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From Strength to Strength

Cubans continue their quest to improve Habanos
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
David Caruso, Jan/Feb 2007

(continued from page 1)

Needless to say, I received no cigar offers while walking though H. Upmann. However, Brown did invite me to join in a cigar tasting in the factory tasting room. I got a chance to evaluate the Cohiba Pyramide Edición Limitada 2006, the dark-wrapper, 52 ring gauge torpedo. It is one of the three Edición Limitadas for this year, which also includes the Montecristo Robusto (50 ring gauge by 4 7/8 inches) and the Partagas Serie D No. 3 (46 by 5 2/3 inches). These three shapes have been made before but were reproduced to mark the fifth anniversary of the Edición Limitada range. All come in boxes of 25 cigars, with the Cohiba also presented in dark varnished boxes of 10. The Montecristo Robusto was No. 18 in the magazine's Top 25 cigars of 2006.

The Cohiba torpedo was a wonderful smoke with lots of coffee, spicy, chocolate character. It had the typical refined yet flavorful character of Cohiba, but the darker wrapper gave the smoke a little more punch. The tasting criteria the Cubans use in the factory is not that much different from what we use for Cigar Aficionado, except they do not numerically score their cigars. They smoke a cigar about a quarter of the way down and then record their impressions on a scorecard. They drink warm tea in between puffs.

You are going to see more Cohibas with dark wrappers in the near future. I came across a document on someone's desk (I was looking at it upside down!) with information regarding a new line under the brand—the Cohiba maduros. Three new sizes with aged, dark wrappers are coming out very soon, and they promise to be some hefty smokes. These are not the black type of maduros from other countries but more like what comes out now with the limitada range. The sizes are: Genios, 52 ring by 5 inches; Mágicos, 52 by 4 inches; and Secretos, 40 by 4 1/3 inches. They are all straight-sided smokes with rat-tail ends. I can't wait to try them.

The only problem will be price. Cohibas are still the top-of-the-line Habanos and they don't come cheap, even on the island. Prices continue to increase in Havana cigar shops for many of the best names, particularly Cohiba. Prices for Cohiba and a number of other brands went up at least 5 percent last September. Cigar shop managers in Havana were complaining that many of their customers prefer to buy their cigars in Europe, or even Mexico, rather than deal with the hassle and expense of buying them in Cuba. Exchange rates and commissions on the island only exacerbate the situation.

I think the shops are just frustrated with the decline in sales. Still, I don't know any cigar lover who doesn't salivate at the thought of buying cigars in Havana, even though prices are less attractive than a few years ago. In Havana cigar shops, the selection is great and the knowledge and service is excellent.

Could it be that some of the decrease in sales in Havana is due to fakes? I am still surprised by the prevalence of cigar hawkers in Old Havana, and none are selling authentic cigars. Tourists obviously buy lots of fake Habanos, which I suspect they do knowingly because they don't want to pay the price for the real thing. It's like people who buy Rolexes for $100.

I have heard rumors about a new seal coming out on boxes of Habanos, which will not only reduce the number of counterfeit smokes but will also help the Cubans better control the market. Not only will the seals be difficult to duplicate, they will contain codes that indicate which markets the cigars are sold to and to whom.

This, the Cubans hope, will help them better track the sales of their cigars. A lot of cigars are traded on the gray market, especially in countries with strong currencies like Great Britain. Unofficial merchants can buy cigars in Havana, or even Andorra and other countries, at full retail and then ship them to their markets and sell them for a profit, circumventing the official distributors. The black-market trade in Cuban cigars in the United States is very similar, with most of the product coming out of Mexico.

Another thing the Cubans hope to reduce is the incidence of tobacco beetles. After the visit to H. Upmann, I visited a massive warehouse where tobacco officials claimed to have eradicated the pesky insect by freezing boxes of cigars before they are shipped to customers. They say that all 150 million of each year's export-quality cigars will be treated in this way.

The cigars are frozen in their shipping boxes, which usually hold about 40 boxes of 25 cigars each. The boxes are frozen to minus-5 Fahrenheit for about five days and then slowly brought back to room temperature of about 65 degrees. Four huge freezers are used, and altogether they can process about 4 million cigars at a time.

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