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Inside Cuba

Cigar Diary: In the Box

Cuba has created lots of excitement with its limited-edition cigars and humidors
| By James Suckling | From 10th Anniversary Issue, Nov/Dec 02

I can't tell you who came up with the idea of making limited-edition cigars in Cuba. But I would like to say thank you to whoever did. It is without a doubt one of the most exciting things the Cuban cigar industry has done in the last 10 years.

When you examine the quality and craftsmanship of many of these limited-edition products, they are unparalleled in modern cigar history. It's not the first time Cuba has excelled with "special" products. Before the 1959 revolution, many cigar factories in Cuba made special cigars and humidors for clients. I once owned an armoire-sized cedar humidor from the 1930s that I used as a wardrobe for suits; it was originally shipped to England with 5,000 cigars from the Por Larrañaga factory. Moreover, the thousands of antique personalized cigar bands that still exist are more evidence that limited-production cigars once were common.

I still remember when Habanos S.A. (then Cubatabaco), the global distribution company for Cuban cigars, debuted its first limited-edition humidor. It was in early 1992 and I was in Havana for the launch of Cohiba's Linea 1492, better known as the Siglo range of the famous brand. The former head of Cubatabaco, Francisco Padron, showed me the 1492 humidor. I was speechless with the quality of the cigars and the humidor itself.

It was hard to describe the elegant cigars lying in the humidor with their distinct yellow-and-brown, individually numbered bands. I smoked only one at the time and it was outstanding, a tribute to Cuban craftsmanship. Only 501 humidors were made, and each held 50 cigars. They were sold out in a few months around the world at about $1,000 a box. Today, they sell for about 10 times that, if you can find one.

I have been lucky enough to smoke a few 1492s in the last year and they were phenomenal -- I scored them 100 points. Granted, the magazine only scored them 92 points when they first came out, but cigars do improve with age. The 1492s definitely improved.

A number of limited-edition humidors were produced after the 1492. Nearly all have been of fantastic quality, and many have been made by one particular cigar roller. For instance, veteran Faustino Rodriguez of the Partagas factory rolled the Salomon IIs as well as the cigars in the 150th Anniversario Humidor. Most of the limited-edition cigars commemorate a significant event in Cuban history, such as Christopher Columbus's discovery of the island in 1492, or celebrate the creation of a particular cigar brand, such as the 150th birthday of Partagas.

Every major cigar collector has his or her favorite. For me, the top five, with a rating for the cigar as well as the current value and creation date in parentheses, are:

30th Anniversary Cohiba (1997) -- 45 humidors of 50 double robusto Cohibas, 7 inches by 50 ring gauge, with a special label for the anniversary. My rating: 100 points. Current value: about $20,000.

1492 (1992) -- 501 humidors of 50 cigars, 5 5/8 inches by 46 ring gauge, each with individually numbered bands. My rating: 100 points. Current value: about $11,000.

Partagas Salomon II Especialidad (1996) -- 100 humidors of 50 perfectos with about an inch cut off the end, 6 3/4 inches by 52 ring gauge. My rating: 99 points. Current value: about $8,000.

Partagas 150th Anniversario Humidor (1995) -- 150 humidors with 150 numbered cigars: 50 robustos (4 7/8 inches by 50 gauge), 50 corona gordas (5 5/8 inches by 46 gauge) and 50 109s, a tapered double corona (7 5/8 inches by 49 gauge). My ratings: 92, 94 and 96 points, respectively. Current value: about $14,000.

Cuaba Salomon (1999) -- 45 humidors of 47 cigars, exactly the same as the Partagas Salomon II. My rating: 97. Current value: about $2,100.

The only negative aspect of these cigars is that they are very expensive and hard to find. Basically, no one but the superrich can afford them.

But there is an alternative. I believe that much of the same pride and celebration is now going into the production of the limited-edition cigars that began in 2000, or as the Cubans call them, Edición Limitada. These new entrants into the market sell for reasonable prices, from about $10 to $30 per cigar, and are still readily available. I am not sure how limited the production is, since I have seen figures of about 10,000 boxes of 25 cigars. But they are still produced in smaller quantities than some of the other limited-production cigars, such as the Montecristo No. 2 or Punch Double Corona, which have annual production quotas of between 40,000 and 80,000 boxes.

Edición Limitada cigars began to arrive on the market late last year. The concept behind the smokes was to produce a small number of cigars in a shape normally not found in a particular brand using aged filler and wrapper. According to Fernando Lopez, the head of all Cuban cigar factories, the limitada range was never designed to be a maduro line of new smokes, like many Cuba cigar lovers believe. Rather, he said, it's always been the aim to make the limited sizes with an aged wrapper of two to three years that shows a slightly darker brown color than the norm.

The leaves come from the upper part of the tobacco plant, which get the most sun and are picked last. This makes the leaves richer and riper -- more maduro, as the Cubans say -- so they come out darker following curing and fermentations. They do not come out black, as many maduros do from other countries after the wrappers have undergone heavy fermentations. Some manufacturers, who will remain nameless, even paint their leaves with dye to make them black, which is completely bogus -- but that's ammunition for another column.

So far, most of the two releases of Cuban limitadas -- four new cigars the first year and five the second year -- have been produced in the Partagas factory in Havana. They include, according to Partagas factory manager Hilda Baró, the Partagas Pirámide and Serie D No. 3, Montecristo Robusto and Double Corona, Romeo y Julieta Double Corona and Cohiba Torpedo. I am not sure where the Hoyo Particulares was made, but probably H. Upmann because that's where Montecristo "As" are made, which are the same size. "I have heard that some people say that we simply changed the bands on some cigars to come up with our limitadas, but I can assure you that each size has been made according to the traditional blend for each brand but with aged tobacco," Baró says.

Here are the cigars that have been released so far, with my personal ratings when I've been able to smoke them:

In December 2000, the Cubans released four limitadas: Romeo y Julieta Exhibicon No. 2 (7 5/8 inches by 49 gauge, 90 points), Partagas Pirámide (6 1/8 inches by 52, 88), Montecristo Robusto (4 7/8 inches by 50 gauge, 92) and Hoyo de Monterrey Particulares (9 1/4 inches by 47). I never had the chance to try the latter.

The second batch of limitadas was released this year, some of which included a band that reads Edición Limitadas 2001. They were: Cohiba Piramide (6 1/8 inches by 52, 90), Montecristo Double Corona (7 5/8 inches by 49 gauge, 90), Romeo y Julieta Robusto (4 7/8 inches by 50 ring gauge, 90), Partagas Serie D No. 3 (5 5/8 inches by 46 gauge, 95) and Hoyo de Monterrey Particulares (9 1/4 inches by 47, 92). The latter was re-released because the first production was very limited.

So far, my favorite limitada has been the Partagas Serie D No. 3. I like the vitola, which is basically the same size as the Punch Punch. It's refined and elegant yet rich and powerful. It shows wonderful balance to the rich and spicy character. "That's the most enjoyable size to smoke," agrees Baró. "It's just the right size to smoke all the time and it shows the blend of the limitada very well."

There was talk of releasing the next round of limitadas this year; the cigars were said to include such rarities as the Montecristo B, Partagas Serie D No. 2 and Romeo y Julieta Hermoso No. 1. But Ana Lopez, the head of marketing for Habanos, said in September in a meeting in Madrid that the Cubans probably would not launch a range of limitadas this year. "We have plans for limitada for next year," she says. "And we have not decided on the vitolas or brands yet. It all depends on the stock and quality of aged tobacco we have."

Lopez did say, however, that Habanos this fall would be selling a special line of reserva Cohiba -- all made from tobacco with at least two to three years of age. The selection includes the Corona Especial (6 inches by 38 gauge), Esplendido (7 by 47), Robusto (4 7/8 by 50), Piramides (6 1/8 inches by 52) and a new vitola, Media Corona (5 1/2 by 38). Each will be sold in boxes of 25 to 30 cigars, depending on the size. The Media Corona is a special cigar made for the reserva line and will not be sold on a regular basis.

So, I want to make it official. My thanks to Habanos and whoever else has been involved in getting Edición Limitada off the ground. It's all good news for Cuban cigar lovers. The more special products with aged tobacco the Cubans can make, the more excitement there will be in the marketplace.

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