The Rolling Rooms
Six Factories That Manufacture Most of Cuba's Export-Quality Cigars Each Specialize in Certain Brands and Sizes
The small hill of thick, green lawn has the feel of a finely manicured golf-course fairway as you slowly make your way up to its crest on a hot, humid morning in Havana. Your destination, a palacelike neoclassical villa, seems almost out of place in the utilitarian world of today's Cuba. Its regal facade beckons you to learn more of what's actually inside.
Reaching the white-stoned terrace of the building, you hear mesmerizing salsa music rolling out of the large, wide-open first-floor windows. Peeking through one of them, you can see dozens of women of assorted ages and colors sitting in rows of closely spaced, wooden benches, methodically rolling thin, exquisitely fine cigars. These are the same cigars that you and other aficionados around the world revere with great passion; there are few better cigars made.
One of the rollers, a beautiful, trim black woman in her 20s wearing a loosely fitted, bright red dress, sees you in the window and gives you a warm smile. You enter the workroom from a nearby door, and the entire workforce of women seems to be welcoming you. You're slightly heady, so you steady yourself. The air seems thick with a bewitching odor of tobacco, cedar and musk. Nothing could possibly heighten your euphoria, except, perhaps, smoking a freshly rolled cigar straight from the hands of one of the rollers.
You are not dreaming. The villa on the hill is El Laguito, one of six key export-cigar factories in Havana and home to Cohiba, Cuba's most coveted cigar brand. The experience could be similar in any of the export factories in Havana. Each working day, hundreds of skilled craftspeople, women and men, work in the cigar galleries of Havana producing more than half of the nearly 60 million cigars Cuba exports around the world each year.
Cigar factories in Havana such as El Laguito, H. Upmann or La Corona are to cigars what Moët & Chandon, Roederer and Mumm are to Champagne. They represent the best brands and craftsmanship in their respective fields. Whether perfecting Champagne or cigars, firms such as these carry on traditions of working with the finest ingredients and turning out some of the most sought-after products in the world.
"No one makes better cigars than Havana factories," says Francisco Padron, the head of Cubatabaco, the world marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars. "They have the tradition and the quality to make the very best cigars in the world."
Some cigar manufacturers, especially those in the Dominican Republic, may be able to match or even better the craftsmanship of the best factories of Havana; however, few cigar aficionados will disagree that the most exciting cigars today continue to come out of a handful of factories in Havana. The fabricas include H. Upmann, Partagas, Romeo y Julieta, La Corona, El Laguito and El Rey del Mundo. With the exception of El Laguito, which is located in the Havana suburb of Miramar, all these factories can be found in the city itself. Upmann, Partagas and La Corona are just a stone's throw away from the capital building (an exact duplicate of the United States Capitol) while Partagas and El Rey del Mundo are about five minutes by car from the city center.
Savvy cigar smokers buy their cigars according to the factory. Since the mid-'80s, the Cubans have marked their cigar boxes with codes indicating the origins. Each box, whether in 25s or 50s, has a series of capital letters printed in ink on the bottom. The first set of capital letters, usually two in sequence, designates the factory where the cigars were produced. The following set of letters denotes the month and year in which the cigars were made. For instance, a box of Cohiba Exquisitos in my humidor has the code el nnso. el standsfor the Laguito factory, nnso, the month and year of creation.
The factory code has been passed around Havana-cigar cognoscenti for some time, although the date-of-production code remains unbroken. The letter designations for the six key export factories in Havana are jm for H. Upmann, fr for La Corona, bm for Romeo y Julieta, el for Cohiba (El Laguito), fpg for Partagas and hm for El Rey del Mundo. Most of these codes are based on the factories' second names, which usually are after well-known Cuban patriots such as Upmann's Jose Martí or La Corona's Fernando Roig.
With the exception of El Laguito, all the factories currently produce about the same number of hand-rolled cigars each year--4 million to 5 million. La Corona, Partagas and El Rey del Mundo each make a few million machine-made cigars, whereby the processes of bunching and rolling are mechanized. Only El Laguito is working at full capacity because it is much smaller in size than the others. Export-factory managers and technicians interviewed all said that they could increase their production 50 percent to 100 percent--all they need is quality tobacco, especially wrapper leaves. Although this year's harvest is said to be of good quality and bountiful, the crops in the past few years have suffered from poor weather and economic difficulties that have reduced agricultural resources such as fertilizer and petrol.
Havana factories get the pick of the tobacco crop each year. Many plantations, regardless of whether they are privately owned or government-run, have long-term contracts with factories for the best of their crop each year. Otherwise, factory technicians compete for the best tobacco after growers have sent their crops to nearby centrally located warehouses for processing and aging. Finally, processing, whether it is additional aging or fermentation, is done in-house at the factories.
Most of the factories specialize in certain brands and sizes, although the production of large-selling brands such as Montecristo may be shared. In addition, some factories are better geared to making special sizes of cigars. "There is no reason to think that one size of cigar from one brand cannot be made by four or five factories all at one time," says Julio Oliveria, chief for tobacco classification at La Corona factory. "The tobacco and blends are kept consistent and the production closely monitored."
Even the making of Cuba's prized brand of Cohiba is shared among factories. El Laguito makes about 2 million cigars, mostly Cohiba, the remaining 1 million to 2 million are made at Upmann and Partagas. The latter is in charge of making Cohiba's new line of cigars, the Siglo series (see Cigar Aficionado Spring 1993). "We made 1 million of the Siglo cigars last year but we couldn't ship them all because there was a shortage in boxes," says Ernesto Lopez, manager of the Partagas factory. "We receive the tobacco from El Laguito and instructions for their production. We do the third fermentation here."
According to Avelino Lara, head of Cohiba's production, the arrangement makes good sense. "Not only do we not have the space, we don't make Robusto, Esplendido and Siglos at El Laguito because we have a tradition of making the thin, elegant-sized cigars," he says. "We have to be specialized. Our rollers are trained for this style of cigar."
Montecristo, however, is the most ubiquitous of all Cuban cigar brands. It is Cuba's largest-selling brand and accounts for half of all export sales. In a good year, more than 30 million cigars with the distinctive brown-and-white Montecristo band may be sold. Benito Molina, manager of the Upmann factory, oversees all of the Montecristo production and says there just isn't any other way to produce the cigar. "No factory has the capacity to make such a large amount of Montecristo; so it makes sense to share the responsibility," he says. "We oversee the production at the other factories."
The most important cigar factories in Cuba, both in and outside of Havana, make some Montecristos. All the export factories in Havana do. Nonetheless, as much as people such as Molina like to say that there isn't a difference in cigars coming from different factories, Montecristo connoisseurs know that the best come from the Upmann factory--which makes sense because the original owners of the factory, the Menendez family, started Montecristo in the early 1930s. Part of the affinity for H. Upmann Montecristos must be because the factory focuses on the best of the Montecristo spectrum: the elegant Especial range as well as the pyramid-shaped No. 2 and nightstick-sized A. In addition, it makes great Cohiba Esplendidos and Robustos as well as the best of the Upmann range such as the Sir Winston Churchill and No. 2.
The apparent reason for Upmann's consistently superior quality, regardless of the brand, is that its factory, according to our research, has the largest number of top-graded, quality rollers of any Cuban cigar factory. Take, for example, the Montecristo Especial, a long, thin 7 1/2 inch by 38 ring gauge cigar. You would expect El Laguito to make the best of this style of cigar since its Lancero and Corona Especial are the same ring gauge and different lengths. Laguito even produces some Montecristo Especials.
However, we have consistently found that Upmann's Especials are superior to El Laguito's Especials and Lanceros. In fact, the Cubans have received a large number of complaints about El Laguito's cigars being too tightly rolled--a sure sign of less-than-great rolling technique.
The number of top-rated rollers working for Upmann also illustrates the factory's prowess for rolling superb cigars. Rollers are given a grading from 4 to 7 for their ability. While most factories have only a few super 7 rollers working at one time, Molina says that he has more than 40, and all of them can make the extremely difficult No. 2. "You almost have to have mirrors to make the No. 2," he says, half joking about the difficulty in rolling such a cigar. He added that it may take six years before a roller can qualify to learn to make a No. 2, and even then, some may never be able to master the art of tapering the tobacco into the right shape. About 1.2 million No. 2's are produced annually at Upmann, although production was down slightly last year.
In addition, Upmann is the only factory that makes the 9 1/4 inch by 47 ring gauge Montecristo A. While a roller needs to have the fingers of a surgeon to make the No. 2, his hands must have the strength of a trapeze artist to roll the unwieldy Montecristo A. Only three men in the factory are capable of making the A, which is why production is a minuscule 15,000 a year.
This is why any keen Montecristo smoker always looks for the jm on the bottom of his "Montes." Factory manager Molina wouldn't do anything less himself if he had to buy his own Montecristos. "We have the best rollers here for Montecristo; so we make the best cigars," he says with a smug smile and a torpedo hanging from his mouth. "Montecristos from other factories are also very good since we supervise their production, but the best come from here." Production at Martí was about 4.5 million cigars last year; about 3.8 million of it was in Montecristo.
Besides El Laguito and Upmann, La Corona is another of Havana's factories of distinction. It is the home of the legendary Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch Double Corona, two of the best, full-flavored, long-burning smokes from Havana. No other cigar has even come close to receiving our near-perfect rating of 99 points that the Hoyo Double Corona received (see Cigar Aficionado Winter 1992/93). In addition, La Corona makes the superb Epicure No. 1 and No. 2 as well as the Punch Punch. It also produced all the Davidoff Chateaux series cigars until the late '80s, when the Swiss tobacco merchant began curtailing its Cuban business. La Corona currently makes about 6 million cigars in a year, half of these are machine-made cigars; it could make up to 18 million.
Partagas is the oldest of the original export factories; all the others have moved every few decades to different locations in Havana. The building remains unchanged--except for the occasional coat of new paint--as does the long tradition in its spacious rolling galleries of making the best cigars possible. Producing between 4 million to 5 million cigars, the factory specializes in its namesake as well as Ramon Allones, Bolivar, La Gloria Cubana, Cifuentes and Flor de Cano. In addition, it produces Cohiba Robustos and Esplendidos as well as the entire Siglo range. "All handmade Partagas cigars are made here," says Lopez. "For me, the most famous cigar of the factory is the 8-9-8 [6 11/16 inch by 43 ring gauge cigar in a special cedar box], but my favorite cigar is the Lusitania or Churchill cigar from Partagas. Our Cohibas are not bad either."
The workers at the Romeo y Julieta factory would probably agree with Lopez's preference, although they would say that he has the wrong brand. According to them, Romeo y Julieta Churchill (7 inches by 47 ring gauge) is the best in the business. According to José Fabelo, director of the factory, the average roller can make about 130 cigars a day, but the larger-sized Churchills cut daily production to about 95 per roller. "We specialize in figurado cigars," he says. "But we can do anything you want." Of course, he is especially proud of his Romeo y Julieta Churchill, although he is equally happy with the same size cigar in the Saint Luis Rey blend as well as the pyramid-shaped or Belicosos from Romeo y Julieta and Sancho Panza.
"Here in Havana we make our cigars not only with great skill but also with a lot of love," says Fabelo. "Other places may be able to make very good cigars, but nowhere has the tradition of Havana. Plus, we have the quality tobacco from the Vuelta Abajo, which as a growing area can't be duplicated."
Pride runs just as high at the El Rey del Mundo factory next door, although few, if any, Cuban cigar aficionados ever speak about the factory. This may be mostly because the factory devotes its time to "mop-up work" for the other producers, including Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo, Quintero, Gispert, Sancho Panza, El Rey del Mundo, Flor de Cano and Rafael Gonzales. Total production equals about 5.4 million to 4.5 million for export. "We have traditionally supplied cigars for the domestic market," says Enrique Rodrigues, director of production, whose favorite cigars are El Rey del Mundo Taíno and Flor de Cano Diadema, both Churchill-sized cigars. "We send the cigars to the national distributor. Some names are not up to export standards. But we also roll explicitly for the domestic market."
The vast majority of the yearly output in Cuba, about 220 million to 260 million, is still made for the domestic market. A large part of this standard-issue, home-market smoke is made in smaller factories well outside the boundaries of Havana, mostly in the provinces of Pinar del Rio and Remedios. They are closer to the tobacco plantations there, and the additional aging and processing of the tobacco are less necessary. In addition, substandard cigars from the export factories may also go into domestic distribution. Domestic cigars have very little to do with export types, coming unmarked and primarily in the popular corona size. Cubans usually receive a handful of cigars every month along with their usual rations such as rice, beans and eggs.
The top tobacco grown each year, which generally comes from the fields of Pinar del Rio, about 100 miles west of Havana, is reserved for the production and sale of export cigars, which remain a major source of currency for the floundering Cuban economy as well as the main prestige product from the island. "Cigars are one of the four or five most important items of export that we have," says President Fidel Castro (see Cigar Aficionado Summer 1994). "The cigar has made our country famous. It has given prestige to our country. Cuba is known among other things for the quality of its cigars."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the cigars for Castro's personal use--for gifts only since he stopped smoking cigars eight years ago--come from one of the six export factories in Havana. Since Cohiba was invented in 1968, all of Castro's cigars have come from El Laguito. Even the extremely rare Trinidad is produced there.
"We have the best rollers and the best tobacco," says Lara. "So of course Fidel would get his cigars from here. We are not only the flagship factory of Cuba, but the flagship factory of the world."
Such bravado is shared by all the export factories' managers. All of them think they make the best cigars in world--which is perhaps why Havana remains a dream for getting great cigars.
The King of Cigars
The king-sized Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona is not only one of the hottest cigars on the market, it is also one of the rarest. Its production continues to diminish due to a drop in Cuba's harvest of large wrappers and quality seco leaves in recent years, according to Philip Jimenez Pares, manager of the La Corona factory in Havana, which specializes in the famous big smoke.
Jimenez expected this year's production of the Hoyo D.C. to reach a meager 27,000 after already declining to 46,000 in 1993. His factory's total production of double corona cigars--all 7 inches by 49 ring gauge--is only 150,000 cigars. Most of this is in the Punch Double Corona.
"We have big fights all the time in the factory over which cigar is best," he admits. "But we make much less of Hoyo Double Coronas than Punch because it is hard to get the right seco leaves that we use for the cigar."