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James Suckling

Off to Experience Cuba's Sweet Tobacco of Change

Posted: Jan 27, 2009 11:02am ET
I am buying a few extra things today, like medicine and photo equipment, getting ready for an extended trip to Cuba. Simple things like vitamins or camera batteries can be hard to find on the island, even in the best of times. I leave tomorrow on a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Havana. I am excited to get back to Cuba's capital. A lot has happened since I was last there in the autumn. We have a new president who has openly stated that he is going to change the U.S. policy towards Cuba, and the island is celebrating 50 years of its revolution. It's an important point in Cuba's history in many ways.

Just what will happen nobody knows, but I want to be on the island now to listen and to feel whats going down on the streets and in the fields. I want to smell the sweet tobacco of change.  I want to experience the new, like the flavors of a freshly rolled robusto.

It seems that the U.S. policy for travel to Cuba will be relaxed in the not too distant future. I am sure that Cuban-Americans will be able to visit the island more often, as well as send more money to their relatives. The change in policy, which cut visits as well as monetary transfers to the island a few years ago, was cruel and unnecessary and achieved nothing but suffering on both sides of the Florida Straits. Whether any of you will finally be able to legally visit Cuba remains to be seen, but I think a very good possibility exists. Theres nothing more I would like to see then all of you on the island smoking a cigar, enjoying the ambiance of Havana, and making new Cuban friends. Thats the way it should be. And thats the way our two countries will grow closer together.

As for the revolution, the triumphs and disappointments are more than evident after the island's bold, half-century experiment in socialism. The most obvious is the good education and health care for all, but the rest is less apparent. Changes are badly needed on the island, just like the millions of tons of fresh cement and paint to renovate the thousands of facades of crumbling Spanish colonial buildings in the center of Havana. Last year's catastrophic twin hurricanes in the fall only exacerbated the situation, not to mention the global economic meltdown.
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Winter's Dilemma

Posted: Jan 5, 2009 10:39am ET
Happy New Year. I have been spending a little over a week in Southern California and I have not had a cigar the whole time. I am Jonesing for one now. The problem is the environment. I have been staying with my parents in Palm Springs and Carlsbad, and there is no smoking allowed there—­ never was! And the weather has been so cold (for Southern California mind you!) that it has not been conducive to outdoor smoking, either.

I don't know how you all enjoy a good cigar during the bad weather months. I see pictures of people out on their terraces smoking in the snow or others in their backyards puffing away under gas heaters. I have to give all of you forlorn cigar lovers the highest kudos. You are men. True men.

But, honestly, it's not the right place to smoke a cigar in subzero weather, or in the wind blown garden of a man's castle. You will never get the true enjoyment of a fine cigar in such an environment. I just wouldn't bother. But I understand your persistence and your heroism.

There are exceptions for myself. I remember last year at a dinner with my two brothers in Oceanside at the beach and we all went up to the rooftop terrace of his apartment and froze and smoked together. It made us feel closer together, like a fine cigar does on a cold night. But it was a pretty unpleasant experience as far as cigar smoking goes. I couldn't taste a thing.

I don't have an answer for improving this dilemma. It's something we have to suffer through each year when the weather changes for the worse. I am happy that I can smoke in my house in Italy. I wish I could invite you there for a smoke. I no longer have a wife and my two dogs are used to the smoke. What could they say anyways? And they are not judgmental, like my ex-wife. They like me even if I have drunk too much or have fallen asleep on the couch or invited loud and drunken friends over for a nightcap, but that's another column.

Enjoying a great cigar during the winter can really be a bummer. And I feel for all of you.
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Dancing with the Devil?

Posted: Dec 8, 2008 11:33am ET
I was afraid to smoke. I wasn't sure how I would feel, or if it would leave some lasting effect. But I was sort of edgy when the Partagas Serie D No. 4 was lit up on Saturday after a long dinner with a winemaker and his friends in Tuscany. There were even feelings of guilt. Like I was doing something I shouldn't be doing.

I had had pneumonia for two weeks in Italy in my right lung, and it was the first weekend that I was feeling in shape. In fact, I think I haven't felt so well in years. My lung is clear. I lost some weight. I am sleeping well, and I have been working out again. But I was worried about smoking again.

We all know that smoking cigars is not hazard free. The risks are nothing like cigarettes, as long as you don't in hale and you smoke in a well-ventilated place. And chain-smoking cigar— ­ if you could afford it —is probably not a good idea. But there are still concerns.

But I had been drinking all night. Or as the wine trade euphemistically calls it: "tasting." We had some amazing wines from a 1988 Salon Champagne that was as rich and powerful as a top grand cru Burgundy to a 1991 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Grands Echézeaux that defined the subtle yet rich character of the Pinot Noir grape. The 1978 Conterno Monfortino Barolo was dense, powerful and structured like a brick house yet it delivered mind-blowing aromas and flavors. These bottles, and others, took my inhibitions away and let me enjoy the smoke. I felt like a virgin cigar smoker.

I couldn't believe the rich yet refined flavors of the cigar. It showed a wonderful intensity of cedar, cream and cappuccino that turned to a nutty, almost honey character. It was easy to smoke with a lovely draw, one of those draws that isn't too quick or slow, just the right amount of resistance. And the aromas filled the room with dried flowers and tobacco. It was like letting a genie out of its bottle.
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Smoking in Bed

Posted: Nov 24, 2008 11:55am ET
Do you ever dream about smoking cigars? I must admit that I normally don't. I dream about many other things. And I prefer to dream about one thing in particular. But cigars normally don¹t come to mind as I am dozing away at night.

This weekend, though, I dreamed about cigars. I am not sure what my former psychiatrist would say about this. I was seeing her for other reasons than smoking. But I haven't seen her in a couple of years. So it doesn't matter. She would have said something obtuse, or asked a bunch of useless questions. Talking to her was essentially like talking to a mirror.

So I Googled my nocturnal experience, typing "dreaming of cigars," and I came across a Web site called Loveisanexplodingcigar.com. There was a section on dreams. Unfortunately, it was not what I was looking for. It looked like a Web site for frustrated, unpublished authors, or housewives with bad aspirations of writing. It is not a Web site I will be revisiting any time soon!

I typed in "cigar dreams" and I found a Web site from a group called Global Oneness called "Co-creating a Happy World." I felt a little better. This seemed like a nice place to visit. But it only offered this in its "Dreams Interpretation Dictionary." It read: "A relaxed state of mind. For Freud this would symbolize a phallic symbol."

Freud just made things too simple. Everything was a phallic symbol for the guy. I think he took too many cold showers. Of course, back then most people did. But the guy was definitely not getting enough. A cigar can just be a cigar. I am sorry.

I tried one last time. I typed "cigars and dreams." And the first thing that came up was a London Times story from June 21, 2005. The headline was "The Secret Life of Saddam: nachos, cigars and dreams of ruling again."

I decided to give up on my quest for the meaning of my cigar dream on the Internet.

Who cares anyway? It was a happy dream. I was smoking a Lusitania in Havana on the Malecon, the beautiful oceanfront boulevard that skirts the sea and the city. The double corona had such beautiful tea, honey and cappuccino aromas and flavors. It was an aged cigar from a cabinet of 50. I would say it came from the early 1990s. I could only see my face with the cigar and me smoking away with the warm sun and humid climate touching my face. I had a smile. What a smile. I was in nirvana.
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Hard Times in Cuba's Tobacco Country

Posted: Oct 16, 2008 5:02pm ET
Life is tough in the countryside in Cuba. Anyone who tells you otherwise doesn't know.

I spent most of Tuesday visiting some tobacco plantations. Most were in the Vuelta Abajo, or Vegas Finas part of the tobacco area near the towns of San Luis and San Juan y Martinez. But I also went to a plantation near the town of Piloto called Finca Vista Hermosa.

This was a very typical farm in the area, with about 20 acres of land and a couple of houses. One was a pink color and built of brick while the other was wooden. Both were in pretty bad shape with holes in the roofs and missing shutters. I don't think the brick stucco house or the wooden one had been painted since before the revolution.

Interestingly, this farm is the birthplace of the great cigarmaker of Jose Orlando Padrón, who now makes cigars in Nicaragua. He has never been back to Vista Hermosa since he left the island almost 50 years ago. His cousins are now working the land.

But they, like others in the region who were hammered by two powerful hurricanes at the end of September, were contemplating whether they were going to plant tobacco at all this year. "We are still thinking about it," said a woman on the plantation.

They were hesitant to commit to planting tobacco this year, primarily because they had no place to cure the leaves. Their two curing barns collapsed during Ike, the second hurricane. Apparently, thousands of barns have collapsed in the region and there is little or no wood available to rebuild them.






The large wooden structures had stood at Finca Vista Hermosa for as long as the family could remember. Even Padrón, who lives in Miami, remembers the two large wooden barns. "It must have been one hell of storm," he told me last week when we smoked a cigar together in his offices in Miami.
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Another Day in Cuba

Posted: Oct 14, 2008 9:38am ET
I am heading out to Pinar del Río today. I am not sure what I will see, but it should be interesting to say the least. Everyone I speak to says that the area east of Pinar, or the Semi-Vuelta, was absolutely hammered by the two hurricanes in September. This is why there is a shortage of agricultural products in Havana. I was told the other night that "tomatoes do not exist anymore in Havana" when I ordered a tomato salad at the restaurant La Fontana. Everyone in Havana is complaining about prices as well, from the high price of gasoline to the cost of chicken or some other food.

Cigars still remain a relatively good deal. I visited a number of shops yesterday and they were pretty well stocked. Everyone was very excited about the Ediciones Limitadas 2008. I am still the biggest fan of the Cuaba Pirámides. I prefer them to the Montecristo No. 2. They have more depth of flavor and richness.The Cuabas cost $105 for a box of 10. A box of 25 Partagas Serie D No. 5 cost $166.25, and a box of 10 Montecristo Sublimes cost $113.50.

I didn't buy any of those, but I did manage to score a cabinet of 50 Ramon Allones Specially Selected. I have been enjoying those all year. I love the spicy, earthy, almost chocolaty quality of the robusto. What a smoke. It has so much character yet is balanced and flavorful. Lovely stuff.

Anyway, I have to go now. I will report back later.
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Back In Havana

Posted: Oct 13, 2008 11:55am ET
I am spending Sunday afternoon in Havana with a San Cristobal de La Habana El Morro. The Churchill-sized smoke is delivering very balanced tea and milk character with hints of flowers and cedar. It's a friendly, easy-going smoke that just wants to make you happy. Nothing aggressive or challenging here. It's like having tea with my grandmother.

It's funny how I still hear from people how Cuban cigars are much richer and more powerful than cigars from off the island. And how I often hear how Americans aren't going to like them when they are finally legally available in the United States. That is completely wrong. In fact, I often find that the top cigars from Nicaragua and other places are stronger. A number are too strong in my book, lacking balance and flavor. But smoking the Morro was a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

When I arrived in Havana near midnight on Saturday from Cancún, I only had a Padrón Anniversary Principe in my pocket. So I lit that up in the airport while I was waiting for my bags. I asked one of the women at the VIP lounge for her lighter, and I think it slightly spoiled the cigar. Some Cubans refill their lighters with unclean gas, even insecticide. So the Padrón ended up having a chemical-like flavor. It was sort of a bummer to the beginning of the trip.

I am curious, even worried, about the situation in Cuba following the two hurricanes this September. What information I have gathered from people in Havana is that houses throughout the island have been flattened or lost their roofs, and the fields for crops have been severely damaged. Havana is fine, but there is a shortage of everything at the moment from food to wood to gasoline. You name it. It isn't around and what is around has gone up in price.

This said, I heard that the best areas of the Vuelta Abajo are fine and that the seedlings have gone into the ground. So wrapper tobacco should be OK, but I can't confirm that 100 percent for now. I did hear that prices are going up about 10 percent to distributors around the world for Cuban cigars. So I am not sure how much Cuban cigars are going to increase in price at retail, but I assume these increases going to be passed on to the consumer. It doesn't seem like the right time for price increases but the costs of production to grow tobacco and make cigars is ever increasing. What can the Cubans do?
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Blue Smoke to Fight the Blues

Posted: Oct 10, 2008 8:06pm ET
As I write this, I am smoking a cigar sitting on the terrace of the Raleigh Hotel in Miami and contemplating life. Yes, you can still smoke in some places in Florida!

I am traveling tomorrow to a place that is about as far away as you can get from the awful news of the stock market meltdown. It is a place where money is not king. It is a sleepy island with warm souls and sunny weather, where time passes without much change, where a smoldering cigar can measure eternity. Of course, you guessed it ---Cuba.

Granted, Cuba has its own problems (politics aside) following two hurricanes that hammered the island in September. I have heard that the situation is very bad outside of Havana. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes and food is scarce. Reports of the storms destroying the tobacco industry are apparently far fetched since the storm hit the part south of the best cigar tobacco growing areas in Pinar del Rio, or the Semi-Vuelta. But I want to see it for myself. So stay tuned.  I will file blogs regularly from Havana beginning on Monday.

It¹s going to be sort of strange to be in Havana after spending a few days in Montreal for a charity wine dinner earlier in the week. Watching the stock market plummet every day can really get you down. And although I don¹t really have much money in the market any more, the bad news really gets to you. Thank God for a good smoke.

I spent most of last weekend in Montreal with some friends, and we made regular visits to the La Casa del Habano, the Cuban cigar shop/ lounge. Every day after lunch my buddy and I would stroll over to the shop and pick out  a smoke. One day he would buy, the next I would. It started to be a ritual. In fact, I miss it now as I write this, Wish he was in Miami or going to Havana with me.

The Casa in Montreal is a great hang. It has room for about a dozen or so people to sit in soft and comfortable leather chairs and sofas, kick back, and enjoy a well-made espresso or cocktail. The girls who work there are friendly and pretty. And, perhaps more important, the selection of cigars is excellent and well kept, and ­ only Cubans.
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A Green Cigar Fit For A Prince

Posted: Sep 10, 2008 3:59pm ET
If we were smoking cigars 50 years ago in the United States, we were most likely lighting up green ones. Yes, those disgusting looking light, lime-green smokes called candela. I have no idea why they were so popular in the States then. Some old-timers say that it is because people thought the cigars were actually sweeter or fresher if they had the sick-making green wrapper. Most of the cigars shipped to the United States from Cuba were candela before the Cuban Revolution just about a half a century ago, and the fashion soon subsided after the U.S. trade embargo was created against Cuba in early 1963.

I always wondered what the cigars tasted like. I assumed they would be disgusting. They would taste of green grass — and I mean cut grass, not the good stuff — or some sort of fresh herb like basil or parsley. The idea of stopping the curing process to keep the wrappers green revolted me. I figured that the filler tobacco inside the cigar would be just as tongue curling.

Well. I was wrong. My prejudices and presumptions were completely unfounded.

Last week, I smoked a 50-year-old candela Cuban petit corona from Romeo y Julieta with the owner of Chateaus Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion and it was divine. It had a pretty, light herbal nose, like dried thyme or parsley with hints of honey and nuts, that followed through to a medium-body dried tobacco and rose leaf. It was mild, almost sweet and refined. 91 points in this non-blind tasting.

The owner of the chateaus, the Prince Robert de Luxembourg, who I was having dinner with last week at the chateau, said that he found a few boxes of the cigars in the cellar of the chateau in a locked file cabinet. “The cigars have been locked in their since 1979,” he said. ‘I almost threw them away because I thought they could not possibly still be good. But I tried one and they were not half bad.”

I thought they were delicious. It was the perfect end to an evening when the Prince organized a small comparative tasting of 1959 La Mission Haut-Brion and 1959 Haut-Brion versus 1961 La Mission Haut-Brion and 1961 Haut-Brion. All the wines were breathtaking, but for me the 1961 Haut-Brion stole the show with its thick, velvety texture and amazing flavors of raisins, tar, treacle tart and red fruits. 100 points, non-blind, the perfect wine. What a night.
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When the Cat is Away the Mice Play

Posted: Aug 13, 2008 11:02am ET
I never thought about it. Sure. I have seen the work beetles can do to a box of cigars. They can drill tiny holes in your smokes for days, even years, until they finally turn to dust. But mice? Yes mice!

A couple of days ago I was at home in Tuscany and I went down to get some cigars to smoke to follow a classical music concert in Cortona (by the way, it was with violinist Joshua Bell, who is amazing). I noticed mice droppings in the large free-standing cedar cabinet where I keep my cigars in my wine cellar. So I decided to take a closer look, and to my horror the furry bastards had eaten a partial box of 1993 Cohiba Siglo 1 and 1985 Hoyo de Monterrey Gourmet. I had no idea that mice ate cigars.

Check out my video. There¹s even a short segment with one of the devils diving out of the cabinet onto the cellar floor. I set a trap for them with cheese. But no luck so far in catching the raiders.




I know mice eat paper and other things like that. I have a friend here who had some cash hidden in his bedroom for emergencies, and the day he needed the money he found that mice had eaten half of it. I think it was $10,000 or something!

Anyway, the mice only ate boxes that were left open. Luckily, the few dozen other boxes in the cabinet were closed!
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