The combination doesn't always click, even for the head of a major Cuban cigar factory
I am still surprised to hear so many guys say that they can't smoke at home because their wife or girlfriend won't let them. Even some of the most successful and macho dudes I know are banished to their porches, their cars or their backyards to enjoy the pleasures of the leaf. I am honestly not sure what to say, other than I share their pain.
I still remember when I just started smoking fine cigars in the early 1980s and I visited cigar merchant Edward Sahakian in London at his Davidoff shop in the West End with my first wife, and I asked him what I should smoke because she didn't like the smell of cigars. He said, "The only thing you can do is change your wife." I took his advice. We were divorced a short time later, obviously for other reasons, as well, but it makes a nice story.
I have been married twice. And smoking at home was a factor in my last marriage. I was pretty sure the whole thing was over after I arrived at our home in England and she told me that I couldn't smoke in the house anymore. I, too, had been banished to the environs of the garden. Whatever happened to the idea of a man and his castle, I thought to myself as I smoked outside in the dark on a cold autumn's night in the depths of northern England? It's no longer an issue now that I am single.
But we punished cigar smokers, past, present and future, should feel a little better after what I am about to tell you. How would you like to be the head of what is perhaps the greatest cigar factory in the world and you can't smoke in su casa? Yes, you make none other than the great Cuban Cohiba at the legendary factory of El Laguito in Havana, and your old lady won't let you smoke at home. In fact, the whole family doesn't want you to smoke. Feel better?
That's what Rafael Collazo Cabrera, 58, the new head of El Laguito, who formerly ran such factories as Héroes de Moncada and Romeo y Julieta, told me last fall during a quick visit and interview. I think we should smoke a cigar in his honor, or perhaps in protest. Qué lástima! What a pain for the man.
Luckily, Collazo confided to me, he's able to light up occasionally behind closed doors in his office, and his favorite cigar—surprise, surprise—is a Cohiba. He likes all the sizes, including, in a pinch, the Lancero. I am with him 100 percent on that one. What would you do if you could smoke whatever Cohiba you wanted every day? I probably would go for the Siglo VI, but I wouldn't mind a Lancero, Robusto or anything else in the brand. Maybe it is a good thing the guy doesn't smoke at home after all? Too much of a good thing...
I love smoking Cohiba. I will admit it. It's the brand as much as the quality of the smoke. It's the same buzz buying fashion labels, or watch brands, or car marques. But it's a consumable product, like first-growth Bordeaux such as Latour or Margaux, or Beluga caviar. The brand is important, but the quality has to be the very best of its kind. No one would pay a premium for Latour or Margaux if the reds were not some of the best in the world. And nobody would buy and smoke Cohiba if the cigar was not fabulous.
Granted, bad Cohibas do exist and I have had my fill over the last two decades. Most had a problem with drawing. I couldn't smoke them because they had a twisted bunch. It was mostly with the thin cigars in the range such as the Lancero and Corona Especiale. My other bad experiences with the brand have come when someone slipped me a fake Cohiba and I didn't notice. But such an occurrence is pretty rare.
Nevertheless, Cohibas are the most faked of all cigars. They are mostly the Churchill-sized Espléndido (7 inches by 47 ring gauge) and Lancero (7 by 38), which is why I think that many aficionados no longer smoke these sizes. They are afraid that the cigars they are buying are fake. Moreover, they don't want others to think that they buy fake cigars—even if the cigar is real!
On the other hand, I think that many people who buy fake Cohibas do so knowingly. They don't want to pay the price for the real deal, but they want to pose with the cigar in public. I am sure they are the same people who buy fake Louis Vuitton leather goods and bogus Rolexes for a tiny fraction of the price of the genuine product.
Regardless, when it's good, Cohiba is great. The cigars offer a rich and powerful character but show an elegant, refined, balanced style. They are not harsh. They don't hurt the morning after either. And they age incredibly well. I just recently smoked one of my last Cohiba Siglo Is (4 inches by 40 ring gauge) from 1993. It was still a little bombshell of a smoke, with lots of espresso and cedar character. I gave it 93 points.
I remember years ago giving actor Peter Weller one of those Siglos, which was from the first release on the island, and he came down in a cold sweat as he smoked it. I swear he was going to blow chow at the restaurant in Havana where we were dining. "That's too strong, man," he said, looking as if he saw a ghost or something. I always liked it. Boom. Lots of flavor.
If you can find a box, look for the Cohiba Selección Reserva. This is how I remember the original Cohibas from the early 1990s. It's a fabulous "taster" of aged Cohibas in a special cedar box, with four Espléndidos, six Robustos, six Coronas Especiales, eight Pirámides and six Medias Coronas. The latter is a unique size (basically a Corona Especiale with half an inch cut off). The cigars were released at just under $800 a box in 2003. I have seen them again in the market from London to Havana to Hong Kong.
Cohiba originally was simply the Lancero (popularly called the El Laguito No. 1), Corona Especiale (El Laguito No. 2) and Panetela (El Laguito No. 3). They were created in the mid-1960s a few years after the opening of the El Laguito factory as a cigar rolling school for women. It's the same factory today in the neighborhood of Siboney. A Cohiba Corona was also introduced in the late 1980s and was made only for a few years. Then came the Espléndido, Robusto and Exquisito in 1989, followed by the Siglos (I through V) in 1992. The Siglo VI was launched in 2002, followed by this year's introduction of the Maduro 5, including the Genio, Mágico and Secreto. There have been numerous special-edition Cohiba humidors as well, including the recent Behike, each of which sold for $18,000 in a special Elie Bleu box with 45 smokes. About 100 were made.
As for the mainstream Cohibas, about 10 million are made every year. Most are produced in Collazo's factory, Partagas and H. Upmann. Collazo has technicians who regularly monitor the production of Cohiba in other factories. Nonetheless, he said that he hopes to one day have all the production on the grounds of El Laguito. This would be difficult because the factory's capacity is about 2.5 million cigars and I doubt that the Cubans could build big enough buildings on the grounds to house another 300 rollers. There are just over 100 rollers at the moment.
"The market demands more than we can produce in this factory, so we have to produce some in other factories," Collazo explained. "But we always make sure that wherever they are produced, the quality will be at the same level as here. Believe me, this is guaranteed."
The key to the quality of Cohiba has always been the tobacco. First, the best tobacco on the island is selected for the filler as well as the wrapper. Then it is processed in the best way possible. Moreover, the strongest tobacco, or ligero, ferments a third time and gets an additional amount of time in wooden barrels. This gives the power to the blend of Cohiba, but allows it to maintain a great amount of elegance and refinement.
"The third fermentation is carried out after the first two after the harvest and drying of the leaves," Collazo said. "There is a technical team that is permanently checking the color, uniformity and texture of all the tobacco we use for Cohiba."
Collazo has been fine-tuning the flow of production at El Laguito over the last four or five months. I walked around the factory with him, and he was clearly proud of his work there, pointing out how he moved various operations from one part of the building to another to maximize production. "The quality of our production depends on the origins of the raw material and the training of our workers here," he said. "All this ensures that the Cohiba factory produces the highest quality level possible."
Cohiba seems to be in good hands at the moment. Now, if he could only smoke at home.