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The Rolling Rooms

Six Factories That Manufacture Most of Cuba's Export-Quality Cigars Each Specialize in Certain Brands and Sizes
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94

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.

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