The large ballroom of the elegantly formal Claridge's Hotel in London is packed with tuxedo-wearing, claret-drinking, cigar smoking revelers celebrating the launch of Cuba's newest cigar brand, Cuaba. A fog bank of cigar smoke rolls past the podium as Francisco Linares, president of Habanos S.A., the global marketing organization for Cuban cigars, tells the group of about 200 why the brand has been developed.
The tall, stern-looking man explains how he had been in London a year before and noticed in cigar shops samples of antique Havana cigars that were perfecto/figurado shaped--the classic stogie, pointed at both ends. He decided that these shapes should be brought back into production. "London seemed like the right place to launch Cuaba, since these old Havana cigars have been preserved for many, many years there; and [Londoners] have loved smoking Havana cigars for more than 200 years," he tells the group.
As the Cuban speaks, a small, dark-haired man sits at one of the plush tables piled high with crystal glasses of Château Lafite Rothschild and plates brimming with rich food. He is fumbling with his black bow tie, which is slightly askew. He looks somewhat uncomfortable, like someone who would rather be doing something else. He turns to a cigar merchant sitting next to him and says in Spanish, "I would much rather be back at the factory rolling my cigars." He isn't joking.
Carlos Izquierdo Gonzalez, 61, has been in London for nearly a week, and even though it is his first time abroad and he finds England fascinating, he is longing to be back home in Havana with his family and his team of cigar rollers at the Briones Montoto factory (formerly Romeo y Julieta), producing one of Cuba's most exciting brands. Gonzalez masterminded the logistical rebirth of the figurado cigar through the creation of Cuaba. He was one of the last persons in Cuba who could still roll the figurado shapes. They hadn't been commercially rolled for nearly four decades, even though Partagas makes a figurado (the Presidente), which until recently was partially machine-made. It is now totally handmade.
"I had been trying for years to convince the factory to make figurados," he says during an interview in London the day before the Nov. 19 dinner. "I was making the cigars for myself to smoke. I didn't want to lose the tradition. It had to be continued. We had been talking about making these sizes again for years, and then someone finally listened to me at Habanos. It was a dream come true."
His team of 15 rollers made 40,000 to 50,000 cigars in 1996, and this year they expect to make about 150,000. Until this summer, the four sizes under the brand will be sold exclusively in the United Kingdom. Afterwards, they will be sold primarily in Casa del Habano (Havana House) shops around the world. The sizes are: Exclusivos, 46 ring gauge by 5 5/8 inches; Generosos, 42 by 5 1/8 inches, Tradicionales, 42 by 4 3/4 inches; and Divinos, 43 by 4 inches. They sell in British cigar shops for, respectively: £8.40 (about $14.30); £6.20 ($10.55); £5.80 ($9.85) and £5 ($8.50). "Today, there are too many people who want Cuaba," says Linares. "They ask for Cuaba in Spain. They ask for Cuaba in Mexico. They ask for it in Canada. But we have made an agreement [with the British] for six months. We are not in a hurry."
The name of the brand originates from the Taino Indians, the indigenous inhabitants of Cuba before the Spanish discovered the island in the fifteenth century. Apparently, cuaba was a type of bush the Indians used to light their cigars. The cigars themselves were called cohiba, the name given to Havana's previous new brand created in the mid-1960s.
The first thing you notice about the new line of Cuabas are their varied shapes. The are all standard lengths, but if you look at a box of, say, Generosos, you notice that they are all slightly different in shape. This is because the cigars are made without the aid of a mold, which standardizes the girth and shape of a cigar.
"These new sizes are some of the hardest to make in Cuba at the moment," says Gonzalez, who has been working at Briones Montoto since 1948. "You have to have great strength and skill in your hands and you have to know where to put the right amount of pressure on the filler and binder. The only other cigars as hard to make are the gran corona [Montecristo A] and prominente [double corona]. With those you have to have very strong and large hands."
He says that all the rollers recruited to make Cuaba are "grade seven," the highest rating a roller can achieve in an export cigar factory. (Apparently, some factories are considering introducing an even higher grade for rollers.) A handful of other rollers are being considered for the Cuaba group. "Most of the members of our team are young, in their 20s," Gonzalez says. "These young rollers are very capable and they learn fast."
Each member of the Cuaba team rolls about 100 cigars a day, which means production with about 20 rollers would approach half a million annually. According to Linares, Habanos and Briones Montoto have not decided what sizes the brand will be after 1997. They want to look at the response from the U.K. market and then make a decision. Linares did say, however, that they were considering introducing some other sizes in the future. "We have an idea," says Linares. "Perhaps next year, but we have to discuss this with [U.K. Cuban cigar importers] Hunters & Frankau. We may introduce a pyramid size, for example, which is not too far away from the figurado shape, or perhaps a campana [a belicoso-type shape]. We have not decided yet."
The small sizes for the four introductory Cuabas are primarily due to the shortage of large-leaf tobacco for wrapper and filler. All the factories are under huge strain to produce more large-sized cigars, including double coronas and Churchills. "The Romeo y Julieta factory used to make more than 1,000 different figurados," says Gonzalez. "We still have wooden models for all of them at the factory."
Gonzalez says he himself formulated the blend for Cuaba, which he geared after Montecristo. "I wanted the cigar to be strong at the beginning when you smoke it and then end with a smooth richness," he says. His only regret with Cuaba was that the cigars were released too early. He noted that another year or two of box aging would have mellowed them a bit. "The cigars will be much better with age," he says. "The more age the better. They are just like fine wine."
For their size, the Cuabas certainly pack a lot of flavor. For instance, the smallest of the quartet, Divinos, blasts the palate with loads of flavor--plenty of spicy, peppery character. Cigar Insider, the monthly cigar newsletter from M. Shanken Communications, recently gave it a score of 91.
Strangely, the cigar has no ligero tobacco, the strongestof the three tobaccos used in Cuban cigars, even though it delivers such intensity on the palate. The next size up, Tradicionales (also scoring a 91), is slightly more refined, with equally rich character. The larger Exclusivos (89) and Generosos (89) are even more mellow, yet have good flavor and wonderful harmony. In Gonzalez's opinion, the Divinos is the most versatile of the foursome. He smokes it any time of day, in any situation. The Tradicionales and the Exclusivos are perfect for after a meal, he adds, while the Generosos is a good smoke for the morning, especially with a strong espresso.
Cuaba has already attracted a lot of serious cigar aficionados with its beautiful shape and bold flavors. Most London cigar shops sold out of the brand within a few days. However, some cigar merchants as well as aficionados are already asking: How can the Cubans launch another cigar brand when they can't even properly supply current ones?
"I think that it is important for the image of Havana cigars to have a wide range of brands," says Linares. "It is a type of product that deserves that." The Cuban government, he adds, supports the introduction of more brands (another brand is set to debut in Spain this spring) despite the current shortages.
Even President Fidel Castro has said he wanted more cigar brands developed. "I read this interview in Cigar Aficionado [Summer 1994]," says Linares, "and Fidel Castro said, 'Marvin [Shanken], I have asked our colleagues in Cubatabaco [now Habanos] to create new brands.' That is related to this idea and that is why we worked on creating Cuaba."
At the dinner, Gonzalez is still restless in his seat. He has a slightly dazed look as the festivities continue with various speeches and then an auction of some of the cigars. The Las Vegas cabaret atmosphere is foreign to the man. He looks at his cigar, a Tradicionales, and takes a drag from it. He looks at it again. He then smiles meekly to himself. The thought of saving a tradition in fine cigar making, as well as attracting worldwide attention to a new Cuban cigar, is incredibly satisfying to him, despite not being in Havana.