Cigar Aficionado

Good Morning from Cuba

I just woke up with my first cortadito, which may be the best espresso and warm milk made in the world. Forget your Starbucks or Coffee Bean. It is a very condensed, reduced espresso with rich, sweet milk. Italians would call it a macchiato, but it’s better than what I get in Italy.

My friend made it with Cuban coffee beans and long-life milk. The coffee brand is named Serrano. He has an Italian espresso machine and packed the ground coffee tight, made the espresso just right, and then added warm milk and white cane sugar. “If you like your coffee more bitter, then I won’t add the sugar,” he said.

He said that every area in Cuba has its own rendition of a cortadito. My Spanish is not perfect (I am starting lessons tomorrow to improve!) but he said that, for example, in Oriente the cortadito is more like filtered coffee with warm milk and sugar. “It much more suave (mellow) than the cortadito in Havana,” he said. Anyway, it was the right way to start the day in Havana.

My flight on Virgin yesterday was more than two hours delayed because the 747 had to be cleaned more thoroughly, according to the pilot. It was a nine-hour flight. Premium Economy was full of a travel group of people in their 60s or over. It was sort of weird with no young people on the flight. I started talking to the granny next to me, and telling her about Cuba and some of my experiences, and it reminded me of a flight from Milan on Lauda Air to the island about five or six years back.

I knew the president then, Andrea Molinari (he used to be in the cigar business, too), and he told the pilot of our 757 to take care of me on the flight to Havana. He did more than that! He asked me to come into the cockpit and sit in the jumpseat as they landed in Havana. It was AMAZING! We flew over the coast of the great city from the west and then banked to the left back into Jose Martí Airport approaching east. I had the crash type seat belt on. I was a little scared to be honest.

As we started to descend to the runway, the computer was speaking in English and calling out the altitude in feet, “100 feet…I remember the last 20 feet ...19…10, nine, eight.” My stomach was in my throat by that time. And then “zero.” The back wheels hit the ground and then a few seconds latter the nose came down on to the runway. The engines ROARED in reverse. You could hear the passengers in the back all applaud. What a buzz…

Anyway, the Virgin landing was nothing like that, but we did come in from the east this time with the city off to our right and we landed with little fanfare. I usually have my first smoke as I wait for my luggage in the VIP lounge after getting through immigration, which was quicker than normal with no interrogation at all.

I could have kicked myself when I got to the lounge. I forgot to put my cigars in my hand luggage. I had to wait about 45 minutes for my two bags and tennis racket and I would have loved to have smoked. There can’t be many airports in the world where you can still have a cigar, but then again, there are no places like Havana.

I had brought a 1975 Montecristo No. 3 to celebrate my arrival. I didn’t get around to smoking it until four or five hours later at La Guarida, my favorite restaurant in Havana.  It was a beautiful smoke. Here is my tasting note:
1975 Montecristo No. 3: What a beautiful well-aged smoke with its fading brown band. It shows cedar, nuts, dried flowers and tea leaves on the nose and palate. It’s sweet and perfumed as I smoke it. The palate is medium and mild and turns to nuts and tea on the finish. 96 points, non blind.

I was smoking the cigar in the small restaurant and the Spanish president, vice president and marketing director of Habanos S.A. walked in for dinner. Habanos is the global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars. They were friendly and said to come over and check-in at their offices today. They were all busy organizing the cigar festival, which takes place at the end of February.

Havana lives cigars. That’s for sure. It’s like Bordeaux or Napa for wine. Glad I am back in town.

"Smoking a Romeo & Julieta Exhibition No. 4 with a couple of years of box age just before lunch. It shows lots of spicy character, with a dried herb undertone to it. Fresh on the attach and then goes boom. Nice smoke. 90 points, unblind." —January 29, 2009 13:09 PM
"Hey James, it seems that you were sitting with your peers in the airplane. Just kidding." —January 29, 2009 11:55 AM
"Michael. I left my clothes at home and filled my bags with the Magnas. Why smoke anything else?" —January 31, 2009 08:30 AM
"The only thing I have to say is I miss Cuba." —January 29, 2009 15:38 PM
"I love Cuban espresso and have been obsessed with figuring out why it's so much better than just espresso-con-sucre that I might concoct myself. A friend in Havana recently dished one secret: brown sugar. Ask your friend, James. Tough to find in some restaurants, but apparently lots of Cubans use it at home." —January 29, 2009 12:18 PM
"Sounds really fine. Was just wondering how many boxes of those Cigar Aficionado #1 rated Casa Magnas you brought for your friends in Cuba to taste." —January 30, 2009 00:40 AM
"Looking forward to hearing about your conversation with habanos, S.A.! Ask them about the damage from the hurricanes and what they have is store for next years special releases.- A Work Of Art" —January 29, 2009 11:36 AM