Part Two: Las Vegas Big Smoke Saturday Seminars

Cuban Cigars

James Suckling, European editor of Cigar Aficionado and the magazine's expert on Cuban cigars, began his seminar on Cuban smokes with an invitation to the audience of cigar lovers. "I look forward to the day when we're all in Havana and can smoke a cigar," he said.

For now, Suckling is one of few who can do just that, and he spends a great deal of time in Cuba—perhaps more than any other non-Cuban cigar writer—and began his presentation with a video of his travels to the island. He showed the Malecón, the well-known seaside highway in Cuba; a fine cigar shop in Old Havana, which was stocked with Cuban smokes; El Floradita, perhaps the most famous bar in Cuba, where Hemingway used to drink icy and sweet daiquiris; Alejandro Robaina's farm in Pinar del Río, where some of Cuba's greatest tobacco is grown; El Laguito factory, the mother factory for Cohiba cigars; Suckling even got a shave from a straight razor in Havana, then celebrated with a fine smoke.

"My dream is to have a Big Smoke in Havana—how cool would that be?" said Suckling, to hearty applause from the sold-out crowd.

Suckling described the current state of Cuban cigar sales, which have suffered lately. Sales are down ten to 20 percent, Suckling reported. Part of that is due to the global economic recession, but another culprit is the impact of smoking bans. "This really hurts the sales of Cuban cigars," he said.

The sold-out crowd listens to James Suckling describe the world of Cuban cigars.

Cuba exports about 130 million handmade cigars a year, said Suckling, naming Europe as its largest market (accounting for some 57 percent of sales), followed by Latin America (16 percent), Asia (7 percent), then Eastern Europe (5 percent).

No matter where the cigars are sold, many ultimately end up in the hands of Americans, despite the long-running embargo prohibiting Cuban goods from entering the United States. Suckling said he vastly underestimated how many Cuban cigars were smoked by Americans, estimating the number to be around 8 to 12 million cigars per year. Officials from Habanos S.A., Cuba's cigar exporting organization, told him that they estimate the figure to be 25 million or even 50 million units per year.

James Suckling describes his visits to Cuba.

Suckling praised the Cuban cigar industry for its newfound attention to bringing out new cigars. "I think the Cubans are doing a great job with new products," he said, naming Montecristo Open (a release he initially doubted) and the Regional Editions, which he dubbed "super popular." He also dispelled the notion that the Cuban cigar industry had slashed plantings of cigar tobacco. "The Cubans need tobacco for their cigars—and they're not cutting back."

The audience had many questions about Cuba and its cigars, which Suckling answered. One involved the aging of cigars, and Suckling (a fan of smoking older smokes) gave some tips. "As a cigar ages, it loses some of its impurities, and gets more mild. You have to catch it at the right time," he said. He advised laying down bigger ring gauge cigars, such as robustos and double coronas, and stronger ones containing good amounts of ligero, the most powerful type of filler tobacco.

In closing, Suckling looked to the future, a day when Cuban cigars could be sold alongside non-Cuban smokes in the United States. He has already tasted cigars of the future, cigars made with a blend of Cuban and non-Cuban tobaccos. "Cuban tobacco goes very well with other tobaccos," he said. And his greatest dream? "One day," he said, "I would like to see a global Big Smoke."

Judging by the audience's reaction, that would be a popular event indeed.

Photos by Sjodin Photography

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