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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.

"There are only two people in Cuba that know the names of the vegas used for Cohiba," said Lara, playfully drawing on his Lanceros with a satisfied grin. "It is a great secret. Only myself and Francisco Torano of the Ministry of Agriculture know."

He said that the ten vegas used for Cohiba comprise about 700 acres, a tiny percentage of the roughly 98,800 acres planted to tobacco for last year's harvest in the Pinar del Rio district. Lara did admit, however, that Cuba's most legendary vegas, El Corojo and Hoyo del Monterrey, supply Cohiba along with the well-known Santa Damiana plantation. On average, he selects tobacco from five of the ten vegas, each harvest depending on the quality of tobacco available.

The production in the Vuelta Abajo for Cohiba is the same as for other brands. The tobacco, depending on its strength and quality, is dried and fermented twice in various warehouses which dot the countryside of the region. This drying and fermentation process, according to Laral reduces the tar and nicotine in the tobacco as well as changes its color from green to various shades of brown. Some tobacco may be aged for more than 18 months during these processes. In addition, all the tobacco is classified by color and by strength during this period.

Fermentation is a unique factor in Cohiba cigars. While tobacco for other cigars only undergoes two thorough fermentations, the leaves for Cohiba go through a third fermentation at the El Laguito factory. All the key types of tobacco-- the ligero, seco and volado--are fermented a third time. The leaves are stacked and fermented in small wooden barrels in dark closets in various parts of the factory. The fermentation may take as long as 18 months depending on the tobacco. Lara said that this costly process gives Cohiba cigars their finesse and refinement. Added the factory's assistant director, Rafael Guerra, "The third fermentation is nothing new. It is the old way of doing things. But it greatly reduces the nicotine and tars in the Cohiba...we say in Cuba that those who smoke Cohiba will never die of cancer but those who don't will die of envy."

With the various types of tobacco in stock, El Laguito's cigar rollers--called torcedores--are given batches of leaves to cover their daily production. Each batch represents the correct blend of tobacco to produce approximately 100 to 110 cigars. Rollers can make a variety of sizes and shapes, although they generally specialize in one type of cigar for a few months at a time.

El Laguito began in 1961 as a cigar-rolling school for women. Until that time, very few women rollers existed because many of the cigar factory owners believed that their hands were not strong enough to properly shape cigars. The owners also thought that the men would not concentrate on their work if women were present. "I had my doubts at the beginning," admitted Lara, who started the school. "But it is clear now that they are just as good as men in rolling cigars. It only took me a few months to realize this."

Lara is considered one of Cuba's greatest cigar men. His ability to select tobacco and roll cigars is legendary. The texture of a tobacco leaf, its smell, its color, they all tell Lara more than can be imagined. "Lara is a great teacher," said Guerra, who may one day take over when Lara retires. "He is the best tobacco man in Cuba. With Lara, it is like a family at El Laguito. We hope that he never retires. Every day you learn something from him."

An almost magical ambiance radiates from the Cohiba factory's light-blue, classical facade. The small ornate palace of El Laguito with its elegant grounds gives a spirit of lost aristocratic grandeur, a stark contrast to the grubby, well-worn rooms inside. Nearly 300 workers labor here each day in rooms that once were filled with the finest furniture, tapestries and paintings.

The workers produce three sizes of Cohiba at El Laguito: Lanceros, Coronas Especial and Panetelas. The factory also made the similar shaped thin cigars of Davidoff--No. 1, No. 2 and Ambassadrice--until the Swiss company decided to switch its production to the Dominican Republic last year. Lara said that the greatest possible care had always been taken to assure that each brands' cigars retained their blended character and uniqueness.

"Davidoff came here in 1969," said Lara, with a slight haze of cigar smoke around him. "Zino was in this very room and we decided together what the mix of the cigars would be and the sizes. We tasted various cigars and came up with the blends. Cohiba, however, was already developed at the time, and it was always the best of the two."

El Laguito is small when compared to other well-known cigar factories such as Partagas or H. Upmann in Havana. Although it has increased significantly in size over the last decade, El Laguito's total annual production exceeds three million cigars or about one-third to one-fifth the size of a major cigar factory. The entire Cohiba range is produced here, although thick cigars such as the short Robusto and long Esplendido are made only four to five months a year in El Laguito due to production limits at the factory. About 400,000 more of these two cigars are also produced in the Partagas factory, which receives pre-blended tobacco from El Laguito.

Although the production of Cohiba fluctuates each year according to the quality of the harvest, the average annual production by size is currently: 950,000 Lanceros, 700,000 Coronas Especial, 260,000 Exquisitos, 390,000 Panetelas, 440,000 Robustos and 660,000 Esplendidos. "In the end, we only produce what we have in the best quality tobacco," said Lara. "If we only have enough tobacco for one million cigars that is all we will make. We do not make exceptions, Cohiba is the selection of the selection."

Lara is a candid and charismatic individual. He is most at ease smoking a cigar in his simple office on the second floor of El Laguito and reflecting on cigars. He loves nothing better than to recall the days as a young child when he played in the tobacco fields of the Vuelta Abajo with his Spanish grandfather who may have told him about life in the tobacco factories so well depicted in Carmen. "I learned many things about tobacco from my grandfather," he said puffing away on his Lanceros and watching the gray smoke rise to the ceiling as he was deep in thought. "Tobacco is part of Cuban culture, and Cohiba is the best cigar made in Cuba."

The Six Cigars of Cohiba

Lanceros (Ring Gauge: 38 Length: 7.5")

Esplendido (47 x 7")

Coronas Especial (38 x 6")

Robusto (50 x 5")

Exquisito (36 x 5")

Panetela (26 x 4.5")

TASTING:

LANCEROS: Super elegant cigar that is always a joy to smoke. It is extremely well-made in a long, thin format. There are plenty of dark chocolate and spice flavors. A delicate finish. 94

ESPLENDIDO: What a bombshell to smoke. This cigar has unbelievable pedigree with gorgeous looks and a flawless draw. It has a perfect balance of full rich flavors and an elegant finish. 98

CORONAS ESPECIAL: An attractive coronas-sized cigar in a thinner format. Not quite up to the stellar quality of the Cohiba range but it shows very good spicy flavors and has a slightly bitter aftertaste. 87

ROBUSTO: The textbook cigar in a short, fat size. It smokes as great as it looks with lovely spicy aromas and opulent coffee, spice flavors. 96


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