The Interjet flight of Mexico City was taxiing toward take-off. I was getting settled in my seat, watching the plane’s nose camera point toward the runway. As the engines roared to full take-off RPMs, a strong sensation pulsed through me: I can’t wait for my first cigar in Havana.
Now that thought might seem strange to those of who have followed my blog and my cigar smoking habits for years; but the truth is I smoke less frequently than when I was in New York putting at Cigar Aficionado and being a full member of the tasting panel. Today, my anticipation for a perfect smoking moment is greater than it has ever been.
A few hours later, after navigating Havana immigration and customs and hopping into our rental car for the week with Machin, our driver, guide and friend, and checking into my hotel room, I was headed off to dinner at El Aljibe. That first cigar was still in my future, and my anticipation was building.
El Aljibe, the best roast chicken kitchen in Havana, remains my First Night tradition after I arrive in Cuba. While the restaurant now welcomes hoards of cruise ship visitors, by 8:45 p.m., they have cleared out to head back to their floating hotels and the restaurant reverts to its quaint, thatched roof, quiet ambience. The good news about being on the cruise ship circuit is that the restaurant gets plenty of ingredients to keep up with the tourist demand; so the chicken was freshly roasted, the rice and beans were steaming and the French fries were still hot.
Finally, as I finished my last sip of Ribera del Duero Spanish red and asked for a glass of Santiago rum, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a 2010 vintage Cohiba Behike 52, Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar of the Year for that year. The first puff was magic and the cocoa bean and earthy flavors filled my palate with a richness that lingered through the long finish. Non-blind it’s easily a 97- or 98-point cigar.
The best part of the evening was being surrounded by my friends who I invite en masse to join in the First Night festivities. A Canadian who wrote a great book on Partagás. A Brit who lives in Havana and has managed our travel arrangements here for 20 years. A Cuban who used to be our press contact at Habanos S.A. and remains one of the most knowledgeable people I know. And a friend from Mexico who I see frequently in my hometown, Queretaro. And my driver, Machin, who is a new dad. I got caught up with everyone’s lives and life in Havana.
I have to confess. I made a rookie First Night mistake.
After the rum, my cigar was still lit, and my British friend Toby said, “There’s great music at Tocororo tonight,” which happens to be one of my favorite bars in the city, especially when there is live music. “Let’s go there,” he insisted. I demurred, remembering that I had a long week of work and partying ahead of me. But Toby said, “Oh, come on, just one drink.”
In a rare loss of reason, I said to myself that I had slept at the Mexico City airport the night before, so I wasn’t working off a 4 a.m. wake-up to catch my flight and it was only 11 p.m. So I said to Toby, “Sure. Why not?”
During the course of the next three hours, “just one drink” turned into “just one more drink,” which is now the official motto of the week of the 21st annual Festival de Habanos. When I woke up at 7:30 to rush to the convention center to get my credentials for the festival, my first bleary-eyed thought was, “I’m going to kill Toby.”
But, of course, after a few daylight hours, I only had fond memories of a great meal, my first cigar in Cuba, a wonderful evening of live music and the lingering taste of too much rum.
Now for one more cigar.