Any cigar-smoking traveler to Havana eventually discovers the Partagas store, whether by accident or design. It's impossible to miss, with its huge marquee visible for blocks away, and it's not easy to forget, with top-quality service and a world-class selection of Cuban cigars. The store's manager, Abel Expósito Diaz, knows how to welcome a first-time visitor and keep a longtime customer.
Exposito visited the New York City offices of Cigar Aficionado Online recently and sat down with a panel of editors to discuss his tenure as the head of Cuba's best-known cigar store.
Cigar Aficionado: Tell us what's great about Cuban cigars? What's the best thing happening in Havana today?
Expósito: During the year 2000, cigar production will be lower. It will be reduced to maintain quality standards. Habanos is also working to strengthen it's Casa del Habano store network; we already have some 62 such stores around the world. The intention is to turn the stores into centers that not only sell Habanos [Cuban cigars] but also provide information and educate customers so that they are able to tell real Habanos from false ones.
For our particular store, this year is going to be very important because we are going to grow and feature a more appropriate room for smokers. For the last two years we have hosted an annual dinner to mark the stores anniversary. This year we'll give that dinner in September. Our store will be seven years old as a Casa del Habano, and the Partagas brand will mark its 155th anniversary.
CA: Altadis, the European tobacco giant, recently agreed to buy half of Habanos S.A. What changes do you predict for this new era of Habanos?
Expósito: This hasn't been completed yet, and we at the outlets have not been provided with all the necessary information on the new structure. I don't have enough facts to answer.
CA: Do you think the change will help Cuba meet the demands of the market?
Exposito: I think so. For the first time in many years, this year they asked us to decide and order what [cigars] we wanted to sell at our stores.
CA: For the first time they actually asked you what you wanted?
Expósito: Yes. And, of course, we ordered mostly Partagas Serie D cigars, Bolivars, and torpedos in all their manifestations.
CA: What happened to Ramon Allones Specially Selected? They're so hard to find nowadays.
Expósito: Well, they are hard to find, but I'm optimistic. I think this new situation is going to bring a solution for many of those brands that sometimes disappear for several years, or that are produced in small quantities.
CA: Probably the most exclusive Cuban cigar ever produced, and the thing that is most in demand, happened right under your nose: the Partagas Salomon cigars. [Editor's note: Salomon cigars are large perfectos, tapered on both ends.] They were produced strictly for one retailer in Germany. Will there be a follow-up to that cigar?
Expósito: No, those cigars are not being made at present. Customers liked them very much, of course.
CA: Before the appearance of Salomon, whenever anyone asked Habanos for a special cigar, the answer was "no." They always said, "We don't do anything special."
Expósito: That type of cigar is a very special cigar, and not all rollers know how to make them. The finish is a bit difficult.
CA: You have to be a very special roller to make it. How many rollers at the Partagas factory are capable of crafting that shape?
Expósito: About 10 people make them.
CA: In your store, what's the most popular of the new brands?
Expósito: The ones with the highest sales, and the ones I think have had the greatest acceptance, are Cuaba and Vegas Robaina. With Cuaba, the largest sizes are doing well. The small one (the Divino, 4 inches by 43 ring) has not had such great acceptance, but the Exclusivo (5 5/8 inches by 42 ring) has sold a lot.
CA: And what's your opinion about the latest brand launch, San Cristobal de la Habana?
Expósito: San Cristobal de La Habana is a very recent thing, so I can't give you any details. I can only say that my stocks sold out, and quite fast. It has had a significant acceptance, because those who have smoked them have called us already asking to reserve some more.
CA: Now for a more difficult question. It was a very big deal for us when Cuba changed its box codes. When customers come in and shop, do they look for the codes on the bottoms of boxes?
Expósito: Oh, the codes. (Smiles). They have been a headache. Many customers come in with the old code, the one they already know, and they want boxes with that code. They want cigars made at Partagas, La Corona, H. Upmann and Briones Montoto.
CA: They don't want cigars from the provincial factories.
Expósito: All those customers learned the old code by heart. But now, they are changed every month.
CA: How often do you get offered non-Cuban cigars from people who visit?
Expósito: Not quite often, but I have been offered non-Cuban cigars.
CA: Are they memorable?
Expósito: Oh, yes. Mainly from the Dominican Republic. There's always a difference between Cuban cigars and the cigars made elsewhere. Evidently, when you are used to smoking Cubans and you try one of those, then you notice the change. I'm being very honest. They're not the same as our cigars, but I have smoked some that have not tasted so bad. We cannot say they're bad.
CA: Let's talk about your American clientele. How many American clients do you think come to your cigar store?
Expósito: It just so happens that the other day a university student made a study based on our invoices, and studied such customer sources as France, Italy, Canada and the United States. One of the comparisons was based on the repeat rate. When she identified a customer that had gone twice to the store, she would regard him or her as a customer of the house. Based on that, she identified 112 American customers of the Partagas store in the period of four years.
CA: Do Americans have any preferences when they buy cigars?
Expósito: Americans seem to prefer darker wrappers. They have a preference for robustos, and after that torpedos, followed by Churchills. And I found something very interesting: in previous years, there was a demand for double coronas, but during the last year the consumption had decreased, according to the study.
CA: How does the selection of cigars in Havana today compare to 1997 and 1995? What's the difference in terms of availability and supplies?
Expósito: The inventory has been increasing, of course. The robustos are not so hard to find anymore. There may be some, such as the Ramon Allones Specially Selected we were talking about earlier, which are not produced in large quantities. But robustos, generally, have increased. Churchills, which two years ago were hard to find, have also been increasing and are now available to everyone. Torpedos still do not meet the demand, and it is better to keep a few boxes for regular customers.
CA: What is the most expensive cigar that you sell, and how much does it cost?
Expósito: The Cohiba Esplendido, which costs $383 a box. The Cohiba Lancero costs $328, and the Trinidad Fundadore, which is thicker, costs $236. Cohibas are the most expensive.
CA: Very soon from now, Americans will come to Cuba for the latest cigar celebration. Given the recent angry debates between Cuba and the United States over Elian Gonzalez, what type of reception can Americans expect?
Expósito: The Americans who come here are always well received because Cubans understand the difference between the American people and the American government. The reception will be the same as the previous years.