A Seat On Cuba’s Official Tasting Panel

A Seat On Cuba’s Official Tasting Panel
Photo/Habanos S.A.
It’s a job that any cigar aficionado would envy, tasting new tobacco blends that could become the next Cohiba, Montecristo or other fine Cuban cigar.
Joining Cuba’s cigar experts to evaluate blends for Havana’s future cigars

I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. A Tobacco Research Institute official had just told me that Cuba’s new blends are often reviewed by a highly selective panel of tasters from the top export factories and officials in the tobacco industry. “Really,” I thought, “I’ve never heard of that panel!” Almost simultaneously I wondered, “Would they ever let me inside one of those meetings?”

I asked immediately if I could attend the panel’s next gathering, explaining with more than a little hubris that if any outsider was qualified to taste cigars, I might be that person. The people sitting in the room looked at each other, and I detected at least one roll of the eyes. “Who do you think you’re kidding?” they seemed to say. It made sense. Why would the Cubans let a foreign journalist inside the castle gates to sit in on a virtually secret panel with the extraordinary power to judge and approve new cigar blends? As well as anyone, I know that Habanos keeps its secrets about new cigars as close to the vest as the nuclear launch codes.

However, no one said no.

That was 2016. For the next year, I kept politely inquiring about the panel, which is called the Comisión Nacional de Degustación, officially translated as the National Tasting Commission. Or, in English shorthand, a tasting panel. I asked people in Cuba if they had heard of the panel. While several said yes, including one man who had been to one meeting, just as many had no firsthand knowledge of its existence, even those inside the cigar industry. According to the scant details I was able to gather, the panel meets eight to 10 times a year, and not only addresses new blends, but from time to time, will test a factory’s adherence to a particular brand’s flavor profile.

Then, out of the blue, I got an e-mail, inviting me to join the tasting panel’s meeting on September 26, 2017. Between two hurricanes, and worries about the lingering damage from those storms, I almost canceled the trip. But on Tuesday the 26th I found myself sitting with more than 40 other people on the covered patio of the Four Ways Sheraton Hotel pool area in Havana. No restrictions. All on the record. I kept pinching myself as Luis Felipe Milanes, the director of quality control at Tabacuba, the tobacco growing arm of Cuba’s cigar industry, explained that four cigars would be handed out, two different vitolas or sizes, with two different blends each.

“These cigars have been rolled within the past month,” Milanes told the crowd as the first cigar was passed out, a Magico vitola, 4 1/2 inches by 52 ring. It had been rolled at El Laguito, the home factory for Cohiba, Cuba’s most iconic brand, and came out of a big, paper-wrapped bundle bearing a numeric code on a simple white band.

I pick up the cigar. It looks and feels like a Cohiba, the brownish wrapper with just a tinge of red is smooth and oily. In front of me, I have a tasting sheet that bears no resemblance to the tasting sheets we use at Cigar Aficionado. There are no points, and there are six categories used to rate the cigar: draw, aroma, flavor, strength, burn and general quality. Each category has seven sub-categories. For draw, the seven range from excessive to very insufficient. In aroma, flavor, burn and general quality, the descriptors are excellent, very good, good, acceptable, regular, bad and very bad. Strength ranges from very mild to very strong.

Let’s be clear. This was not some randomly selected group of people who were pulled together for that meeting. My table included Oscar Ricote, the head of quality at Habanos S.A., and Baldomera Beker Rivas, a grizzled, longtime Habanos employee who is the head of the committee for special cigar projects. At some of the other tables were the former head of El Laguito, Arnaldo Ovalles, and the former head of the H. Upmann factory, Miguel Barzaga. Each of the factory tables had tasters whose cumulative experience often exceeded 50 years. A source told me that he had been a member of the panel for years, and it was always made up of real tobacco people who took this task seriously.

As the smoke flowed freely on the warm, humid Havana morning, I was in heaven. For the first half hour, we smoked the first of the two Magico blends. I judged it to have a firm draw, a wonderful aroma, good burn, very good flavor and slightly strong strength—overall a very good cigar. Milanes encouraged the crowd to move on to the second blend after 30 minutes. I found the second blend to be firm as well, but a better cigar than the first.

When the smoking ended after about an hour, the comments began. Tasters at each table stood and recited their impressions of the cigar. At one point, after a contrarian report on the strength, Milanes reminded everyone that all opinions were valuable and should be respected. Finally, after both blends had been commented upon, Abdel Díaz, the roller from El Laguito who created the cigars for the commission’s meeting, stood up and gave his own impressions, adding to a room full of chuckles “this is an excellent cigar.”

There was a short break for a small sandwich and a cold soda. The panel’s arbiters do not allow coffee, a real sacrifice for cigar-smoking, coffee-loving Cubans, because they believe it can alter tastes. Then it was time to go back for more testing.

The next two cigars were Sublimes (6 1/2 inches by 54 ring) rolled in the Partagás factory in Havana. Once again, each cigar was puffed for approximately 30 minutes of smoking time.

As the tasters stood to make their comments this time, they were asked about their backgrounds, and I got an idea of just how long these people had been working around cigars. Odelayne Paneque had been a taster for eight years, and a factory worker for 15 years. Barbaro Jova, a strapping well-built man, had been a taster for 16 years. Edith Sanchez, a Partagás employee, said she had been a taster for 22 years. Leonardo Agustin Alamo, another Partagás taster, summed up his Sublime by saying, “This is an elegant cigar and it is stable from
beginning to end.”

The tasters earn a spot at these tables by a monthly rating process that judges how good a taster they are. The factory “team” for the commission tastings can change from meeting to meeting based on the internal competition to judge who is the best. On this particular day, the majority were women.

Milanes ended the session with a hint at the results. There was a broad consensus for one of the Sublime blends—the one that was a bit milder than the other—and for the second of the two Magico blends, which was medium in strength. “In both cases today, you have chosen the blend that we are looking for in these brands,” he said.

But he declined to tell the tasters—or this journalist—which blend was destined for which brand.

The chatter over lunch focused on what these cigars could be. Everyone agreed the Magico was almost certainly for Cohiba, because it had been made at El Laguito, and a good percentage of all Cohibas are made there. But the Sublime had people guessing, because the Partagás Factory makes a number of different brands. In the end, the consensus was that because the blend was relatively mild, it was destined for a Hoyo de Monterrey.

Habanos promised me they would reveal the details of each cigar after they are released in 2018.