. “We want to make something attractive to the new generation. Who are they? They are people in their early 30s and getting interested in the good life – from polo and boats to cars and tennis.”

I hope this “Montecristo Generation” still exists with the current economic meltdown. Regardless, the new Montecistos will be a welcome addition to Habanos. I heard that the cigars are similar to the Edmundo in flavor, meaning not particularly strong or light, but just right in my opinion. Vamos a ver—we will see.

A robusto in the Trinidad family, measuring 50 ring gauge by 4 7/8 inches, will be a welcome addition as well. And it will be sold in cool looking, new aluminum tubes. A couple of nights ago I smoked a new production Trinidad Fundadores, 40 ring gauge by 7 1/2 inches, and it was fabulous. The cigar, the first commercial size of Trinidad, was smoking like a dream with a spicy, coffee and tobacco character that started with a bang on the palate and then mellowed as the cigar was smoked. It shows so much wonderful perfume and flavor. 93 points, unblind. I hope the new robusto delivers the same flavor.
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Tobacco Road Trip

Posted: Feb 3, 2009 2:52pm ET

I drove out to Pinar del Río yesterday with a couple of Cuban friends, including the great ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. We drove an old and battered Kia four-wheel drive down the main autopista from Havana to the town of Pinar del Río and then to near the village of San Luis. The latter is the Holy Grail, as you know, for wrapper tobacco, or la capa.
I was surprised there weren’t more cars, trucks, or people on the road, not to mention horse drawn carriages, dogs and cows. The latter are particularly nasty on Cuban highways when you are driving about 60 or 70 miles per hour. They can do major damage to your auto as well as your body if you hit one. Luckily, we didn’t encounter many, although I was admittedly freaked out driving back in the night when we could barely see road out the windshield.
The few people on the road were holding pesos in their hands, waving them in the air, and hoping to buy a ride. I felt sort of guilty not picking up a few. And they always gave this surprised look as if we should have given them a ride or that we knew them or something. I hate that!

Anyway, after about 2 1/2 hours of driving, we arrived in time for a quick lunch with Alejandro Robania and his grandson Hiroshi. The latter is running the tobacco plantation for his family. And he is doing a hell of a good job. Tobacco traditions are alive and well in Cuba, as Hiroshi has well illustrated.

Hiroshi Robaina with a healthy tobacco plant in San Luis, Cuba.

I was blown away by the quality of both the filler and wrapper tobacco being grown this year. The plants are tall and healthy, and much of the crop has already been picked. It seemed a little early to me. Just everywhere I looked in the countryside of Pinar, people seemed to be working and picking in the tobacco fields.
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America’s Insatiable Taste for Cuban Cigars

Posted: Feb 2, 2009 9:55am ET
We smoke a lot more Cuban cigars than you think we do. For years, I have been telling people – including CNN and other news organizations in interviews– that Americans illegally buy about 8 million to 10 million Cuban sticks a year. But I am way off.

Sources at Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing company for Cuban cigars, say that the official number they use internally is double my estimates. Yes—Habanos officially estimates that Americans account for 20 million of the total 150 million cigars the Cubans export each year.

But the shocker is that some of the top people in Habanos believe that the real figure these days could be as high as 50 million cigars. Or, to put it another way, one out of three Cuban cigars sold each year might be bought by Americans.

A heavy hitter in Habanos told me that they he spoke to top cigar shops in key cities in Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Great Britain and others around the world and most reported that between 20 and 50 percent of their sales went to Americans. They visited the shop, telephoned or faxed their order, or used the Internet to get their cigars.

This whole conversation started when I asked him “what market do you see the biggest growth potential in this gloomy economic situation?”

“The United States,” he said with a big smile on his face.

I almost fell out of my chair at lunch. We were each smoking a Montecristo Maravilla, which was part of the Colección Habanos series in 2006. The cigar was phenomenal. It showed wonderful aromas of cedar, nuts, and cappuccino that followed through to a fresh and rich palate that increased in intensity with each puff. It was so Montecristo with the cedar and creamy character. This was a great smoke that I scored 95 points, non blind.

In between puffs, my friend gave an example of how Americans can affect the sales of a market when things go wrong. He said that when the United States started the war in Iraq and France didn’t support it, duty free sales in France dropped from 4 million Cuban cigars to 2 million in on year as Americans stopped traveling to France.  “It was a big decrease for us,” he said.
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When Is It Too Many in La Habana?

Posted: Jan 30, 2009 3:05pm ET
How many cigars are too many in a day in Havana?  My girlfriend asked me not to smoke too many while I was in Cuba. Also, she was worried I might drink too much in the island’s fair capital!

I only smoked three cigars yesterday. Come on. Is that really too many?  I could have smoked all day! I had no rums either. I might even email my mother and tell her my accomplishment.

Perfect lunch: Beans and rice rest with a smoke.

I had a Romeo y Julieta Exhibición No. 4 for lunch. I smoked it while eating the classic Cuban cuisine at El Aljibe restaurant, including roasted chicken with the restaurant’s secret sauce, black beans and rice, boiled yucca, and salad. It was the perfect accompaniment with the cigar. I didn’t even have a beer or a mojito. I was very reasonable for a gringo in La Habana.

Just before dinner I smoked a Montecristo C Edición Limitada 2003 with some green tea and honey. What is better for you than tea and honey in the afternoon? The cigar was surprisingly mellow, too. It was a friendly smoke, just like getting a nice massage. It has aged wonderfully, delivering lightly roasted nut,  café con leche and delicate earth aromas and flavors. Medium body. Fresh finish. 92 points, unblind. It’s really beautiful now.

Dinner was with some friends at Doctor Café, a small family-run restaurant that has great octopus and fish on the grill. I was joined by Carlos Acosta, the danseur of The Royal Ballet. He is an amazing dancer and a cool young guy. What an accomplishment to be part of The Royal Ballet, which is making an historical visit to Havana for 10 days in July. Carlos is also a keen cigar smoker.
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Good Morning from Cuba

Posted: Jan 29, 2009 9:36am ET
I just woke up with my first cortadito, which may be the best espresso and warm milk made in the world. Forget your Starbucks or Coffee Bean. It is a very condensed, reduced espresso with rich, sweet milk. Italians would call it a macchiato, but it’s better than what I get in Italy.

My friend made it with Cuban coffee beans and long-life milk. The coffee brand is named Serrano. He has an Italian espresso machine and packed the ground coffee tight, made the espresso just right, and then added warm milk and white cane sugar. “If you like your coffee more bitter, then I won’t add the sugar,” he said.

He said that every area in Cuba has its own rendition of a cortadito. My Spanish is not perfect (I am starting lessons tomorrow to improve!) but he said that, for example, in Oriente the cortadito is more like filtered coffee with warm milk and sugar. “It much more suave (mellow) than the cortadito in Havana,” he said. Anyway, it was the right way to start the day in Havana.

My flight on Virgin yesterday was more than two hours delayed because the 747 had to be cleaned more thoroughly, according to the pilot. It was a nine-hour flight. Premium Economy was full of a travel group of people in their 60s or over. It was sort of weird with no young people on the flight. I started talking to the granny next to me, and telling her about Cuba and some of my experiences, and it reminded me of a flight from Milan on Lauda Air to the island about five or six years back.

I knew the president then, Andrea Molinari (he used to be in the cigar business, too), and he told the pilot of our 757 to take care of me on the flight to Havana. He did more than that! He asked me to come into the cockpit and sit in the jumpseat as they landed in Havana. It was AMAZING! We flew over the coast of the great city from the west and then banked to the left back into Jose Martí Airport approaching east. I had the crash type seat belt on. I was a little scared to be honest.
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Credit Crunch on the Way to Havana

Posted: Jan 28, 2009 12:13pm ET
I am sitting in the Virgin Atlantic Lounge waiting for my flight to Havana. It’s already an hour late, and I guess it will be later. Travel to Cuba is always a calamity, which I will go into tomorrow following my flight. I have plenty of stories of amusing flights – which is a nice way of phrasing it. Some of you may remember my flight last year from Havana to Cancún on Cubana, the Cuban national carrier. I nearly had to change my underwear on that flight. Check out my old blog on that one.

Last night when I arrived in London from visiting my children in Yorkshire, I noticed that I left my credit cards at their mother’s house. Yes. I left all of my credit cards – the entire credit card holder. I was in a panic. I felt like I had left home without my trousers on or something — not that this has ever happened! I was freaked out to say the least.

When I arrived at the hotel at Gatwick, the woman at the reception desk asked me for my credit card that had been used to make the room booking. I politely said that I left it at home. I felt guilty in a strange way. “Well, you will have to pay cash then,” she said.

My credit is perfect, I thought to myself. I have no personal debt. I am not a subprime mortgage holder. Furthermore, I am not a former employee of Lehman Brothers, or any shifty hedge fund. What’s the problem?

“Can’t you just use the card on file?” I asked to the woman in Italian, since I noticed she had an Italian name.

She couldn’t help, even though she told me her life story in Italian and how she was from the center of Sicily. Chatting her up had no impact, so I tried logic.

“Why not just say that I didn’t show up and you can charge the room as a “no show” on my credit card on file and then you can give me the key,” I said. “I am sure in Sicily that would be how we could work it out.”
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