"My last day is on Friday," said Emilia Tamayo, the head of El Laguito, the home of Cuba's most famous cigar brand, Cohiba. The strong 55-year-old woman looked vulnerable, almost like a child asking for forgiveness after doing something naughty. We stood together in the reception area of the Hotel Nacional in Havana for the start of a dinner during the sixth annual cigar festival on February 25.
It seemed slightly strange that she would no longer be in charge at what is arguably the best cigar factory in Cuba. Tamayo explained that she needed more time to spend with her family and she believed that she had already accomplished a lot in her small factory. But she was melancholy as she spoke of her retirement. Maybe she was upset that the production of Trinidad was moved to a factory in Pinar del Río. Or perhaps she was upset that her dream of producing all of the cigars in the Cohiba range would never be realized? One never knows the real reason for why things happen in Cuba.
Regardless of why she left El Laguito, Tamayo brought a professionalism and dedication to the world of cigar factories here. She ran the Cohiba factory as if it were her very own. That pride of ownership never wavered from the day she took over in 1995. "What do you think of my beautiful factory, Suckling?" she would say, beaming proudly when I would arrive for a visit. "This is like my own house. Only a woman can do something like this. It's a woman's touch that can make a factory even more."
In fact, Tamayo was the first woman to manage a Cuban cigar factory. She served as a role model to many other Cubans in the country's cigar sector. She never professed to be a tobacco expert. She left that to her team of technicians and workers, her "family" as she called them. She was simply the matriarch of El Laguito. Under her management, Cohiba became more than just a gift for diplomats; it became an icon for the island and for the world of luxury consumable goods.
Over the last decade, I occasionally wrote critical articles about her factory and others on the island. She always was one of the first to complain bitterly about it when I traveled in Havana. "You know that I never had anything against you," she said, sitting in her small,
second-floor office in a building next to the colonial-style factory just a few weeks before this year's festival. "But I took it personally when you wrote negative things about my factory and others. It really upset me."
That's what really impressed me the most about Tamayo. She really cared. "I will always love what I did at El Laguito," she said a few weeks before the party at the Nacional. "It was really like my own." It still amazes me how many Cubans like Tamayo still deeply care about their cigars, from the poorest tobacco farmers amid the red soils of the Vuelta Abajo to the heads of the industry in their spartan offices in Havana. Daily life in Cuba is no bed of roses for any Cuban, but many still have a deep pride in their country and for their work—especially those in the cigar industry.
Perhaps that's why there is so much excitement recently in producing new cigars and new humidors. Sure, the wrappers on many of the new cigars leave a lot to be desired. There is apparently a shortage of high-quality wrapper leaf. You need to go through five or six boxes of a particular size and brand in a Havana cigar shop to find dark brown, oily ones. But the new cigars coming on the market are exciting just the same. Their quality is getting better. If Cuba's factory overseers can get their hands on some better wrappers this year—and the prospects look good—we should have some superb smokes in a year or so.
It's almost hard to keep up with all the new releases. Since the beginning of the year, Habanos S.A.' the global distribution organization for Cuban cigars, has announced a new size, or vitola, for Montecristo—Edmundo—as well as a new limited-edition Montecristo humidor. In addition, special humidors popped up in Havana cigar shops in February for San Cristobal de la Habana and H. Upmann. And there are some new vitolas for the highly successful Edición Limitada. The Edición Limitadas have become annual releases for a handful of special cigars in a limited production. Colleción Habanos, Edición 2003 also is now available, the third in a series of small-production cigars that sell in a box resembling a bound book. There's even talk of a new brand and the reintroduction of green wrapper cigars called candelas.
"We have generated some expectations in our consumers for these new products," said Fernando Domínguez Valdés-Hevia, the co-president of Habanos. He said that the new products were all due to a philosophy of "quality and innovation" for Habanos based on "a strategy of value and image." In other words, consumers should expect to see many more new sizes, new humidors and even new brands as the Cubans and Spanish upgrade their cigar business. (The Spanish tobacco giant, Altadis S.A.' owns half of Habanos.)
For example, the buzzword at this year's cigar festival was "luxury product." It was hard not to hear these two words uttered at least four or five times a day. In fact, among the seminars on Cuban cigars held at the Palacio de Convenciones during the five-day event was a 45-minute discussion on the "World of Luxury: Past, Present and Future." I am not completely comfortable calling a cigar a luxury product like a Rolex watch or a Gucci tie, and I hope it is not an excuse for Habanos to continue to increase prices for their cigars, which rose 5 to 15 percent in the first quarter of 2004, depending on the brand and size.
In any case, the new Edmundo from Montecristo will be a luxurious smoke for any aficionado when it is launched this May in France, Italy and Lebanon. The Edmundo is almost the same shape as last year's hugely successful Cohiba Siglo VI, but it is slightly shorter. It measures a fat 52 ring gauge by about 5 3/8 inches long. I smoked an Edmundo fresh off a cigar-rolling bench at the new H. Upmann factory and it showed plenty of rich tobacco character while remaining refined and cedary. I tried it two other times a few weeks later during the festival and it was excellent. The cigar doesn't quite have the complexity of the Cohiba Siglo VI (last year's sensational release), but it is an excellent smoke with plenty of character. This could be the best Montecristo ever.
This new cigar for Montecristo couldn't come at a better time. Although the brand is the best-selling from Cuba (with between 35 million and 40 million a year), it remains rather lackluster in the minds of true Cuban cigar aficionados. Granted, the Montecristo No. 2 "torpedo" is a cigar appreciated by many serious cigar smokers, but the rest of the line is rather uninspiring. Edmundo should reenergize what historically was a great brand for the island. It should sell for about the same price as the No. 2.
The new limited-edition Montecristo humidor selling in Havana for about $3,600 is beautiful, a simple wooden humidor with pointed, beveled corners. The lid is made of lighter, blond wood and is emblazoned with the well-known crossed-sword logo of the Montecristo brand. Inside there are some wonderful smokes: 50 Montecristo "A"s, the largest standard-size format made in Cuban cigar factories, and 50 Salomones No. 2s, special figurados that are popping up on an increasing number of Cuban brands in special releases such as these. The "A" is a two-hour smoke that measures 9 1/4 inches long with a 47 ring. The Salomone is shorter, but fatter, with a 57 ring gauge at its fattest point and 6 7/8 inches in length.
The more popular recently released humidor, however, is one celebrating the fifth anniversary of the brand San Cristobal de la Habana. The refined-looking varnished humidor with eighteenth-century drawings of the old town of Havana and its port is a beautiful piece of furniture. It holds 25 cigars in each of four sizes: El Moro, 49 ring by 7; Mercaderes, 46 by 6 1/2; Muralla Rodolfo (long torpedo), 52 by 7; and Oficios, 42 by 6 1/2. The humidor, of which 500 were made, sells for about $2,900 in Havana.
One other limited-production humidor on the market is the 160th Anniversary H. Upmann. A simple upright humidor with 100 cigars, it contains 40 double coronas, 30 torpedos and 30 corona gordas. It sells for $1,600.
The newest Colleción Habanos, Edición 2003, has nothing to do with Montecristo. In its third edition, the stylish cigar box is filled with 20 Hoyo de Monterrey double coronas, measuring 7 5/8 inches long by 49 ring gauge. They have tapered ends like some double coronas from the 1960s and 1970s that I have seen. The box sells for about $450, and only 500 boxes were produced. The first Edición was in 2001, when 300 boxes of 10 Cuaba Salomones were produced and sold entirely in Germany. The second was last year, when the Partagas Serie C No. 1 was made. It was a fantastic smoke, measuring 6 5/8 inches by 48 ring gauge.
Some of the biggest news this year in Cuban cigars will be this year's Edición Limitada, but the Cubans are being very cagey about their release. Sources say that it will be in the autumn. The three sizes that will most likely be chosen are: Romeo Hermosos No. 2,48 ring gauge by 6 1/4; Partagas Serie D No. 1, 50 by 6 3/4; and Cohiba Sublimes, 54 by 6 1/2. All will come in boxes of 25 cigars. Production of these cigars is limited, so keep an eye out for them.
Domínguez said that the limitadas will always be what they are supposed to be, limited. "These specialty cigars are made with the best tobacco," he said, explaning the unique nature of the dark, aged wrappers. "It depends on the results of the crop. We have limited raw materials. So it all depends on the year."
Will we see more soon? This year's harvest looked to be a good one. I spent two or three days in Pinar del Río and I was impressed by the size and quality of the crop. The Robaina family, perhaps the greatest tobacco growers on the island, had already finished their harvest in mid-January. "It's the earliest harvest we have had in memory," said the 85-year-old Alejandro Robaina, a legendary figure here in Cuba who grows some of the silkiest wrapper tobacco in the world. "The crop was clean and perfect in quality and we had very high yields."
His grandson Hiroshi, who now is a head of their plantation, said that they had planted mostly Habana 2000, a tobacco variety that was in fashion a few years back. They began using it again following the susceptibility of other varieties called Criollo 98 and Corojo 99 to such diseases as black shank. "If you plant 2000 a little earlier, it is less susceptible to blue mold, and we now know how to better cure and process the tobacco," said Hiroshi. In years past, Habana 2000 wrapper was slightly too thick and rough in texture due to problems with the processing. In addition, it had a tendency to be attacked by blue mold. "We are really happy with this year's results," he said.