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Havana Cigar Shops

George Brightman
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

About 40 years ago, Havana had hundreds of small cigar factories and shops churning out and selling smokes for locals as well as visitors to the former Spanish colonial city. Today, only a few factories and shops exist, but their enormous selection of cigars remains incomparable.

Just visit one of the La Casa del Habano stores in La Habana, such as the one at the Partagas factory, the shop at 5th Avenue y 16 or the store Club Habana at 5th Avenue 188-192, and you will quickly understand. Dozens of brands are usually available, as well as an equally diverse range of sizes and shapes, from simple pocket packets of five Romeo y Julieta petit coronas to cedar cabinets of 50 Partagas Lusitanias. There's something for every cigar smoker here. Plus, prices are the lowest in the world.

"Most of our clients come in with something in mind," says Osmany Rios Moreno, the young manager at 5th Avenue y 16. "They usually want to buy a specific cigar, whether it's a Cohiba Robusto or Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona. People seem to focus on the top brands [Cohiba, Montecristo, Partagas and Hoyo] and they want the most popular sizes [robusto, double corona and torpedo]. But occasionally, someone comes in and asks what I think is best to buy and I recommend some of the lesser brands or smaller sizes, since they can be as good or better smokes and better value."

It's this sort of helpful advice that makes the difference. Among the dozens of cigar shops in Havana, a knowledgeable and accommodating staff is rare. Most shop assistants (not to mention the cigar jockeys selling fake smokes in the street) know little about the product, and most seem uninterested in your business. Only a few shops even allow you to open boxes to check on the quality and color of the cigars before buying. Even fewer allow you to buy good-quality individual cigars.

"The fact is that it's hard to get the right people to work for you in selling cigars," said Enrique Mons, the manager of Club Habana's La Casa del Habano. A bear of a man, Mons has been in the Cuban cigar trade his entire life, with experience on plantations as well as in factories. No one knows more about cigars in Havana. "I try to be a source of information for my customers, so that they are not only buying cigars but learning about them," he says.

When I am in Havana, I usually use the cigar store at the Hotel Nacional as a starting point for buying cigars. It features a wider array of single cigar choices than any other shop I've visited. Be advised, however, that not all the cigars on display in the counters outside the walk-in humidor are for sale individually. Examine the top boxes of each stack when you enter the well-stocked walk-in humidor; if the price marked is for a single stick, then you can buy them by the piece. Buy a few things you want to try (I usually go for a few robustos, figurados or double coronas) and then take off to the next stop with one of them alight.

Relaxed with a morning cigar, I usually set out for the Partagas factory store, a true Mecca for cigar lovers, which has a breathtaking array of inventory on the ground floor of one of Cuba's great landmarks. Ask to visit the lounge behind the door at the back of the main shop floor, where you will see a walk-in humidor filled with Cohibas, Partagas, Ramon Allones, La Gloria Cubanas, Hoyo de Monterreys and Punches, as well as Trinidads, Cuabas, Vegas Robainas and San Cristobal de La Habanas. Introduce yourself to Abel Esposito Diaz, the shop's manager and ambassador to all of Cuba's cigar-seeking tourists. He'll help you choose wisely. The other staff members are equally helpful and most speak some English.

After Partagas, I pop over to the La Corona factory, a few blocks away on Calle Agramonte, and check out what's offered. Another legendary factory, La Corona today is the home of Hoyo de Monterey and Punch, including the much-sought-after double corona format of each. The rollers in the shop are usually some of the best on the island, so ask them to bang up a fresh double or robusto for you. You also can have a drink or a coffee from the bar and small lounge area just beyond the cigar counters while you browse the inventory.

The La Corona factory is about to get the same cleanup treatment as Partagas underwent a few years back, which will include extending the mezzanine area over the store floor. So the shop, which is known as the Palacio del Tabaco, should be even better. Try to arrange a visit to the factory with the cigar shop staff. "There are only three Cuban shops located in actual factories [Partagas, La Corona and the Vegueros factory in Pinar del Río]," says Omar Gonzalez, the manager of the La Corona shop. La Corona is the "mother factory" for the new Cuban brand, San Cristobal de la Habana. "So this is a unique experience for our visitors. Even those who don't smoke can appreciate the art of cigarmaking!"

In between visiting the two factory shops, I always try to stop at the small, atmospheric shop in the tiny, cigar-dedicated Hostal Conde de Villaneuva. The shop is on the second floor in three small rooms with thick wooden beams and whitewashed walls. It's as if you were buying cigars 100 years ago. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable and they make excellent coffee, which goes well with the cigar conversation and selection.

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