For the Love of Cohiba

New sizes and ideas add life to a prestigious Cuban brand.
| By James Suckling | From Steve Wynn, Jan/Feb 03

It's 10 p.m. in Havana. I have just gotten off Iberia Flight 6621 from Madrid, grabbed my bags and taken a taxi straight to the Club Havana on the water in Siboney. It's 4 a.m. my time, but I feel awake and excited. It's a chance to smoke another of the newest Cohibas, a Siglo VI, during a launch party.

The cigar debuted in October in Cannes at a duty-free show. The Siglo VI is a big smoke, measuring a 52 ring gauge by just less than 6 inches long. The rollers in the H. Upmann factory, where it is made, call it the "canon shot" or cañonazo, due to its large shape. It is the newest smoke in the Linea 1492 line, which was introduced 10 years ago, and will be widely available in 2003. It should be priced similarly to the rest of the Linea 1492, or about $15 a stick in Havana shops. It will cost at least double that in other markets, such as Mexico, Canada and the United Kingdom.

The cigar is no bargain. But some cigar-crazy aficionado recently shelled out about $3,200 for a box of 25 Siglo VI's (about $128 a cigar) during a Cuban charity dinner on November 4 in London, which was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Bolivar brand. The agent for Cuban cigars in the United Kingdom, Hunters & Frankau, organized the dinner for about 100 people. All the proceeds were earmarked for Cuba's health system. The Hunters & Frankau folks gave me a Siglo VI to smoke during the dinner, which already had an excellent lineup of cigars, including a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, a Trinidad Fundadores and a Bolivar Coronas Gigantes.

The Siglo VI impresses you the moment it reaches your lips. It is essentially a straight capana, or Cuban torpedo, due to its immense girth. The draw on these smokes is phenomenal, easy yet firm. It delivers wonderfully creamy flavors with plenty of espresso and tobacco character. It's a textbook Cohiba that can be rich and powerful yet elegant and classy. I scored it 96 points.

The second time I smoked a Siglo VI, at the Club Havana, it was even more powerful than the cigar at the London dinner, probably because it was newer. The London Siglo VI's were made a few months before the Club Havana party smokes.

But, in general, these are cigars that will improve with age in the box. They remind me of a few boxes of Siglo I's I bought in Havana in 1993 (a few months after the launch of the Siglo line); that little smoke (4 inches long by 40 ring gauge) almost blew my head off when I first tried it. Yet, they are now perfect smokes, delivering loads of character in a fresh and refined way.

The Siglo VI will debut in the market in a limited-production humidor to mark the 10th anniversary of Linea 1492. The beautifully crafted Italian-made humidor, which was on display at the Club Havana dinner, will include 15 cigars of every Siglo size, from I to VI. The price in Havana will be about $3,000, so expect retail prices around the world to be substantially more after taxes, duties and merchants' margins. Only 500 humidors will be produced, and will be offered only to the dozens of Casa del Habanos around the world, according to Habanos S.A, the global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars. There's no firm date yet for their arrival in the marketplace, but it should be soon, according to Habanos.

Cohiba is the hot brand for the Cubans at the moment. Not only are they adding the Siglo VI and the 10th anniversary humidor, they also have a new limited-production release in the works -- Cohiba Selección Reserva.

According to Ana Lopez, the head of marketing for Habanos, all the cigars in the selection are made from tobacco with at least two to three years of age. "This is very special, aged tobacco that has been selected for the highest quality," she said recently during a meeting in Madrid.

I am not sure what Lopez meant because I always thought that all Cohibas were produced with aged and higher quality tobacco. In fact, at the Club Havana dinner, during a brief speech about Siglo VI, Manuel Garcia of Habanos emphasized that Cohiba's tobacco is still fermented three times to create the smoothest and cleanest smoke possible.

The Cohiba Esplendido in the Reserve Selection that I smoked the day after the Siglo VI launch was an incredible smoke (95 points). It reminded me of the first Esplendidos I smoked in the early 1990s. It was rich and full of character, but it showed wonderful finesse and clarity. The aged tobacco definitely makes a difference. The selection consists of the Corona Especial (6 inches by 38 ring gauge), Esplendido (7 by 47), Robusto (4 7/8 by 50), Piramide (61/8 by 52) and a new vitola, or size, Media Corona (5 1/2 by 38). The cigars are sold in one cedar varnished box with a small selection of each: four Esplendidos, six Robustos, six Corona Especials, eight Piramides and six Media Coronas. (I originally thought the reserve Cohibas would be sold in individual boxes, but learned otherwise after seeing the final product in November in Havana.) The Media Corona is a special cigar made just for the Reserva line, and it will not be sold on a regular basis. The Reserva selection should be in the market early this year, as the Cubans were scheduled to start shipping in December.

The Cubans did not say how much of the Cohiba Selección Reserva they would produce, other than emphasizing that "it depends how much high-quality tobacco is available." However, sources say that they would like to make about 20,000 boxes. Prices are not expected to be much more than regular Cohiba Esplendidos, or slightly more than $325 a box.

In addition, the Cubans will soon be launching a "cleaned-up" version of the modish orange, black and white Cohiba band. Small packs are also in the works for the brand, including more five- and ten-packs of all the different sizes. You can expect to see some new Cohibas in aluminum tubes as well. There's even talk of a limited-edition humidor filled with 50 Montecristo "A"-sized Cohibas -- 9 inches long by 47 ring gauge.

Why the Cubans' sudden interest in developing Cohiba after a decade of neglect? Much of the strategy, according to sources at Habanos, is to emphasize the high quality of cigars from the island. Or as Garcia said during the Club Havana dinner, "Cohiba is the best example of Cuban efforts in tobacco." Of course, cynics might say that the Cubans are looking to increase their annual cigar export revenues through selling more expensive cigars such as Cohiba. Or that they have to create new sizes because of all the fake Cohiba Esplendidos on the market. Despite such criticism, the brand remains the island's most exclusive and best-made cigar, with perhaps the exception of Trinidad.

Regardless of the Cubans' recent enthusiasm for the brand, Cohiba remains slightly controversial with keen cigar smokers. Cigar conducted an online poll in late October to get an idea of smokers' thoughts about the Cuban Cohiba. About 86 percent of the respondents said they had smoked a Cohiba. Three-fourths said that Cohiba was not the island's best brand, and about two out of three said that it was too expensive. Even though they were generally negative about Cohiba, just about everyone also had something positive to say about the brand when they posted messages.

A number of comments posted online were very much like the one from Rob105 from Bethesda, Maryland: "I've truly enjoyed the smoke, but the bang hasn't been worth the bucks." Or Dog rocket from Singapore: "Like most of the opinions stated...they are way too expensive."

Yet there were also many comments from people willing to pay the price. "Is the Cohiba brand over priced?" questioned Basil from San Antonio, Texas. "Maybe it would be helpful to compare it to other purchases we make on a daily basis. I just got back from a trip to Seattle, Washington and paid $13.00 for a medium Coke and two Nathan hot dogs in the Phoenix airport. Based on a cost benefit relationship I would not consider spending $15.00 too expensive, especially for the experience of teasing my palate with this new release (Siglo VI). My favorite memories regarding taste and overall quality revolve around the Cohiba Robusto. The only better smoke I have had was a 1980 Davidoff Vintage...currently the quality and taste have lived up to their allure."

The poll participants' favorite size for Cohiba was clearly the Robusto. About 42 percent choose it as their preferred Cohiba, followed by the Esplendido at 21.9 percent. These two thick cigars were much more popular than any other size. The next most popular were the Siglo IV and the Corona Especial, which had 7.2 and 6.5 percent of the votes, respectively. But the preference for big smokes in the Cohiba line is obvious -- which is why the Siglo VI is a super addition regardless of the price.

Our final question in the poll was whether the respondents would like to see more sizes and shapes of Cohiba. The majority, 66.4 percent, said no. The Cubans obviously have other information, and they believe that the demand exists for the Siglo VI and the other innovations in the works. If some of the doubters have the chance to smoke the new Siglo VI, I am sure that they will have a different opinion. I am certainly convinced that the Siglo VI is one of the best cigars the Cubans have made in a long time.

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