Friday night: Dominican Republic for the closing gala of the ProCigar Festival. Saturday night: South Beach Food & Wine Festival. Sunday night: Havana. This was how I kicked off my triple-decker, back-to-back-to-back festival tour, now in its third leg for the Habanos Festival.
The first thing I did when I came to Havana was go to the Casa del Habano in the Meliá Cohiba hotel for the official welcome reception cocktail party. This particular Casa is as much bar and lounge as it is cigar shop. As soon as I walked in, a woman handed me a Cañonazo, which is the same size as the Cohiba Siglo VI, but it wasn't a Cohiba. "Liga de Casa," she said as someone else handed me a glass of Havana Club. House blend. It worked for me. The cigar was quite delicious.
In the humidor, they sell mostly full, sealed boxes, so you'd have to see if the management would let you crack one open for inspection before purchasing. But there were plenty of single sticks to be had—mostly crowd-pleasers like Partagás Serie D No. 4, Montecristo No. 2, Montecristo Petit No. 2, Monte Double Edmundo, Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, and, of course, some Cohibas from the Siglo Series. Most of the boxes in the humidor were stamped with 2014 or 2015 production codes.
That evening, I ended up at the El Aljibe restaurant, which is trying to re-create the kind of rustic food and environment you might find out in Pinar del Rió. Their house specialty is roast chicken, which I found to be a touch on the salty side, but didn't know if this was typical of the dish, or just a kitchen mistake. Gordon Mott, Cigar Aficionado's senior contributing editor, agreed that it was saltier than normal. I didn't complain. Why would I? It was my first night in Havana, and I was in a restaurant that lets you smoke freely while you eat. I lit up an Epicure No. 2 that I bought from the Casa del Habano followed by an H. Upmann Half Corona.
In case you're wondering, all the cigars at the Casas del Habano cost the same. Prices are regulated by the government, so you won't save any money going to one Casa over the next. It simply becomes a matter of convenience and which atmosphere you prefer. The next day, I made my way over to the Casa del Habano in the Meliá Habana hotel. It has more variety than the shop at the Meliá Cohiba, and here's another tip: Meliá Havana still lets you smoke in the main lobby bar, Meliá Cohiba doesn't anymore.
Cigar prices in Cuba are shockingly low, and I wish the rest of the world priced its Cuban cigars accordingly. Prices are in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs), a currency that is technically equal to the U.S dollar, but you lose 13 CUCs in fees for every $100 you change, meaning $100 gives you 87 CUCs. A Partagás Serie D No. 4 cost 6.95 CUC at a Casa del Habano. A Montecristo No. 2, 9.65 and a Partagás Serie P No. 2, 8.20. Even Cohibas seemed reasonable. A Cohiba Robusto is marked at 13.60, while Siglo II and III cost 9.15 and 12.95, respectively. The best deal, in my opinion, was the Por Larrañaga Picadores, which scored 92 points in Cigar Aficionado. It's a 5 inch by 48 ring gauge cigar and only cost 5.70, which is almost as much as a cup of coffee in the hotel. Compare that to the £15.22 ($21.35) retail price in the U.K.!
And there were plenty of full boxes marked for 100 CUC or less. That means that you'd be able to bring them home legally and hopefully without hassle. Don't you hate when you have to explain the law to a customs agent? Below is a short list of boxes of 25 I saw for under 100 CUC:
Partagás Shorts: 85 CUC
Partagás Super Partagás: 75
Romeo y Julietas Regalias de Londres: 72.50
El Rey del Mundo Demi Tasse: 58.75
San Crisobal del La Habana Principes: 100
I also saw 10-count boxes of Romeo y Julieta Churchill Tubos for 106.50. You could always buy the box, smoke one, and take the rest home so as to not exceed the allowance. A 10-count box of Punch Punch Tubos goes for 78, so that won't go over the limit either. You could always go for those handy three packs. One trio of Cohiba Siglo VI tubos will set you back 53.70. Buy two, smoke one there, bring the rest home. I bought a three-pack of Trinidad Vigia Tubos for 30. If Cuban cigars ever come to the United States, I highly doubt they'd be this inexpensive. Most likely, they'd be double.
There's something you should know about smoking Cuban cigars in Cuba—they taste different than smoking Cubans in New York, Los Angeles, Paris or London. So everything you think you know about how a particular brand performs will have to be relearned when you come here. It's a fun process.
As for the cigars that Habanos S.A. gives to all its festival-goers, I was surprised at this as well. You get a Cohiba 50th Anniversary swag bag (which looks like a laptop bag), packed with a Cohiba hat, Cohiba 50th shirt, lighter, cutter, Habanos pen and cigars. While the cigars are not Cohiba 50th, you did get a three-pack of Hoyo de Monterrey Coronation tubos. I love coronas, so for me, it was a treat. Same as the Cohiba Siglo III cigar they passed out at the press conference. Probably one of the best Siglo III cigars I've ever had.
The press conference was interesting with some answers enlightening, others a bit evasive. Notable was the change in attitude from last year concerning the United States. When asked about the U.S. market at the last Habanos festival, Jorge Luis Fernandez Maique (former vice president) said that Habanos would take an initial 25 to 30 percent of the U.S. market, before overtaking 70 percent of the U.S. market. That is an incredibly confident claim. This year, when the same question arose about the market, the answer was far more reserved: "We really can't speculate about things that have not happened, yet," said Javier Terrés de Ercilla, vice president of development of Habanos S.A. Good answer.
Another giant cocktail party on Monday night saw the unveiling of the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 Reserva Cosecha 2012, which means it has tobacco from a 2012 harvest. The gala was held on the water at the old tobacco and wood warehouse on the Port of Havana. Fun night. Every guest got two of these Reservas, plus three more Hoyo de Monterreys: an Epicure Especial, a Le Hoyo de San Juan and a double-tapered Hoyo figurado about the same size as a Cuaba Distinguido (6 5/8 by 52).
It also had that secondary Casa del Habano band you see for Casa exclusives. I never saw this cigar before. That's odd. Habanos is gearing up to honor the 20th anniversary of the Cuaba brand tonight. Maybe they put the wrong band on the wrong cigar. No matter.
I strolled the waterfront cocktail party until I found a table that only made Cuba Libres for the guests. One of the younger bartenders had assembly-lined the process by making about 10 at a time. Another bartender, much, much older was making them one at a time. He was much slower and looked as though he's been making this drink since before the Cuban revolution.
Most people grabbed the other quickly-made libations once they were ready, but I waited on the older man, whose hands shook a bit as he made my drink and took his time. This simple cocktail is the original rum and Coke, only they weren't pouring Coca Cola at this party. While Coke is available in Cuba (via Mexico), they used a local brand called Ciego Montero. I hear it's half the price of Coke. "Viva Cuba Libre!" I said to the man as he handed me my drink. He ignored me, went back to another empty glass and started his shaky process all over again.