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A dozen women clad in black jumpsuits ran onto the grand stage, their long hair swirling, lithe bodies gyrating, their shoes stomping in unison on the wooden floor. The troupe, Habana Compas, pounded drumsticks on wooden chairs, keeping time with a trio of drummers on congas. The beat pulsed through the audience of more than 1,000 cigar lovers clad in tuxedos, suits and flowing long gowns.
It was the final night of the Habanos Festival, and the crowd was in the mood to party. For the past five days they had been immersed in the world of Cuban cigars, listening to speeches on the history of Havana, pairing cigars with spirits, learning how to roll, networking with other cigar lovers, retailers and distributors from more than 70 countries and simply smoking up a storm.
This was the XIV Festival del Habano, not only the world’s largest cigar festival but also an annual showcase for Cuba to unveil its latest creations. And this year didn’t disappoint. A host of new cigars were sampled at the event, which opened on Monday, February 27. On that evening came the initial debut: the Cohiba Pirámides Extra, which is the first Cohiba figurado that is not a limited release and the first time Cuba has made this particular vitola. Standard Cuban pyramids, such as the Montecristo No. 2, are 6 1/8 by 52. This cigar is both fatter (54 ring) as well as longer (at 160 millimeters, it’s more than 6 1/4 inches long). The cigars will come in boxes of 10 and also will be available in a striking tube with a curved tip. The band is especially intricate, with great detail in gold and several holographic elements, including the Taino Indian head found on the very ornate (and hard to counterfeit) Cohiba Behike BHK band. The cigar was presented following a welcome concert at Havana’s Karl Marx Theater, where Jack Bruce (formerly of the rock band Cream) took up his fretless bass guitar and played the classic “Sunshine Of Your Love.”
The daytime sessions offered a variety of seminars and presentations, including a demonstration by the staff of Cuba’s El Laguito Factory on the difficult art of making a cañonazo-size cigar from scratch, a pairing of cigars and Port and a press conference featuring the news that Cuban cigar sales, driven by emerging markets, increased 9 percent in 2011 to $401 million.
However, it was the evening activities that had the most energy, and the releases of new cigars. Wednesday night featured the first taste of a 2012 Edición Limitada, the Montecristo 520, named for the 520th anniversary of the discovery of tobacco in Cuba. The cigar is another new vitola called Maravillas No. 3. It has a 55 ring gauge (making it the only straight-sided cigar in the current Cuban portfolio of that girth, save for the Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill) and measures 6 1/8 inches long. A sample smoke proved big and robust, and exceptionally bold, but young. It’s a cigar that should benefit from aging. The other two ELs for 2012 are the H. Upmann Robusto, which is a standard Cuban robusto (4 7/8 inches long by 50 ring) and the Partagás Serie C No. 3, a reincarnation of an old size known as the C No. 3. It measures 5 1/2 inches long by 48. But the best cigar of the night came from an unlikely source: it was the Cuaba Bariay, a massive shaped cigar known as a Dulcinea measuring 9 1/8 inches long with foil wrapping half of the cigar. It was a stellar smoke, rich, bold, complex, and will be a Habanos Book Edition for 2012.
But nothing on Wednesday night could top the unscripted performance by celebrity guest Jim Belushi, who transformed the central courtyard of the Museo de Bellas Artes from a dinner hall into a smoky Chicago blues bar. Belushi, joined by Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music on guitar, brought the entire crowd to its feet, swaying to the music, crowding the stage, snapping pictures and shouting out encouragement. Not once, but twice, Belushi asked the crowd if they wanted to hear one more, and each time the crowd screamed “Yes!” Belushi ended the short set with a simple straight blues jam, which he topped off with his trademark back flip.
The setting for the final night was more formal, with the men in tuxedos or suits, the women in colorful flowing dresses. The cigar brand of the evening was Romeo y Julieta, and a crowd of more than 1,000 sat down for a formal dinner to smoke a pair of new additions to the line. The first, the Romeo y Julieta Petit Churchill, is a sawed-off version of the Romeo Short Churchill, and measures 4 inches long by 50 ring gauge.
It was hearty, if a bit young. As with the Romeo Short Churchill and Wide Churchill preceding it, the cigar will come with a secondary gold band bearing the vitola name. Habanos expects strong sales from this release, as the other additions have been hits.
The big release of the night was the Romeo y Julieta Churchill Reserva 2008. Reservas are Cuban cigars made with extra-old tobaccos, packed with secondary bands in black and silver with a pair of Rs and priced at a premium. The cigar is the same size as a standard Cuban Churchill, 7 inches long by 47 ring gauge, but will be limited in production to 5,000 boxes, each of them numbered, and each of them containing 20 cigars. A sample at the dinner was intense and delicious, with hearty, bold flavors.
The dinner concluded with an auction of six cabinet humidors, each representing a major brand of Cuba, each stuffed with hundreds of cigars, including rarities such as the H. Upmann No. 3, a size last made in the 1970s, the Romeo y Julieta Selección De Luxe, which was last made in the 1960s, and Cohiba Petit Robustos, special sizes that are not part of the Cohiba portfolio. Cigar historian Simon Chase of the United Kingdom served as auctioneer, and each of the lots commanded an impressive sum, fetching a combined 730,000 euros ($970,000) for Cuba’s ministry of public health.
You may have to wait a few more months until you begin seeing the first of these new cigars on sale. The first batch of 2011 Edición Limitadas didn’t get to cigar stores until the end of August, and it wasn’t until December that Montecristo Gran Reservas—the star of the 2011 Habanos Festival—hit the market. You’ll read the first blind tastings on the cigars in an issue of Cigar Insider.