Havana Cigar Shops
The biggest city in Cuba has a superb collection of cigar stores that sell handmade, premium cigars
From the Print Edition:
Havana—The Insider's Guide, November/December 2011
(continued from page 4)
At a tidy bar in the corner a man in a black vest and bow tie nods hello as he wipes clean the counter in front of him. You say a quick “buenos dias” as you pass them and step inside the large walk-in humidor. The door shuts with a loud creak behind you.
Inside, it’s just you and the cigars, Cuban cigars, all of them stacked in neat piles. Your mind spins with possibilities—what to buy? You look at the myriad sizes, the colorful boxes, turning them over to inspect the dates stamped beneath, seeking out something special, then select your smoke and take it to one of those comfortable chairs. As you put flame to the robusto you’ve just clipped, the woman in the yellow suit hands you a hot cup of Cuban coffee to go with your smoke. You take a puff, and for the next hour, all is right with the world.
No trip to Cuba is complete without buying at least one Cuban cigar, and now is a great time to buy. The cigar shops in Cuba have impressive inventories, today’s Cuban cigars are smoking extremely well, and the Cuban cigar industry has added shops and improved others in Havana. Cuba’s capital city is arguably the finest place on the planet to shop for Cuban cigars, with nine Casa del Habanos in the city and more on the way.
Prices here are among the lowest in the world. Set by the government, they are almost always identical from shop to shop. You can get a single cigar for only a few dollars, such as the diminutive Montecristo No. 5, which sells for 3.60 cuc (about $4.25, including exchange fees), or splurge on a large Cohiba Esplendido, which sells for 17.95 cuc ($21.50). The vast majority of Cuban cigars retail for less than 10 cuc apiece, so for less than $300 you can
acquire most boxes of 25.
Still, don’t dismiss a store simply because it’s not a Casa del Habano—we found at least one store in Havana that is worth a visit despite not being part of the Casa chain.
Editors’ picksLa Casa del Habano
5th and 16 Av. 5 y Calle 16, Miramar
Long regarded as one of Cuba’s finest cigar stores, the Casa del Habano on the corner of 5th Avenue and 16th Street in Cuba’s serene and opulent Miramar section of Havana, is simply one of the world’s premier cigar shopping—and smoking—experiences. This is a shop prized by collectors, with an experienced and courteous staff, a long history of selling fine cigars, a vast array of rooms and even cigar-friendly dining areas where you can puff on what you purchase.
The shop is run by Osmany Rios, who has been here for more than 10 years, and Carlos Robaina (the son of legendary Cuban tobacco farmer Alejandro Robaina), who has worked here for the past four. The duo knows fine cigars well and can steer a buyer in the right direction. On a May visit, an open box on display in a small cabinet to the right of the cash register was marked “No Se Pierda,” Spanish for “Do Not Miss.” It was a box of Hoyo de Monterrey le Hoyo des Dieux from 1999, not a great vintage, but who could resist a 12-year-old cigar priced at a mere $7? It was a mild, tasty smoke that was perfectly suitable for the morning.
The design of the walk-in humidor at Quinta Avenida is one part art, one part genius. Built to maximize storage space while minimizing its imprint on the store, the walking space around the humidor is only shoulder-width wide, and it snakes along the wall in a pattern of Ls, so walking through it requires twists and turns.
While the cigars in this shop receive serious attention from a stream of customers, I’ve always found something old here, especially when searching through secondary brands and smaller sizes. Some digging found a 1997 box of Juan López Patricias, unusual cigars that measure 4 5/8 inches by 40 ring, a cigar size known as a Franciscanos. They were selling for a mere 76 cuc.
The shop moves a lot of smokes. “Last week we sold more than 30,000 cigars,” said Rios. It’s rare to walk in and see deep stocks on the shelves, and quite common to see boxes in the back being opened up, ready to be moved into the humidor.
Quinta Avenida is ideal for collectors. While all La Casas on the island have lockers, this one has 96 of them, the most in Havana. In earlier years it cost hundreds to rent one, but today the lockers are free, although renting is up to management. Rios says they fumigate the lockers twice a year, to eliminate the potential for tobacco beetles, and the rules of the house prohibit you from storing cigars purchased elsewhere in your locker.
This is a shop where you must linger, or you risk missing out on one of the shop’s classic touches. Once you’ve selected a cigar, order a Cuban coffee. The steaming little cup of Cubita is delivered on a saucer with a pair of actual tobacco leaves beneath the cup. There are several places to sit and relax while you puff, including the smoking parlor up front, with its tiled floor and high-backed chairs; a bar area off to the side, with wicker furniture, and even a cigar-friendly (of course) restaurant.
There are three private rooms (named Bolivar, Cohiba and San Cristóbal, for the cigar brands) if you wish to host a party. A visit to Havana without stopping here would be a mistake.
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Meliá Habana
Av. 3, entre 76 y 80, Playa, Habana
The bar stands out in Cuba for its surprising selection of Scotch, which includes Johnny Walker Swing, Red, Black, Green, Gold and Blue, Chivas 12 and 18, and Dimple 15, as well as a bottle of Hennessy Paradis Cognac. The bartender mixes cocktails as well, making this bar the most complete of those in Cuba’s cigar stores.
The walk-in humidor has a nice touch—some of the shelves are cut with an angle, so a half-circle of wood extends out, adding to the charm. There’s a small table in the center of the room—displaying a few special items—with a chair.
The cigar selection here is superb. There’s a well-chosen selection of cigars by the box, many of them in cabinets of 50, such as Punch Punch, Hoyo Doubles and Punch Doubles. There’s also a large number of singles, with a broad selection of brands as well as sizes. We saw all types of Montecristos, lots of Cohibas, Partagás, Bolivars, Trinidads, Hoyo de Monterreys, even relatively obscure brands such as Sancho Panzas, Diplomaticos, Saint Luis Reys and La Gloria Cubanas.
Most Casas have aged cigars mixed in their stock, but the management at this store does some of the digging for you. They have a cabinet within the walk-in humidor with older cigars from 2000, 2003 and 2005. “This is one of the things we do all the time, call and ask for old cigars,” says Maryla Delgado Fernández, showing off an old box of Partagás Charlottes as she puffs on a cañonazo-size smoke that was made in house.
The shop has a small but well-kept locker area, and a simple but pleasant enough back room if you wish to smoke with some privacy.
La Casa del Habano, Club Habana
Av. 5, entre 188 y 192, Miramar, Playa
Far from the hustle and bustle of downtown Havana lies one of the best cigar stores in all of Cuba, the Casa del Habano at Club Habana. Located on the site of the old Biltmore Yacht and Country Club, the shop is situated next to a stately 80-year-old building with a terrazzo roof that backs up to a beach.
You owe it to yourself to take a look at the water (at the very least) and order a cold Bucanero beer and watch the waves, or perhaps catch a view of the Russian flight attendants who like to tan here between flights. Club Habana also makes for a fine spot for an afternoon getaway—speak to your hotel concierge about making arrangements.
Getting inside Club Habana and the cigar shop means going through a security check with a gate (don’t worry, they’ll let you in). The shop, located at the far left of the complex, is gorgeous, spotless and luxurious. The walk-in humidor, set to the right when you enter, is large and bursting with smokes, and is decorated with stained-glass panels above the clear-glass panels of the wall of the humidor.
The shop always seems stocked with great cigars, for this is the domain of Enrique Mons, widely believed to be the greatest cigar retailer in Havana. Mons, who was in charge of quality control for Cuba’s cigar industry in the 1970s and 1980s before turning to retail, knows cigars inside and out.
His humidor has artfully arranged stacks of Cubans, and at the center of the racks is a backlit area featuring special accessories. Be sure to dig around—something old always seems to be lurking if you’re patient enough to find it.
Mons’s shop has two cigar rolling tables, stationed outside of the walk-in humidor, facing one another from across the room. Cigar rollers here work slowly, carefully, and while house cigars can often lack a certain something, the ones made here are not to be ignored. Ask for a “Monsdale,” Enrique Mons’ take on the lonsdale size, which looks like a thicker-than-normal panetela, complete with a pigtail cap. The cigars are rich, robust and delicious. You’ll want at least two.
The back room, with long strips of wood paneling, is among the best smoking rooms in Havana. The room has artwork on the walls, including a dramatic dark bust of Alejandro Robaina, a bar with an extensive selection of rum and Scotch, great Cuban coffee and extremely comfortable leather furniture. It’s also spacious, designed so that you can claim your own little area and smoke in peace. On one recent visit, a very happy gentleman wearing a suit sat in a corner, smoking a robusto and reading his iPad, quite content with the world.
Shops worth visitingLa Casa del Habano, Partagás Cigar Factory
Calle Industria No. 520, Centro Habana
Undeniably touristy and often crowded, the Casa del Habano at the Partagás Cigar Factory nevertheless remains a must-visit cigar shop in Cuba. The dark wood paneling, the high energy, the vaulted ceilings, the photographs of famous visitors, the crowded masses puffing away on great cigars, all of it combines to create an experience not to be missed.
While the Partagás Cigar Factory itself is scheduled to be closed for a lengthy renovation (it was expected to have closed by spring 2011, but was still open as this issue went to press), Cuban officials say the shop will stay open during that time.
The retail operation here is run by one of Cuba’s best-known and most talented cigar retailers, Abel Expósito Diaz, a gentleman who really knows his cigars and is always quite hospitable.
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