Cuba's capital city is the heart of Cuban cigar production, where most (but not all) of the nation's handmade cigars are rolled. But it's also a tourist mecca, and many of the travelers here are looking for cigars. The city has an abundance of cigar shops, including a host of exceptional La Casa del Habano stores worthy of a visit.
This fact makes Havana a rarity in the cigar world. If you consider all the major premium cigar-producing cities, Havana stands alone as a cigar-buying paradise. Santiago, Dominican Republic, may roll more cigars and Estelí, Nicaragua, may be booming with new factories, but neither has a cigar shop that would turn an aficionado's head. Miami has many great cigar shops, but to call it a major cigar producer would be quite a stretch.
Here in Havana, they make cigars and they sell cigars, many that can be had for about 10 convertible Cuban pesos or less. (Cuba's tourist currency, the Cuban convertible peso, is known as a CUC. The government sets its value as equal to the U.S. dollar, but tourists who exchange dollars for CUCs get charged a 13 percent fee when changing money, making the effective exchange rate 0.87 CUCs to each U.S. dollar.)
To get a pulse for what's on the shelves, Gordon Mott and I have been visiting several of the city's finest cigar shops since our arrival on Monday afternoon.
Our first visit was to the Casa del Habano on Fifth Avenue, known as Quinta Avenida. It's a large shop, with many rooms, a bar, a restaurant, and a uniquely shaped walk-in humidor that hugs the wall in an angled fashion.
I've never seen the shop so busy, and it was absolutely brimming with cigars. The black boxes of Cohiba Behikes shouted at me from the humidor—there were dozens of them. We spoke with Carlos Robaina, one of the men who runs the shop, and he took us into the back to show off cardboard shipping boxes stacked in the locker area, each one full of more boxes of cigars. Judging by the clientele in the shop, he would need them soon.
The La Casa del Habano at the Melia Habana Hotel is becoming our favorite cigar shop in Havana. It's quite large, but rather than being segmented into small rooms, this one has a very large and open format as it's main area, with comfortable leather couches and a large bar taking center stage.
I took a good look around the humidor. There were many great cigars in cabinets of 50, something I've seen often at this store: Partagás Lusitanias (598 CUC for a cab of 50), Ramon Allones Specially Selected (302 CUC for 50) Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial (400 CUC for 50) and Hoyo Epicure No. 2s (350 CUC for 50). I love cigars in cabinets, and when you see an oversized box of 50 it's hard to resist the urge to grab a box.
The store also had Behikes, but not like Quinta Avenida. It had a strong selection of Edición Limitadas. The Punch Serie D'oro No. 2 Edición Limitada 2013, which rated 94 points in Cigar Insider, was 264 CUC a box. Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure ELs were 119 CUC for a box of 10.
Our next stop was out at Club Habana, site of the opening party for the Festival. The Club has a legendary La Casa del Habano, run by Enrique Mons, who has a long and storied career in the Havana cigar industry. The shop is rarely crowded, but sought after by those in the know. (It also makes a fine cigar on the premises, a skinny smoke with a pigtail dubbed a Monsdale.)
We found a good supply of Montecristo No. 2s, our reigning Cigar of the Year (96 points). There were cigars dated May 2013, as well as boxes from 2007, 2010 and other older years. The store also had the new Montecristo Petit No. 2 in stock (189 CUC, 92 points, Cigar Insider) as well as the Montecristo Double Edmundo (98 CUC for 10, 92 points, Cigar Insider).
Club Habana tends to have older smokes than most stores. You always should flip your boxes to check out date codes when you buy cigars, but in this shop you can often find treasures. When's the last time you saw a seven-year-old box in a cigar shop?
As with the other stores, it was brimming with the big brands like Cohiba, Partagás and Romeo y Julieta. The Bolivar Libertador, the current Casa del Habano exclusive, was selling for 110 CUC for a box of 10. There were also a few cabs of 50, and several boxes of Ramon Allones Gigantes, one of my favorite cigars.
As you can clearly see, there's plenty to keep a cigar lover interested on the store shelves here in Havana. There's plenty in stock this week, new cigars and old. Now it's off to smoke a few and tackle the day.