Sitting in Havana, smoking a cigar and watching the world go by can quickly make you forget that there's a lot of business involved in the handful of leaves rolled up as the Habano in your hand. Not only is there a lot of money at stake (about $390 million last year in cigar exports for Cuba, to be exact), but there's a lot of product development involved, driven by both market concerns and quality.
The XI Festival Habano, held in late February in Havana, showcased both factors for Habanos S.A., the global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars. The cigar gathering began with a purely market-driven launch of four new sizes of Montecristo; it ended with an amazing debut of a high-quality, supercharged Cohiba Siglo VI. Naturally, I was much more impressed with the latter than the former.
The Cohiba Siglo VI Gran Reserva is one of the greatest young cigars I have ever smoked. I tried it three times at the end of February in Havana, including during the gala dinner that closed the festival, and I was speechless each time. I was in heaven the moment I cut the cigar and took a draw. Even cold, it tasted so good, with a fresh herb, nut and coffee bean character. Once on fire, the cigar delivered spice, coffee, milk chocolate, floral notes, cedar . . . the flavors kept changing every moment. And the finish was long, clean and fresh. It begged you to smoke it. And I did.
The cañonazo—the name factory workers use to describe the size of the Siglo VI Gran Reserva—measures 52 ring gauge by 5 7/8 inches long, and scored very highly in my non-blind system, but because the cigar won't be released until later this year, the magazine can't rate it right now. It is made with five-year-old tobacco and comes in numbered black lacquered boxes of 15 smokes. Only 5,000 boxes (75,000 cigars) were produced at El Laguito factory, according to Habanos. (I originally thought the Gran Reserva was made at the Partagas factory.) The suggested retail price is about $1,000 a box, depending on the market.
This is the first Gran Reserva ever released in Cuba. In the past, two Reservas were made, both of which used three-year-old tobacco at the time they were rolled: the Montecristo No. 4 Reserva (released in 2007) and the Partagas Serie D No. 4 Reserva (launched in 2005). Both were limited-edition cigars of 5,000 boxes and made from one tobacco harvest, the Serie D from the 2000 harvest and the Monte No. 4 from 2003.
I tried both Reservas in February, and they smoked very, very well. The Serie D delivered fresh tea and honey flavors with hints of dried flowers on the nose that followed through to a full and rich palate with an almond and spice character. It's long and very rich, although it still needs time to come together with a bit more box age. I rated it 93 points, non-blind. The Monte No. 4 Reserva was very spicy with an herbal and light pepper character. I remember being slightly underwhelmed with the smoke when it was first released, but I find it outstanding now—91 points, un-blind.
Cuba's Reserva line is a great success, just like the Edición Limitadas that began in 2000. The Limitadas are limited-production cigars, with about 10,000 boxes of each model. They are made with special three-year-old wrapper from the top of the plant. I have lost count, but the Limitadas average about three new cigars per year. This year's ELs are expected to be the Bolivar Petit Belicoso (52 ring gauge by 4 7/8 inches), H. Upmann Magnum 48 (48 by 4 1/3 inches) and a Romeo y Julieta Duke (54 by 4 7/8 inches). The latter is a new shape, or vitola, for Cuba. The cigars were scheduled to be announced this April, and released on the market later.
Annual Edicion Regionales are also gaining popularity in the market. These are cigars made for particular markets over a two-year period, with a minimum order of 600 boxes of 25 cigars per year. The Cuban cigar agent who orders the cigar decides on the vitola, as well as the blend—in theory. I have had mixed experiences with regional cigars. Some are stylish and flavorful, but others seem dull.
Granted, I have had some great regional smokes recently. I have been really enjoying the Edmundo Dantes Conde 109 (50 ring gauge by 7 1/4 inch), made for Mexico, and the Ramon Allones Grandes (49 ring by 7 inches), produced for Spain. Both have loads of flavor and character; they are serious smokes. The latter was introduced last year and the former in 2007.
Many regional editions, however, are like the recently released cigar for the Caribbean—the Juan Lopez Short Torpedo. It's a pleasant smoke, but not very interesting. I smoked the Short Torpedo against a Cuaba Pyramid Limited Edition 2008 one afternoon in the courtyard of the Hotel Conde de Villanueva in Old Havana. The Cuaba absolutely crushed the Juan Lopez. It had so much more flavor and richness, with coffee, tobacco and nut character. If you get a chance, smoke one of the Cuabas. I would score it 93 points, un-blind.
Some of the new Montecristo cigars launched at the festival could also be described as bland—particularly the smallest of the four in the new Open line, the Junior. As one cigar merchant said to me as he smoked the cigar at the welcome cocktail reception at the Club Havana, "Who is going to smoke this light cigar, my teenage son?"
"Well, it is named Junior," I said.
Besides the Junior (38 ring gauge by 4 1/3 inches), the Open sizes consist of the sleek belicoso Regata (46 by 5 1/3 inches), the robusto Master (50 by 4 7/8 inches) and a sort of super robusto, the Eagle (54 by 5 7/8 inches). The four cigars carry the traditional brown and cream Montecristo band, but they also sport a second band that's green with gold and white lettering.
It felt sort of surreal sitting in the Karl Marx Theater in Havana and watching a presentation for the line extension of Montecristo. Images of pristine golf courses, sleek yachts and powerful motor racing machines were mixed with polo tournaments, tennis matches, international regattas and Grand Prix races to the background music of Coldplay and a number of other popular rock bands. The young, affluent beautiful people living la buena vida were triple life-size on the big screen, intertwined with images of prestige events.
They are what Habanos hopes is the Montecristo Generation. They are mostly men in their 30s or 40s who want to enjoy the good things in life, which obviously includes a fine Cuban cigar. They want something better and newer than what their fathers or grandfathers smoked—particularly if it is a Montecristo, the largest-selling brand in the Habanos portfolio, with about one-fifth of the global market share. And why not? I am not sure how many guys in that age bracket can still afford yachts, jets, polo ponies or most other things that used to symbolize the mega—good life, but they can certainly still buy a great cigar!
"We want to attract a new generation of smoker who is just starting to enjoy the occasional cigar," said Buenaventura Jiménez Sánchez- Cañet, copresident of Habanos S.A. "We think we can develop that market where men enjoy cigars at special events [mostly outside], whether it be a wedding or a sports event." I think it's a cool idea. And the obvious connection Habanos is trying to make for this new Montecristo line makes great sense. The cigars are typical Montecristo, more along the lines of the Edmundo than anything else. I liked the Eagle the best of the four vitolas. It was the most flavorful, with plenty of chocolate and cream character.
Smoking the Montecristo Open Regata in a friend's apartment in Old Havana a few days after the launch, I couldn't help thinking that maybe Habanos is trying to do too much at this point. Do we really need more of everything? Do we need all the Reservas, Limitadas, special humidors, "library books" and everything else? What about just concentrating on the quality of what is already being made? But then I thought how these specialty cigars account for only about 5 percent of total cigar exports each year, according to figures released from Habanos during the festival. Their relative rarity makes them worth exploring, I've concluded, so I say keep them coming and make them more interesting and more original with the highest quality.
At the same time, add the occasional novelty to established brands. For example, the Trinidad Robusto T was introduced at this year's festival and it was superb. I have always been crazy for the Trinidad Fundadores as well as the first Trinidads that were available only as gifts from Fidel Castro. Turns out the Robusto T is the best new vitola in the brand. I love the rich and spicy character with a fresh, clean and floral undertone. It may be my new go-to cigar.
This year's cigar festival was the best ever, with plenty of new cigars introduced and a brilliant array of parties and tastings. The gala dinner featured the choicest entertainment, food, wine and cigars ever offered on the island. And about $1.2 million was raised for the Cuban public health system through the sale of seven special humidors.
This was all done against a backdrop of Habanos reporting that its global sales in 2008 dropped 3 percent in value and 8 percent in volume—and everyone in the Cuban cigar business expected 2009 to be even worse. But such bad news and other business talk didn't seem to matter that much during the festival, especially when you took the time to smoke a great cigar.