Every winter Havana comes alive with cigar lovers. Cigar importers, distributors and retailers, those who craft cigar bands, boxes and humidors, myriad cigar industry executives, cigar factory managers and sunburned tobacco farmers as well as people who simply love a great Cuban smoke, gather in the capital for the annual Habanos Festival. The weeklong celebration of Cuban cigars includes the naming of the Habanos Man of the Year, this year presented by Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado.
The late February event included H. Upmann and Partagás factory tours, visits to tobacco fields in Pinar del Río, a trade fair and seminars on cigars, including pairings with chocolate and Cuban rums. A new segment featured a blind tasting of three Cuban cigars, which the audience smoked along with experts on stage, all trying to guess the cigars’ identities.
The festival is by far the largest of its type, with some 1,500 people attending from 80 countries. “If you love Cuban cigars, being here on the ground, seeing the fields, meeting the guys who make them, it’s incredible,” said an American who was attending his third festival. “We see people from all over the world here who love Cuban cigars,” said Peter Vrijdag of Vrijdag Premium Printing, the Netherlands company that makes some of the world’s preeminent cigar bands, including those on Cohiba Behike BHKs.
This was Cuba’s thirteenth annual Habanos Festival, and it included three nights of dinners and the debut of several new Cuban smokes. Cuba’s best-selling robusto is the Partagás Serie D No. 4, immediately recognizable by its red band with gold lettering. Building on that popularity, Habanos S.A. added two new Partagás cigars with similar bands, the Serie E No. 2 and the Serie D No. 5. Despite the designation No. 2, the first cigar is not a figurado, but a straight-sided smoke measuring 5 1/2 by 54 ring gauge. The tasty Serie D No. 5 is a shortened robusto measuring 4 3/8 by 50 ring that was originally created as an Edición Limitada in 2008. It rated 92 points in Cigar Insider, and a sample smoked at the Festival was also promising.
Cuba added a diminutive size to the H. Upmann line called the Half Corona, a 3 1/2-inch-by-44-ring smoke meant for those with little time to puff. They’ll come in aluminum cases of five smokes or boxes of 25. The Half Corona was presented at a dinner on Wednesday in the Miramar section of Havana, where attendees walked in through a crush of bright lights with models clad in evening gowns handing out samples of the new cigars. An H. Upmann Royal Robusto, which will be exclusive to Casa del Habano shops, was also presented. Only 50,000 will be made in 2011. It had a big burst of flavor, but got a bit tangy and tasted young.
The real cigar star of the night was an unexpected sample taste of the Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada, one of three ELs being released in 2011. While the 2011 EL lineup was announced at the Festival (the other two smokes are the Hoyo de Monterrey Short Hoyo Pirámides and the Ramón Allones Allones Extra), the cigars won’t be on sale for months.
The Cohiba 1966 measures 6 1/2 inches long by 52 ring gauge, which is as thick as the Cohiba Siglo VI, but 5/8 of an inch longer. The Siglo VI is called a cañonazo size, and this larger cigar is a cañonazo extra. Named for the year the brand was created, the Cohiba 1966 has a very dark wrapper and a pigtail cap making one think of Cohiba Behikes. It was very tasty and considerably spicy. The following day on a private tour of the El Laguito factory with Shanken and Cigar Aficionado executive editor Gordon Mott, we were apprised that the Cohibas we had tasted had been specially made for the festival at El Laguito.
The actual production run Limitadas will likely be made elsewhere, so they may taste different when they go on sale. The final night of the Habanos Festival was a grand affair, with a stage big enough to host the Academy Awards and various musical acts throughout the night. The star of the evening was Cuban legend Omara Portuondo, who has been singing for more than 50 years, perhaps most famously in the film The Buena Vista Social Club.
The lavish dinner featured the unveiling of a new Montecristo, the Montecristo No. 2 Grand Reserva Cosecha 2005. The same shape as the famous Monte 2, this Grand Reserva is adorned with a secondary gold-and-black band, and Habanos says it is made with tobacco from the 2005 crop. The cigar will be limited to 5,000 special boxes, each individually numbered and containing 15 cigars, for a total run of 75,000 cigars.
Shanken, who won the first Habanos Man of the Year Award in 1995, spoke at the gala, giving the Habanos Man of the Year Award, Communications category, to former Cubatabaco and Habanos executive Adriano Martínez Rius, now an author on several books about Cuban cigars. Speaking to a packed house—some 1,000 were in attendance—Shanken explained that he made his first trip to Cuba in 1991, and the visit to this land of cigars had filled him with a desire to create a cigar magazine before he died. Today, he said from the stage, Cigar Aficionado boasts more than two million readers worldwide. Shanken also recalled that the 1994 Cigar Aficionado cover story, which was his interview of then-Cuban-president Fidel Castro, was a highlight of his career.
After Shanken’s speech, auctioneer Simon Chase went to the stage to begin an auction of seven humidors, each one decorated in the style of a prominent Cuban cigar brand. The pieces were enormous (the tallest, made for the brand Hoyo de Monterrey, stood more than six feet tall) and each contained hundreds of cigars, including many sizes that aren’t part of the standard Habanos portfolio. The H. Upmann humidor, for example, included 50 cigars known as Butifarras, an old, ultra-fat perfecto shape from the pre-Revolution days better known as a Flying Pig. That humidor, which contained 275 other H. Upmann cigars, sold for 52,000 euros ($71,500). Several others sold for between 60,000 euros and 85,000 euros ($83,000 to $117,000) apiece.
Then came the Cohiba humidor, a curved, dark-wood humidor that stood more than four feet tall and contained 400 Cohiba cigars, including 45 of the Cohiba 1966 ELs and 90 Cohiba Behike BHK cigars, 30 of each size. The bidding immediately went to a different level, rising in tremendous leaps. José María Palacios Fernández of Spain’s Altadis S.A. won the piece with a bid of 450,000 euros ($620,000). The entire auction raised 820,000 euros ($1.1 milllion) for the Cuban healthcare system.