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Happy Birthday, Cohiba

Nearly 800 Cigar Aficionados Gather in Havana to Celebrate 30 Years of Cohiba Cigars
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

He was one of the few wearing green military fatigues at the Cohiba 30th anniversary party in the Tropicana in Havana, but Cuban President Fidel Castro seemed to be having as good a time as anyone in the international crowd who turned out in formal and evening dress.

Castro spent more than an hour addressing the 800 or so guests, speaking about everything from the history of the Cohiba cigar brand to the follies of President Bill Clinton. None of the Hollywood stars, such as Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger, promised by the international press attended the Feb. 28 event, but the surprise appearance of Cuba's commander-in-chief left most of the crowd nearly breathless as the tall, bearded politician gushed with enthusiasm.

With the warm night air laced with the scent of Robusto Especial Cohibas (robusto-thick double coronas made especially for the evening), Castro admitted to the crowd that he "never stopped dreaming about cigars" despite quitting about a decade ago. "Quite often you dream about forbidden things," he playfully said. "Have you ever done that? We all have dreams of things that are forbidden."

About 100 cigar-loving Americans fulfilled at least one of their forbidden dreams and attended the $500-per-person event despite warnings from the U.S. government that they could be prosecuted on their return. "I am not going to let the U.S. government tell me what I can and cannot do," said one businessman from Florida. "I have every right to be here. This is a fabulous occasion."

Said a slightly more mellowed New York businessman, "This is a chance of a lifetime. I am enjoying every moment of it. It was worth taking the chance."

The Cohiba celebrations began well before the main event Friday evening. The world's cigar-smoking cognoscenti began arriving the weekend before, and for nearly a week hit just about every known bar, restaurant, club and shop where good cigars could be found in Havana. The handful of cigar shops were packed every day with customers. Sales were so brisk that some shops looked as if locusts had flown through and cleared their shelves of cigars. There had been a slight price increase shortly before that week, but it didn't seem to deter anyone from buying a few good boxes. Most large-sized cigars were difficult to come by, although a few boxes of robustos, Churchills and double coronas surfaced in stores.

"It is hard to keep up with all the people here," said Michael Gillis, a cigar merchant from Cape Town, South Africa, who came especially for the event. "It's like one big reunion. First you see a friend in a cigar shop and then you see him in a restaurant. It's really quite wonderful." Other events associated with the Cohiba anniversary, all of which were organized by Habanos S.A., the marketing organization for Cuban cigars, included a trip to the plantations of the Vuelta Abajo, Cuba's premium tobacco growing region, and a visit to the newly renovated El Laguito factory (Cohiba's main production facility) as well as a cigar tasting there.

El Laguito, the main factory for Cohiba, was restored to its turn-of-the-century splendor. What had once been a decaying, grimy building with dank and dingy rooms was transformed into an elegant, baronial jewel for the island. "What do you think of my beautiful factory?" asked manager Emilia Tamayo, the vibrant woman who had taken over El Laguito a few years ago and who had masterminded its metamorphosis. "It is a job only a woman can do. I am so proud of my factory."

It's only fitting that Tamayo runs El Laguito. The factory was established in the early 1960s as a school to teach women the intricacies of cigar production. Until then, the cigar factories and rolling rooms in Cuba were almost exclusively male domains. Under the direct order of Castro, El Laguito was created to change this.

Eduardo Rivera Irizarri, who is credited with creating the blend and original unique shapes such as Lanceros for Cohiba, sat next to Tamayo at Friday's festivities. He hadn't worked at El Laguito for years, but he beamed with pride over the new and improved version of his factory. "This was always a wonderful building, but it was never like this," said Rivera, who was the first manager of the factory. "This is how such a great place as El Laguito should be." When you walk into the expansive entrance of the building, its beautiful flowing balustrade stairway stands regally in front of you in freshly painted yellow and white. To the left and right are large livingroom-sized chambers painted in pale blues, pinks and greens, with rows of work benches and dozens of rollers (all wearing black 30th anniversary Cohiba T-shirts) meticulously crafting Coronas Especials, Lanceros, Exquisitos and Panetelas. All the cigar rolling is downstairs; the second floor of the factory is devoted to aging, processing and blending tobacco as well as boxing and aging cigars. Until recently, only the thin sizes of Cohiba were made at El Laguito. Rollers, known as torcedores, began making a few Esplendidos late last year. Other sizes of Cohiba such as Robusto and the five Siglos are made by the Fernando Roig (formerly La Corona), José Martí (H. Upmann) and Francisco Perez German (Partagas) factories, although technicians from El Laguito closely supervise their production.

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