The country's top-selling brand isn't always its best
"What's the best cigar of Cuba in your opinion?" I asked one of the tobacco experts at the La Corona factory in Havana about four years ago.
"Montecristo," he said.
"No, no, no...what's the best-quality cigar of Cuba?" I asked again in my bad Spanish, expecting him to say Cohiba or maybe even Trinidad, but definitely something other than Montecristo.
"Montecristo," he repeated.
"Why Montecristo?" I asked, feeling slightly irritated.
"It's the biggest-selling cigar brand from Cuba, so it has to be the best," he said, looking rather annoyed that I kept asking the same question.
His notion about the best-quality Cuban cigars was different from mine. Cubans often believe that the biggest is the best, but there's no way in a month of Sundays that Montecristo is Cuba's best quality cigar. Montecristo cigars have significantly improved in quality over the last two years, but so has the quality of all other Habanos.
One sign of Montecristo's improvement has been the introduction of a new size, the Edmundo, which measures 52 ring gauge by 5 3/8 inches. I have smoked some great examples of Edmundo (and some less than outstanding ones) in the last six months, both in Europe and in Cuba. The cigar should prove to be a huge success and create some buzz for the largely lackluster brand.
There's one fairly simple explanation for the brand's rather mundane reputation. The biggest-selling size in the brand lineup is the ubiquitous Montecristo No. 4, a petit corona measuring 42 ring gauge by 5 1/8 inches. This is to fine cigars what the Big Mac is to haute cuisine. Not only is the No. 4 the largest-produced size in the brand, it is the largest-production cigar on the island. Although no one from Habanos S.A., the global distribution company for Cuban cigars, would ever confirm production totals, probably between 20 million and 25 million Monte No. 4s are produced annually. It is also the biggest-selling cigar in Spain—the biggest Habanos market in the world, accounting for a substantial share of the 30-million-cigars-a-year market. When a Spaniard asks for a puro, he gets a Monte 4. It's almost like when an Irishman asks for a pint of beer and he automatically gets a Guinness.
Monte 4's commercial success is its downfall. The cigar's quality is almost always questionable because it is made in dozens of factories, not just one. Even the largest factories in Havana, such as Partagas or La Corona, can make only 8 million to 10 million cigars a year. So it is impossible for the Monte 4 to be made under one roof. This begs the question of how the Cubans can maintain Montecristo's house blend of tobacco as well as consistency in its cigar construction with production spread across the island.
I have asked just about everyone involved in the cigar business in Cuba the same question about Montecristo's quality control. From cigar merchant to tobacco grower, they all insist that it is possible to maintain quality in the Monte 4s despite the huge production. Am I simply too cynical? I have had a few very good quality No. 4s, but most of the time they are mediocre. For instance, although the most recent No. 4 rated in this magazine received 90 points, it was not that long ago that it rated an 85 in Cigar Insider, the newsletter companion to the magazine.
The Cubans have always said that the brand's quality and its blend are tightly controlled through a team of technicians who report to the "mother factory" of the brand, H. Upmann. The Cubans say that the same process is used with other brands made in more than one factory. These traveling technicians apparently oversee the blending and rolling of the cigars whether they are produced in the fabrica madre in Havana or hundred of miles away on the other side of the island in Santiago. However, this does not instill enough faith to get me to buy a box of Montecristo No. 4s.
I would much rather buy a Monte torpedo (No. 2) or the new Edmundo. Or I might also consider the Especial No. 1 and No. 2, the thin and elegant smokes of the line measuring 38 ring gauge by 7 1/2 and 6 inches, respectively. They were introduced in the 1970s following the production of the No. 1 and No. 2 Davidoffs. I even regularly enjoy the tiny Montecristo Joyita, a panetela measuring 26 ring gauge by 4 1/2 inches. It's a great smoke with an espresso.
Some other people might also consider the Montecristo "A," a baseball bat of a cigar that measures 47 by 9 1/4 inches, but who has the time to smoke one? The last time I had one was about 10 years ago at a ZZ Top concert in Paris and I burned the neck of my friend standing next to me. However, the cigar lasted nearly for the duration of the show.
These other Montecristos are probably better because they are produced in limited quantities, and as a result, the quality of the craftsmanship is unquestionable. According to sources, the production of the Montecristo pyramid, as the Cubans call the No. 2, always hovers around 2 million sticks per year, and most of the cigars are made in either the Partagas or Upmann factories. The best leaf is selected for the blends and only top-rated rollers make the cigars. Hand-rolling the cone-shaped No. 2 is no easy task, even with the new plastic molds that are used to press the filler into shape. Depending on an individual's ability, a roller may take two or three years to master a pyramid.
The big 52-ring-gauge torpedo also ages incredibly well. I have had 40- and 50-year-old Montecristo No. 2s that are sublime. The cigars have a tea, honey and almond character that is subtle yet rich. I have a friend in San Diego who still has a few hundred of these smokes, and has been smoking them over the last decade. Perhaps this is why the Montecristo No. 2 continues to attract a lot of attention in auctions. It is not out of the ordinary for a box of well-kept Monte 2s with 20 or 30 years of age to fetch close to $3,000 in auctions in London. If the Montes are Dunhill Selection cigars and have that logo printed on the box, they may go for 30 or 40 percent more.
Dunhill, the well-known London-based fashion house and cigar merchant, was a big supporter of the brand. Until the late 1980s, the firm used to buy its own selection of Montecristos and package them either in its own cedar boxes or in factory boxes with its name printed on the top. I still have a few No. 1s in Dunhill cedar boxes from the 1980s and they smoke beautifully, with an Indian tea character.
Probably the most collectible Montecristo ever made is the Montecristo "B." It was first produced in the early 1970s and came in a varnished humidor filled with 50 cigars and etched with the words "Montecristo B" in gold letters at the bottom right-hand corner of the lid. The cigar measured 42 ring gauge by 5 3/8 inches. An authentic box will now set you back close to $5,000. I have had the cigar on occasion, and I am not sure it merits the price. But it is a mellow, smooth smoke with the distinctive cedar and tea character of an old Montecristo.
The newest collectible Montecristos are part of the special Edición Limitadas range. These limited-production cigars have been released almost annually since 2000, and Montecristo has already had three sizes: Robusto in late 2000, Double Corona in early 2002 and the "C" last year. The latter was a new size for Montecristo, a corona gorda measuring 46 ring gauge by 5 5/8 inches. Each size was produced for only one year. Most were made in the Partagas or Upmann factories. The latter factory is also making all the Edmundos at the moment.
Ironically, Montecristo was first created in 1935 as what was viewed at the time as a superpremium brand. A story in the August 1935 edition of Habanos, a tobacco-industry magazine on the island before the revolution, remarked on the "magnificent" quality of the tobacco of the new brand from the warehouses of the Particulares Factory in Havana. Alonso Menéndez (his son Benjamin is well known in the U.S. cigar business and now works for General Cigar Co.) and José García González bought the factory in July 1935. A year later, they started a firm called Menéndez, García y Cía Ltda. In 1936, the men bought the H. Upmann factory. The stylish triangular logo of Montecristo with six swords and the fleur-de-lis was the design of the brand's British distributor, John Hunter Morris and Elkan Co. Ltd., according to Min Ron Nee's An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Post-Revolution Havana Cigars, an excellent reference work on cigars.
The British might be shocked today to know that they created an icon for the Cuban cigar industry. But whether or not Montecristo is the island's best cigar brand remains a matter of opinion.