The walls of the sprawling PABEXPO convention hall were decked out in black-and-silver signs touting the H. Upmann brand, the featured cigar for the gala dinner on the closing night of the 16th Festival del Habanos. The crowd of more than 1,000 people that packed into the large hall were greeted by the usual entourage of tall, beautiful women dressed in elegant floor-length black gowns and handing out cigars. The crowd mingled together sipping Champagne and lighting up their cigars, waiting for the evening to begin.
Within minutes of the beginning of the meal, the masters of ceremonies, one speaking in English and one in Spanish, announced a special guest: Sir Tom Jones. An avid cigar smoker—he said he started smoking Cuban cigars in the 1960s—the 74-year-old crooner launched into one of his most famous hits, “It’s Not Unusual.” With the audience almost singing along, his strong voice carried throughout the hall. He followed up with “Help Yourself,” and then a stirring rendition of “Besame Mucho.” By the time he finished, the crowd was on its feet for a standing ovation.
Dance groups, and singers, all showcasing the extraordinary creativity in the arts that thrives in Cuba today, were to follow. The food and wine were delicious, and finally, the women carrying cigar trays brought forth the smoke everyone was waiting for: H. Upmann No. 2 Reserva Cosecha 2010. We smoked the cigar to get a sense of how it will evolve as it ages. The pirámide has the same dimensions of a traditional H. Upmann No. 2, but inside are tobaccos said to be four years old. About a half-an-inch into it, the cigar developed sweet, tasty notes, with a faint hint of milk chocolate. The body was mild, which is in line with what one expects from H. Upmann, one of Cuba’s more mellow brands.
An auction to benefit Cuba’s public health system raised 798,000 euros ($1.1 million), with a painting by Cuban artist Zaida del Rio and six humidors, each highlighting a different Cuban cigar brand. Each was oversized, and stuffed with hundreds of Cuban cigars, including some made especially for the auction. An H. Upmann humidor, done in the fashion of the original H. Upmann factory in Havana, came filled with 350 H. Upmann cigars, including 50 of the new Upmann Reservas, and sold for 130,000 euros ($180,000). The highest price for a humidor went not to the Cohiba lot, which traditionally draws the biggest price for the evening, but for a grand 12-drawer Partagás humidor handmade from cedar, mahogany and brass. It sold for 170,000 euros ($236,000).
The closing night was the third dinner extravaganza of the week. The opening night event occurred at Club Habana, a seaside building with a small beach, and the former home of the Havana Biltmore Yacht Club, built in the 1920s. The featured cigar brands were a new cigar for the Le Hoyo line of Hoyo de Monterrey called Le Hoyo de San Juan, a 6-inch by 54-ring-gauge stick, and a Partagás Serie D No. 6, a cigar ending up in what we might call a nub, at 3 1/2 inch by 50 ring gauge. Both cigars showed delicious qualities. Le Hoyo de San Juan was a well-balanced smoke with notes of coffee beans and leather. The Partagás Serie D No. 6 showed more strength, and some people found it overpowering; but we enjoyed the full-boded spiciness and believe it will age beautifully.
On Wednesday night, the venue shifted to the Museo de Bellas Artes for a dinner celebrating the Trinidad brand. Habanos announced a new size of the cigar, and handed them out to the attendees throughout the night. A torrential downpour interrupted the evening as some tables out in the open courtyard were rushed inside to the galleries, but no one’s spirits were dampened too much. The cigar star of the night was the Trinidad Vigia, another thick-ring-gauge cigar that will be added to the Trinidad line. We smoked it, but it seemed quite young so any thoughts on that cigar will have to wait for it to age. A special taste of the Cohiba Robusto Supremos Edición Limitada 2014—the first 58-ring-gauge cigar from Habanos S.A.—was more exciting, with hearty flavors of wet leather and zingy red pepper.
During the day on Tuesday and Wednesday, I visited nearly every major shop in the city with David Savona, Cigar Aficionado’s senior editor. The shelves were stocked with fine smokes, although the vast majority of them were box dated late 2013 and even January or February 2014. Bolivar Libertadores, the new Casa del Habano exclusive, were well represented throughout the island, as were 2013 Edición Limitadas and the new Montecristo cigars, the Double Edmundo and the Petit No. 2.
On Tuesday night, Cigar Aficionado honored Habanos with the Cigar of the Year for 2013, for the Montecristo No. 2. Habanos’ copresident Walfrido Hernández Mesa, and Luis Sánchez-Harguindey accepted the award on behalf of the country’s tobacco monopoly, and thanked the magazine for the recognition. More than 80 people, mostly Habanos’ distributors and Casa del Habano retailers from around the world, attended the small reception held at the Galeria Nelson Dominguez in Old Havana.
The Festival activities limited the restaurants that Savona and I could test this trip, but we did manage to eat at four different places—three old favorites and one new find. From the buzz around Havana, there are many, many more new restaurants that are producing good food, but for now, those discoveries will have to wait. Two old favorites—Doctor Café, one of the older paladars, or private restaurants, and El Templete, always one of the better-run government restaurants, lived up to their past reputations. I had a dish of octopus spiced with cayenne pepper that was delicious. One place, La Moraleja, has joined the ranks of Havana’s best restaurants. The proprietors tried to open a separate restaurant last year, but it closed after a dispute with the landlord, and they have concentrated all their efforts in Moraleja, in the Vedado section. We had one of the best meals we have ever had in Havana there. The wine list, while not cheap, has some outstanding selections and is worth the trouble to explore.
The other restaurant we visited, El Litoral, sits right on the Malecón, where it opened less than three months ago. The food was delicious. A starter of shrimp deep fried in malanga batter was mouthwatering, and I had a dish with black pasta, sun-dried tomatos, hot pepper flakes and shrimp that could have been served with pride in any fine restaurant anywhere the world.
One final observation: Cuba’s private enterprise law, enacted in early 2012 is beginning to produce visible, and palpable, changes inside the country. In nearly every commercial zone, and even in residential areas, signs tout small businesses, from beauty salons to coffee shops or restaurants. There are many more new cars on the streets than during some of our recent trips. And, many buildings are being repainted, freshening up many streets. Cell phones are more in evidence, and it would seem there’s a bit more energy on the streets too. Change is coming.