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Habanos Today

Three top executives of Cuba's cigar company discuss the status of their primary asset: Cuba's global brands
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Matthew McConaughey, March/April 2011

(continued from page 1)

If there is one conclusion that can be reached from Habanos' experience with each of these specialty categories, it might be that everything it learned from them went into the making of the Cohiba Behike, of which the BHK 52 was named Cigar Aficionado's Cigar of the Year for 2010.

The idea first germinated around the creation of a 40th anniversary Cohiba cigar, which was called a Cohiba Behike—it came in one size, 7 1/2 inches by 52 ring, and was packaged in a Elie Bleu humidor containing 40 cigars. Only 4,000 cigars were made. But from that, according to Jiménez Sanchez-Cañete, the decision was made in 2006 to create the best Cohiba they could, and they began researching old blends and history books about Cuban tobacco. And there they found medio tiempo.

"The idea of the medio tiempo came out from some old history books, and we thought that might be the key to a full-flavored Cohiba blend," says Jiménez Sánchez-Cañete. He says Habanos discovered that medio tiempo had been sorted for years along with other ligero, and used as a regular ligero. So, they decided to sort and ferment the medio tiempo leaves separately. But that decision raised some production issues, for only about one in 10 tobacco plants actually produces medio tiempo, which emerge as two very small leaves at the very top of the plant.

But that was just the beginning. They brought in tobacco from the top five Cohiba vegas, or farms, in San Juan y Martínez and San Luis—Cuchillas de Barbacoa, La Fe, Santa Damiana, La Perla and El Corojo. Then, special teams of rollers at El Laguito were retrained to make the new trio of Behikes, most of them much thicker than the original: BHK 52, BHK 54 and BHK 56, all straight-sided cigars with the signature pigtail.

During training, the blending process began, which brought together 25 top tasters from the five most important factories in Havana along with about 20 other tasters to finalize the blend. But there was another effort underway to produce entirely new bands, a new box and a new logo for the brand.

"One of our suppliers looked at what we wanted to do and said it was too difficult, that's not possible," says Fernandez de Navarrete. But he explains that the final result was not only different, but beautiful, too.

The project really took the focus of the entire organization. Habanos S.A. consists of about 260 employees, from the warehouses where the cigars are stored and shipped to the administrative offices in an old residential area in the Miramar section of Havana. Habanos S.A. was created in 1994 by taking the responsibility for marketing and distribution of cigars and cigarettes out of Cubatabaco, the state tobacco monopoly that oversees tobacco production and manufacturing. Habanos S.A. is also now a joint venture with the global cigar conglomerate Altadis S.A., which was acquired by Imperial Tobacco PLC, the British tobacco giant, in 2008.

In addition, Habanos oversees all the La Casas del Habano in the world; there are currently 142 Casas del Habano, including 17 in Cuba. "From the beginning in 1990 in Cancún, we wanted them to always have the best selection of Havana cigars, to guarantee their origin, and to provide the best information about them and then to have a place to relax and smoke them," says Jiménez Sánchez-Cañete. "They are now recognized by the consumer, and we are going to continue to extend the franchise. Our goal is a Casa del Habano in every major city in the world."

The Cubans are adamant about maintaining the standards in Casas del Habano, and don't just automatically rubberstamp a franchisee's deal in perpetuity. "We opened 12 Casas last year," says López, "but we closed eight," because they didn't fulfill the obligations required of all franchise owners. According to Lopez, Habanos has also issued new rules, some of which are mandatory, while others are just suggestions.

Among these rules are that a Casa del Habano must be at least 60 square meters (645 square feet), although duty-free shops can be smaller, they can only sell Habanos products, that they have an ample walk-in humidor with lockers for loyal customers and a smoking lounge area that, if possible, should also have a bar. "We are simply demanding a minimum level of quality," López says.

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