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Havana Nights, Havana Days

The new U.S. travel restrictions are adversely affecting the Cuban economy. But the cigars are getting better.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Cigar of the Year, Jan/Feb 2005

(continued from page 1)

I admit that the cigars in Havana are no longer dirt-cheap, but if you compare them to some markets in Europe, they still are very affordable. If you normally buy your cigars in the United Kingdom, you could easily pay for your flight to Cuba through the savings in a half dozen boxes of smokes—that is, if you didn't declare the number of cigars over the 50 with which you can enter the European Union without paying duty. However, the price difference is much less obvious in markets such as France and Spain, where taxes and retailer margins are some of the lowest in Europe. The new prices in Havana are very close to those indeed.

I ran into someone with Habanos S.A., the global distributor for Cuban cigars, at the cigar shop at the La Corona factory. He explained that the price increases were supposed to adjust prices to about 20 percent lower than Spain's. "We may have to fine-tune some prices because they may not be right, but we want to be at that level in Cuba," he said. "The prices were too low."

He said that the primary reason for the decline in sales at the beginning of the summer was the general falloff in tourism on the island and that it had nothing to do with higher prices. In fact, I spoke to a number of friends in the restaurant and hotel business in Havana and they were moaning almost as loudly as the cigar merchants about their decline in business. Some said that tourism was down as much as 50 percent, and with electricity and gasoline shortages and a string of hurricanes during the fall, they expected the situation to get worse before it got better. Furthermore, the Cuban government had not banned the use of dollars on the island when I was there, but I presume that new regulation only added to the gloom.

However, the joint head of Habanos, Fernando Domínguez Valdés-Hevia, told me that none of the current problems in Cuba have adversely affected the production of cigars. Moreover, the hurricanes had very little or no effect. I visited the key tobacco-growing regions in Pinar del Río. I could not find any damage except for a few loose roofs on tobacco-drying barns. The tobacco was not in the fields or drying barns anyway during the storms. What was in storage, or being processed in warehouses throughout the area, was untouched, Domínguez added.

Politics and bad weather aside, the Cubans should continue doing what they are to make cigars. The taste and the quality of the new cigars in the local marketplace, which primarily carry box dates from August 2004, are excellent. And they draw like a dream. I smoked about 15 different brands and shapes of current smokes and I didn't find a bad one. Captain Jack and Don Juan certainly had smiles on their faces when they had lit up. And they were treated like long-lost relatives when they arrived in Havana cigar shops.

"You're Americans!" said most of the managers of the cigar shop when Captain Jack and Don Juan arrived. "Please come in!" The shop attendants' eye sockets looked like slot machine windows full of dollar signs.

What I was really impressed with, however, was the taste of these new cigars. The Bolivars tasted like Bolivars, the Hoyos tasted like Hoyos and the Partagas tasted like Partagas... that is, rich and strong, smooth and refined, and earthy and spicy, respectively. It reminded me of going to Havana in 1995, when you could buy any box you wanted and it would be excellent quality, and the cigars showed their respective brand's style and character. Back then, the only concern was finding the color of wrapper that pleased you.

Quality isn't yet back to 1995 levels in Havana today. You still have to spend some time going through boxes to find the best cigars. I usually push on a cigar or two with my thumb to check that they are not overfilled, which often leads to tight draws. But overall, the new sticks I saw in Havana in October looked very, very good.

In addition, I smoked nearly all the new limitadas for 2004 and they were very good to excellent. I particularly liked the Cohiba Sublimes, which measures 6 1/2 inches by 54 ring gauge, and scored it a provisional 95 points. The cigar was a massive smoke with loads of coffee and tobacco character. It burned perfectly due to its large girth. The Sublimes were not officially in the market yet, but Don Juan had scored a few from friends in factories. I was also offered a number of boxes right in front of La Corona from street hustlers, but I am sure the cigars were fakes so I didn't take them up on their offer.

I was also impressed with the Romeo y Julieta Hermoso No. 2, which measures 6 1/8 by 48. It was a soft, round smoke with lots of coffee and spice character, and was rich and delicious on the palate. I gave it 94 points, but it will be better in two years or so. The Partagas Serie D No. 1 also needs some time to come together and seemed to lack a finish. Maybe it was too young? Or the blend was not perfect? But I gave the 6 5/8 by 50 cigar a score of 88 points. The final limitada for 2004 is the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial, which measures 5 1/2 by 50. I was given a prototype of the cigar and it was rich and powerful, although I have not smoked the final product.

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