The waves were crashing high over the Malecón seawall on Tuesday morning as I stepped out of my hotel here in Havana. A cold front was blowing through, and the mercury had dropped to 50 degrees. For the locals it was a seriously cold day, but for a visiting Yankee like myself it was just a cool breeze. No chill could bring a frown to my face—I was heading to El Laguito.
I've been travelling to Cuba since 1995, but this would be my first visit to El Laguito, the smallest of Cuba's major cigar factories but perhaps the best. This is where Cohibas were born and where Cohiba Behikes are made. The factory is seldom visited by outsiders, as it is off-limits to visitors without special permission. I'd been looking forward to this day for a long time.
Our taxi pulled up to the stately building, located in the classy Miramar suburb of Havana. I walked inside with Gordon Mott, Cigar Aficionado's executive editor, and the first thing I noticed was the oversized Cohiba logo in gold, black and white hanging over the receptionist's desk. We sat down with Arnaldo Ovalles Brioñes, who has run the fabrica since 2009, and he offered us Behikes. As I clipped the pigtail off the head of the perfectly rolled Cohiba BHK 52, I smiled—this was desayuno perfecto, the perfect breakfast in Havana.
El Laguito has been rolling cigars since 1966, first only Cohibas, then Trinidads as well. Today, only Cohibas are made here (Trinidad was moved to Pinar del Río some six year s ago) although not every Cuban Cohiba comes from El Laguito. The so-called mother factory of Cohiba, it sends tobacco to other fabricas to roll Cohibas when required, as the little factory simply can't make enough cigars to meet the need for Cohiba. But every Behike is made in these halls.
A former school, El Laguito is not set up like a typical cigar factory. The workers roll, bunch and sort in small rooms better suited for classes. While it would make a student of just-in-time delivery shudder, it adds soul and style to the factory. Each section is like a little world, separate from the outside. Perhaps 20 rollers work in each area, carefully bunching Cohiba Robustos, Behikes and Lanceros, and wrapping leaves from Pinar del Río over the bunch. The cigars made here are beautiful. There are only 262 workers and just 101 of those make cigars.
I asked Arnaldo, a former professor and cigar roller, which size is the most difficult to create. He said thin cigars, such as the Cohiba Panetela Extra and Cohiba Lancero. "A small twist in the filler," he said, showing how a cigar is made using his hands, "and it ruins the cigar." With thin smokes, you have "less space to play."
We toured the entire factory, beginning in the small room where the wrappers are prepared, each one stripped by hand, watching cigars being bunched and rolled, then sorted and inspected, and watched an old truck pull up to the back entrance, loaded with boxes. El Laguito is a rarity, a calm, elegant place where cigars are made slowly and carefully. The evidence is in the superior quality of the Behike I was smoking. You'll see what the fabrica looks like firsthand on this website with video coming soon, and you'll read more about our visit in the pages of Cigar Aficionado.
The drive across town to get to my second cigar factory of the day, Partagas, was a long one—portions of the Malecón were closed due to the high waves washing over the seawall and onto the road, so we were pushed into a considerable traffic jam. As soon as we stepped out of the cab, a man walked up to me and offered cigars for sale. I turned him down—buying off the street is an easy way to end up with a counterfeit cigar.
Partagas is world's apart from El Laguito, both in distance and in style. Where El Laguito is small and private, Partagas is huge and busy. Tour groups come through here frequently, and this is the one cigar factory in Havana that any visitor can enter and see. It's a huge facility, rolling not only Partagas cigars but Bolivar, Ramon Allones and La Gloria Cubana, as well as some Romeo y Julieta and Punch cigars.
We climbed the stairs up three flights to the main galleria, which is sprawling, with well over 150 rollers working on all manner of cigars. I stopped at one station to speak to a buncher named Lazaro who was carefully making Partagas Salomones, one of the toughest shapes in the cigar world to craft. He made some fine looking sticks.
After the tour, we sat down in the Casa del Habano at the bottom of the building, having a fine Cuban coffee before lighting up robustos in the back room. The cigar selection wasn't as expansive as in the other shops we had visited, and it's a far more chaotic place, but any cigar-loving visitor to the island needs to make a stop here to see the show.
A tale of two factories in La Habana, one big, one small. El Laguito and Partagas are just two of the cigar factories in Cuba that make cigars in their own style.