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Cuba' Best Cigar Factory

Cuba's Top Export Cigar Factory Is Turning Out the Country's Best Cigars
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

Benito Molina is wearing a big smile, a bulging Montecristo No. 4 sticking out of his mouth. He's been trying to avoid answering a question about whether or not his factory, José Martí in Havana, will be selected as the primary rolling site for a new size of Cohiba. The pyramid-shaped Cohiba, according to sources at Habanos S.A., will be released sometime in early 1997, and whichever factory earns the right to produce it will add a gold star to its roster. "Making Cohiba is very prestigious," says Molina. "We would be more than happy to make less petit corona and lonsdale Montecristos and make more Cohiba."

For the past six years, Molina has been the manager of José Martí, known as the H. Upmann factory before Fidel Castro's Revolution in 1959. Molina doesn't want to stake a claim to the new Cohiba, but it's clear that no other factory may be better qualified to undertake the project. After all, the new cigar's shape, a pyramid, is similar to the Montecristo and H. Upmann No. 2s that are produced at Molina's factory.

All of Havana's export cigar factories are capable of producing good cigars, but none can match the consistency and the quality of Fabrica José Martí, located just one block from the capitol building in Old Havana on Calle Amistad. Better known as the H. Upmann factory, it produces a wide range of cigars, including such high-quality smokes as the mammoth Montecristo A and the Cohiba Robusto and Esplendido.

Even under the current hardships brought on by shortages in the Cuban economy, José Martí is making the best cigars in Cuba and maybe the world. Many Habano cognoscenti scour cigar shops around the world for boxes with the coveted "JM" initials printed on the bottom. These initials are part of the code the Cubans use to designate where cigars are produced as well as when they are boxed, although sources at Habanos S.A., the global marketing organization for Cuban cigars, claim the code will be changed this year.

Even if the code is modified, you can still be assured that a handful of cigars are exclusively produced at José Martí. These are "must have at any cost" cigars by anyone's standards. They include: the corona grande Montecristo A (9 1/4 inches by 47 ring gauge); the pyramid or torpedo trio--Montecristo No. 2 , Diplomaticos No. 2 and Upmann No. 2 (all 6 1/8 by 52); the corona gorda H. Upmann Magnum (5 1/2 by 46); and the classic Churchill Upmann Monarch/Sir Winston (7 by 47). In past tasting reports, Cigar Aficionado has respectively scored the first five cigars: 95, 94, 92, 89 and 88.

José Martí also makes the entire range of Montecristos, Diplomaticos and handmade H. Upmanns as well as Cohiba Robustos, Esplendidos and Siglos. The majority of its production is of cigars made by other factories as well. For instance, José Martí manufactures the ubiquitous petit corona Montecristo No. 4 (5 by 42) that is made by nearly all of Cuba's export factories. "Monty 4" represents nearly half of all Cuban cigars sold around the world. It is the most smoked cigar in Spain and France, Cuba's two largest export markets for cigars.

Since the government took control of the factories beginning in 1959, the state tobacco monopoly has assigned certain factories to oversee the production of particular brands. For instance, José Martí has the mind-boggling job of trying to standardize the production of Montecristos, a task the factory's manager admits is only partially realized. "We can be sure that our formulas for blends are followed very closely at the various factories that make Montecristo," says Molina, 56, as he puffs on a rejected Montecristo No. 4 taken from the rolling tables. "However, we can't be sure of the quality of the rolling or the finishing of the cigars. That's up to each factory."

This is why, he adds, his factory can produce better Cohibas than others, including the brand's mother factory, El Laguito, and Partagas, which also make Cohiba Robustos, Esplendidos and the Siglo range. "It all comes down to the quality of your rollers," says Molina. "We have rollers who specialize in certain sizes. So they really are experts. Their rolling is the very best."

Molina claims that no other factory has as many quality rollers as José Martí. He employs nearly 50 rollers who are rated grade seven, the highest rating a cigar roller can possess in Cuba. This means he or she can make virtually any cigar under production, including the very difficult pyramid-shaped Montecristo and Upmann No. 2s. The only exception may be the gigantic Montecristo A, which is made by only three rollers who possess the hands and strength to roll such large cigars. The annual production of the "Monte A" at José Martí is about 15,000.

According to Molina, his factory makes nearly 2 million rare, or "grade seven" cigars as he calls them, a year--6,000 to 7,000 a day, about 1,000 Churchills, 4,800 No. 2s, 150 Monte As and 300 lonsdale sizes. Molina said that Cuba's other factories pale by comparison, with the Partagas factory making about half a million grade seven cigars a year, La Corona about 300,000 and Romeo y Julieta about 200,000.

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