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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

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Some of the new Montecristo cigars launched at the festival could also be described as bland—particularly the smallest of the four in the new Open line, the Junior. As one cigar merchant said to me as he smoked the cigar at the welcome cocktail reception at the Club Havana, "Who is going to smoke this light cigar, my teenage son?"

"Well, it is named Junior," I said.

Besides the Junior (38 ring gauge by 4 1/3 inches), the Open sizes consist of the sleek belicoso Regata (46 by 5 1/3 inches), the robusto Master (50 by 4 7/8 inches) and a sort of super robusto, the Eagle (54 by 5 7/8 inches). The four cigars carry the traditional brown and cream Montecristo band, but they also sport a second band that's green with gold and white lettering.

It felt sort of surreal sitting in the Karl Marx Theater in Havana and watching a presentation for the line extension of Montecristo. Images of pristine golf courses, sleek yachts and powerful motor racing machines were mixed with polo tournaments, tennis matches, international regattas and Grand Prix races to the background music of Coldplay and a number of other popular rock bands. The young, affluent beautiful people living la buena vida were triple life-size on the big screen, intertwined with images of prestige events.

They are what Habanos hopes is the Montecristo Generation. They are mostly men in their 30s or 40s who want to enjoy the good things in life, which obviously includes a fine Cuban cigar. They want something better and newer than what their fathers or grandfathers smoked—particularly if it is a Montecristo, the largest-selling brand in the Habanos portfolio, with about one-fifth of the global market share. And why not? I am not sure how many guys in that age bracket can still afford yachts, jets, polo ponies or most other things that used to symbolize the mega—good life, but they can certainly still buy a great cigar!

"We want to attract a new generation of smoker who is just starting to enjoy the occasional cigar," said Buenaventura Jiménez Sánchez- Cañet, copresident of Habanos S.A. "We think we can develop that market where men enjoy cigars at special events [mostly outside], whether it be a wedding or a sports event." I think it's a cool idea. And the obvious connection Habanos is trying to make for this new Montecristo line makes great sense. The cigars are typical Montecristo, more along the lines of the Edmundo than anything else. I liked the Eagle the best of the four vitolas. It was the most flavorful, with plenty of chocolate and cream character.

Smoking the Montecristo Open Regata in a friend's apartment in Old Havana a few days after the launch, I couldn't help thinking that maybe Habanos is trying to do too much at this point. Do we really need more of everything? Do we need all the Reservas, Limitadas, special humidors, "library books" and everything else? What about just concentrating on the quality of what is already being made? But then I thought how these specialty cigars account for only about 5 percent of total cigar exports each year, according to figures released from Habanos during the festival. Their relative rarity makes them worth exploring, I've concluded, so I say keep them coming and make them more interesting and more original with the highest quality.

At the same time, add the occasional novelty to established brands. For example, the Trinidad Robusto T was introduced at this year's festival and it was superb. I have always been crazy for the Trinidad Fundadores as well as the first Trinidads that were available only as gifts from Fidel Castro. Turns out the Robusto T is the best new vitola in the brand. I love the rich and spicy character with a fresh, clean and floral undertone. It may be my new go-to cigar.

This year's cigar festival was the best ever, with plenty of new cigars introduced and a brilliant array of parties and tastings. The gala dinner featured the choicest entertainment, food, wine and cigars ever offered on the island. And about $1.2 million was raised for the Cuban public health system through the sale of seven special humidors.

This was all done against a backdrop of Habanos reporting that its global sales in 2008 dropped 3 percent in value and 8 percent in volume—and everyone in the Cuban cigar business expected 2009 to be even worse. But such bad news and other business talk didn't seem to matter that much during the festival, especially when you took the time to smoke a great cigar.

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