The Best of Cuba

Posted October 27, 2000, 2:30 p.m. e.s.t.

I am often asked to list the greatest Cuban cigars I have ever smoked, and in all honesty, it's not an easy question to answer. There have been just too many. Nonetheless, if I were hard-pressed, I would make a list of 10 cigars. The list would always be in a state of flux, however. One month I would add a new cigar and take away another. The next month or so, I might take away two and add another two. Some cigars, however, would always be on the list: Montecristo No. 2, Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona and Cohiba Esplendido. Smoking one of these cigars is like drinking first-growth Bordeaux, driving European sports cars or flying private jets -- things in life we all agree are classic luxuries.

Others I would include on my list are equally outstanding, but perhaps rarer and more a question of personal taste. They include the Davidoff Anniversario 80, Davidoff Dom Perignon, Davidoff Chateau Haut Brion, 1492, Salomones II, Dunhill Cabinetta and Por Larrañaga Magnum. With the exception of the Salomones II, none of these cigars are readily available today. However, most can be found at auctions in London or through a handful of cigar merchants. Some, such as the Dom Perignon, cost as much as $300 apiece.

Dom Perignon, a Churchill-sized smoke (47 ring gauge by 7 inches) from Davidoff, has always been a superb cigar. The late Zino Davidoff described it as "the pinnacle, the fruit of several years of research, which has all the sparkle and body of the wine whose name it bears." I would argue that the cigar is even better than the Champagne. DP, as cigar insiders affectionately call it, is a rich and powerful smoke. Yet it remains smooth and refined on the palate; the smoke of this cigar has the texture of fine silk. It came in five-packs, and cedar boxes of 10 and 25 cigars. Today, a box of 25 could sell for more than $10,000 at auction in London.

Davidoff's Anniversario 80 was produced to commemorate Zino's 80th birthday. A massive cigar resembling the Montecristo "A" (47 ring gauge by 9 1/4 inches), it came in an individual cedar box and was sold either individually or in packs of 10. The two-hour smoke has always been glorious. Rich and pungent, yet elegant and pure, there's never been another big cigar so superb in quality. One cigar usually costs about $760, or $15,200 for a box of 20.

Chateau Haut Brion is at the other end of the size spectrum, but it packs a lot of punch for a small cigar. A petit corona cigar (42 ring gauge by 5 inches) that was overpowering and heady in its youth, today it's a terrific cigar delivering loads of cedar, coffee and tobacco character. Always sold in a cedar cabinet of 25 as well as paper five-packs, 10- to 15-year-old Haut Brions currently sell for about $900 a box.

All the Davidoff cigars above were produced primarily at the La Corona factory in Havana. For years, Zino Davidoff said that he had his own Havana factory, El Laguito, but that was complete fiction. Only the slender-sized cigars of his brand, including the No. 1, No. 2 and Ambassadrice, were made there, as well as the Cohiba and the Montecristos in the same size. The last Cuban Davidoff cigars were produced in 1990 and their official distribution stopped in 1992. Davidoff always claimed that the end of his Cuban cigars was due to their poor quality in the late 1980s. However, anyone who has smoked his cigars from that era knows that's not true. The dispute was over the ownership of the Davidoff trademark, but that's another story.

Dunhill cigars met a similar demise as Davidoffs, although the English firm stopped its Cuban cigar production in 1990 on friendlier terms with the Cubans. This, however, takes nothing away from the extraordinary quality of the Dunhill Cabinetta cigar, a blockbuster of a robusto (50 ring gauge by 5 inches). Also produced at the La Corona factory, the cigar came in cedar cabinets of 25, with a sliding lid carrying an embossing of the royal warrant designating Dunhill as official suppliers to the British royal family. Today, most Dunhill Cabinettas are 10 to 20 years old and are more mellow and polished, yet they still offer loads of flavor. A box of 25 sells for about $6,000.

Por Larrañaga Magnums aren't a bargain, either, at about $4,250 a box. Nonetheless, they are a phenomenal smoke. An elongated robusto (50 ring gauge by 6 3/4 inches), the Magnum was produced in the 1960s and '70s in the Por Larrañaga factory in Havana, which, until recently, lay dormant for almost two decades. The cigar smokes wonderfully today, showing an elegant cedar, creamy, coffee character and plenty of flavor. It came in cedar boxes of 25 and 50 and was a favorite among the landed gentry of Britain.

Por Larrañagas are not quite as hard to find as the next cigar on my list. The 1492 Humidor is a modern classic that is mostly sold privately or through auction. Produced to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas, it was first released in 1996. Only 501 of these handcrafted humidors filled with corona gordaÐsized cigars (46 ring gauge by 5 5/8 inches) were made. Each humidor is numbered, from 0 to 500, and each cigar has a numbered band, from 0 to 25,050. The cigars were rolled at the H. Upmann factory, although the blend came from El Laguito. The cigar smokes wonderfully today, showing extremely refined aromas and flavors. Cedary and creamy, it has plenty of richness yet an impressive delicacy. A complete humidor sold last autumn in a Christie's auction in London for about $10,050.

Salomones II is another limited-edition humidor cigar, although it has been officially made in three editions. The first was produced for German cigar merchant Christoph Wolters, who persuaded the Partagas factory to make 5,000 of these voluptuous cigars. Launched in 1996, the cigars -- called Partagas Salomones Especialidad 1996 -- came in special humidors of 50 cigars. All the cigars (52 gauge by 6 3/4 inches long with a double taper and one end cut one inch) were rolled solely by Carlos Faustino.

More recently, Geneva-based cigar merchant Raffi Aboulian had 2,000 of the same cigars produced at the Partagas factory, and sold them in a special "Raffi 2000" humidor from Elle Bleu, the Parisian cigar accessory company. Eighty humidors were produced, containing 25 smokes apiece. Finally, another 45 humidors were released last year in Havana, each loaded with 45 Salomones II decorated with a Cuaba band. I have only smoked the German and Cuaba Salomones II and both are sensational. The German Salomones II is the richer and more powerful of the two, but both offer intensely rich flavors of spices and tobacco. The first edition sells for $9,000, while the Raffi 2000s fetch $3,000 and Salomones II with Cuaba bands go for $790.

The Cohiba Esplendido looks like a bargain compared to Salomones II. Introduced in 1989 in Madrid, the Churchill-sized cigar has long been a favorite among connoisseurs. Some say it was produced to replace the Davidoff Dom Perignon. Esplendido is made primarily in the factories of Partagas, La Corona and H. Upmann in Havana. It is also one of the most widely counterfeited cigars from Cuba. Quality has been up and down over the last five years; however, a great box of Esplendidos, especially from the early 1990s, is hard to beat. The cigar delivers a perfect balance of rich tobacco and a creamy, cedary character with a light spicy aftertaste. It received 98 points in Cigar Aficionado's premier issue in 1992; the current version sells for about $389 a box in Havana and $918 in England. It is sold in varnished cedar boxes of 25 cigars.

Hoyo de Monterrey's Double Corona is another high-scoring smoke. It scored the highest rating ever (99 points in the Winter 1992/1993 issue). The large smoke (49 ring gauge by 7 7/8 inches) has been made primarily in the La Corona factory and is often in very limited supply. However, good supplies have been available in the past year. At its best, it delivers an extremely distinctive, full-bodied character of chocolate, nutmeg and cinnamon. Recent examples have been slightly milder and creamier. It is sold in paper-decorated boxes of 25 as well as cedar cabinets of 50. The latter is the best to buy. Prices in Havana are about $160 for a box of 25, $584 for a cabinet of 50. A box of 25 costs about $700 to $800, a cabinet of 50 $1,500 to $1,800 at auction in London.

What would any list of the greatest cigars of Cuba be without a pyramid or torpedo? Especially the Montecristo No. 2? This is the classic smoke. Its big girth (52 ring gauge by 6 1/8 inches) and beautifully tapered end assure a rich yet cool smoke. It garnered 95 points in the June 2000 issue of Cigar Aficionado. At one time, the Monte No. 2 was produced exclusively at the H. Upmann factory, although it is now also made in the Partagas and La Corona factories, among others. It is one of the most difficult shapes, or vitolas, to produce, and only the top-rated rollers, grade 9 in Havana, can produce the cigar. Sold in paper-decorated boxes of 25, it sells for about $126 a box in Havana and $488 in England.

Looking at my current list of my 10 greatest Cuban cigars, I can already see some that are missing -- Ramon Allones Gigantes, Davidoff 5000, Partagas Serie D No. 4 and No. 2, etc. But that's always the problem with making such a list.

Several months ago, I asked Enrique Mons, the manager of the La Casa del Habano shop in Club Havana in Miramar, for his choice of the greatest Cuban cigar. At first, the cigar maestro wouldn't respond, saying "it was all up to personal taste" and "that it depends on the smoker." But in the end, Mons looked me in the eye and said, "Montecristo No. 1." The popular lonsdale probably wouldn't make it on many people's list of the best from Cuba, but Mons didn't seem to care. "For me, it's the best cigar from Cuba," he said, with a sly grin. "It's the cigar that I smoke everyday."

Recently, I smoked a Salomones II. The big, dark brown perfecto tasted rich and spicy, like a creamy espresso coffee with a hint of cinnamon and Indian spices. It drew effortlessly and delivered a cool, flavorful blanket of smoke that made me want more. The fact that I was smoking the cigar in the regal splendor of the dining room at the El Floridita restaurant in Havana only enhanced the wonderful character of the cigar. The 1900 Cossart Gordon Malvasia Madeira that accompanied the illustrious smoke certainly didn't hurt, either. My friends -- a fellow editor at this magazine and a French chef -- and I had grins from ear to ear.

It's times like that when you really appreciate a great cigar. Times when you can think back to what, when and where you were smoking, and you quickly wish that you could experience it all again.

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