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From Strength to Strength

Cubans continue their quest to improve Habanos
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
David Caruso, Jan/Feb 2007

Everyone was looking a little light-headed. Jemma Freeman, the managing director of Hunters & Frankau, U.K. importers for Cuban cigars, was giggly. Edward Sahakian, the well-known owner of London's Davidoff shop, was sitting back looking blankly at the ceiling and fellow journalist Nick Faulkes was slightly pale and sweaty. I kept thinking that something had gone wrong with my eyeglasses, as everything seemed foggy and unfocused.

"Esta tobacco es muy fuerte, verdad!" I said in my poor Spanish to the new head of the H. Upmann factory in Havana during a meeting there last fall. "It's really strong!" I turned and repeated my observation in English to the others.

Miguel Brown had a big smile on his face. I wasn't sure if he was happy that we were all half stoned on his new cigar—the Petit Edmundo—or he was getting a kick out of watching some foreigners trying to hold it together while testing a very young smoke. The Petit Edmundo, a 52 ring gauge by 4 1/3 inch cigar, is expected to hit the streets this year, perhaps during the annual cigar festival in Havana in late February.

I am a big fan of the regular Edmundo, a 52 ring gauge by 5 1/3 inch cigar in the Montecristo line that debuted about three years ago. The fat smoke is a spicy mouthful with lots of creamy, coffee character. It seems to be getting better all the time. It was originally made in the former H. Upmann factory in Old Havana behind the Partagas factory, but was switched to a new factory about a year and a half ago. It has gone from being a good, slightly bland smoke to a flavorful, must-have for Havana lovers.

Brown was certainly pleased to hear my views on how the Edmundo had improved, but he also seemed surprised, even annoyed. "We haven't changed anything in particular in making the cigar," he said, when I insisted that the enhanced quality was all because the cigars were now made in the new H. Upmann location.

It didn't matter. A tour through his factory only reinforced my thoughts. H. Upmann seems to be getting better and better as a factory, from well-managed workers to superior tobacco. One of the biggest eye-openers was the improvement in raw material, particularly the ligero, or strong tobacco, used in the blends. As I walked through the blending room, I noticed a number of bales with the dates 1999-2000 printed on them, and they were filled with powerful and flavorful ligero leaves. The workers sorting the blends for the next day's rolling also confirmed that the tobacco quality had greatly improved. I hadn't seen such great filler tobacco in Cuban factories since the mid-1990s, and it confirms why rich and flavorful cigars are coming out of Havana again. The improved tobacco is part of the reason that our Cigar of the Year is a Cuban smoke—the Bolivar robusto called the Royal Corona (See page 59).

Another exciting development is the new security system at the H. Upmann factory. Brown suggested that they had virtually cut out all thieving on the premises, which could include everything from loose leftover tobacco on the floors to boxes and cigars in storage. Brown showed me a closed-circuit television system in his office that scans the various departments in the factory. The cameras can zoom in on the workbench of a single roller, or any other worker.

In Cuba, it has been a given that some factory workers steal things. The bands, boxes, stickers, seals and everything else for authentic-looking but fake cigars sold on the street have to come from somewhere because counterfeiters in Cuba can't produce all the stuff themselves. Cigars also leave "mysteriously" from factories, although I am told that many counterfeits are produced in small clandestine factories on the island. Over my years visiting Havana's main factories, I have even seen rollers selling cigars to visitors as they walked by the rolling tables. If you pass by the Partagas factory, you will be mobbed by dudes claiming to have a brother or uncle working inside.

Brown explained that such a free-for-all environment in a factory creates a bad atmosphere and workers are distracted from their work and even demoralized. No one can make good cigars when the ambience is rotten. "The problem is that nobody wants to tell on another person for such wrongdoing," Brown said. "So we need our own proof."

I have no idea why I said this to him in his office before visiting the factory floor, but I joked, "I am sure I will be offered a cigar or two when I am in the rolling room." His eyes opened wide, with an excited sort of look. "If you are offered a cigar while you are in the factory, I will give you a few boxes of cigars. No workers will offer you anything," he said defiantly.

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