People often ask me how the Habanos Festival compares to the other cigar festivals I've attended. One of the biggest things that makes the Habanos Festival unique is what happens outside the scheduled activities here in Cuba. For this annual gathering of cigar lovers, distributors and retailers involves so much more than what's on the official program. And a very big part of that is cigar shopping.
You can debate which country makes the finest cigars in the world, and at Cigar Aficionado our blind tastings have shown that the level of quality is quite close from country to country, particularly among the elite cigars from Cuba, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, the country that makes our current Cigar of the Year. But no one can debate which cigar-producing country has the finest cigar shops.
It's hard to get great Dominican cigars throughout Santiago and you can find only a few fine Nicaraguans for sale in Estelí, but here in Havana, it's a cigar shopper's paradise. On Monday I went to several cigar shops to get an idea of what's in stock, how much it costs and what cigars are hard to find, I wrote this blog in the afternoon, listening to an angry wind howling against the windows in my 12th floor hotel room. Sounds like a change of weather is in the near future.
But Monday was a sunny, warm day, and my first stop was at the Casa del Habano at 5th and 16th, a superb location with a distinctive U-shaped humidor that snakes around the far wall of the shop. Stocks were good, with plenty of Romeo y Julieta Edición Limitada Capuletos, a strong array of Bolivars, some more obscure favorites of mine (such as Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo du Prince cigars) and big, big supplies of Ramon Allones Specially Select robustos, including boxes of 50. These high-scoring smokes (we gave them 96 points in awarding them No. 2 cigar of 2015) are delightful and consistent, and belong in your humidor.
What didn't they have of note? The only double coronas in stock were Partagás Lusitanias, and there were no Cohiba Esplendidos. No Cohiba Behikes on the shelves, but Gordon Mott and I spoke with Carlos Robaina, who is always present at the shop, and he showed us several boxes of BHK 52s that had just come in. He said they have been coming fairly regularly, and going out just as fast. If you want Behikes, you're not going to see them sitting around. Best to ask.
Stop No. 2 on this journey took us to Club Habana, the well-appointed shop that seems to attract serious connoisseurs. When I walked in, I was quickly greeted by Ajay Patel, proprietor of the Casa del Habano in Teddington, England, and David Tourgeman, owner of the Casa del Habano in Cancún. (If they shop here, so should you.) I asked for a Monsdale, which is made on the premises, and began looking around.
While there were still no Esplendidos here, I found more big cigars than at any other shop. There was a cabinet of 50 Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas (570 CUC), as well as boxes of 25 (285). There were also Ramon Allones Gigantes (261.25) and Punch Doubles (272.50). Good stuff. David was beaming, and showed off a box of Saint Luis Rey Marquéz Regional Editions exclusive to Cuba. I think he got the last box. I would have been mad, but he gave me one of the cigars. I'll test it out later. We didn't see any Behikes.
After that it was on to the Casa del Habano at the Meliá Habana Hotel, one of our favorite stops due to its pleasant staff and superb selection. The big cigars were fairly plentiful here, with Hoyo Doubles, Ramon Allones Gigantes and cabinets of 50 Partagás Lusitanias, which sold for 567.50. (Prices are identical, for the most part, from shop to shop.) I said hello to Laurence Davis, the owner of Sautters of Mayfair of London, and had a strong cup of coffee while I looked over cigars. Great shop that should be a must stop for anyone in Cuba. Still no Esplendidos.
Things in Cuba are getting pricey—hotel rooms are considerably more expensive, cab rides are pricey, and the meals at the restaurants here cost more than ever before. But not cigars. Prices are unchanged since last year, and in many cases since 2014. Most boxes of 25—save for Cohibas, which are quite expensive—are in the neighborhood of 200 CUCs. Monte 2s are 241.25 a box of 25, Bolivar Belicoso Finos are 191.25, Hoyo Epi 2s are 175—you get the picture.
We are staying once again at the Meliá Cohiba, and the hotel has a small cigar shop with a large smoking lounge. It's a great place to puff and hang out, but the selection is limited. I like to buy singles here, or three-packs. (My first smokes in Cuba were the three-pack of Partagás Serie E No. 2 that I bought here for 28.80 CUC, or 9.60 CUC per cigar.)
Getting back to that Monsdale. That was my first cigar of the day, puffed at my lunch table at one of my favorite restaurants in Havana, Corte del Principe. I had one of the finest dishes of spaghetti carbonara I've had outside of Rome, and a beef carpaccio with arugula to die for. That with a Cuban cigar, puffed in peace with no one to complain? Pure heaven.
There's much more to do in Cuba while I'm here, and even more cigar shops to see.