I thought I was going to have an anxiety attack as my Mexicana flight from Cancún began its descent into José Martí Airport in Havana. It wasn't that the flight was rougher than usual, or that something dicey was going on in the Cuban capital. It was just that I wasn't sure what Cuban customs would think when I arrived with a box full of cigars from Nicaragua—dark-wrappered Padrón Serie 1926 No. 9. How could I explain a gringo arriving with foreign cigars to the cigar capital of the world? What's the old saying about coals to Newcastle, or how about oranges to Florida? That's more American.
I cleared immigration without incident even though I am always a little nervous handing over my American passport going through customs in Havana. I sort of feel as if I shouldn't be there, although it's all perfectly legal under regulations from the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. But the woman immigration officer in her green army fatigues behind the tiny cubicle with its partial glass window and glaring fluorescent light couldn't have been any more pleasant. "Have a nice time in Cuba," she said in Spanish, as she handed back my blue-and-white booklet with an eagle etched on it.
I walked through the door dividing the immigration area from the luggage return and, as always, there was an X-ray machine for hand baggage. The box of 25 Nicas was in my courier bag with my computer, notebooks and other stuff. I took a deep breath and sent the bag through the machine. Three uniformed guards were standing in front of the metal detector as I walked through while my bag crept along the conveyor belt. I kept on thinking about the 1970s movie Midnight Express. Nothing again. Nada. Granted, maybe I was being a little paranoid since it's perfectly legal to bring a box of cigars into Cuba. Usually customs is worried about people taking cigars out of Cuba!
I went to the VIP lounge to wait for my baggage and smoked a cigar—a Partagas Serie D No. 4. A friend was waiting for me with the smoke and he was already half done with his. We chilled and talked about life while waiting for my bags. Unfortunately, Josí Martí must be one of the last airports on earth where you can smoke a cigar.
You might be already asking yourself, why in the world would I bring a box of Nicaraguan cigars to Cuba? Or you probably simply think that I'm just crazy. But it was curiosity more than anything else. I just wanted to see what the Cubans thought about smoking one of the best cigars made outside of their country. Would they love the smoke or hate it? Would they be envious of the quality or dismissive? Was it lighter or stronger in taste? Or was it just not to their taste?
I am still trying to understand Cubans' tastes in cigars, even after more than 15 years of visiting the island. Honestly, I don't think that they spend as much time as many of us do thinking about it. They just enjoy their smokes. They don't sit around trying to figure out whether the flavors are more like chocolate or coffee or cedar or mahogany. They certainly don't use a 100-point score to rate them. They think that guys like me are sort of pendejos, or assholes.
I remember that Francisco Padron (no relation to the cigarmakers from Miami), the ex-head of Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing company for Cuban cigars, once told me that I spent too much time worrying about what cigars tasted like. "Just smoke it and enjoy it," he said, shaking his head like my father used to when I told him why my grades weren't up to scratch in university. "You are too critical and it takes away most of the pleasure being that way."
Cubans usually speak in generalities about their cigars. They use words such as smooth or coarse, light or strong, or flavorful or mild. I have been in the tasting rooms of the factories. I have smoked with quality control people in Partagas, H. Upmann and El Laguito factories, among others. They don't analyze cigars to the extent that we do. Sure, they are worried if the cigar looks bad or if it doesn't draw, but I think they look for pleasure more than flavor components, like I do.
Anyway, the word I most often heard them use when they smoked the Padrón was fuerte, or strong. They found that it was slightly simple, or one-dimensional. It lacked the complexity and finesse of a top Cuban, most said. But they all said that the cigar was fabulously constructed and smoked beautifully.
The most interesting Padrón smoking experience in Cuba was with Alejandro Robaina, the veteran tobacco farmer who is already a legend around the world for cigars. I smoked a Padrón with him at his plantation near the town of San Luis in Pinar del Río. I even did a video blog for the magazine's Web site. Check it out.
It wasn't the first time that I smoked a "foreign cigar" with Robaina. He is a curious man for an 89-year-old and he always likes to try cigars from other areas in the world. He wants to know what the cigar competition is like outside of Cuba. As proud as he is of his tobacco and Cuban cigars in general, he also admits that good cigars can come from other countries, whether Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic. He just wishes that they could use his wrapper tobacco.
Alejandro liked the Padrón. He thought it looked great, and the packaging from the white and gold bands to the wooden box was fabulous. He said that the cigar was perfectly constructed and drew like a dream. He loved that the cigar was box pressed. "I haven't seen cigars in Cuba like this in years," he said with a big smile. "Most cigars used to be like this before the revolution."
However, I am not sure he was all that excited by the character or flavor of the smoke. He used the word flojo, which literally means loose, but I think he meant it was lacking complexity. He said that the cigar was slightly earthy, like most Nicaraguan cigars, and it dominated the flavor of the smoke. "It's not really fair for me to say," he said. "I smoke Cuban cigars all the time and I smoke my cigars most of the time. So my taste is for that.
"I am sure that the public enjoys smoking the Padrón cigars," he said, almost apologizing for not being that excited about it. "They have wonderful character for what they are. And they draw marvelously."
I wasn't sure what he meant by that. I think he was trying to be diplomatic. I tried to explain to him that comparing his cigars to Padrón is like comparing Cuban coffee to Nicaraguan coffee. They have different aromas, flavors and character. But they are equally good. I have made the same argument to the Robainas, and to you, about wine. For instance, California Cabernet is different from red Bordeaux, and each has its own flavors and character. But they can be comparable in quality.
Nonetheless, it was still fun to see old Alejandro smoking the Padrón. He's really a wonderful man and a great aficionado of tobacco. I hope that one day he and José Orlando Padrón—a Cuban native—can smoke a cigar together. I would love to be there. After they had been smoking their cigars for a while sitting in rocking chairs on the terrace of Alejandro's house at the farm, their conversation would probably go down like this:
"Listen, Robaina. What do you think of my cigar?" Orlando would say, rocking back and forth in his chair. (I am sure they would have already eaten loads of succulent roasted pig, black beans and rice for lunch.)
"Very good," Alejandro would say. "Very, very good. And mine?"
"Very smooth, man," says Orlando, as he takes a huge puff. "It draws wonderfully."
"Yours does too," says Alejandro, holding the cigar in front of his face and staring at the wrapper.
"Cuban tobacco can be the best in the world," says Orlando. "There's nothing like it. Just like the pig we had for lunch today from your farm. Nothing tastes better."
"That's too nice, my friend," says Alejandro, still looking at the Padrón cigar after taking a puff. "But you know, what would be better would be you using my wrapper on your cigar."
"Yes. That is an interesting idea," says Orlando. "And what would make your cigars better would be my rollers making your cigars."
"Let's make some cigars together, then," says Alejandro.
"Yes. Let's make some cigars together," says Orlando.
And the afternoon of smoking and talking would continue, perhaps even late into the night.
Tastes aside, there's nothing better than smoking a cigar with a Cuban. Tobacco is in their blood. It's part of their soul. It's a religion on the island. And thinking back to my paranoia about bringing a box of Padróns to Havana, I think those customs officers wouldn't have done a thing if they found them. They probably just would have been curious how the cigars smoked. Hell. If they asked, I would have given them one, even two.