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Cuba Quandary

As Cubans Increase Cigar Production, the Quality is Starting to Suffer
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 3)

All of these concerns about quality were thoroughly discussed in a meeting with Francisco Linares, the head of Habanos S.A., and he took serious note of every point. "We are not going to let anything ruin the reputation of Cuban cigars," he declared. "We are extremely concerned with the quality of Habanos, and we will do everything possible to control it." Trumpeting Trinidad Cuba Launches its New Cigar Brand with a Gala Dinner and Auction in Havana

A dozen people were standing at the door of the cigar shop at the Melía Cohiba hotel. It was morning, minutes before the shop opened on February 21, the day after a gala dinner to launch Cuba's newest commercial cigar brand, Trinidad. Cubans had never seen anything like it. Hotel workers and passersby stared at the line in disbelief. As soon as the glass doors opened, cigar smokers piled into the small shop, grabbed their cedar boxes of Trinidad and quickly paid for them at the tiny cash register.

Marco Bacchetta, a Swiss banker and restaurant owner based in London, was the last in line. "It seemed crazy to stand in line to buy some cigars, but I wanted to make sure that I received a few boxes of Trinidads," he said after buying two boxes containing 24 cigars in each. "I came to Cuba for the dinner so I am certainly not going back without the cigars."

With the official send-off behind it, Trinidad is set to be introduced into Mexico and Canada in late spring, and already the legendary marque is receiving great fanfare. Only one size is currently available. Banded with the brand's distinctive gold-and-black label, the Trinidad Fundador measures 7 1/2 inches long by 40 ring gauge, the same length as the well-known Cohiba Lanceros but two millimeters thicker. The cigar is available in boxes of 24 and 50. Trinidad sells for about $330 a box of 24 in Havana, priced between Cohiba Lanceros and Esplendidos.

Originally, Trinidad was the same size as the Cohiba Lanceros, although its darker wrapper made it slightly stronger in flavor. First rolled in the early 1990s in response to Cohiba's soaring popularity, a few hundred Trinidads were made each month, for use almost exclusively as diplomatic gifts from top Cuban government officials. It was first served publicly at a dinner organized by Cigar Aficionado in Paris in 1993.

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.

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