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James Suckling

Que Rico To Smoke in the José Martí Airport

Posted: Jun 4, 2008 4:41pm ET
I sat in the VIP lounge at Havana's José Martí Airport for about an hour waiting for my bags. Everyone was super friendly, super chilled. I made some jokes in my bad Spanish and just hung and smoked my Trinidad Fundadore. Is it just me or does this awesome cigar taste better now that I am in Cuba? I think it likes being back home and it will stay here in the form of ash.

It’s spicy and very cedary with a bitter chocolate and tobacco aftertaste. It smells of white pepper and dried flowers. It draws perfectly. I think it was a big plus making the Fundadore a 40 ring gauge instead of 38 like the Cohiba Lanceros or Davidoff No. 1 or Montecristo Especiale. The slightly thicker ring gauge gives you a smoother and fresher draw. I give this 93 points, non blind. Love this cigar.

The weather is a humid 86F today. My driver said that it rains every afternoon. Oh well. I just came from London and it was raining. It was so cold I thought it might start snowing last night when I was at the Lanesborough with a buddy from Mexico smoking a cigar before dinner. The Lanesborough is one of the few public places you can smoke, but it’s in a small heated outdoor terrace. I was dressed for Cuba, so I froze.

So I am still unthawing in Havana today. Tomorrow I have an interview with Manuel Garcia, who is the commercial director of Habanos S.A., the global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars. I am excited to discuss how Cuban cigars have evolved from just being a smoke to becoming a symbol and a product for a luxury lifestyle. It’s not just smoke anymore. We all know that a fine cigar enhances your life. It calms you and enables you to be reflective about life. Plus, it brings you closer to family and friends when you all have the chance to hang out and have a nice smoke.

That’s something Cubans certainly understand. When I entered the VIP lounge, I told the receptionist that I was going to the large smoking room, and he just smiled.
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The Right Smoke for Cuba

Posted: Jun 3, 2008 4:48pm ET
What would you bring to Cuba for your first smoke? I always have that “problem” when I go to cigar smokers’ paradise. I like to light a cigar as soon as I arrive on the island, and that normally means at the VIP lounge in the José Martí Airport as I am waiting for my luggage.

How cool is that? Smoking in a cigar in the airport. Wow. And in Havana no less.

Sometimes I run into someone I know on the flight and they offer me a smoke if we both happen to be in VIP. Or maybe a friend of mine will meet me at the lounge and bring something. But usually it’s just my cigars, and I love to light up after more than nine hours in the plane from London or Madrid. It’s relaxing, but also there’s something almost mystical about it. It makes me change gears and immediately become part of the island culture or tempo.

This time I brought a couple of 1998 Trinidad Fundadores. I brought these because they are from the original batch of cigars produced for the launch of the brand in March 1998. I love the long and slender cigar that measures 7 1⁄2 inches long by 40-ring gauge. It is essentially the same cigar as the Cohiba Lanceros but a tiny bit thicker. So it usually draws better.

I love the spicy, tobacco and coffee character of the 1998 Fundadore. It has so much character for a long, slender smoke, and with age, it delivers such finesse and freshness. It keeps your palate clean and satisfied.

Can’t wait to smoke it. Stay tuned for tomorrow when I light it up in Havana and begin my daily blogs and videos from the island.

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Driving the Dream

Posted: May 30, 2008 9:32am ET
I have to admit that I was a little nervous. Look at my face in the video before I drove the car. I think I look a little pale, even ashen. But it all went well, and after four laps around the track, I began to feel confident.

It was all part of a morning at the Fiorano racetrack near Modena, Italy. The track is the official track for Ferrari, both for testing their
production cars as well as Forumla One. I was asked last Monday to go with some friends from Florence who were hooking up with their local Ferrari dealer to try out some of the new F430s on the market. Who in their right mind would say no to that?

Anyway, we drove up from Florence to the track, which took about two hours. We already had a couple of Ferraris. One of the cars was a sleek black 430 coupe. The other was a dark silver 550 SuperAmerica.

But when we arrived at the track, there was dead silence for a moment. In front of us were four gorgeous new F430s, complete with test pilots to give you few tips while zooming around the track. The cars were breathtaking.

I don’t want to bore you with all the specs on the cars but they were the standard 490- horsepower models with F1 paddle gearboxes and ceramic brakes. They are essentially rockets with wheels.

We spent about one hour learning about the mechanics of the cars as well as driving positions and some techniques. But the real lesson was when we took a quick two laps with a test pilot. Mine was Sergio. (I thought I had a fun job!). He drove the car with great precision but at the same time in a smooth and relaxed manner. At the straightaway we hit about 200 kilometers per hour before braking and shifting down three gears to second to take the first curve. It was a blast!

I had to wait about an hour after that to get my chance in front of the wheel of the F430. I have driven one a number of times last year, but driving on a track is so much different than the road. It takes more concentration and technique knowing when and where to brake as well as making the right gear changes through the various curves.
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London Smoking

Posted: May 16, 2008 10:26am ET
I froze my ass off last night in London just to smoke a cigar with my good friends Jemma Freeman and Simon Chase, both of Hunters & Frankau, the British importers of fine Cuban cigars. We smoked a number of aged cigars that they are currently putting on the market, including a delicious 1998 Romeo y Julieta Churchill. The long smoke delivered plenty of cocoa and coffee character as well as a medium body, and a flavorful finish. 91 points, non blind, I say.

I tried it against a current production RyJ Churchill and the aged smoke was superior. In fact, the new Churchill was a bit under filled and grassy. Not very good. I guess the Cubans haven't fixed all their QC problems!

Anyway, we had about a 30-minute session at a place near Victoria Station called Boisdales. It's a Scottish bar/restaurant with live music and a heated terrace on top. Unfortunately, you have to clear out by 11 p.m., or the neighbors (or shall I write neighbours) start complaining. So we had to hurry through our smokes and glasses of 10-year-old Taylor's tawny Port.

But it's better than nothing. It's sort of weird not being able to smoke in London. For me, London is "the" man's man sort of city. It just caters to us from bespoke suits to great wine shops. But now you can't smoke. Even my London club, the Savile Club, doesn't let you smoke. I remember for years smoking in the club and seeing old farts fall asleep in big fluffy reading chairs in the library with a smoke smoldering in their hand. The great author Rudyard Kipling, a member of the Savile, must be rolling over in his grave. A cigar is not just a cigar anymore in London. Oh well, times change...

Luckily, last week I was also in London for a Latour wine tasting (See my blog on the event over at www.winespectator.com.) And the weather was beautiful. It was summer, or at least English summer. It was sunny, not too hot and beautiful. Check out my video.
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Cuban Cigar Sting in L.A.

Posted: May 7, 2008 11:49am ET
It is surprisingly easy to get Cuban cigars on the West Coast, especially Los Angeles. I was jonesing for a Cuban the other night in Los Angeles and a buddy of mine turned me on to a Partagas Serie D No. 4 straight from a nearby convenience store on Sunset Boulevard. I think most cigar and smoke shops in West Hollywood have Cubans under their counters. I imagine it is the same in many places in Southern California. Whether they are real or not is another matter!

Of course, this is totally illegal and should be discontinued. But I thought for journalistic purposes I would see how easy it was to score a real Cuban smoke on a balmy night in Los Angeles. And as you can see in the video, there's no problem.





I guess most of the cigars are muled up through Tijuana, which is only a three-hour drive from Los Angeles, with little or no traffic. The price for a robusto is usually about $25. But the ones my friend bought the other night were discounted to $18. I think in Tijuana they sell for about $8; so there is a profit involved for those who sell. Buyers beware, though, it’s a bust if you get caught!
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Breakfast of Champions

Posted: Apr 29, 2008 12:16pm ET
“Does it taste like 100 points?” asked David Savona, web tsar and senior editor of Cigar Aficionado.

“Good question,” I responded as I smoked in his office in New York. I wasn’t prepared to give my hand away.

I was already halfway through the small torpedo, or Belicoso. It was a 1960 H. Upmann Numero 85. It was given to me this morning during a meeting with the head honcho, supremo Marvin Shanken. The publisher of CA had recently smoked and scored the cigar a perfect 100 points in the June 2008 issue of the magazine in the Connoisseur’s Corner section. He described it as the “Magic Kingdom.” Oookay.

The cigar was awesome. What a way to start the morning. Breakfast of champions, I say. A God-like smoke.

Just before lighting, the cigar smelled marvelous, with cedar, honey, nut and dried flowers. It was in perfect condition. It looked like a new cigar. A few minutes after lighting it, the cigar delivered nutty, cedar and tea-like flavors. It was mild, yet flavorful. The cedary, delicate tobacco character lasted minutes on my palate. In fact, I finished the cigar an hour ago and I can still taste it.

I am not usually a huge fan of pre-Castro or pre-revolution smokes or whatever you want to call them. Most are over the hill due to poor storage. They are dried out with no oils or flavor components. They are like smoking the pages of Rolling Stone – no flavor, no nothing, just smoke. Sometimes they even taste musty or mushoomy, like wet cardboard. But the H. Upmann Numero 85 was a dream. 100 points? Not sure..but very, very close. What a way to start a morning...
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The Questionable Process of Purging Your Cigar

Posted: Apr 24, 2008 9:54am ET
I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know what the hell purging a cigar was until recently. I am only using “hell” because my editors would cut the proper four-letter word for this column.

I guess I never thought about purging my cigar. It sounds sort of nasty. I only purge smelly or bad things. That normally means dumping, flushing or burying things that I purge. And, thank God, my cigars do not fit into that category unless something has gone very, very wrong.

In fact, I can’t think of the last time I didn’t finish a cigar unless it was bad or I had already smoked so many before it that I could not finish the smoke. So I would never purge them anyways.

I assume most of you know what I am talking about. It’s basically blowing outwards on your cigar, instead of sucking, at some point in the smoke. Some say it improves the quality of the cigar and delays the point at which it turns. Others say that by purging the cigar you can let it go out and then smoke it later – even the next morning. Check out the video with Edward Sahakian, the owner of the Davidoff cigar shop in London, who is one of my very good friends. He tells you how to do it.





I am not convinced. Friends can get it wrong! I have never enjoyed a partially smoked cigar the day after unless I was still drunk or there was nothing else left to smoke. I think I once smoked an old half-smoked stick while marlin fishing in Cabo San Lucas, but everything smelled of the sea, diesel and bait. And the tequila and beer was still fresh on my mind. So it made no difference!

Come on! An old, partially smoked cigar just doesn’t taste the same. It’s like drinking a beer that’s been open all day, eating a steak that has gone cold, or sipping your morning coffee after dinner. Yuck! Gag! Choke!
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Living My Fantasy

Posted: Apr 15, 2008 12:15pm ET
I am going to let you in on a little secret. I have always fantasized about working in a cigar factory in Havana. There is something so seductive about the idea. Sure, it can be hard work, even monotonous labor. And the pay certainly is not much. But the thought of smelling, smoking and touching great Cuban leaf every day turns me on.

That ‘s why I have love and hate for Arek Aboulian. He is the 23-year-old son of Raffi Aboulian, the owner of Raffi’s Cigar Shop in Geneva. And he worked three months in the H. Upmann factory in Havana a couple of years ago. I had dinner with him and his dad last week during the Geneva fine watch fair, which I attend for this magazine. (I coordinate the coverage of wristwatches for Cigar Aficionado, besides writing about cigars and other stuff.) Barry Abrams, associate publisher of CA, was also there. Arek and his dad are going to be on my panel on Cuban cigars for the Big Smoke in Las Vegas on November 7 to 9.

Anyway, Arek is super knowledgeable about tobacco. How couldn’t he be, after spending that time working at the H. Upmann factory. He worked in just about every department. Check out my video with him earlier this year in the rolling room of H. Upmann in Havana. He was a rock star there.




He said the best part of working in the factory was being in the galleria, or rolling room. It is the heart and soul of a factory, and he enjoyed seeing the differences between the new generation of rollers and the old ones. “It was hard to get used to the working ethos in the factory at first but after awhile you get used to the slower pace,” he said when we were at the factory. He said he became a pretty proficient roller of bunches (the filler and binder of a cigar) but he still couldn’t master putting the wrapper on the smoke.
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Wrappers and Bimbos

Posted: Mar 27, 2008 11:25am ET
I have noticed some conversation in CA’s online forums, as well as other places, about the quality of wrapper recently in Cuba, and I am not sure whether they are talking about the past, present or future. All I can tell you is that I am always concerned about the leaf. Wrapper, the leaf used on the outside of the cigar, is always the Achilles’ heel of Cuban cigar production.

I remember in the 1990s when the production of wrapper was so bad that they didn’t have large enough leaves to roll anything much larger than a lonsdale. And that was during the heyday of double coronas. So big time big smoke lovers were not happy campers. I knew a Canadian millionaire who sent his private jet to pick up boxes of double coronas in Havana because no one else in the world had any!

But I think that there is a difference between not having wrapper and not having beautiful wrappers. For example, in the video with this blog I asked one of the sorters at the H. Upmann factory in Havana what he thought of the quality of wrapper and he said that that it was not very good. The hombre was one of a handful of workers deveining and classifying the wrappers into categories according to size, texture and color. The wrappers are then passed on to the rolling rooms to be used on cigars.



I think what the sorter was talking about, however, was the appearance of the wrapper and not the quality. From what I could see, they were lightly marked, instead of clean and beautiful. It’s sort of like having a beautiful woman in a slinky, sexy Prada frock with a stain on the front. It diminishes the pleasure to the eye – at least in public – but doesn’t necessarily ruin the evening.

And that’s a point. An ugly wrapper still can potentially deliver good flavor. I have smoked homely, ugly duckling cigars that delivered just as good a smoke as the gorgeous swans… So don’t be turned off.
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Finding the Genie in Hollywood

Posted: Mar 12, 2008 3:17pm ET
My buddy and I were dying for a smoke. And I was empty handed. We had just finished dinner at Father’s Office in Santa Monica and we were full of burgers, sweet potato fries, and various other delicacies, besides sharing a bottle of 2001 Cote Rotie Rene Rostang and 1979 Ridge Petite Sirah. A smoke would help digest it all!
 
The food at FO is the bomb -- fantastic stuff that focuses on high end ingredients and simple, well-executed cooking.  Owner Sang Yoon is a new friend, and I had no idea that he could pull off such excellent food in a sort of Boston, Manhattan pub ambiance. Normally you get some burger and frozen fries with your grease in a place like that. But Yoon was the head chef a few years back at Michael’s in Santa Monica, so he knows how to cook.  He wants to prove that fine cuisine can be matched with great beer just like
in wine and food pairings in the best restaurants around the world. The biggest problem with FO is getting a table. It’s packed and no reservations!
 
Anyway, we left FO overly satisfied and craving the pleasures of the leaf. David, my friend, said he knew a place in West Hollywood that sold red labeled Partagas robustos with gold lettering. I love those cigars. They are my go-to cigars in Europe. He was buying, so why not?
 
We walked into a funky, almost sleazy, wine and cigar shop in Hollywood and David spoke to the manager. The dude went into a back room and came out with two beautiful smokes. David gave him $50 in cash. The cigars’ wrappers were chocolate brown, or “colorado,” if a Cuban cigar roller was around. They smelled of cappuccino with a sweet tobacco and spice undertones.
 
I cut mine with my fingernails and grasped for a match. Wooosh went the match as it lit! I fired up my cigar and the smell of nuts, salt, spices and tobacco filled the room. It was so perfumed and sexy. It was like a genie flowing out of its lamp and offering to fulfill my one wish of the night.
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