2011 Big Smoke Saturday Seminars: An Insider’s View of Cuba

Take a room full of 500 cigar enthusiasts. Now open up a fresh box of Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 Cuban cigars. The oohs and ahhs will rise up from the crowd. Then open up another box of Por Larrañaga Regalias de Londres, and hear the catcalls and whistles. Then a vintage box of Dunhill Selection Montecristo number twos and the room is on the brink of turning into a mob. This is what Ajay Patel did.

Patel, who shared the stage with Gordon Mott and David Savona on the Insider’s View of Cuba seminar, is the proprietor of the United Kingdom’s only Casa del Habano, Habanos S.A.’s official franchise for Cuban cigars. Patel is a wealth of knowledge, especially in the realm of vintage cigars, a subject of which there is so little scholarship. And he came to the Big Smoke in an effort to help demystify the rarefied world of Cuban cigars and the even more esoteric world of vintage Cuban smokes.

As Mott said, “Speaking with Ajay about vintage Cubans is like discussing a sheet of music with a philharmonic musician. He sees all the nuances and his knowledge of the vintage cigar market is truly extraordinary.”

But even Mott was a bit distracted by the piles of vintage cigars presented at the seminar. “So, as I recall,” Mott suggested, “the script says ‘Ajay gives Gordon and Dave all of his cigars.’”

The room laughed along, having already been put in a Cuban state of mind after a video played showing Savona and Mott smoking in Cuban factories and shops on their recent trips to Havana to produce the December cover story for Cigar Aficionado magazine.

“To smoke a good vintage cigar, the perfect time, is on a fresh palate,” said Patel, though, most likely none of the room qualified. Most had lit up as soon as they walked through the ballroom doors, including the Cigar Aficionado editors. Patel handed Mott and Savona a Dunhill Selection Montecristo No. 2 from the 1960s, and the trio began to smoke the cigars. Seem cruel? Not entirely. Of course, providing one for everybody would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000, but Patel generously offered one to a member of the audience, a Big Smoke loyalist who has attended every show but had never smoked a vintage cigar.

The panel included Gordon Mott, Ajay Patel and David Savona.
The panel included Gordon Mott, Ajay Patel and David Savona.

“Under one condition,” Patel said. “You have to smoke it while we’re smoking it.” He readily agreed.

The panel addressed the current state of Cuban cigars, reminding the audience that Cuba had some serious issues in the late 90s and early 2000s with both quality control for construction and the tobacco.

“When we first started the magazine, the boxes were coded and consumers didn’t know the dates or the factories where the cigars were produced,” said Savona. “Cuba’s abandoned that and now the codes are very clear with the year and month of production on the box of cigars.”

“We all know that Cuba had a problem after the boom. Production was like a conveyor belt,” said Patel. “But they learned their lesson. Altadis injected $500 million in to Habanos to help obtain more fertilizer and draw testers. New blood also came in to manage the factories. In 2004, quality got noticeably better.”

Mott spoke of the draw-testing machines, which were designed to gauge the airflow through a cigar before it is boxed and shipped. He recalls: “The draw-testing machines that we’ve seen in Havana, I saw for the first time in 1992 in the Dominican Republic at Tabacalera de Garcia. Marvin took a picture of the machine and he was almost tackled, told ‘You can not take a picture of that machine, its top secret.’ Well, today many factories around the world use that same machine and the Cubans say that every factory they have has a draw tester. Now, they’re not draw-testing every single cigar, but they sample cigars coming off the benches.”

And that notion has certainly been reflected in the Cigar Aficionado ratings.

“Over the past year we’ve rated 71 Cuban cigars with scores of 90 points or higher,” said Savona. “Many of them with box dates from ’08, ’09 and ’10. Current year production has exceptional quality these days.”

This is also corroborated by the consistent increasing sales of Cuban cigars in the U.K. “We’ve been increasing 4 to 5 percent every year and the U.K. receives about four to six million sticks each year,” said Patel. “It’s a small number when compared to other parts of the world like, say, Spain, who gets between 45 to 50 million sticks per year, so there’s a big difference between them and us, but we do get good quality Cuban cigars.”

Ajay Patel gifting a vintage Montecristo No. 2 to a lucky audience member.
Ajay Patel gifting a vintage Montecristo No. 2 to a lucky audience member.

Patel mentioned how United Kingdom importer Hunters & Frankau opens and inspects every single box of cigars that comes in from Cuba. “Some people ask me for sealed boxes. You’re not going to get them. Not in the U.K. market,” said Patel.

Other highlights of the seminar included insights on Regional Edition Cuban cigars and how the U.K., in particular, has been allowed access to archived blending records in order to recreate retired flavor profiles for special smokes that only the U.K. will sell, such as the Flor de Cano Short Robusto and Por Larrañaga Magnifico.

“We see the new cigars in Cuba first,” said Savona. “Habanos shows them off and they talk about them in February. The cigars trickle in to the market by Fall. Right now, basically all of the Edición Limitadas are here. So are some of the Regional Editions and a couple of the regular-production smokes as well, like the Partagás Serie E No. 2.”

Mott returned the discussion to vintage cigars asking Patel for aging advice, reminding him that, culturally, cigars for the American market are ready to smoke off the shelf.

“A young cigar has ammonia that disappears with age,” Patel said. “Cigars love dark places, but they must be stored properly. We keep them at 64 percent humidity and at 15 degrees centigrade.”

Like wine, there is a large contingency around the world that purchases cigars for the sole reason of laying them down to rest and age. “Collectors buy these limited-edition cigars and they’ll stick them away for five, ten, 15 years,” said Mott.

“The lucky people who bought the original Flor de Cano Short Churchill [which was conceived primarily for the Asian market] wound up with a massive return on investment. Now, they are one of the most sought-after vintage cigars and go for around £6,000 per box at auction," Patel added.

The panel then took questions from the audience, who were understandably hungry for knowledge on what is still a forbidden fruit to most cigar smokers. “We could probably spend the rest of the seminar taking questions about Cuban cigars,” said Mott, “but we have to move on to the next panel.”

So, the man from London packed up his Cuban cigars—and caught Savona jokingly trying to stuff a box of Dunhill Selección Supremas into his jacket.

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Slideshow: 2011 Big Smoke Las Vegas Weekend