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Cuba's Cohiba

James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Premier Issue, Autumn 92

(continued from page 1)

"There are only two people in Cuba that know the names of the vegas used for Cohiba," said Lara, playfully drawing on his Lanceros with a satisfied grin. "It is a great secret. Only myself and Francisco Torano of the Ministry of Agriculture know."

He said that the ten vegas used for Cohiba comprise about 700 acres, a tiny percentage of the roughly 98,800 acres planted to tobacco for last year's harvest in the Pinar del Rio district. Lara did admit, however, that Cuba's most legendary vegas, El Corojo and Hoyo del Monterrey, supply Cohiba along with the well-known Santa Damiana plantation. On average, he selects tobacco from five of the ten vegas, each harvest depending on the quality of tobacco available.

The production in the Vuelta Abajo for Cohiba is the same as for other brands. The tobacco, depending on its strength and quality, is dried and fermented twice in various warehouses which dot the countryside of the region. This drying and fermentation process, according to Laral reduces the tar and nicotine in the tobacco as well as changes its color from green to various shades of brown. Some tobacco may be aged for more than 18 months during these processes. In addition, all the tobacco is classified by color and by strength during this period.

Fermentation is a unique factor in Cohiba cigars. While tobacco for other cigars only undergoes two thorough fermentations, the leaves for Cohiba go through a third fermentation at the El Laguito factory. All the key types of tobacco-- the ligero, seco and volado--are fermented a third time. The leaves are stacked and fermented in small wooden barrels in dark closets in various parts of the factory. The fermentation may take as long as 18 months depending on the tobacco. Lara said that this costly process gives Cohiba cigars their finesse and refinement. Added the factory's assistant director, Rafael Guerra, "The third fermentation is nothing new. It is the old way of doing things. But it greatly reduces the nicotine and tars in the Cohiba...we say in Cuba that those who smoke Cohiba will never die of cancer but those who don't will die of envy."

With the various types of tobacco in stock, El Laguito's cigar rollers--called torcedores--are given batches of leaves to cover their daily production. Each batch represents the correct blend of tobacco to produce approximately 100 to 110 cigars. Rollers can make a variety of sizes and shapes, although they generally specialize in one type of cigar for a few months at a time.

El Laguito began in 1961 as a cigar-rolling school for women. Until that time, very few women rollers existed because many of the cigar factory owners believed that their hands were not strong enough to properly shape cigars. The owners also thought that the men would not concentrate on their work if women were present. "I had my doubts at the beginning," admitted Lara, who started the school. "But it is clear now that they are just as good as men in rolling cigars. It only took me a few months to realize this."

Lara is considered one of Cuba's greatest cigar men. His ability to select tobacco and roll cigars is legendary. The texture of a tobacco leaf, its smell, its color, they all tell Lara more than can be imagined. "Lara is a great teacher," said Guerra, who may one day take over when Lara retires. "He is the best tobacco man in Cuba. With Lara, it is like a family at El Laguito. We hope that he never retires. Every day you learn something from him."

An almost magical ambiance radiates from the Cohiba factory's light-blue, classical facade. The small ornate palace of El Laguito with its elegant grounds gives a spirit of lost aristocratic grandeur, a stark contrast to the grubby, well-worn rooms inside. Nearly 300 workers labor here each day in rooms that once were filled with the finest furniture, tapestries and paintings.

The workers produce three sizes of Cohiba at El Laguito: Lanceros, Coronas Especial and Panetelas. The factory also made the similar shaped thin cigars of Davidoff--No. 1, No. 2 and Ambassadrice--until the Swiss company decided to switch its production to the Dominican Republic last year. Lara said that the greatest possible care had always been taken to assure that each brands' cigars retained their blended character and uniqueness.

"Davidoff came here in 1969," said Lara, with a slight haze of cigar smoke around him. "Zino was in this very room and we decided together what the mix of the cigars would be and the sizes. We tasted various cigars and came up with the blends. Cohiba, however, was already developed at the time, and it was always the best of the two."

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