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Business Isn't Always Business

Havana's cigar festival brings repite from the economic downturn with lots of new cigars
From the Print Edition:
Jay-Z, May/June 2009

Sitting in Havana, smoking a cigar and watching the world go by can quickly make you forget that there's a lot of business involved in the handful of leaves rolled up as the Habano in your hand. Not only is there a lot of money at stake (about $390 million last year in cigar exports for Cuba, to be exact), but there's a lot of product development involved, driven by both market concerns and quality.

The XI Festival Habano, held in late February in Havana, showcased both factors for Habanos S.A., the global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars. The cigar gathering began with a purely market-driven launch of four new sizes of Montecristo; it ended with an amazing debut of a high-quality, supercharged Cohiba Siglo VI. Naturally, I was much more impressed with the latter than the former.

The Cohiba Siglo VI Gran Reserva is one of the greatest young cigars I have ever smoked. I tried it three times at the end of February in Havana, including during the gala dinner that closed the festival, and I was speechless each time. I was in heaven the moment I cut the cigar and took a draw. Even cold, it tasted so good, with a fresh herb, nut and coffee bean character. Once on fire, the cigar delivered spice, coffee, milk chocolate, floral notes, cedar . . . the flavors kept changing every moment. And the finish was long, clean and fresh. It begged you to smoke it. And I did.

The cañonazo—the name factory workers use to describe the size of the Siglo VI Gran Reserva—measures 52 ring gauge by 5 7/8 inches long, and scored very highly in my non-blind system, but because the cigar won't be released until later this year, the magazine can't rate it right now. It is made with five-year-old tobacco and comes in numbered black lacquered boxes of 15 smokes. Only 5,000 boxes (75,000 cigars) were produced at El Laguito factory, according to Habanos. (I originally thought the Gran Reserva was made at the Partagas factory.) The suggested retail price is about $1,000 a box, depending on the market.

This is the first Gran Reserva ever released in Cuba. In the past, two Reservas were made, both of which used three-year-old tobacco at the time they were rolled: the Montecristo No. 4 Reserva (released in 2007) and the Partagas Serie D No. 4 Reserva (launched in 2005). Both were limited-edition cigars of 5,000 boxes and made from one tobacco harvest, the Serie D from the 2000 harvest and the Monte No. 4 from 2003.

I tried both Reservas in February, and they smoked very, very well. The Serie D delivered fresh tea and honey flavors with hints of dried flowers on the nose that followed through to a full and rich palate with an almond and spice character. It's long and very rich, although it still needs time to come together with a bit more box age. I rated it 93 points, non-blind. The Monte No. 4 Reserva was very spicy with an herbal and light pepper character. I remember being slightly underwhelmed with the smoke when it was first released, but I find it outstanding now—91 points, un-blind.

Cuba's Reserva line is a great success, just like the Edición Limitadas that began in 2000. The Limitadas are limited-production cigars, with about 10,000 boxes of each model. They are made with special three-year-old wrapper from the top of the plant. I have lost count, but the Limitadas average about three new cigars per year. This year's ELs are expected to be the Bolivar Petit Belicoso (52 ring gauge by 4 7/8 inches), H. Upmann Magnum 48 (48 by 4 1/3 inches) and a Romeo y Julieta Duke (54 by 4 7/8 inches). The latter is a new shape, or vitola, for Cuba. The cigars were scheduled to be announced this April, and released on the market later.

Annual Edicion Regionales are also gaining popularity in the market. These are cigars made for particular markets over a two-year period, with a minimum order of 600 boxes of 25 cigars per year. The Cuban cigar agent who orders the cigar decides on the vitola, as well as the blend—in theory. I have had mixed experiences with regional cigars. Some are stylish and flavorful, but others seem dull.

Granted, I have had some great regional smokes recently. I have been really enjoying the Edmundo Dantes Conde 109 (50 ring gauge by 7 1/4 inch), made for Mexico, and the Ramon Allones Grandes (49 ring by 7 inches), produced for Spain. Both have loads of flavor and character; they are serious smokes. The latter was introduced last year and the former in 2007.

Many regional editions, however, are like the recently released cigar for the Caribbean—the Juan Lopez Short Torpedo. It's a pleasant smoke, but not very interesting. I smoked the Short Torpedo against a Cuaba Pyramid Limited Edition 2008 one afternoon in the courtyard of the Hotel Conde de Villanueva in Old Havana. The Cuaba absolutely crushed the Juan Lopez. It had so much more flavor and richness, with coffee, tobacco and nut character. If you get a chance, smoke one of the Cuabas. I would score it 93 points, un-blind.

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