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As Cubans Increase Cigar Production, the Quality is Starting to Suffer

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Trinidad is made at El Laguito--the same factory as most Cohibas. About 1 million Trinidads are expected to be made there this year. Its blend is slightly different from Cohiba, although Emilia Tamayo, El Laguito's manager, says that the same quality of tobacco is used. "All the raw material that we use for Trinidad is ours," said Tamayo, who added that the tobacco for Cohiba and Trinidad is given a third fermentation at the factory before being used. She said that other sizes of Trinidad may be made in the future, but that she hasn't received any orders from Habanos S.A., the Cuban organization in charge of global marketing and distribution of cigars. "Of course, Trinidad is not Cohiba and it will not have the same rigor in wrapper colors. But it will be a very good cigar."

Tamayo is overly modest about the quality. This is Cuba's most exciting new cigar since Cohiba was introduced almost three decades ago. The first time I saw a Trinidad, I wasn't sure whether I should smoke it or eat it. The elegant cigar is gorgeous, with its oily, medium-brown wrapper and medium-rich cedary flavors--not to mention its superb packaging. Plus, it draws perfectly, an attribute not always associated with Lanceros and similarly sized smokes. "It is not as rich as Cohiba," said Tamayo. "It has a different blend. It has more aroma." My only complaint is that the cigars could use another six months of aging in the boxes to settle down.

Trinidad is Cuba's fourth major brand to be launched since the Revolution. The others are Cohiba (first created in 1968), Cuaba (1996) and Vegas Robaina (1997). According to Habanos, another brand will debut before the year 2000; this one will be midpriced, at about the same level as Rafael Gonzalez or Sancho Panza.

The first official smoking of Trinidad was during the evening of February 20 at a celebratory dinner at the Habana Libre Hotel. About 600 people crammed into the ballroom of the newly renovated hotel, known as the Havana Hilton before the Revolution. They forked over $400 each for the opportunity to smoke Trinidads as well as to consume mediocre wines and inedible food. One guest compared the event to dining at a hockey game, due to the bright lights that stayed on throughout the evening. (Cubans still have a lot to learn when it comes to organizing special dinners.)

Nonetheless, most of the attendees didn't seem to mind the inconveniences. Drinks, smokes and conversation flowed freely. (Two other cigars were also served at the dinner: Cuaba Generosos and Vegas Robaina Famosos.) Francisco Linares, president of Habanos, gave a brief welcoming speech, telling everyone that "Habanos [Cuban cigars] are a product that we all love and that brings us all together each year. Parties such as tonight have become a tradition in Cuba." It was to be the best--and shortest--speech of the evening.

Alejandro Robaina, the legendary wrapper tobacco grower whose namesake is one of Cuba's new cigar brands, received the first award of the evening, for Best Tobacco Producer in Cuba. Oswaldo Encarnacion, director of the Union of Tobacco Enterprises, presented the honor to Robaina. Awards for the three categories of "Habano Man of the Year" followed: Zurich cigar retailer Samuel Menzi won for the trade category; Simon Chase, director of marketing for U.K. cigar importer Hunters & Frankau Ltd., took the communications section; and Swiss cigar importer Henrich Villiger received the award in the commercial division.

An auction followed the awards ceremony. Nicholas Freeman, director of Hunters & Frankau in London, told the crowd that he expected high bids, and not in Italian lire but in U.S. dollars. The good-natured gibe was directed at Enrico Gazaroli, an Italian who imports wine and spirits to Cuba and also runs a hotel and makes cigars in Nassau, the Bahamas. The big, boisterous Italian always bids at Habanos events, and this year's party was no different. He paid $55,000 for a small replica of the Millennium humidor. (The full-sized version will hold 2,000 Cuban cigars comprising some 20 brands and 185 shapes; 20 of the humidors will be sold next year for about $100,000 each and one will be auctioned.) American Gary Arzt, a keen smoker and cigar producer in the Dominican Republic, bought a Credo humidor for $25,000 that included 25 cigars of his choice. Raphael Levy, a Cuban cigar agent living in Switzerland, paid $65,000 for a crafted humidor with figural designs cast into its metal top. It contained 50 Cuaba cigars, 10 of each size, as well as a new figurado-shaped Churchill size coming out next year. Juan Maria Cazes, the Cuban cigar agent for Andorra, paid $60,000 for a cedar-and-mahogany humidor shaped like a curing barn and filled with 20 of each of the five sizes of Vegas Robaina cigars.

But the biggest bid of the night came from Levy, who paid $100,000 for a Trinidad humidor. Made of cedar with sterling silver inlays depicting the town of Trinidad and the cigar's logo, the humidor was crafted by Cuban silversmith Raúl Valladares Valdés, creator of the Habanos Man of the Year statuettes. Inside the box were 101 Trinidad Funadores, one with a gold cigar band, and a sterling silver cutter with the Trinidad logo in 18K gold and ivory. Like the other four humidors auctioned that evening, the Trinidad was signed by Fidel Castro.

With the end of the auction, guests sat back in their stiff metal chairs and finished the Trinidad Fundadores and glasses of seven-year-old Havana Club rum. Sure, the night wasn't perfect, but the opportunity to smoke the first Trinidads on the market in Havana was worth enduring any of the negatives.--James Suckling

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