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Shopping in Cuba

Havana's most popular cigar sizes are back on the shelves.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

(continued from page 2)

Several years ago, when Mons was interviewed by Cigar Insider, the monthly cigar newsletter from Cigar Aficionado magazine, he scoffed at the buying habits of Americans, who he said were only out to buy big brand names such as Cohiba and Montecristo. Today, he is a little more generous.

"They are more educated [now]," he says. "For me, it's better. There are more smokers, and there's a much higher level of understanding. They buy cigars here, and they keep them for a long time. They know cigars get better with age. There is a much richer culture now."

Good cigar retailers, such as Mons and Abel Diaz of Partagas, allow their patrons to crack open a box and examine the cigars inside before buying. Checking your cigars is especially important in Cuba, where wrapper color can vary considerably within brands. (You also need to check for beetle holes in your cigars, anywhere you buy.) One box of Bolivars might have wrappers the color of Connecticut shade, while another box's wrapper might look dark enough to be called maduros.

As I open my fourth box of Bolivar Petit Coronas at the Meliá Cohiba's cigar shop, the woman running the store stops me.

"You're kidding me," I say. She's not. My invasive buying techniques are not welcome in her store. I put the boxes back on the shelves and walk out, but not before buying a five-pack of Montecristo No. 4s.

Other things aren't ideal in Cuba. Most of the well-known brands -- Cohiba, Montecristo, bigger Hoyos and Punch cigars -- are year 2000 production, and many wrappers are on the pale side. Some even have a green tint. I look at the cut feet of a few cigars before lighting them -- nothing dark. That and the unusually mild taste suggest that they were made without ligero, the most flavor-packed tobacco used to make cigars.

The two Partagas Lusitanias I bought ($17 each) at El Relicario don't have the punch this legendary cigar is known to pack. They are disappointing smokes. Other cigars, such as a pitch-black Vegas Robaina Don Alejandro ($7) bought out of a cabinet at the Fifth Avenue store, are simply good. And a few, such as the three-year-old La Gloria Cubana Medalle D'Or No. 2s I find on a back shelf at Fifth Avenue ($142), are sublime.

Three-year-old cigars? You can find them in Cuba, but you have to invest some time to search. Dig around. Check the box codes. Don't limit yourself to names such as Cohiba, Montecristo or Romeo y Julieta, because odds are someone has been there before you. Think small and think obscure.

In 1996, I followed a pair of more knowledgeable friends through a well-stocked humidor and watched them flip box after box upside down. I took note of which piles they lingered over. Ever hear of Gispert Petit Coronas? Neither had I, until I saw a box sitting there in Havana. It was seven years old and had the ridiculous price of $15. That's 60 cents for a cigar made entirely of Cuban tobacco. They were delicious, and tasted even better because I knew they were such a bargain. You've probably heard of Sancho Panzas. On the same 1996 trip I found a box of Sancho Panza Petit Coronas -- not the ideal size, but they came with a bonus -- five years of box age. They were $55.

Petit coronas and other small cigars tend to sit on shelves and catch some dust, while robustos, double coronas and Churchills are snapped up right away. On my most recent trip, I glance at the big smokes and pass them by -- the cigars are too young, the wrappers too pale. I dig through piles of petit coronas. Near the bottom, I find Partagas petits with three years of box age for only $65 and a box of three-year-old Rafael Gonzalez petits for $57. My colleague finds a cabinet of 50 Bolivar Petit Coronas for $130, a real steal.

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