Buying Cuban Cigars in Havana
You pull open the glass door of the cigar shop, your eyes drawn to the dark wood of the walls, the array of picturesque cigar boxes and the small, circular bar, where a server in a bow tie stands ready before a lineup of aged rums. The aroma of rich cigar smoke rises into the air as you head toward the humidor, filled with boxes of cedar bearing some of the most famous names in the cigar world: Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta. Time to buy a cigar.
If you're a cigar aficionado, your bucket list has to include buying a Cuban cigar in Havana. Cuba's capital city is brimming with fine cigar shops, and the best not only have superb selections, talented staff and lockers to store cigars meant to age, but they are designed as places to sit, linger and smoke. Put quite simply, Havana is a cigar shopper's paradise.
Here you can find just about every Cuban cigar imaginable. Exceptions are Regional Edition cigars created for other areas of the world, and even here there are times when you can't find certain things. Cohiba Behikes were nowhere to be found on a February visit, and some retailers said it had been months since they were in stock.
Prices are among the world's lowest. A Montecristo No. 2, which retails for £22 ($34) in London and C$41 ($32) in Canada, sells for 9.65 cuc in Cuba, about $11 when you factor in what a buyer in U.S. dollars loses in fees when changing money here. Most cigars can be had for less than 10 cuc apiece, if you steer clear of special releases and Cohibas. Cuba's most famous cigar brand sells for a premium. The Churchill-sized Esplendido sells for 575 cuc ($660) per box, more than twice as much as the Romeo y Julieta Churchill (252.50 cuc, or $290).
The climate of Cuba lends itself to cigar smoking. With balmy temperatures, plenty of cigar-friendly places and free flowing drinks made with bracing Cuban rum, don't be surprised to find yourself smoking more cigars in one day than you usually do.
It never seems like you're more than a few minutes' drive from a great Cuban cigar store when you're in country, and you might just find one in your hotel.
The very best are all Casas del Habano, which have to stock a multitude of Cuban cigar brands, have no less than 60 square meters of space, a cigar roller, seats and a bar. This year is the 25th anniversary of the Casa del Habano concept, and we visited all of the ones in Havana (plus another shop scheduled to become a Casa soon) to assess their quality.
La Casa del Habano, 5th y 16
5ta y 16 / 5ta Avenida y Calle 16, Miramar
Many regard this store (called Quinta Avenida by most) as Cuba's finest, and this lovely shop in Havana's picturesque Miramar neighborhood just doesn't disappoint. Say hello to Carlos Robaina, who has been a part of the shop for eight years, and he might tell you the tale of coming here as a younger man with his father, the great Alejandro Robaina, who would stop by when in town, take the same seat in the corner of a back room, and have a bit of Havana Club 7 Años to go with a cigar.
Like all of Cuba's Casas del Habano, this store has a bar and seating, but Quinta Avenida is built for many guests. It has several rooms, each of them comfortably decorated, and even a full-service restaurant, the only cigar store in Havana with such an amenity.
The staff knows cigars very well, and the walk-in humidor (laid out in a shape reminiscent of an inverted question mark, hugging the wall across from the cash register) typically has something marvelous. The lockers where clients store cigars they intend to age are behind a strong door with an ornate lock worthy of a bank vault from a Humphrey Bogart film. There are 96 lockers here.
Order a Cuban coffee, and smile as it's brought to you in unique fashion, sitting on a pair of tobacco leaves. If you have a large group, this is a Casa with room for all of you. Don't leave Cuba without coming here.
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Habana Libre
Calle L entre 23 y 25, Vedado
We don't recommend you stay in the large but severely outdated Habana Libre Hotel, but you would be wrong to miss a stop in its Casa del Habano. Cuba's largest cigar store has consistently been filled with cigars on all of our visits since it opened in February 2010, and when you can't find a certain cigar in one of the other shops you're likely to get it here.
The store's breadth begins with the stunning selection of singles, often a weak point of cigar shops in Havana. On a recent visit, one could purchase singles of most of the 2014 Edición Limitadas (something we didn't see in any other store, which had ELs available only by the box, if at all). Whereas most stores were out of Punch Punch cigars, the Habana Libre had stacks of them, at 195 cuc ($224) per box. Double Coronas of all types were on the shelves, from Ramon Allones Gigantes to Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas and Partagás Lusitanias, with prices ranging from 261 cuc ($300) to 285 cuc ($328) per box. The shop also had three shelves entirely dedicated to the new line of Añejados, more stock than any other shop in Cuba. The staff is friendly and welcoming.
Some of the earlier quirks of the store have been improved. The military blue wall by one of the smoking areas has been replaced with warmer colors. A posh smoking lounge adjacent to the shop has been created. We have enjoyed visiting here since it opened, and it has only improved. No matter where you are staying in Havana, it pays to stop here to buy some cigars.
La Casa del Habano, Club Habana
Avenida 5, entre 188 y 192, Miramar, Playa
Club Habana always seems farther away than any of Havana's other standout cigar shops, but in-the-know cigar lovers have sought it out for years. Pull up to the gate and tell the guard you are going to the Casa del Habano, drive around the circle and past the old Biltmore Yacht and Country Club, and park next to a decades old American car and walk into the cigar shop.
To the right is the walk-in humidor. The table near the door nearest the entrance is where you might find something special that the shop has put on display. On some visits, there have been Edición Limitadas, on others limited-edition humidors. On a most recent visit, box dates of 2011 announced a stack of cigars that included Cohibas, a cigar that never seems to sit around in Havana.
The humidor is often stocked with superb cigars, and has never disappointed. It's wise to flip your boxes and check the codes in any shop, but we have found more older cigars in this cigar store than any other. They tend to lurk on the far left side.
As with most cigar shops on the island, Club Habana makes some of its own cigars. So-called House Cigars can be so-so, but the Monsdales are my favorite. Named after the former jefe of the casa, Enrique Mons (who died in 2014), the smoke is a combination panetela and lonsdale that always smokes perfectly and has a rich, full flavor. It's likely to be the best 5 cuc you spend in Cuba. Get a few.
The back room is comfortable, cool and relaxing. There's a small but workable bar, superb café Cubano, and room to spread out. Life seems to slow down at Club Habana, and who couldn't use a little more of that?
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Meliá Habana
Avenida 3, entre 76 y 80, Playa, Habana
The Casa del Habano at the Meliá Cohiba is turning into a popular spot for people who know a great Cuban cigar. The gorgeous and welcoming shop is beautifully appointed. Polished dark wood, proud bottles of Cuban rum and cigars of all shapes and sizes welcome you as you enter. At center stage is a comfortable seating area not far from a small, semicircular bar.
The humidor is fairly large, and typically stocked with superb smokes. The shop had virtually every Bolivar one could imagine, including the Bolivar Belicoso Fino in both dress box and cabinet (191.25 cuc for either, but the cabinet is the superior buy). Trinidad Fundadores, which were a no-show in most shops, were in stock here (261.60 cuc).
If you're a collector and you have an affinity for cabinets of 50, this shop is your place. On a recent visit we found Hoyo Epicure No. 2s, Hoyo Double Coronas, Partagás Lusitanias and Punch DCs in cabinets of 50, ideal boxes for aging. Bigger boxes are expensive (545 to 570 cuc for the double coronas), so they tend to sit.
The Meliá Habana has a gorgeous locker room. A problem with the air conditioning spawned a recent tobacco beetle outbreak, which can happen anywhere, and the management replaced damaged cigars to reimburse those who were affected. Service is very good here.
There's a small room off the back for smoking, if you wish to escape the crowd of the room, but should you hang in the main area during the Habanos Festival or at other busy times in Havana you're likely to see some serious cigar lovers.
Very Good To Excellent
La Casa del Habano, Partagás Cigar Factory
Calle Industria No. 530, Centro Habana
The original Partagás Cigar Factory is a shadow of its former self, a crumbling landmark with chipped, flaking paint, a former beauty queen ravaged by age and passed by the wayside. The building that remains the very image of Cuba's cigar industry for many is now empty, and cigars are no longer rolled here, but the cigar shop at its base remains.
The shop, perhaps the most famous in all of Cuba and an attraction for tourists, still draws a crowd. On a recent Saturday morning, there were plenty of visitors. Unlike most of the great cigar shops in Havana, the cigars are out of reach, behind glass. But what cigars. There were, of course, plenty of Partagás, lots of the traditional Montes and Cohibas, which are virtually everywhere, and a few more obscure finds, such as Sancho Panza Belicosos (181.25 cuc) and Romeo y Julieta Cazadores (161.25 cuc). If you are invited to the VIP room in back, do not refuse. It's a storied place to enjoy a fine cigar.
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Conde de Villanueva
Mercaderes 1202, esquina Lamparilla, La Habana Vieja
Habana Vieja is a beautiful place to explore. A walk through these narrow, ancient streets is a pleasure, one that might lead you to the benchmark Cuban bar La Bodeguita del Medio for a mojito. While that bar sells cigars, buying there would be a mistake, for a few blocks away is a delightful and superb cigar store.
The Hotel Conde de Villanueva is tiny, all but nine rooms located in a former 18th Century mansion where time seems to stand still. Enter through the wide, white columns, where you're likely to be greeted by an oversized cigar several feet long. (Resist the urge to light up.) In the back, to the right of the courtyard, you'll find a narrow flight of green stairs, which leads to the cigar shop.
Each of Cuba's cigar shops sell essentially the same product, but puts its own spin on the cigar, and each has its own style. At Conde de Villanueva, things are clearly laid back. Stickers adorn the door, and the shop is cluttered in the style of the library of a brainy professor, given to wearing tweed jackets with patches on the elbows. The room housing the cigar lockers, typically off limits in most shops, doubles as a seating area here. Cigars are stored artfully in wooden cabinets of various size, inviting you to explore. Tables have curving legs, bowed like cowboys from old Westerns.
The house smokes are a favorite of many a customer, including a Brit who instructs the house roller to craft a mighty torpedo of sorts unlike anything on the current market.
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Nacional
Calle 21 y O, Vedado
Few cigar lovers brag about visiting the Casa del Habano at the Hotel Nacional, but the large shop is definitely worth a visit. We've found it to have great stocks of cigars and a source of smokes you might not find elsewhere. The Nacional itself is a majestic hotel, standing high on a bluff overlooking the Malecón like a castle of yore. The hotel attracts more antique cars than anywhere else in Cuba, and if you're seeking a ride in a '59 Chevy Bel Air or a '55 T-Bird this is the place to find one. Walk inside the main entrance to the hotel, turn right and right again, and you will find the Casa del Habano on your left. Upstairs you will see a cigar roller at work and a massive selection of wine and rum. Go downstairs for the cigars.
Perhaps this cigar shop's biggest crime is its lack of soul. Havana's finest shops are warm, inviting places, but the shop in the Nacional is rather clinical. No matter. Treat it as a place to buy—and buy well—and you're not likely to be disappointed.
The workers in the shop tend to leave a buyer alone. The shop had the full line of Cohiba (save for Behike), Montecristo and a particularly strong representation of Romeo y Julieta, a table in the main humidor with all of the current crop of Edición Limitadas, Añejados and the new Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo de San Juan (89 points, 243.75 cuc). Every box of cigars has the single cigar price, requiring you to do some math in your head to calculate the price of an entire box.
The Nacional has several glass counters stocking single cigars. It was the only shop we saw in Havana with Partagás Serie D No. 6 for sale. There are places to smoke inside this cigar shop, but we have yet to see someone lingering here to puff. The Nacional is blessed with one of the best places in Cuba to enjoy a cigar, its back porch. With such a venue only steps away, who would smoke inside?
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Meliá Cohiba
Avenida Paseo, entre 1 y 3, Vedado
The Meliá Cohiba's cigar shop is a decent place to buy cigars and a great place to smoke them. The shop is greatly improved over its early days, and has a small but workable selection of smokes. There always seem to be some Bolivars, Cohibas and plenty of Montecristos available for single sale inside the small, somewhat triangular walk-in humidor.
The Cohiba is a big hotel, and its cigar shop is located one flight up from the lobby, just up the escalator and through a pair of double doors. The staff is extremely friendly, and the shop has a lovely circular display of ornate cigar ashtrays and precious Cuban rums for sale.
On a recent trip, I chose Montecristo Double Edmundos as my first cigar of the day, which were 9.70 cuc ($11.15) apiece. I lit up in the spacious main smoking area, which has several tables and a wait staff who will serve you coffee, cold beer or spirits from the bar. Sometimes there is live music, and if that gets too loud you can escape to one of the smaller side rooms.
La Vega at Palacio de las Artesanías
Calle Cuba No. 64, entre Cuarteles y Peña Pobre
You can be forgiven for dismissing the Palacio de las Artesanías group of shops as a tourist trap. But not going would be to miss a very good cigar shop that's poised to become better. The shop tends to draw a touristy crowd, rather than serious aficionados, but move past the tchotchkes near the entrance and make your way toward the humidor as we did.
This shop not only had plenty of Cohiba Robusto Supremos EL 2014 (92 points, 277 cuc for a box of 10), more than any other shop we saw, it also had the entire 2014 EL line, a few boxes of H. Upmann Sir Winston (91 points, 331.25 cuc). Digging around the surprisingly well-stocked shop revealed five boxes of Punch Serie d'Oro No. 2 EL from 2013 (94 points, 363 cuc), a true gold strike as the superb cigars have sold out in most markets.
The shop has been earmarked to be transformed into a Casa del Habano, meaning a full redesign and an ambitious expansion. The plan is to have it open and redone by July, but one never knows. If it's closed when you visit, know that when you go back it will be even better.
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Palco
Calle 11 y 146, Cubanacan, Playa
Cuba's Palazio de Convenciones is rather rustic. But it has a fully functional cigar store. Its location is ideal should you find yourself without a cigar. (Yes, you can smoke cigars in the convention center.) If you're in the area, this shop can be your safety valve.
Casa del Tabaco La Escogida, Hotel Comodoro
Avenida 3 y Calle 84, Playa
The name Comodoro is a legendary one, but sometimes legends simply get old. The Hotel Comodoro is sorely in need of an update. The cigar shop here is worth a quick visit should you be nearby.
El Aljibe Tienda de Tabaco
Avenida 7 y Calle 24, Miramar
We adore the chicken at El Aljibe, and like many Cuban restaurants no one blinks when you light a cigar before, during or after your meal. But you can't light a cigar if you don't have a cigar. El Aljibe has a cigar shop, located to the left of the restaurant, serving passable smokes.
Cigar Shop at La Corona Cigar Factory
Avenida 20 de Mayo y Línea de Ferrocarril, Municipio Cerro
Cramped and crowded, with a lineup of hustlers outside the entrance pushing fakes, this is a cigar shop to avoid.