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2011 Big Smoke Saturday Seminars: An Insider’s View of Cuba

Gregory Mottola
Posted: November 2, 2011

Take a room full of 500 cigar enthusiasts. Now open up a fresh box of Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 Cuban cigars. The oohs and ahhs will rise up from the crowd. Then open up another box of Por Larrañaga Regalias de Londres, and hear the catcalls and whistles. Then a vintage box of Dunhill Selection Montecristo number twos and the room is on the brink of turning into a mob. This is what Ajay Patel did.

Patel, who shared the stage with Gordon Mott and David Savona on the Insider’s View of Cuba seminar, is the proprietor of the United Kingdom’s only Casa del Habano, Habanos S.A.’s official franchise for Cuban cigars. Patel is a wealth of knowledge, especially in the realm of vintage cigars, a subject of which there is so little scholarship. And he came to the Big Smoke in an effort to help demystify the rarefied world of Cuban cigars and the even more esoteric world of vintage Cuban smokes.

As Mott said, “Speaking with Ajay about vintage Cubans is like discussing a sheet of music with a philharmonic musician. He sees all the nuances and his knowledge of the vintage cigar market is truly extraordinary.”

But even Mott was a bit distracted by the piles of vintage cigars presented at the seminar. “So, as I recall,” Mott suggested, “the script says ‘Ajay gives Gordon and Dave all of his cigars.’”

The room laughed along, having already been put in a Cuban state of mind after a video played showing Savona and Mott smoking in Cuban factories and shops on their recent trips to Havana to produce the December cover story for Cigar Aficionado magazine.

“To smoke a good vintage cigar, the perfect time, is on a fresh palate,” said Patel, though, most likely none of the room qualified. Most had lit up as soon as they walked through the ballroom doors, including the Cigar Aficionado editors. Patel handed Mott and Savona a Dunhill Selection Montecristo No. 2 from the 1960s, and the trio began to smoke the cigars. Seem cruel? Not entirely. Of course, providing one for everybody would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000, but Patel generously offered one to a member of the audience, a Big Smoke loyalist who has attended every show but had never smoked a vintage cigar.

The panel included Gordon Mott, Ajay Patel and David Savona.
The panel included Gordon Mott, Ajay Patel and David Savona.
“Under one condition,” Patel said. “You have to smoke it while we’re smoking it.” He readily agreed.

The panel addressed the current state of Cuban cigars, reminding the audience that Cuba had some serious issues in the late 90s and early 2000s with both quality control for construction and the tobacco.

“When we first started the magazine, the boxes were coded and consumers didn’t know the dates or the factories where the cigars were produced,” said Savona. “Cuba’s abandoned that and now the codes are very clear with the year and month of production on the box of cigars.”

“We all know that Cuba had a problem after the boom. Production was like a conveyor belt,” said Patel. “But they learned their lesson. Altadis injected $500 million in to Habanos to help obtain more fertilizer and draw testers. New blood also came in to manage the factories. In 2004, quality got noticeably better.”

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