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Entering and Leaving Cigar Heaven

Robustos and large cigars are still dominating the rolling rooms in Cuba's factories
From the Print Edition:
The Blues Brothers, Jan/Feb 2008

(continued from page 1)

In 2007, close to a dozen regional-edition smokes were produced, and this year the number is expected to double. I have enjoyed a number of them, including the new Edmundo Dantes Conde 109 for Mexico, essentially a Churchill with a tapered end. But some of the regional cigars have been rather dull, even bland. Some might say that they taste very similar. So I hope the Cubans put more effort into the blends to differentiate the various cigars in the program.

It's strange to think how the cigar scene in Havana has changed. I remember the first time I visited the Partagas factory in September 1991 with Marvin R. Shanken, the editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, and most of the cigars being rolled were coronas and petit coronas. Contrast that with my most recent visit to Havana when, the day before I visited Partagas, I had an early morning meeting with Manuel Garcia, commercial vice president for Habanos S.A., the global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars. Garcia told me that the Partagas Serie D is now the No. 1-selling cigar in France, eclipsing the ubiquitous Montecristo No. 4. "We see all robusto and thick-gauge cigars growing in our traditional markets," he told me that morning. As I wrote in the December 2007 issue of Cigar Aficionado, the robusto has become one of the top-selling Cuban vitolas in the world.

Long live the robusto! Long live regional editions! Long live Cohiba Maduros! It's funny, but once you have gotten used to smoking a robusto, a corona or petit corona seems sort of meager or miserly to smoke.

Garcia said that global Cuban cigar sales in both volume and value were up, although the latter was greater percentage-wise. He wouldn't give out exact figures (Habanos never does), but I suspect exports are about 125 million to 135 million cigars a year and total revenues are between $250 million and $300 million.

Garcia, who has been working with Habanos and its predecessor, Cubatabaco, since 1989, said that Cuban cigar sales for the first eight months of 2007 was up and that value was up 10 percent or so. He looked pleased. "Despite all the antismoking laws around the world, we are slowly gaining market share," he said. Most of the growth is coming from such areas as Latin America, the Middle East and the Far East. Europe is stable overall, and such markets as Spain and Italy are bouncing back after a slight decline due to the introduction of draconian antismoking laws over the last three years.

Such concerns over antismoking measures, markets and growth seem far away when you are walking through the rolling room of Partagas. It's a pleasure to smoke a cigar in the big auditorium-like room and watch people do their work. It makes you understand why we enjoy a fine handmade cigar. It's all so artisan. In this age of high-speed Internet and super jumbo jets, there's something very calming about watching a roller do his or her work.

I was given a Bolivar Royal Corona at the factory when we left the rolling room and entered the color sorting area. I wasn't sure whether I should eat it or smoke it. It looked so good with its darkish wrapper. And it smelled rich and decadent—what I sometimes call the Partagas stink. The factory controls the production of Bolivar.

I couldn't believe all the Cohiba Maduros on the color sorting tables. There were eight or so tables and they were all filled with Cohiba Maduros. It was as if I were in a chocolate factory more than a cigar factory, with all the dark brown colors on the table!

The dark wrapper has five years of age and comes from the top of the plant. I like the cigars very much. I asked a number of people in the Cuban cigar industry if they planned to come out with other maduros in the future. They wouldn't be drawn out and said that they had to focus their energies on Cohiba Maduro 5 for now.

Anyway, the Bolivar robusto smoked like a dream. It's rich and super flavorful with lots of tobacco and earth, and even hints of cheese on the palate. 92 points. Is it any wonder why Cigar Aficionado awarded it Cigar of the Year for 2006?

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