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The Partagas Family

Cigar Smokers from Around the World Gathered in Havana and Orlando This Summer to Celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Partagas Cigars
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

Ernesto Lopez, the manager of the Partagas factory in Havana, gazed across the smoke-filled ballroom of the Meliá Cohiba hotel and grinned contentedly. The room was filled with 300 cigar aficionados from all over the world, attending a gala dinner at Havana's newest and finest hotel to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his factory and cigar brand.

Wearing smart suits, elegant dresses and the occasional dinner jacket, everyone in the room puffed on fine handmade cigars, drank Champagne and Bordeaux and ate paté and lobster. An extravagant event by anyone's standards, Lopez must have found it a relief from the daily hardships and economic realities just outside the hotel's front doors.

However, Lopez didn't find the bacchanalian atmosphere of the event out of place. He was elated that so many people from so many places--including about 30 Americans--came to his country last September to celebrate the anniversary. "All this is a great honor for me, my workers and my country," said the boyish Lopez, 37, who has run the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas for the past eight years.

Minutes later, Lopez watched with a batallion of journalists as the classy event unfolded into a circus-like atmosphere never before seen in Havana. The guests roared in delight as a handful of their colleagues bid tens of thousands of dollars for a small selection of commemorative cigars made specially for the event. The top bid of $67,000 was made by Seita, the French tobacco monopoly, for a cedar chest humidor packed with 150 of the special-edition Partagas.

The cigars, bearing the red-and-gold labels denoting the 150th anniversary of Partagas, had been made a few weeks before by three of the factory's top cigar rollers, some who have worked for Partagas for more than four decades. The chest itself had been signed by Fidel Castro. It was the last of 150 numbered humidors made by Partagas to commemorate its birthday and the only one signed by Cuba's leader. The remaining chests are to be sold through major retailers around the world for about $8,000 to $10,000 each.

The obvious person missing from the event was Ramon Cifuentes, 87, a member of the clan that controlled the Partagas factory until the early 1960s and an international figure in the cigar world. Like other owners of Havana's top cigar factories, Cifuentes fled his country and began making cigars elsewhere after the Cuban government took control of his business. Although he did not attend the Havana event, Cifuentes celebrated the Partagas milestone a few weeks earlier in Orlando, Florida, under the auspices of General Cigar Co., the U.S. firm that produces Partagas in the Dominican Republic and distributes the cigars in the United States. Except for a small change in the gold-and-red band where the word "Habana" has been replaced with "1845," it is difficult to notice the difference between a Dominican Partagas and a Cuban one.

For the 150th birthday of Partagas, General Cigar invited a group of U.S. cigar retailers to Universal Studios Florida in Orlando (site of this year's Retail Tobacco Dealers of America convention) to watch a '50s musical skit and video display on a private sound stage as they ate steak and drank California wine. After dinner, Edgar Cullman Jr., whose family owns General Cigar, told the group that "we've heard that there is a celebration in Havana to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Partagas, but I can assure you that they are not going to have as much fun as we have had tonight."

Like everyone else at the Florida party, Cullman was casual and relaxed. He wore jeans, a button-down shirt and blue blazer, not forgetting his Blues Brothers-style Ray-Ban sunglasses and hat. This was not a fussy, ceremonial occasion. It was a relaxing way to celebrate the success of a handmade cigar brand that continues to be one of the most popular in America. After his brief speech, Cullman and his few hundred guests spent the remainder of the evening enjoying the amusement park, closed to all but General Cigar's guests.

The dissimilar styles of the two parties couldn't have better underlined the differences in Partagas cigars from both countries. The original Partagas is an icon of fine Cuban handmade cigars. One of the oldest cigar brands in the world, it has been meticulously produced in the same factory in Cuba, in virtually the same way, for 150 years. Partagas in the Dominican Republic, by comparison, is a relatively new creation. First made in 1978 in Jamaica and a year later moved to the Dominican Republic, the brand serves as a benchmark for premium cigars around the world. In fact, the Cubans could learn a thing or two about quality control and manufacturing systems from the General Cigar factory in Santiago.

Walking through the factory in Santiago's free trade zone, you quickly get the feeling that nothing is spared to produce the best quality cigars--which is why some of the neighboring cigar producers call General Cigar Dominicana "Disneyland," due to its seemingly endless supply of resources. The factory's cleanliness reminds visitors of an electronics or pharmaceuticals plant. Everything seems to be in the right place and in perfect condition, from the cigar rollers' finely polished wooden desks to the museum-quality century-old manual printing presses for the box labels.

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