On my latest trip to Cuba, I was reminded of my first visit to the island, back in 1996. I was a relative cigar rookie back then, and the first time I stepped into a Havana cigar store I was awed at the sight of all those great Cuban cigars staring at me when I walked into the humidor. To me, it looked like paradise.
I was with a couple of Cuban cigar
veterans on that trip, and I paid attention. The first thing they did
was flip the boxes over, to take a look at the codes on the bottom. They
were hunting for older stock.
Today, cigars in Cuba have easy-to-read dates on their boxes, but in those days, the dates were coded with a system known as NIVEL ACUSO. We broke that code in the February 1996 issue of Cigar Insider (and boy, were the folks at Habanos mad, but that's another story). That code is no longer used, but if you happen to stumble across some old Cuban boxes it's good to know, so I'll repeat it here.
So the letter N stands for 1, I is for 2, and so on down the line. S stands for 9, and the letter O is the number zero. Back in those days I remember flipping boxes of my own and uncovering a box of Sancho Panza coronas with the code NSSO-1990. They were six years old, and were priced at all of $55 for the box of 25. And they were absolutely delicious.
I visited every Casa del Habano in Havana during my one-week visit to Cuba in early May, and while there's nothing left from 1990 that I could find, I did uncover several boxes with a few years of box age on them. Cigars tend to get better with age, so it pays dividends to flip your boxes and take a look for something that's a little old.
I did a little video at the superb Casa del Habano at Club Habana, the fabulous cigar shop run by Enrique Mons, to illustrate this point. Take a look.
Sometimes you even get lucky and find something with a little age from one of Cuba's big names. Gordon went digging in the very large and well stocked Casa del Habano at the Nacional Hotel. He called me over, excited, and showed me a cabinet of 50 Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas from 2008.
Not all age is good age when it comes to cigars, of course. There were some darker times for Cuban cigars. A lot of the cigars from the very late 1990s through about 2002 are prone to problems. Cuba had tons of construction issues (particularly tight draws) and there seemed to be a shortage of ligero on the island.
That said, I couldn't resist an open box of Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo des Diex from 1999 I saw at the Casa del Habano at Quinta Avenida. At first I thought they were Jose Piedras due to what was written on the box, but after a second glance I saw it read "no se pierda," which means "do not miss." It was about six bucks, so I figured I'd take a shot and see what it was like.
I clipped, lit and puffed, and it was my first cigar of the day. Not a blockbuster by any means, but mild, tasty, elegant, sublime, in all a fine morning cigar.
Flip your boxes. You'll be happy you did.