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The Good and the Bad

James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
"24", Jan/Feb 2006

(continued from page 1)

If you get the chance to smoke a recently produced Montecristo Edmundo, you'll better understand what I mean. When the large cigar (52 ring gauge by about 5 3/8 inches) was released a couple of years ago, it was a very good quality smoke, but it seemed to lack some character. The Upmann factory makes a large percentage of the Edmundo production, and the smokes coming out of the factory are much, much better than the initial release. Officials at the factory would not admit to any changes in the production, but I think it comes down to better craftsmanship. Everybody is working better in these new factories, from tobacco sorter to roller to box finisher.

"Better conditions for the workers means better conditions for production," explained Manuel Romero, head of production at

H. Upmann. He said that the plant had close to 200 rollers, who made just over four million cigars a year. "It is really important for people to feel better in their work here, so that they can work better and make better cigars."

Perhaps even a better example is the Montecristo Maravilla, the new release of Colección Habanos, which comes in a cedar box that resembles a book and contains 20 cigars. The cigar is a mouthful, to say the least, measuring 7 1/8 inches by 55 ring gauge, and although it sounds like too much for many smokers, it delivers wonderful refined character with honey, cedar and almost nutty flavors that only a great Montecristo delivers. Only 500 boxes were produced.

The Cubans continue to talk about a factory in the future that will produce only specialty cigars, from tiny-production humidors to limited editions, just like the Maravilla. This would not only be a public relations triumph, it would also be a great way to assure the quality of such cigars made in Cuba. I met with Buenaventura Jiménez Sánchez-Cañete, the new Spanish head of Habanos S.A., the global distribution company for Cuban cigars, and he confirmed that specialty cigars were an integral part of the future development of Habanos.

He would not be drawn out on what all of next year's special issues will be, but he hinted at a new size of Cohiba. The annual cigar festival in Havana will be held at the end of February, and among the celebrations will be a special cigar to commemorate the 40th birthday of the Cohiba. Word is that it's a big cigar that has never been produced before, and it will be sold for a short time. It won't be sold in limited-edition humidors, which was done for past Cohiba anniversaries.

Cuban cigar lovers might find it easier to buy boxes of this year's release of the selección limitada—the popular line of smokes with aged dark wrappers. The sizes change each year and are produced in limited quantities, usually about 10,000 sticks of each model. Three sizes, or vitolas, will be available to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the selección limitada concept. They will be a re-release of some of the most popular models: Montecristo Robusto, Cohiba Pyramide and Partagas Serie D No. 3.

At one time, the best place to buy selección limitadas was in Havana, but this is no longer the case. Prices have gone through the roof in cigar shops throughout the island due to increases in 2004 that totaled close to 30 percent as well as exchange rate and commission charges. In addition, tourists now have to pay for everything in what the Cubans call convertible pesos, which adds another 15 to 25 percent on everything from hotel rooms to smokes. For instance, if someone buys a box of 25 Cohiba Lanceros for 355 pesos with dollars, he first has to convert them into pesos at about 95 centavos to the dollar and then pay a 20 percent commission. Using a credit card is slightly less expensive, but there's still an 11 percent commission.

Not surprisingly, the handful of key cigar shops I visited in the capital were not selling many boxes of cigars. Their business is down close to 50 percent. Some say the domestic market has shrunk from 11 million cigars a year to only 5 million or 6 million. "People just aren't buying," said one tobacco shop assistant. "Not only do we have less people coming into the shops, those that do buy a lot less."

The shops' selection of cigars, however, was very good, with just about everything available, and the dozens of boxes I opened of current-production smokes looked very high quality. I wonder, however, why anyone from Europe would purchase large quantities of Cuban cigars on the island, other than having the pleasurable experience of buying there. Prices are not much different in Spain and other parts of Europe, so who wants to bother buying smokes in Cuba and having the hassle of bringing them back—especially with how difficult Cuban customs officers at the airports can be as well as their counterparts in some European countries?

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