British actor Jeremy Irons stole the show on Friday night during the final event of the VII Festival del Habanos. He was one of a handful of others -- mostly cigar merchants -- who received awards at the gala dinner in Havana that concluded the festival. The dinner featured music from supreme Cuban pianist Chucho Valdez as well as amazing dancing from the world's greatest flamenco artist, Joaquin Cortez.
"I was sitting next to a very beautiful woman today and she asked me if I smoke both cigarettes and cigars," said Irons, standing on the stage in front of about 1,400 participants and smoking a Partagas 8-9-8. I saw a number of faces look in horror as the Brit mentioned the "C" word. "I do. Smoking a cigarette is like having sex, but smoking a cigar is like making love."
The crowd applauded with incredible gusto. Irons took a few drags off his cigar and continued, saying that he was getting on in age and that he hoped to smoke fewer cigarettes. "In the years ahead I am going to try to smoke more cigars," he concluded, drawing more cheers from the crowd.
The Partagas Serie P No. 2 was debuted at the dinner, which celebrated the 160th anniversary of the Partagas brand. The torpedo smoke, which is the same size as the Montecristo No. 2, smoked like a dream. It was subtly spicy and rich with just the right amount of decadent Partagas character. The cigar should be available on the world market in April.
I ran in to Lucia Newman, the Latin American correspondent for CNN, and she asked me on camera if I thought that Cuban cigars were not at the same quality level that they had been in the past. I told her that I thought it was the complete opposite and that Cuban cigars have not been on this quality level for years due to improvements in quality control in cigar factories on the island. The interview, of course, may never see the light of day.
One question mark on quality, however, that I didn't have time to address with CNN is the issue of Cuban wrappers. Last year was not a good year for wrappers on the island due to a wet spring and the use of artificial curing, which robs the wrapper of its oils and elasticity. And this year, despite what appears to be a phenomenal harvest, is way too cold for naturally curing the wrapper in a good way. Who knows how it will end?
But nobody at the gala dinner was worried about wrapper or anything else that happens in the Vuelta Abajo or Havana concerning cigar production. Everyone was in a festive mood enjoying the food, wine, Armagnac, cigars, entertainment and camaraderie. The event was held at ExpoCuba, a venue used for trade fairs in Cuba, and what could have turned out to be something resembling a dinner in a shopping mall in the Midwest ended up being a classy, well-organized event by any standard.
As always, Cuban cigar agents were willing to shell out large amounts of money during the benefit charity auction of cigars, which raised about 530,000 euros (or about $700,000). The sale was done in euros this year due to new regulations that place a 10 percent commission on U.S. dollars used in Cuba. Proceeds from the auction go to the Cuban public health system.
The biggest bidder was Altadis S.A., which bought the last lot of the auction, a massive Cohiba humidor that resembled a tobacco leaf enriched with silver and other gaudy materials. It was more a piece of furniture than a humidor and contained 20 Siglo VIs, 20 Torpedos, 20 Sublimes, 20 Double Coronas and 20 Robusto Especials (which are Double Corona length). In recent years, Altadis, the Spain-based company that owns half of Habanos S.A. (the organizers of the event), has bought the last lot of the auction, and its generosity is more than necessary considering that President Fidel Castro has not attended the event for three years now.
Despite his signature on each humidor in the auction, Castro's lack of presence significantly brings down the bidding. But few seriously seemed to mind not seeing Cuba's supreme leader, especially when all the other entertainment was so good.
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