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
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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."
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