The plain wooden box of cigars sat on the desk of Jaime Wheelock, a comandante in the Sandinista National Liberation Front and the new Minister of Agriculture in Nicaragua's post-revolutionary government in early 1980. I commented on them, and for the first time in my life, I saw the distinctive yellow and black band with the small white dots. He asked me if I wanted one. I honestly don't remember taking one, or smoking one, but I knew enough about cigars by that time to know that I had laid eyes on a Cohiba, the mythical cigar brand that Cuban President Fidel Castro gave out as diplomatic gifts.
Since the creation of the Cohiba brand in 1966, a special tobacco blend originally produced at the behest of Castro, the world has known about Cuba's "Best of the Best" cigar. By the time it was commercialized in 1982 in Spain and distributed in duty-free shops, every cigar lover was seeking to add the cigar to their humidors. Today, Cohiba remains one of the world's best-known trademarks. Its reputation and high prices have led it to be counterfeited over and over again, and subject to trademark battles in more than one country. But the cigar remains an object of envy and desire, one that every cigar lover dreams about smoking.
"Cohiba was something that was near and dear to [Castro's heart] and it became iconic," says Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado. "When you think of Cuba, you think of cigars, and when you think of Cuban cigars you think of Cohiba."
This year, Cohiba turns 50, and the milestone will be celebrated in grand fashion back in Cuba. "There are going to be a group of activities this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cohiba, which will be done with a lot of enthusiasm," says Inocente Nuñez Blanco, copresident of Habanos S.A., during a recent interview in Havana. "You're going to like what you see," adds copresident Luis Sánchez Harguindey. They refuse to reveal any more details about the big celebration, taking place during the Habanos Festival, which runs February 29 to March 4.
The importance of Cohiba to the Cuban cigar industry cannot be overstated. Fernando Dominguez, the premium cigar director for Imperial Tobacco PLC, a partner with Habanos S.A.'s tobacco business, says Cohiba generates more revenue than any other Cuban cigar brand. Three of Cuba's top 10 selling cigar sizes, he adds, are Cohibas.
The brand was created by Cuba's revolutionary regime, and Cuban government and cigar officials still take pride in its place as an icon of the Revolution. That pride is reflected in how carefully the Cubans have preserved the brand's quality, which suffered less than other brands during the worst period of Cuban cigar production in the late 1990s. But that pride also is revealed in the devotion to the legend of how Cohiba was created. Whether the story is 100 percent accurate or not, there is significant archival material surrounding the brand's beginnings as well as a book published with an official version.
The story starts with Castro's chief bodyguard puffing away while driving in a car with the Cuban leader. According to the official Cohiba history, Castro asked what the bodyguard was smoking. He replied that it was a fuma, a cigar made by a friend, Eduardo Rivera Irizarri, who worked in a cigar factory. Castro asked for one, enjoyed it, and then, ordered more so he could smoke that cigar all the time. He began to give them to his other top lieutenants, including Ernesto "Che" Guevara. The long, thin cigar, really a gran panetela, was closely identified with Cuba's revolutionary leaders. The cigar also became the official diplomatic gift sent to other cigar-smoking world leaders, including, according to the history, Luis Echeverria of Mexico, Omar Torrijos of Panama, Josip Tito of Yugoslavia and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.
Rivera rolled each of the fumas in his spare time while working as a roller at the La Corona factory, giving the cigars the distinctive pigtail head that would become the signature of Cohiba's Lancero size. In 1965, after a stint working at a school to train new rollers, many of them women, he was part of a team that was ordered to establish a factory for the new cigar. The group included one of Cuba's most famous and skilled cigar makers, Avelino Lara, who served as the manager; in the official history, Lara's role in the creation of Cohiba has been diminished somewhat as he left the island in 1996 to make cigars in the Bahamas for the Graycliff brand, earning some enmity from the tobacco powers in Cuba.
Production was moved into an old mansion, built by a Cuban industrial magnate, Alberto Casimiro Fowler. The stately house was in the Siboney section of Havana near a small pond, and it would become the factory for Cohiba, taking the name of the pond, El Laguito. The mansion presents an unusual setting for a cigar factory. The wide French entrance doors open onto a grand, two-story foyer, with a spiral staircase curling up to the second floor, the word Cohiba emblazoned on the wall. The layout remains from the original household, divided into many rooms, many quite small. Today there are sorters sitting in front of tall windows sifting through piles of finished Cohiba cigars, or they have rollers at their wooden workbenches packed into the small spaces, quite unlike the spacious and sprawling rolling rooms of Cuba's other cigar factories.
The grand house remains the primary, or "home" factory for Cohiba cigars. It also was groundbreaking, the first factory in Cuba to use female rollers. For a time, every roller at El Laguito was a woman. Today, you can find women rollers in all Cuban cigar factories, but El Laguito is where the barriers were broken down for what had once been solely a man's job.
During that period of 1965 and 1966 when the Cohiba brand was in its development stages, Rivera and Lara also visited farms in Pinar del Río, looking for the best tobaccos; they chose leaves from El Corojo, Santa Damiana, Cuchillas de Barbacoa, La Fe, and others, according to the history book. In a 1992 interview with Cigar Aficionado, Lara claimed only he and one other person knew the names of all 10 farms that sourced the tobacco for Cohiba. After much testing, the team arrived at the final blend, as close to the original fuma as possible, for a Lancero-sized cigar known ever after by its factory name, Laguito No. 1, a 7 1/2 inch by 38 ring gauge cigar with a pigtail head. It was also during this development period that it was decided to conduct an extra fermentation of the tobacco in barrels at El Laguito—what is known as a third fermentation—to smooth out the taste and further reduce nicotine and other impurities.
Jorge Luís Fernández Maique, who worked in the Cuban tobacco and cigar industry for more than 30 years before being let go in 2015, says that much of the mythology about Cohiba is true. "Cohiba always got the best bales of tobacco. It always got the best wrappers. The quality of Cohiba has always been the best," says Maique.
The name "Cohiba" comes from a word for tobacco used by the island's native Taino tribe. The brand's emblem is a graphic depiction of a native Cuban. The decision to name the cigar Cohiba is credited in the official history to Celia Sanchez Manduley, a former guerrilla fighter who became one of Castro's closest confidantes. Local cigar experts say there was once a small regional brand in Cuba prior to the revolution that carried that name, but it had ceased to exist. Sanchez Manduley reportedly told Castro that Cohiba should be the name of his cigar.
Cohiba's labels and bands have evolved, but in one form or another that same Indian head has remained part of the design, even if it has become less prominent over time. The originals were packed in dress boxes, but by the time the line was expanded, the brand moved into plain, wooden boxes. Each had the name Cohiba, the vitola, or size of the cigar, and often the number of cigars packed in each box.
Cohiba's bands have changed considerably. The earliest versions feature rows of white dots on a black background over the word Cohiba, with a yellow stripe at the bottom. The dots soon became squares, and the words "La Habana, Cuba" appeared under the logo. The word Cohiba later became gilded, the black letters becoming gold, and the "La" was dropped from "Habana, Cuba." The most modern versions of the bands—updated just last year—have holograms and other anti-counterfeiting measures, but the band still carries the original black and yellow colors.
When Cohiba was first released commercially in 1982, in conjunction with the World Cup in Spain, only three sizes were produced in what was dubbed the Classic line: Lancero, a size known in factories as Laguito No. 1; Corona Especial, or Laguito No. 2, and Panetela, or Laguito No. 3. When the brand was released to all global markets in 1989, three sizes were added: a Robusto, also named Robusto in factory jargon, an Exquisito, or Seoane, and an Esplendido, known as Julieta No. 2.
In 1992, after the collapse of a long-standing production deal between Cubatabaco and the Swiss cigar company, Davidoff, the Linea 1492 was added to the Cohiba lineup. The cigars matched the sizes of some of Davidoff's Cuban cigars. Insiders have confirmed the Linea 1492 was designed to fill the gaps left by the ending of Davidoff's Cuban production. The "Siglo" series, as it was called in the retail market, initially included Siglos I through V. It has been one of the most successful line extensions for any cigar brand in the world. The Siglo VI was added in 2002; many connoisseurs consider the fat smoke the best of today's Cohibas. The Cohiba Maduro 5 was launched in 2007, with the concept of using a maduro wrapper, quite unusual for the Cuban cigar industry.
There have been several special-edition Cohibas over the last 20 years, including several Edición Limitadas: a Double Corona in 2003, the Sublimes in 2004 and Pirámides in 2001 and 2006. The Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011, Cigar Aficionado's No. 2 cigar of 2012, scored 95 points in a blind tasting. The Cohiba Millennium Reserve Pirámide came out in 1999, and the original Behike was created for the brand's 40th anniversary in 2006. This small-production, ultra-expensive cigar was released in custom 40-count humidors filled with individually numbered cigars, and the few that remain are sold for dear prices.
But the most significant brand extension for Cohiba came in 2010 with the introduction of the full-line of Behikes, the BHK 52, BHK 54 and the BHK 56. These Behikes—made year after year, in limited form—quickly earned worldwide recognition as superb cigars, including winning Cigar Aficionado's No. 1 cigar of the Year in 2010, with a rating of 97 points.
"We wanted to create a new cigar that would be the most expensive one in the world," says Maique, who was the marketing chief of Habanos in 2008 when the project was launched. Maique says that after a discussion with Dominican cigarmaker Carlos Fuente Jr. in Paris in 2006, he realized that the most expensive cigar in the world was not Cuban anymore, but a Fuente Fuente OpusX. "That a Dominican, or even some Nicaraguan cigar, could be more expensive than the best Cuban cigar," adds Maique, "was unacceptable to us."
But the Cubans faced a difficult situation, Maique says. For years, the Cuban cigar monopoly had portrayed Cohiba as the "selección de la selección," or the best of the best. The question had to be asked, Maique says, how could you create something better than a Cohiba when it was already supposedly the best? He says that there were long discussions about creating a new blend, but even that was difficult to achieve by using the same tobacco, from the same farms where Cohiba had always been sourced. During those investigations, he says he happened on a notation about leaf called medio tiempo, which had ceased to be incorporated into Cuban cigars as a separate leaf after the revolution. He says he told some friends that he had found something new in tobacco, and they laughed and said, ‘nothing new, it was used before the revolution.'
"So we found that it had been used before the revolution, so we decided to use it in the new blend," he says. Since the medio tiempo leaf was considered as a different part of the tobacco plant (it is a small leaf that appears at the top of some tobacco plants when they reach maturity) with a very strong flavor and strength profile, it also could be described as a "fourth strength," adding to the three levels of strength designations used in traditional tobacco descriptions: seco, volado and ligero.
"We created 20 different blends for the new Behike, looking for just the right balance," Maique says. One thing they discovered was that given the strength of medio tiempo, they needed to create thicker ring gauges to provide the platform for better balance in the blends, and that led to the decision to create three different Behikes—BHK 52, BHK 54 and BHK 56. He says each one has a different blend of tobaccos to balance out the different lengths and ring gauges. "In the end, we got the right blend," he says.
One hurdle remained—the man who was deeply involved in the creation of Cohiba back in 1966, Fidel Castro. "We sent him everything, the cigars, the packaging, everything," says Maique. Of course, Maique says everyone was a little worried, particularly since the Behike boxes had a unique and modern design. "It was almost funny. He accepted everything. No changes," says Maique. Asked if Castro smoked any of the cigars, Maique says, "I don't know."
"At the end of the day, Cohiba was a revolutionary design when it was created 50 years ago. Today's Behike is just an update of that revolutionary design," says Maique. The Behike also achieved the goal set out by Habanos, and Maique, to reestablish a Cuban cigar as the most expensive cigar in the marketplace. Today, when you can find them, a box of 10 cigars can be found for $300 to $350 in Havana, where prices are low. In Canada, a single cigar can retail for more than $100.
Like any sought-after-luxury good product, especially one with the pedigree of Cohiba, it has been the subject of brand piracy, counterfeiting and more serious disputes over trademark registration. Most cigar lovers know to resist the temptation in places where they are offered Cohibas at $25 a box. They are always fakes, but it is hard to resist the black and yellow band at such a low cost.
The trademark registration conflicts have been more contentious, and not so easily resolved, caught in the middle of the political struggles between the United States and Cuba and the restrictions of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. General Cigar, the makers of Macanudo and Dominican Partagas cigars, claims to own the trade name, Cohiba, in the United States. But since 1997, the company has been in litigation with the Cuban government, which claims the trade name in Cuba, and the rest of the world. The case is still in litigation. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear the case twice, but in its latest refusal in 2015, it let stand a ruling by the Court of Appeals of the Federal Circuit that Cuba could appeal its case before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. After the ruling, Cuba requested that the TTAB re-open the case, which had been closed after a previous court ruling. "The case has resumed before the TTAB," says lawyer Michael Krinsky, who has represented Cuba since the case was first filed, "And I expect both parties will spend most of 2016 litigating the case before the board." General Cigar declined to comment on the status of the case.
The lawsuits and counterfeits have not slowed down the brand's appeal throughout the world, however. Cohiba continues to occupy its place in the global cigar market as one of the leading brands, as one of the most expensive cigars on retail shelves and as one of the most sought-after smokes for anyone who loves cigars.