Interview: Francisco Padron, Cubatabaco

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CA: Aficionados say if you want to buy the best quality Cuban cigars, like Punch Punch, Hoyo Double Coronas, Montecristo No. 2, Cohiba Robusto and Esplendido, that you must go to England or Switzerland to buy them. Are there certain markets that get the best quality and the other markets that get the second quality?
Padron: No. No. That is not true. The only difference in the past was the former socialist countries. We were delivering to them machine-made cigars by the millions.
CA: One cigar merchant in Geneva, Switzerland, claims that he and his father actually come to Cuba to hand select cigars. Does that actually happen?
Padron: Nobody can do that.
CA: I want to go back to your government's attitude and philosophy regarding cigars. We have read a lot in the newspaper that there is a strong emphasis on tourism to bring in dollars, and that the sugar business is down. The nickel business is down. You have had problems with building the nuclear plant and so forth. It would seem to me that a few years ago tobacco was, economically speaking, relatively unimportant to the government, but today it is realizing that Cuban cigars create great prestige for the country. From a government standpoint, has there been a change in attitude in the last few years?
Padron: No. There is another problem. When we had all that we needed to produce our crop it was not a problem. But when the financial problem started, Fidel found that he must give cigars priority in order to maintain the quality. Fidel said to be careful. We must give priority to cigars because it is very important.
CA: For many years, Winston Churchill, wherever he was, held a cigar in his hand or mouth. For many years, you would never see a photo of Fidel without a cigar. About eight years ago, he stopped smoking because of the social and health issues in Cuba. People were smoking too much. He decided that he would stop smoking and set a good example for his people. Does he still take an interest in cigars? Does he ever go to the Vuelta Abajo or to the factories?
Padron: He goes to see the cigar production. He has been interested in cigars since he was a very young fellow.
CA: But he doesn't smoke anymore?
Padron: No, he doesn't. He says that sometimes he still dreams about smoking a cigar.
CA: Do you have an estimate as to how many cigars find their way into the United States each year?
Padron: My people think that it must be around ten million.
CA: When the embargo ends, what do you think the potential is for Cuban cigar sales in the Unites States?
Padron: The first year will be less than ten million, but by the second year, we should be selling 20 million cigars.
CA: A lot of Cuban cigars sold in England or Switzerland, for example, are actually bought by Americans. Won't sales go down in these markets once the U.S. market opens up?
Padron: Maybe. Maybe. The sales all over the world may be slightly affected because Americans buy all over the world.
It has been under wraps for more than a year. After spending months perfecting various tobacco blends, some of Cuba's top rollers at the Partagas factory in Havana began last autumn making five new sizes of Cohiba.
The brand already includes some of Cuba's hottest-selling cigars, despite their astronomical prices. Last year, Cohiba sales totaled close to 3.4 million cigars with an average retail price of $15.60. With such a following, the Cubans couldn't resist the chance to stoke the fire for demand and develop new sizes and shapes. The addition of five new cigars brings the total to 11 under the Cohiba brand.
Although no one at Cubatabaco, the government tobacco marketing organization, would confirm it, the cigars look surprisingly like some of the old Davidoff sizes and shapes abandoned last year when the Swiss company moved its cigar production to the Dominican Republic.
Cohiba's new "Linea 1492" celebrates the 500th anniversary of Columbus discovering Cuba and, more importantly, the explorer's discovery of tobacco. The five cigars in the Linea 1492 range are called Siglo I, Siglo II, Siglo III, Siglo IV and Siglo V. Siglo means "century" in Spanish; therefore each cigar represents one of the centuries since Columbus's discovery.
Siglo I, exactly the same size as Davidoff s former Château Haut Brion, is about 4 inches long by 40 ring gauge. Siglo II (Château Margaux) measures 5 inches by 42 ring gauge while Siglo III (Château Mouton-Rothschild) is also 42 gauge but 6 inches. Siglo IV (Davidoff 5000) is about 5 2/3 inches by 42. Siglo V is the only cigar in the new range not to resemble a Cuban Davidoff. Similar to the classic 8-9-8, it measures 6 2/3 by 43.
Although they resemble other Cuban cigars, the Siglo range is 100 percent Cohiba. In an arrangement similar to the production of Cohiba Robusto and Esplendido, the Linea 1492 cigars are being made at the Partagas factory in downtown Havana under the direction of technicians from El Laguito, the main factory for Cohiba. All the tobacco for Siglo is selected, processsed and matured like other Cohibas.
"The new cigars are made from the very best tobacco just like all Cohibas," says Rafael Guerra, assistant director of El Laguito, who is overseeing the production of the new line with Cuba's top tobacco man, Avelino Lara. "The tobacco is fermented three times, which is unique to Cohiba."
The proof is definitely within the wrapper. All the Cohiba Siglos are outstanding smokes. Like other great Cohibas, such as Robusto and Esplendido, they are rich and opulent yet maintain a remarkable delicacy and refinement. Annual production is expected to reach about one million cigars in total or about 200,000 of each size. That will increase overall Cohiba production to 4.4 million cigars.
The five Linea 1492 cigars are expected to reach key export markets by late spring. Siglos come in varnished wooden boxes of 25 cigars rather than pressed in paper-covered wooden boxes. Prices have not been officially set, although Siglos are expected to fit into the current price range for Cohiba, from $8 to $23 a cigar.
When asked if other sizes or shapes for Cohiba are being considered for the future, Cubatabaco officials would not reply; however, sources in the organization say that a pyramid-shaped cigar is not out of the question.
-- James Suckling
SIGLO I (Ring Gauge: 40 Length: 4")
A lot of flavor in a small cigar. Beautifully crafted with a rich chocolate wrapper, it is soft-textured and sumptuous to smoke with dark chocolate and spice aromas and flavors. 93
SIGLO II (42 x 5")
Another beautiful cigar with loads of earthy, spicy character. Like other Cohibas, this one is full-bodied and rich in flavor with a long aftertaste. 90
SIGLO III (42 x 6")
A great addition to a great line of cigars. It is gorgeous to look at with its rich brown, smooth wrapper and gives loads of pleasure with every puff. An opulent smoke with great finesse and class. 95
SIGLO IV (42 x 5 2/3")
A blockbuster of a cigar. Try it after a hearty meal. It gives a blast of cinnamon, tobacco and cedar flavors and seems a little rough for a moment. A few months of aging may soften some of the rough edges. 92
SIGLO V (43 x 6 2/3")
It's a shame when you finish this cigar. You can't get enough of it. It is full-bodied and rich yet maintains superb harmony. A truly refined cigar. 96 A Cigar for Columbus
When Cuba released 500 limited edition humidors with 50 1492 cigars this autumn, no one ever expected such a smash success. Hong Kong sold out of its 80 boxes in a few weeks. London's 70 took about a month. Canada's 20 went in about the same amount of time.
A customer asked one London cigar merchant if he could buy the entire production of 500, while the Sultan of Brunei's brother, Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, reportedly sent a servant out to buy as many of the humidors as he could find in London. In Hong Kong most of the humidors were sold to a handful of customers for Christmas gifts.
"I could have sold twice as many," says Edward Sahakian, the owner of Davidoff of London, who went through his stock of 45 in a few weeks. "I was not surprised by the demand. It is a very special thing. Those people who bought them will probably not even smoke the cigars. They will be kept and cherished."
The oblong-shaped cherrywood humidor with its distinctive rounded ends and "1492" etched in its lid comes filled with 50 limited edition cigars. Each humidor is also etched with two numbers. One represents one of the 500 years since 1492 and the other corresponds to the actual year. For instance the last humidor is marked 1992-500. The cigars are also marked on their bands with numbers from 0 to 25,050. Of course, the first box was given to Fidel Castro while the second was a gift to King Juan Carlos of Spain. The humidor numbered 1992-500 is on permanent display in Havana's National Museum of Tobacco.
1492 cigars measure about 5 2/3 inches by 46 ring gauge. The cigars look remarkably similar to the no-longer-produced Cuban Davidoff 5000, although the 1492s are box pressed. All the tobacco comes from the El Laguito factory, home of Cohiba cigars. The cigars, however, were made at the H. Upmann factory in downtown Havana. "It is a fabulous cigar," says Rafael Guerra of El Laguito. "It is a great shape, and the wrapper is one of the thinnest, finest wrappers we have ever used for a cigar."
The release price for the 1492 humidor and cigars is between $1,000 and $2,000 depending on the market. With such great demand, the humidor has already become a collector's item, and its price is expected to quickly escalate.
1492: A gorgeous cigar to look at with its impressively smooth, light-brow wrapper. It shows extremely refined aromas and flavors and loads of richness, yet it's also very delicate. A classy smoke. 92
-- J. S.
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