Robustos and large cigars are still dominating the rolling rooms in Cuba's factories
I thought that the Bolivar Royal Corona might be the last cigar of my life, and I almost didn't mind because I have really grown to love this robusto. I quietly smoked my cigar in the morning with a cortado coffee and contemplated my life, my children, my friends, my girlfriend and my job. At least I wouldn't have to do any more columns or blogs, I thought to myself as I sipped the rich coffee with creamy milk and smoked the cigar. And I would not have to worry about all the antismoking laws around the world. Alimony, school fees, pissed-off girlfriends, feisty editors, bad-tempered immigration officers...you name it. Gone. No more hassles.
I will admit: I am afraid of Cubana Air-lines. The Cuban national carrier has one of the worse safety records of any airline, and I am already not a courageous flyer. But I needed to take the flight to Cancún to make my connection to Los Angeles. So I had no choice.
Anyway, I got to José Martí Airport, checked in and waited for my flight. I looked out the window and saw the beast of a plane I would be flying in. It was built in the 1980s in Mother Russia. It was none other than the AS Yakovlev Yak-42D. I drank a couple of Crystal beers at the gate for courage.
We boarded the flight and it was boiling inside. The air-conditioning wasn't working since the engines were still off. It smelled of warm and sweaty people with an undertone of damp carpet. I tried to look out the scratched window. My seat was broken as well. And my seat back kept falling in the lap of the person behind me.
They closed the door, started the engines and the air-con came on. It was much cooler, but a white smoke was coming from under my seat. It was condensation from the air-con system and it began to look like a Doobie Brothers rock concert I went to decades ago in a L.A. stadium. Lots of dry-ice smoke!
Anyway, we taxied out on the runway and took off at a dragster's pace. And the incline was more military than civil. My seat began to feel like a bed of nails under my ass. I felt as if I were in a time machine flying to some unknown destination in the USSR's Siberia. I shouldn't have had those beers.
A steward and stewardess, who looked like former Olympic shot putters (they probably were!), were in charge of in-flight service, which resembled prison food. The only upside I could see was that they were also selling five-packs of Romeo & Julieta petit coronas. They must be the last of the airlines to do so. But I didn't buy. I asked, but they wouldn't let me smoke them on the flight. "Entonces, no, gracias," I said in my bad Spanish.
About 45 minutes later, we landed in Cancún. I was happy. I felt as if I had cheated death yet another day. It was sort of the same feeling I have had during close calls on my motorcycle or in my sports car. And then I thought of the words of Mark Twain as I walked down the landing bridge to the airport: "If there are no cigars in Heaven, I shall not go."
Yes, it's better on earth at the moment, and seriously there is a lot going on in cigar heaven in Havana. For example, I visited the Partagas factory during my stay in the city in September, and my experience there illustrates how the top export factories have changed. They are focusing much more on producing limited-edition and specialty smokes—real blue-chip smokes. And, of course, they are rolling loads of robustos and similar vitolas.
It was hot and sticky in the rolling room of the Partagas factory in downtown Havana. About 300 rollers were busy handcrafting a range of cigars. I saw mostly large ring-gauge cigars being rolled. Most of the cigars were regional editions for the Middle East and Cohiba Maduros. The one regional edition that looked pretty amazing was a Bolivar Sublimes, which I believe is going to Lebanon.
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?
The Cubans seem a bit surprised that we gave such a high accolade to the smoke. "When people think of our best robusto, they normally think of Cohiba or Partagas or even Ramon Allones," said one official.
"El Bolivar Royal Corona es la bomba," I told her. She didn't look that convinced. Maybe it was my bad Spanish again. Lost in the translation as usual.
I visited the color sorting room with quality control expert Deborah Garcia. She has been at the Partagas factory for almost as long as I can remember. And she knows her stuff.
"How do you like the Bolivar?" she asked.
"It's rich and powerful, but flavorful," I said. "It's not strong, though. It delivers masses of flavor."
She said that the humidity in the air during my visit to the city made it a little hard to smoke cigars. "There's too much humidity in Havana at the moment, so the cigars don't draw perfectly," she said.
It's cool to think that Havana is like one big humidor, and you don't have to worry about keeping the water level right in the damned thing. I just wish it were a little easier to get to and from the magical island.