The vision still remains; the flowing black and gold walls emblazoned with the Montecristo Gran Reserva emblem, the beautiful, tall models in floor-length, black gowns with gold bling and the elegant table settings with gold tablecloths. The sounds of traditional Cuban music floated around the room, with the ceiling draped with “tapado” cloth, the fabric used for shade tobacco, as the top names in the Cuban cigar business entered the room. Everyone was shaking hands and talking with everyone in attendance, from Cuban government ministers, to Casas del Habano shop owners and Habanos’s worldwide distributors, to simple consumers from everywhere, even the United States. Whether it was David Tang or President of the National Assembly Ricardo Alcarón, the evening was electrified by the shared perception: this was the pinnacle of the world of Cuban cigars.
The Gala dinner was dedicated to the Montecristo cigar. We were served Montecristo No. 5s, the Montecristo Open Series, the Edmundo, and then the piece de résistance for the evening, the Montecristo Gran Reserva No. 2, a pyramid-shaped cigar with specially selected and aged tobacco from the 2005 harvest. I’m not a fan of rating cigars on the spot, especially when they are handed out as part of a special event like the gala dinner; we know that some of the cigars presented at the Habanos Festival are specially selected, and often rolled in different factories than the brand’s normal factory. But on top of that, by the time the Gran Reserva arrived at my table, I had consumed a glass of rum, a few glasses of wine, and was working on my after dinner glass of rum, all after a rich meal with well-spiced food. It’s a great time to have a cigar, just not a great time to be objective about it. That said, my first impression of the Gran Reserva I smoked was that it still needed a bit of time for the tobaccos to meld together; it was a beautifully balanced cigar that acquired more depth after the first part was smoked and promises to age well. But we’ll wait to rate it until Greg Mottola, our tasting coordinator, can find it in the global marketplace and we can judge like we judge all cigars—blind.
The evening also showcased the best of Cuban culture. We were serenaded by Omara Portuando, who sang her traditional songs, the Compay Segundo band, which covered some of the favorites of the Buena Vista Social Club repertoire, and the stage was filled almost non-stop with dancers from various Cuban dance companies. They twirled and jumped and pranced, and finally, one group in white, floor-length dresses entered the crowd and began pulling up reluctant participants, including this correspondent. As David Savona observed, she was beautiful so it wasn’t all bad, and I wasn’t part of a Merengue contest, like the one my good friend José Blanco got me into last year in the Dominican Republic.
Savona and I spent some time walking around the room, visiting with old and new friends. I wanted to find Hector Luis Prieto, the grower from Pinar del Río that we had visited in December; you can see Savona’s story in the Jan./Feb 2011 issue of Cigar Aficionado. Prieto was the winner of a Habanos Man of the Year award for production in 2008. He was glad to see us, and introduced us to his father, who has also been a cigar tobacco grower his entire life. We also found Hiroshi Robaina, the young man now is in sole charge of Cuchillas de Barbacoa, the farm developed by the don of Cuban cigars, Alejandro Robaina, who passed away last summer. Hiroshi told me that this year’s crop may have produced the best tobacco on the island in more than 15 years. When we saw him in December, the younger Robaina was already excited about the quality of the crop, even though the beginning of the harvest was more than a month away, but he said last Friday night that the weather during the entire growing season had been virtually perfect, and the tobacco looked incredible. His assessment was also confirmed by Prieto.
We also spoke to Ajay Patel, who operates the Casa del Habano in London. He’s a true aficionado of aged Cuban cigars and it was extremely informative to speak with him about that category of cigars. We also chatted with Max Gutmann, who distributes Cuban cigars in Mexico, and is an old friend. We also saw all the executives of Habanos, the co-presidents Buenaventura Jiménez Sanchez-Cañete and Fernando Luis Maique, who just was named to the position a month ago, and Ana López Garcia and Gonzalo Fernández de Navarette González-Valerio. We interviewed the executives, except for Maique, in December, and you can find the interview in the March/April issue of Cigar Aficionado, which will be coming to you soon.
Marvin R. Shanken, the editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, went up on stage to present the Habanos Man of the Year / Communications award to Adriano Martinez, a former executive of Cubatabaco, who has written a number of books about Cuban cigars, and helped put together the exhaustive Encyclopedia of Post-Revolutionary Cigars. Shanken told the crowd he had made his first visit to Cuba 20 years ago, and it was during that trip that he decided to create Cigar Aficionado magazine. He recalled one of the highlights of his professional career when he interviewed Fidel Castro, and he told the crowd they were part of the magazine’s worldwide audience of more than two million readers. He ended by saying how much he loved the crowd and the country. He left the stage to a rousing round of applause.
But the grand finale of the evening was the live auction for a series of custom humidors. The total auction raised nearly $1.1 million for the Cuban public health system. The biggest tab for the evening went for the Cohiba humidor, which was purchased by Jose Maria Palacios Fernández of Spain’s Altadis S.A.; he paid approximately $620,000 for the lot. It included 25 Cohiba Lanceros, 25 Cohiba Esplendidos, 25 Cohiba Maduro Genios, 25 Cohiba Maduro 5 Magicos, 25 Cohiba Siglo VI, 30 Cohiba Behike BHK 56, 30 Cohiba Behike BHK 54, 30 Cohiba Behike BHK 52 (Cigar Aficionado’s 2010 Cigar of the Year), 45 Cohiba 1966 Edicion Limitada 2011, 25 Cohiba Coronas, 25 Cohiba Gran Coronas, 30 Cohiba Piramides, 30 Cohiba Sublimes Extra, 30 Cohiba Robusto Especial. It was an extraordinary selection of cigars, and the bidding was spirited.
As we exited the hall, the music was playing, and the same beautiful models in their black and gold regalia stood wishing us a good evening, and a safe return next year. We’ll be there.