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James Suckling

Last Night's Real Cigar Convention in Vegas

Posted: Jul 16, 2008 7:04pm ET
The day was long and smoky yesterday during the cigar show in Vegas. My eyes felt like someone threw sand in them by the end of the day. But it’s been worth it. I have smoked numerous excellent cigars and had some great conversations with dozens of cigarmakers.

I am so impressed with the passion so many of them have for making cigars. It’s like talking to great winemakers or fabulous chefs. They are all dedicated to making a great product whether it’s a cigar, bottle of wine or plate of food. Their hearts and souls go into it.

Two of the best cigars yesterday came from relative newcomers -- the Garcia family at El Rey de los Habanos and Dion Giolito of Illusione Cigars. The father and son team at El Rey, Jaime and Pepin Garcia, really know their stuff and fellow editor David Savona and I spent close to an hour (we were late for all of our meets afterwards) talking about cigars, from fermentations to rolling techniques. Los Garcias have come out with a new cigar line called MF, or My Father. They seemed sort of surprised when I
told them that MF also stood for Mother F__ . Luckily, it was lost in the translation. They don’t speak English very well.

Anyway, what a smoke. The Crema that I smoked that measured 6 inches by 49 ring (it’s like a shorten 109 from Cuba) delivered super clean and floral aromas and flavors with hints of cedar and tea. It was very, very balanced and refined with a medium to full body. 92 points, at least, in this non-blind tasting.

Father Pepin – HF (for His Father) – said that the new cigar is their first smoke made from their own tobacco that they started growing in the key areas of Nicaragua a couple of years ago. This is the only way to make great cigars, he said. We can control the quality of the leafs we grow and later the fermentations and aging before rolling.

The MF line comes in four sizes: Robusto, 52 ring gauge x 5 1/4”, Belicoso 54 x 5 1/2” Crema, 49 x 6”, and Lancero 38 x 7 1/2”. They range in price from $10 to $12 a stick.
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Playboy Bunnies and Ballsy Smokes

Posted: Jul 15, 2008 12:18pm ET
A lot of the action during the cigar show in Las Vegas happens after the convention hall is locked shut. Most of the top cigar companies host dinners and parties for the attendees each night. Plus, there is the added attraction of Vegas ­ with all of its obvious diversions and pleasures.

Last night C.A.O. laid on an outrageous party at The Palms, which included none other than the Lynyrd Skynyrd band. C.A.O.'s head Tim Ozenger hangs with some of the band members back in Nashville, so he persuaded them to do a gig for him during the cigar show.

I must admit that I used to listen to the band a lot back in my college years. Who didn¹t listen to Free Bird back then? Anyway, I spoke to vocalist Johnny Van Zant, who I think is the closest buddy to Tim. And he said that he "dug" smoking cigars. "I smoke just about any old thing," he said, as we were hanging out at the Hugh Hefner Sky Villa at the top of the Palms before the show. "But I like C.A.O. a lot and I enjoy Cubans too."

Check out my video on the Sky Villa. I was bummed I didn't wear pajamas instead of my jeans and a shirt. There were a few nice bunnies about but the pre-party was definitely missing hotties. Next time I will help organize it all in that department.

Anyway, we smoked some good stuff (only cigars) such as the new C.A.O. Lx2. I call it Pueblo Nuevo. It is made with Nicaraguan tobacco but with a special emphasis on the ligero (the strongest leaf) from C.A.O.'s plantation named Pueblo Nuevo near Condega in the heart of tobacco growing in Nica. I went there a couple of years back and it's prime property.

Here is my tasting note for the petit corona-sized smoke: This is very strong and powerful with black pepper and tobacco character. Long and rich. Licorice and power. Big ballsy smoke. This is very sweet tobacco too. 91 points, non blind.
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Great Start To Whatever It Is

Posted: Jul 14, 2008 12:11pm ET
We had a warm up dinner for the cigar show in Las Vegas at Bouchon Restaurant in the Venetian. There were about two dozen cigar producers standing out on the terrace of the restaurant. Obviously, we couldn¹t smoke in the restaurant. So thank God it was not boiling hot. We sat down to a three-course dinner and smoked, drank and talked.

I was really stoked to be hanging out with some of the new and old legends of cigars from Manuel Quesada to Jose Blanco to Jaime Garcia. They were all handing out cigars like Starbucks hands out lattes. I didn't know what to smoke first. Blanco, who as you know works for Aurora, handed me a small panetela or short lanceros-sized smoke. He said it was special. But the cigar had an Aurora 100 Años band on it.

That little bitch of a cigar blew me away. It was rich and flavorful yet balanced and fresh. It was so long on the finish and clean. It had an almost menthol-like finish too it. Cool and hip. 91 points in my book. Blanco said it was an experiment with Cuban tobacco (obviously they can't sell it in the states!). They replaced the normal 100 Años wrapper with one from Pinar del Río. Bastards! If only they could do it all the time, I told Jose.

Anyway, it was an awesome way to start the RTDA. I mean IPCPR. That stands for International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers. Come on. Apparently they changed it from Retail Tobacco Dealers of America because they didn't want "tobacco" to be in the name. Or maybe it was the word "dealers?"

I tried a number of other smokes including Fonseca Cubano Viso Fuerte, Oliva Serie V, GAR Corona Gorda, and a Rocky Patel Summer Collection. They were all outstanding smokes. 90 points plus. The best of that group, however, was the Oliva Serie V. It was so balanced and refined with a creamy, cappuccino, coffee and tobacco character. I loved it. 92 points. Get this 5-inch by 59-ring gauge smoke and see for yourself.

The dinner conversation was mostly about Cuba. I GUESS I BRING THAT OUT IN CIGAR PRODUCERS! I kept my mouth shut and just listened. I didn't want to get thrown in the nearby swimming pool! Jose "Pepin" Garcia and his son Jaime Garcia were the most passionate. They just left the island in 2000. They are making fab smokes at the moment, especially for my buddy Pete Johnson. Jose says that the Cubans use a lot of tobacco from Las Villas area in their top cigars, but I am not convinced. I decided I didn't want to argue it. What do I know anyway? It's nice to hide behind a cigar!!
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Toys for Boys

Posted: Jul 11, 2008 2:20pm ET
I was in Switzerland last week for a few days visiting various watch factories including Vacheron Constantin, Piaget, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Panerai, and International Watch Company. All are part of the Richemont Group. My friend Alain Li, regional chief executive for Richemont Asia Pacific Limited in Hong Kong, organized the trip.

It was a car rally of sorts as well. There was no competition, but it was a test for many to find their way to different watch factories, restaurants and hotels. The TomToms and other GPS machines seemed to be giving a lot of bad information last week! We drove from Geneva to Le Sentir to Neuchatel to Schaffausen to Zurich over four days with stops in the watch factories with lots of good food, wine and cigars as well. Many cars got lost.

There were a number of beautiful cars on the tour including a Lamborgini Mura SV (one of the sexiest cars I have ever seen), 275 GTB Ferrari, 250 GT Ferrari Spyder California LWD, Dino Ferrari, Bentley S1, Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing, Jaguar Convertible E type, Austin Healey, and two new 599 GTB Ferrais, among others.

As impressive as the cars were (check out the video),

I was in awe over the watch making. Great watches truly are hand-made products. Their craftsmanship is second to none. In fact, the parallels to cigar making are incredible. Here are a few common points that strike me.

• Each factory has its own personality, whether producing watches or cigars. For instance, Vacheron Constantin is traditional and staid in nature, hand-making watches in the old-fashioned way while Panerai combines classical watch making with 21st Century assistance and precision from computers and other high tech machinery. Like Vacheron, the same could be said of the traditional cigar making methods of the Partagas factory in Havana with its centuries-old rolling room while H. Upmann (more like
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The Danger of Smoking Cigars

Posted: Jun 25, 2008 10:20am ET
I had a nasty run-in with a Juan Lopez Selección No. 1 the other night! It was after a serious wine tasting dinner at my house with Bibi Gratez, the hipster winemaker/owner of one of my favorite wines in Tuscany, Testamatta.

I had already smoked the most of the corona gorda (46 ring gauge by 5 5/8 inches) when it slipped out of my hand and bounced onto the inside of my left elbow--ash down.

I got branded! It hurt like a mother. In fact, three days later it still looks like a birthmark--two in fact. Look at the video.

Man. Smoking a fine cigar can be dangerous f---ing business. Be careful! Cuidado! Don’t forget that the end of a burning cigar can reach temperatures of something like 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dropping a burning cigar can do all sorts of damage. I remember my brother Johnny once found that a client’s Porsche couldn’t use its retractable spoiler because the guy had thrown his cigar out the sunroof and somehow it ended up lodged between the main body and the wind gear. Bozo! Luckily, Johnny doesn’t work at the main San Diego Porsche dealership anymore, so he doesn’t have to deal with cabrons like that any more. But it’s a pretty funny story.

Have you had any funny experiences with dropped smoldering smokes?
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A Saturday Morning Tradition in Havana

Posted: Jun 16, 2008 10:43am ET
I passed through Havana over the weekend on the way back to Europe, and I thought I was looking pretty rough after a few days in Hollywood with friends and family. What better way to freshen up, I thought to myself, than with a traditional shave in Old Havana on Saturday morning?

I asked a friend if he knew a good barber who still did open razor shaves, and he told me to go to a small barbershop at the corner of Plaza de Armas and Obispo. The barber’s name was Gilberto Turrente.

I finally found the place after a few bad turns and asking locals in my bad Spanish where the barber was. I walked into the barbershop, and Gilberto was more than accommodating. Check out my video.

I have never had an open razor shave, as far as I can remember. However, I recall as a boy that my grandfather was a great fan of a good shave at the barbershop at the Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles. My late grandfather, Albert Matlaf, used to own the fish restaurant at the Farmer’s Market. I worked in the kitchen there during the summer as a teenager to make some pocket money. I still remember shelling 20 pounds of shrimp each morning. I hated that job!

Anyway, Gilberto must have gone through a whole cupboard full of hot towels for my shave. He applied two or three before putting warm soap on my beard. He then quickly shaved it away. In fact, he shaved me twice. “I don’t want you to look like you haven’t been shaved by this evening,” he said with a smile. “You probably have some nice Cuban ladies to meet later and I want you to look your best.”

After the shave, he splashed some cologne on my face, which stung like a mother. And then he applied some talcum powder. I am not sure why the latter was used, but it didn’t hurt.

I rubbed my right hand across my face, and it felt like a baby’s bottom. My grandfather would have approved of Gilberto’s shave. The only way that the experience could have been better was if I was smoking a cigar, but Gilberto doesn’t allow cigar smoking in his shop.
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Another Flight from Havana

Posted: Jun 11, 2008 10:10am ET
Leaving Havana can be the worst experience at times. Sometimes you can take away things that you can’t smoke nor bargained for. I flew to Los Angeles over the weekend from the island and I found that I brought back something that I didn’t count on. It took effect on my Mexicana flight from Cancun to Los Angeles. And I spent the better part of the five-hour flight in the can — all in the day and the life of a smoker/drinker/foreign correspondent.

I am still suffering as I write this, but I am sure it will go away soon.

Anyway, the really annoying part was that about 30 minutes before we landed in LAX, I was going through my courier bag to find a pen to fill out my immigration form and I found a small Humidipak Humidor Bag full of four Romeo y Julieta Exhibicion No. 4s! Shit. I was supposed to smoke those at lunch in Havana with some friends at Aljibe restaurant before I left.

I started thinking to myself about the last flight to the United States from Havana via Cancun where U.S. Customs in Dallas took my cigars and chopped them in half in front of me. Of course, they were just doing their job. Remember my blog on March 5? But I just didn’t want to go through that bullshit again. And I didn’t know when I was going to have to find the next bano.

So, as we started our descent, I decided to just leave the Humidipak in the pocket of the seat in front of me with the magazines. I wonder if anyone has found the cigars yet on Mexicana 946C? I hated to leave them like that, but I felt like I had no choice. I felt like a criminal leaving a bag of drugs or something. IT WAS ONLY FOUR CIGARS! BUT THAT’S THE STUPIDITY OF THE LAWS.

The plane landed in Los Angeles, and I rushed to the immigration desk to try to get through before the bacteria eating at my intestines created another gastric disaster. To my horror, the Bradley Terminal looked like the last few days of Saigon! The only thing missing was the Huey helicopters!!
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A Special Factory for Special Cigars in Havana

Posted: Jun 9, 2008 5:19pm ET
I thought I was going to the Partagas Factory on Friday but I was told it was closed. So I ended up hanging with some friends and smoking some cigars (as usual) in La Habana.

It made me think about the new specialty factory that the Cubans are developing at the moment. It will be located in the old El Rey del Mundo factory, next door to the Romeo y Julieta factory. I went there years ago when it was still primarily making machine-made smokes. The machines, most that were brought into Cuba in the 1930s, put together the bunches and then rollers added the wrappers. The machines are long gone now from El Rey del Mundo.

“2009 we think that we will have the new factory,” said Manuel Garcia, commercial director for Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing organization for Cuban cigars. Check out my last blog for Manuel’s interesting perspective on the U.S. market. “It was traditionally for premium cigars, but after the Revolution, it was also for machine-made cigars. We want to make all specialty cigars there, such as regional editions, Edición Limitadas and special humidors.

This is a great idea, and I think that the factory will look something like El Laguito, where there are only about 100 rollers who take their time making superb smokes. Check out my video from El Laguito, the mother factory for Cohiba and formerly Cuban Davidoff cigars.

Garcia said that the regional edition smokes are a huge success and that he expects to see more and more. This year there are already close to two dozen. I hope to smoke them all in Havana in October.

I agree that the regional smokes are a success and they seem to be getting better all the time. In the beginning, I thought that they seemed a little bit too alike in flavor, but the few new ones I have smoked recently indicate otherwise.
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A Message for America

Posted: Jun 6, 2008 2:52pm ET
Manuel Garcia, the commercial director for Habanos SA., the global marketing and distribution organization for Cuban cigars, probably knows more about the Cuban cigar business than anyone on earth. He has been selling Cuban cigars for Habanos (and what it was called earlier, Cubatabaco) around the world since 1989, and he has seen amazing changes in the industry, both in production and distribution and marketing.

Each year, the 50-year-old travels about 220 days crisscrossing the globe preaching the quality and uniqueness of Cuban cigars. As I said in my blog yesterday, his company, Habanos, distributes Cuban smokes in more than 160 countries around the world, not including the United States, of course. Or at least not officially.

I would say that a large percentage of Cuban cigars sold in Canada and Mexico end up in the hands and mouths of Americans. And I suspect that a significant percentage of Cuban cigars sold by top cigar merchants and airport shops around the world go to Americans.

It’s not that hard to get a Cuban cigar in many cities in the states. We all know where to go. Just look at my video from Los Angeles a few months back. I smoked a delicious Partagas Serie D No. 4 for $18—about the same price as London. Granted, I think a lot of Cuban cigars being smuggled and sold in the United States are fakes, but I think the real aficionado knows the difference and he or she pays a premium for an illicit smoke.

In fact, if you think about it, we are talking about significant numbers of real Cuban cigars being smoked by Americans. If Americans accounted for only 10 percent of the world sales of Cuban cigars, then their business would add up to about 15 million cigars. And I think that that is very possible. I know cigar merchants in London, Paris, Madrid, Hamburg, Hong Kong, Tijuana, Cancún, even Auckland, who’s sales of Cuban cigars to Americans range better 20 and 40 percent of their total sales each year.
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Cigar Morning Meeting in Havana

Posted: Jun 5, 2008 5:02pm ET
It’s hot today in Havana. They say it’s in the high 80s but it fees like the 90s. And it’s super humid too. What a change from Europe, which has been cold, wet and miserable over most of the last few weeks.

But that’s the magic of Havana, and Cuba at large. I was smoking in Plaza de San Francisco in Old Havana near the cruise ship docks and Customs House. I love to hang there and watch people go by. Check out my short video. Wish you were here!

Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of time for that though. I had to run off to Habanos S.A. I had an awesome interview this morning with Manuel Garcia, the commercial director of Habanos, the global marketing and distribution organization for Cuban cigars. It will make a cool column for the magazine, but I will recount a few things today and tomorrow. Plus, I have a special video tomorrow with Miguel.

I am not sure who coined the phrase first. (I thought I did?) But Manuel emphasized that there is not place better to smoke a Cuban cigar in the world than Cuba. “It is a natural humidor,” he said, as we smoked cigars in the offices of Habanos in the neighborhood of Miramar early this morning. He was smoking a Cohiba Lanceros and I lit up a Cuaba Piramide Edición Limitada 2008. The Cuaba won't be on the market until September.

“Cigars taste different in Cuba,” he said, as we smoked away and talked.
“ It is the best combination to smoke cigars in Cuba. It’s not only the smoking conditions, but It is also in the psyche of smoker to smoke here. It is a very special experience... Cuba is the place of origin. It is unique. And we have the best tobacco.”

I have to admit that nothing beats smoking a cigar here. It is an emotional experience. It’s like surfing the perfect wave in Hawaii, driving a Ferrari on the factory race track (I did it last week!), drinking Latour at Chateau Latour, playing golf at St. Andrews….you get the idea.
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