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Cuba's Cohiba

James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Premier Issue, Autumn 92

It might have been a scene out of Bizet's Carmen. Dozens of women sat in rows of brown, oily, wooden desks in small, dark, musty rooms in the El Laguito factory on the outskirts of Havana. They were rolling what are considered Cuba's finest cigars, but instead of constructing them on their thighs and singing Spanish folk songs, the women were intently crafting the cigars on top of their desks and quietly listening to a news program on state sponsored radio.

Here in El Laguito, the former private home of the Prince of Pinar del Rio, only women roll the cigars which have graced the most esteemed humidors in the world. Cohiba is legendary to most cigar aficionados, and for more than two decades, it has been one of the governments most prestigious gifts to honor foreign dignitaries. From King Juan Carlos of Spain and the Queen of England to Russia's Boris Yeltsin and Iraq's Sadam Hussein, they all have appreciated the rich character and finesse of a Cohiba.

Named after what the ancient Taino Indians of Cuba called tobacco, Cohiba represents some of the best cigars available on the market. Lighting up a Cohiba such as an Esplendido or Robusto is a great experience. They are gloriously rich with aromas and flavors of chocolate and coffee, yet they remain incredibly elegant to smoke. To a cigar lover, smoking a Cohiba is a moment to savor. It gives the same kind of satisfaction as a wonderful glass of Château Lafite-Rothschild does to a wine lover or a superb main course at a Michelin three-star restaurant does to a gourmet.

Although it has been years since Fidel Castro smoked cigars, Cohiba captures a special place in the heart of Cuba's president. It is like a lost love, according to one confidant of the premier, who said that Castro still dreams of smoking a Cohiba. No wonder Castro once said that giving up cigars "may have been one of his greatest sacrifices to the revolution." Insiders at the El Laguito factory said that less then a decade ago a Cohiba Panatela or Lancero was as much a part of his everyday attire as his famous green military fatigues. "He used to chain smoke Cohibas," said one of the former private cigar rollers of Castro. "Fidel loved smoking Cohibas."

Castro gave up smoking about eight years ago as a gesture to his nation to curb its voracious appetite for cigars and cigarettes. Last year, the Cuban nation of about 10 million people smoked nearly 260 million cigars. Although most are not cigar connoisseurs, ask a Cuban what is the best tabaco made in his country and he will inevitably answer Cohiba.

Avelino Lara, 71, the creator of Cohiba and current head of El Laguito, said that he never received a formal request from Fidel to produce the cigar. "I received an order from Cubatabaco, the marketing arm for Cuban cigars," said Lara, puffing away on a Cohiba Lancero in his office in El Laguito. "The head of Cubatobaco asked me to create a new blend which was different from all others brands. It had to be the very best...the selection of the selection."

Although Lara created the Cohiba in 1968, only a few thousand boxes a year were given away as diplomatic gifts. Then in 1982, what was once considered the smoke of world leaders became the cigar of the world cognoscenti. Today, its unique bright yellow, white and black band has become a symbol of success in much of the world. Cuba may not embrace the ways of capitalism, but her Cohiba cigars are clearly symbols of financial success. Actors such as Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger have standing orders with London and Geneva cigar merchants for Cohiba while business magnates such as Lee Iaccoca have been known to light up Cohibas after a successful deal.

You certainly have to be fairly well off to buy six cigars in the Cohiba range. The least expensive Cohiba, the four and one-half inch-long 26 ring gauge Panetela, costs about £4.80 ($8.90) in London while the similarly small Exquisito, five inch by 36 ring gauge, is about £6.60 ($12.20). Prices quickly increase to about £9.40 ($17.40) and £11.80 ($21.80) for the elegantly thin Coronas Especial and Lanceros, both 38 ring gauge by six and seven and one-half inches long, respectively. The thick Robusto at 50 ring gauge and five inches long goes for £8.80 ($16.30) while the longer Churchill-sized Esplendido carries a price off £13 ($24).

"The pricing is totally correct," said Lara, whose monthly salary may only cover the U.K. retail price of a box of 25 Lanceros. Luckily for him, he has an unlimited personal supply. "I buy the best quality tobacco for Cohiba, and the tobacco I select may cost three times the price per ton than other tobacco. It takes three years for the cigar to be produced and sold. Cohiba is the best cigar in the world. So, it has to be expensive."

The tobacco for Cohiba, like nearly all other premium Cuban cigar brands, comes from the heart of the Vuelta Abajo, about 100 miles southwest of Havana. Lara makes dozens of trips a year to this lush region of deep, red-brown soil and drooping green palm trees. He visits vegas or plantations near the towns of San Juan y Martinez and San Luiz to select the best tobacco. Selection begins during the harvest in February when the first silky green leaves of the tobacco plants are picked and continues through the various steps of production.

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