With tensions between Cuba and the United States seeming to thaw, and the prospect of Cuba opening its doors a stronger possibility now than ever since the embargo was instated over 50 years ago, cigar smokers naturally have a lot of questions. To help clear up some confusion concerning the current state of Cuban affairs, executive editor David Savona and senior contributing editor Gordon Mott took to the stage for their Big Smoke panel.
"I'm sure you all remember the news from December 17th last year" Mott said to the crowd. "It was the day that Obama announced major changes to U.S.-Cuba relations. We've been covering Cuba since 1992, and I have long since stopped guessing when America was going to re-establish diplomatic relations. When Obama announced the news, it was a surprise for us in the office."
The seminar continued as a guide to Cuba, not only to what the current restrictions are, but how to navigate Havana should an American citizen find his or her way over to Cuba.
"We need to calm," Mott warned. "These are only minor adjustments and they are mostly symbolic. The embargo is still in effect."
Although legal travel to Cuba by Americans is still very restricted, certain licenses do indeed exist. These include permits for People-to-People excursions, journalistic business, religious missions and humanitarian efforts. Should an American be granted visitation privileges, Mott and Savona offered a viable tourist agenda, especially for those who have never been to Cuba.
The slide show presentation started with photos of the Capital building and the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana.
"Of course, no visit to Cuba is complete without seeing all the cars of the 1950s," added Savona.
Because the range and quality of restaurants in Cuba are not exactly up to the same quality standards as other Caribbean nations, dining advice was particularly helpful. Of the paladares in Cuba, Mott named La Guarida as the finest restaurant in all of Havana but also cited El Cocinero and Santy Pescador as notable options.
"We're not talking three-star Michelin dining," Mott said "but the preparations are simple and the ingredients are fresh."
Perhaps the most intriguing new rule to go into effect is the allowance of Cuban cigars. American citizens traveling to Cuba are now allowed to bring $100 worth of cigars for personal consumption back into the United States.
"The Cuban currency is in CUCs," Savona said. "The CUC is one-to-one with the American dollar."
Both Savona and Mott gave guidance as to the newest cigars to look out for. The list included this year's Edición Limitadas—the H. Upmann Magnum 56 and the Ramon Allones Club Allones—as well as the new Añejados cigars, which were produced in 2008 and have been aging in Cuba since their release earlier this year. The two cigars to be released under the new aging program are the Montecristo Churchill and the Romeo y Julieta Pirámides. Savona also previewed the upcoming Montecristo 80th Aniversario and the Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill Gran Reserva.
"There are great deals to be had in Cuba for cigars," said Mott. "The only brand in Cuba priced at world market value is Cohiba. There are great deals to be had with other brands."
Mott also offered some statistics concerning Habanos S.A., the Cuban monopoly that distributes Cuban cigars to the entire world.
"Habanos is not very forthcoming with the exact number of premium cigars they produce for the world," he said. "But we estimate around 100 to 120 million."
Though tobacco harvests in Cuba were considered to be poor from 2012 to 2013-2014 the 2014-2015 harvest was reported to be of very high quality.
"They're in a bit of a crisis, which they acknowledge. By 2016, they don't expect to have the same type of problems."
As to the question of Cuban cigars finally coming to the U.S. for official trade, Mott offered a realistic response: "Let's not kid ourselves. If Cuban cigars became legal in the U.S., they're not going to be cheap."