The golden era of Cuban cigars was in full force in the fall of 1992. The end of the Soviet Union’s subsidies early that year had not yet severely affected the economy, and the tobacco industry still had plenty of raw materials, including gasoline and fertilizer, to grow fine tobacco. Production was stable, and the quality of Cuban cigars was outstanding—that fact is proven today by how great those 1990–1993 vintages have survived the test of time.
But the glory days were numbered. The beginning of the “Special Period,” as the end of Soviet support is known in Cuba, triggered a cascade of shortages and hardships between 1992 and 1996 that affected every aspect of the Cuban economy. In a perfect storm, the worldwide cigar boom was ramping up, creating unprecedented demand for tobacco and cigars, and putting pressure on every manufacturer to increase production.
The Cuban cigar industry, like its counterparts in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, couldn’t resist the temptation to rapidly increase production to meet consumer demand. But the same problems that afflicted manufacturers everywhere—not enough aged tobacco in warehouses and too few skilled workers to handle the tobacco and roll cigars—were evident in Cuba too. Those issues were exacerbated by shortages of basic raw materials. While no hard statistics have ever been mentioned, the Cuban government once announced it would try to produce 200 million cigars by the year 2000, at a time when it is not even clear it was producing 100 million cigars. The result was predictable, and caused what we have called the “Dark Period” of Cuban cigars, smokes from around 1997 until about 2002. The high incidence of poorly constructed cigars, under-fermented tobacco and shortages of the best-known brands harmed the reputation of Cuban cigars, a blemish that has taken years to overcome.
Back in 1996, during my first visit to Cuba, the “old” pure revolutionary Cuba still held sway. There were very few private restaurants, almost none of them legal, so the dining scene was dominated by government-owned eateries. El Aljibe and El Templete, which still exist today, were among the best known. (I still dine at El Aljibe on a regular basis.) I stayed at the Hotel Nacional, and was astonished by the rooms (so run down) and the food (just miserable). There were very few American tourists running around Havana. Most cigar shops were not yet under the aegis of the La Casa del Habano imprint, meaning they were not as spiffy as they have become in recent years. The only good news was that the shelves were filled with cigars bearing box codes denoting prime vintages of Cuban cigars.
In the mid-1990s, due to economic hardships, Cuba began instituting economic reforms, and privately owned restaurants, known as paladares, began to pop up around Havana. It is also in those years that the big Spanish hotel chain, Meliá, opened its hotels in the Cuban capital. The Cuban government, through its Habaguanex division, refurbished many hotels in and around Old Havana, and while the properties remained basic and not the stuff of high-class resorts in major cities those hotels were clean. For the first time, an effort was being made to accommodate the growing number of foreign tourists visiting the island, which at the time were still mostly Canadians and Europeans.
The cigar monopoly, known by the turn of the century as Habanos S.A., also received a $500 million infusion of capital from the Spanish tobacco giant, Altadis, providing funds for everything from raw materials in the tobacco fields to draw machines in cigar factories to a direct involvement in jointly running the company with a small cadre of European executives. The turnaround began to be noticeable in the 2003–2004 era, and by mid-decade, many cigars being produced were of outstanding quality again, without the same incidence of flaws seen a few years earlier.
It was during that period too when Habanos began its Edición Limitada program, and followed that with the Reservas, Regional Editions and finally the Gran Reservas, all of which have been welcomed by global consumers.
During these past 25 years, I have smoked some of the greatest Cuban cigars ever produced. In the 1992 vintage, the Partagás Lusitania, Cohiba Robusto and Montecristo No. 2 have been unforgettable smoking experiences. The special edition 1492, a corona-sized cigar produced for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, also ranks as one of my top five smokes of all time. Nor can I ever forget the 1998 Trinidad Fundadores or the 2007 Edmundo Dantes El Conde 109 or the 2010 Cohiba Behike. Each of these cigars deserves special mention because of their full-bodied, powerhouse of flavors, at the same time as maintaining a smooth balance—classic Cuban smokes.
But the biggest changes occurred inside Cuba starting about 10 years ago. When President Fidel Castro fell ill and nearly died in 2006, and then turned over the reins of government to his brother Raúl in 2008, those changes picked up speed. Although economic reforms had come and gone since they were first tried in the late-1990s, once Raúl Castro took control, the reforms became widespread, with more than 200 categories of “private enterprise” allowed, albeit under tight restrictions and heavy taxes. But new paladares began to open regularly, and older ones, that had been forced to close at least once since they had begun operations, like La Guarida, became the new standard for dining in Cuba. Today, in 2017, you can often find dishes that compete with some of the best food anywhere in the world; the whole dining experience is not world class, but there are talented chefs who are catering to tourists.
Twenty-five years later, it would be an exaggeration to say Cuba is not recognizable, or that the deterioration of its infrastructure over 57 years of its revolution has been repaired. The level of decrepitude is often shocking, but the changes that began to be noticeable between 2010 and 2014, when President Barack Obama started the process to reestablish diplomatic relations, are now unavoidable. More and more buildings are being renovated. There are more restored vintage American cars on the streets. And new hotels are once again being built, with the Gran Manzana Kempinski already open and being touted as Cuba’s first five-star hotel. Of course, the flood of American tourists triggered by diplomatic initiatives is also unavoidable, although the Trump Administration’s announcement to roll back some of those regulations may put a damper on new visitors going forward.
The quality of Cuban cigars is undeniably better than during the “Dark Period.” Currently the country is suffering the aftershock of three horrendous harvests in a row from 2014 to 2016, and even though the crop harvested in 2017 was excellent, there are still shortages of big cigars and the country’s most iconic brand, Cohiba and particularly the ultra-premium Behike BHKs. How Habanos is handling the shortages is still a concern, but it seems apparent that without sufficient raw material, they have cut back on production instead of repeating the mistakes of 20 years ago.
The bottom line is that Cuba remains a fascinating place to visit. And while many things look quite similar to how they appeared in 1992, some of the hardships of earlier years no longer exist.