Cigar Aficionado

Havana Nights 2005

The Festival del Habano showcased some great new cigars and lots of revelry as usual

I couldn't tell you if it was a fashion faux pas or not. Few people knew, however, that British actor Jeremy Irons was wearing the same outfit at this year's Academy Awards in Hollywood that he had donned just a few days before in Havana for the gala dinner of the VII Festival del Habano, the annual cigar event in Cuba. Let's hope he sent it to the dry cleaners before wearing it again.

At the Academy Awards, Irons was introduced as a "comedy superstar." Strange, considering what a serious, dramatic actor he is. But, in fact, Irons made the crowd at the Oscars laugh. And he is a smoker.

In Havana, Irons received an award from the Cuban cigar industry as "Communicator of the Year" during the February 25 gala dinner. But he also confessed to smoking both cigarettes and cigars. "I was sitting next to a very beautiful woman today, and she asked me if I smoke both cigarettes and cigars," said Irons, standing on the stage in front of about 1,400 participants while puffing on a Partagas 8-9-8. "I do. Smoking a cigarette is like having sex, but smoking a cigar is like making love."

The crowd applauded as Irons took a few drags on his cigar, adding that he hoped to smoke fewer cigarettes as he got older. "In the years ahead, I am going to try to smoke more cigars," he concluded, drawing more cheers from the crowd.

I'm sure he would rather smoke one of the new Partagas Serie P No. 2 cigars instead of his usual Benson & Hedges. The cigar debuted at the gala dinner in Havana, which celebrated the 160th anniversary of the Partagas brand. The torpedo, which is the same size as the Montecristo No. 2, smoked like a dream. It was subtly rich and spicy, with just the right amount of decadent character. The cigar was expected to reach the world market in April.

It was one of two cigars officially introduced during the five-day event. The other was the Serie D No. 4 Reserva, a limited-production robusto made with slightly older tobacco than the original version. The Cubans say the tobacco is three years old, which doesn't sound much to me, but the cigar delivers more character than the normal Serie D. The Reservas come in beautiful black-lacquered boxes of 20. All the small humidor-like boxes are numbered, and only 5,000 were produced.

I preferred the Serie D No. 4 Reserva to the P No. 2, but both are outstanding smokes. The Reserva showed lovely aromas of honey, tea and tobacco, as well as a perfect draw. The wrapper appeared a bit rough, but about 10 minutes after lighting, the cigar delivered the earthy, decadent flavors of an excellent Partagas. In fact, it reminded me of Partagas Serie D No. 4s from the early 1990s, when the robusto was one of the best cigars made on the island, though almost impossible to find. I scored the Reserva 95 points.

I am not a big torpedo smoker—pirámide, as the Cubans call the size—but the P No. 2 showed plenty of subtle, rich tobacco flavors with just a hint of earth, which made it taste distinctly like a Partagas. I gave it 91 points.

The P No. 2 sells in a cedar box with 25 cigars for about the same price as a Montecristo No. 2. However, the Reserva is going to be very expensive—close to $1,000 a box in some markets.

I ran into Lucia Newman, the Latin American correspondent for CNN, during the gala dinner, and she asked me on camera if I thought that Cuban cigars were not at the same quality level that they had been in the past. I told her that I thought it was the complete opposite. I said that Cuban cigars have regained high quality levels recently due to improvements in quality control inside the cigar factories on the island. The interview, of course, may never see the light of day.

One question mark on quality, however, that I didn't have time to address with CNN is the issue of Cuban wrappers. 2004 was not a good year for wrappers on the island due to a wet spring and the use of artificial curing, which robs the wrapper of its oils and elasticity. There is no shortage of wrappers in the factories in Havana, but the quality is less than perfect. In fact, a roomful of women selecting wrappers in one factory told me in unison how bad the quality was. The 2005 harvest could also turn out to be difficult. While the crop is large and very healthy, the weather has been too cold during the curing process in tobacco barns for a large portion of the crop.

But nobody at the gala dinner was worried about wrappers or anything else that happens in the Vuelta Abajo or Havana concerning cigar production. Everyone was in a festive mood, enjoying the food, wine, Armagnac, cigars, entertainment and camaraderie. The event was held at ExpoCuba, a venue used for trade fairs in Cuba, and what could have turned out to be something resembling a dinner in a shopping mall in the Midwest ended up being a classy, well-organized event by any standard. Fantastic music from piano great Chucho Valdes and incredible dancing from the world's greatest flamenco artist, Joaquin Cortes, only added to the evening's panache.

As always, Cuban cigar agents at the dinner were willing to shell out large amounts of money during the benefit charity auction of cigars, which raised about 530,000 euros (or about $700,000). The sale was done in euros this year due to new regulations that place a 10 percent commission on U.S. dollars used in Cuba. Proceeds from the auction went to the Cuban public health system.

The biggest bidder was Altadis S.A., which bought the last lot of the auction, a massive Cohiba humidor that resembled a tobacco leaf emblazoned with silver and other gaudy materials. It was more a piece of furniture than a humidor and contained 20 Siglo VIs, 20 Torpedos, 20 Sublimes, 20 Double Coronas and 20 Robusto Especials (which are double corona length). In recent years, Altadis, the Spain-based company that owns half of Habanos S.A. (the organizers of the event), has bought the last lot of the auction.

Despite his signature on each humidor in the auction, Castro's absence (now three years running) significantly reduces the bidding. But the participants didn't seem to mind not seeing Cuba's supreme leader. Who really would have thought that Castro would attend a cigar event this year?

Just a few weeks before, the Cuban government sent the event organizers into a tailspin when it announced the introduction of antismoking laws on the island. Some thought the event would be cancelled or participants would be forced outdoors to smoke. The antismoking law prohibits people from smoking in public places such as hospitals, theaters, schools and offices, and bans sales of smokes to children under 16 years of age and at stores less than 100 yards from schools. Most hotels and restaurants now have designated smoking areas, regulations that are definitely being enforced.

Sources say that the government may relax the laws for a few more months while it evaluates the effect on Cuba's tourism industry—the most important source of revenue for the island's economy. Last year, about 2.1 million tourists came to Cuba, a large percentage of whom like to smoke cigars. Sales of cigars to visitors total about 10 million units a year, which creates estimated revenues of about $50 million to $75 million.

"This is crazy," said one cigar shop manager in Havana while complaining about the antismoking laws and Cuban cigar prices that increased just over 4 percent on average in February. "First they increase prices and now they say people can't smoke. What's next? Loco."

In fact, I was only reprimanded once for smoking during my weeklong trip to Havana, and even then I was politely asked to move to the smoking section of the lobby coffee bar of the Melia Cohiba Hotel. The rest of the time, I smoked with ease in bars, restaurants, shops and taxis. Maybe this will change. But some Cubans said the new laws will probably make the six million or so smokers on the island light up more.

One source with connections in the government said that the country's minister of domestic trade didn't even know about the new laws when they were announced in January. The official first heard about it when it was published in an official gazette, and by then it was already law. Habanos officials apparently didn't hear about the laws until international press reports started filtering through and reporters called them for comment. Habanos later held a press conference to assure festival attendees that they could smoke their hearts out in Havana for the festival.

And that's what I did, along with the hundreds of others on the island for the festival. Moreover, I am sure that nobody in Cuba told Jeremy Irons to put out his cigarette—or his cigar—during his brief visit to the island. And I don't think it will happen very often to other visitors in the near future.