The slim, beautiful waitress walked over to me, and I gave her a friendly smile. My Spanish was poor, but I knew how to ask for what I wanted. "Partagas Lusitania," I said, pointing to the famous name on the menu. She shook her head. "No, we are out," she said, in very good, accented English. I moved my finger down one line. "OK, a Montecristo No. 2." The pyramid was only $8, a steal, and it was one of my favorite cigars. She shook her head again. "We are out," she said. Only a hint of concern flickered across my eyes. "Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona?"
Now it was the waitress's turn to smile. "Maybe," she said, "you should take a look at the humidor." This was January 1996, and my first trip to Cuba was off to a bad, bad start. I expected more from El Relicario, the cigar bar and lounge at Cuba's finest hotel, the Meliá Cohiba. Only a few of the cigars on the menu were actually in stock in Relicario's humidor, among them a Partagas Serie D No. 4, which is what I ended up smoking that night. Worse news: the bar wasn't an exception. Most of the shops in Havana were out of my favorite smokes. The pickings were slim.
Hotels and cigar shops were low on most blockbuster names and sizes, except for Cohibas. Double coronas were impossible to find, the only Churchill in town was the Romeo y Julieta, and if you were in the market for shaped cigars, your choice was essentially limited to the Partagas Presidente.
Four years later, I'm back at the same cigar bar. I step cautiously into the dimly lit room and move right to the humidor. No menu is going to fool me this time.
I smile at the waitress and lift the top to the humidor. Different story. It's full of cigars -- big, small and in-between. I settle on what I couldn't get on my last visit, the Partagas Lusitania. I pay for it and head on my way.
Cuba has changed since my first visit. This time around, I drop in on four leading Havana cigar shops: the Casa del Habano at the Partagas factory, Cuba's busiest cigar store; Club Habana in the Miramar suburb of Havana, which boasts one of Cuba's finest selections of cigars; Quinta 16, aka the Fifth Avenue store; and the Casa del Habano at the Hostal Conde de Villanueva. I also shop at the smallish cigar store at the Meliá Cohiba, the hotel where I am staying.
All the shops are brimming with double coronas, Churchills, robustos and more. While most of the blockbuster names are easy to find, Cuba is full of bargains -- many boxes retail for less than $100. If you follow certain guidelines, you can even find truly outstanding, well-aged cigars.
If you're an American, the first time you enter a Havana cigar store is a bit overwhelming -- there you are, surrounded by the forbidden fruit. Even if you've shopped for Cuban cigars in other markets, you'll still be shocked by the prices. Cubans on sale in their home country sell for a fraction of their overseas prices. A box that might retail for more than $700 in Canada can be had for less than $300 in Havana.
For most of the cigar boom, Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas were like the Abominable Snowman -- often talked about but never seen. There were people who would saw off a right arm for a box of Hoyo Doubles. No need now. Each of the five shops on my visit has them on its shelves, $160 for a box. Other double coronas, including the Partagas Lusitania and Punch Double, are also $160. In contrast to my 1996 visit, double corona prices I see today are identical shop to shop.
(And yes, the $160 price is just that, no conversions needed. Cuban cigar stores price cigars in U.S. dollars and accept U.S. dollars for payment. No pesos need apply.)
The only exception to the double corona price, strangely, is the Vegas Robaina Don Alejandro, which sells for $185. Vegas Robaina is one of Cuba's newest brands, named after legendary tobacco farmer Alejandro Robaina. (See related article, page 201.) The cigars are everywhere I look, perhaps due in part to the premium price.
Churchills are also in good supply, and unlike the double coronas the prices vary widely from brand to brand. Cohiba Esplendidos are $383.75 per box of 25, nearly triple the price of some other Cuban Churchills. Bolivar Corona Gigantes, for instance, sell for $138.75 per box, Saint Luis Rey Churchills go for $136.25 and Punch Churchills, H. Upmann Monarcas and Romeo y Julieta Churchills retail for $147.50 (Romeos in tubes are a bit more at $185). H. Upmann Sir Winstons, which come in lacquered boxes, are more expensive than most Churchills, priced at $222.50 per box.
There was a time when Cohiba Lanceros were somewhat difficult to find, but they are abundant now, as are all Cohibas. The only size missing in some stores is the Siglo II.
Special cigars are in good supply, including two of the three sizes of the Reserve of the Millennium (Cohiba Pyramids, Montecristo Robustos and Cuaba Distinguidos, each brand packaged in ceramic jars of 25 cigars). All five shops I visit have the Cohiba Pyramids ($500) in stock, a few have the Montecristo Robusto, which sells for $265 per jar, and no one has the Cuaba Distinguido. Trinidad Fundadores, the commercially available version of the Trinidad brand, are abundant, available in boxes of 24 for $336 and cabinets of 50 for $675.
Not ready to spend hundreds of dollars on a box of cigars? Montecristo No. 3s and No. 4s sell for $95 and $72.50, respectively. For a bit less you can buy Diplomaticos, Montecristo's lesser-known counterpart. Diplomatico No. 3s are only $72.50 per box, and No. 4s are $55. Cuaba perfectos (not including the Millenniums) sell from $57.50 to $85 a box.
Most coronas are $87.50 per box, including Hoyo de Monterreys and Punches. Small cigars, which tend to get overlooked by novice shoppers, offer some of the better bargains in Cuba, and as they tend to sit unnoticed on store shelves, it's much easier to find some with a bit of age.
So what's scarce? Most Ramon Allones cigars, Partagas Serie D No. 4 robustos and every pyramid, except for the Vegas Robaina Unico ($132.50 for a box of 25). Shops are devoid of Montecristo No. 2s, H. Upmann No. 2s and Diplomatico No. 2s.
"All the pyramids are missing," says Enrique Mons Difurniau, sitting comfortably in the posh smoking lounge of Club Habana, the cigar store he runs in the Miramar suburb of Havana. "They sell out rapidly." Mons, who smokes five to six cigars a day, is one of the world's experts on Cuban cigars. Not only does he run one of Cuba's best cigar stores, but in the 1970s and 1980s he was head of quality control for Cuba's entire cigar industry.
"We always have the problem with the same sizes," says Mons, puffing on an unbanded lonsdale. That's not to say that certain people can't get their precious boxes of Monte 2s when they need them. "I keep some for my clients," he says, his personal defense against people who stock up on the blockbuster names and sizes in Havana, then resell them back home. "I keep them for people who smoke them."
Mons's store is luxurious and cozy. The back room has couches and tables, a bar along the far wall stocked with four types of Havana Club rum, and an espresso machine, increasingly common sights in Cuban cigar stores. Mons's main entrance opens to a spacious, glass-walled humidor stocked with cigars.
Several years ago, when Mons was interviewed by Cigar Insider, the monthly cigar newsletter from Cigar Aficionado magazine, he scoffed at the buying habits of Americans, who he said were only out to buy big brand names such as Cohiba and Montecristo. Today, he is a little more generous.
"They are more educated [now]," he says. "For me, it's better. There are more smokers, and there's a much higher level of understanding. They buy cigars here, and they keep them for a long time. They know cigars get better with age. There is a much richer culture now."
Good cigar retailers, such as Mons and Abel Diaz of Partagas, allow their patrons to crack open a box and examine the cigars inside before buying. Checking your cigars is especially important in Cuba, where wrapper color can vary considerably within brands. (You also need to check for beetle holes in your cigars, anywhere you buy.) One box of Bolivars might have wrappers the color of Connecticut shade, while another box's wrapper might look dark enough to be called maduros.
As I open my fourth box of Bolivar Petit Coronas at the Meliá Cohiba's cigar shop, the woman running the store stops me.
"You're kidding me," I say. She's not. My invasive buying techniques are not welcome in her store. I put the boxes back on the shelves and walk out, but not before buying a five-pack of Montecristo No. 4s.
Other things aren't ideal in Cuba. Most of the well-known brands -- Cohiba, Montecristo, bigger Hoyos and Punch cigars -- are year 2000 production, and many wrappers are on the pale side. Some even have a green tint. I look at the cut feet of a few cigars before lighting them -- nothing dark. That and the unusually mild taste suggest that they were made without ligero, the most flavor-packed tobacco used to make cigars.
The two Partagas Lusitanias I bought ($17 each) at El Relicario don't have the punch this legendary cigar is known to pack. They are disappointing smokes. Other cigars, such as a pitch-black Vegas Robaina Don Alejandro ($7) bought out of a cabinet at the Fifth Avenue store, are simply good. And a few, such as the three-year-old La Gloria Cubana Medalle D'Or No. 2s I find on a back shelf at Fifth Avenue ($142), are sublime.
Three-year-old cigars? You can find them in Cuba, but you have to invest some time to search. Dig around. Check the box codes. Don't limit yourself to names such as Cohiba, Montecristo or Romeo y Julieta, because odds are someone has been there before you. Think small and think obscure.
In 1996, I followed a pair of more knowledgeable friends through a well-stocked humidor and watched them flip box after box upside down. I took note of which piles they lingered over. Ever hear of Gispert Petit Coronas? Neither had I, until I saw a box sitting there in Havana. It was seven years old and had the ridiculous price of $15. That's 60 cents for a cigar made entirely of Cuban tobacco. They were delicious, and tasted even better because I knew they were such a bargain. You've probably heard of Sancho Panzas. On the same 1996 trip I found a box of Sancho Panza Petit Coronas -- not the ideal size, but they came with a bonus -- five years of box age. They were $55.
Petit coronas and other small cigars tend to sit on shelves and catch some dust, while robustos, double coronas and Churchills are snapped up right away. On my most recent trip, I glance at the big smokes and pass them by -- the cigars are too young, the wrappers too pale. I dig through piles of petit coronas. Near the bottom, I find Partagas petits with three years of box age for only $65 and a box of three-year-old Rafael Gonzalez petits for $57. My colleague finds a cabinet of 50 Bolivar Petit Coronas for $130, a real steal.
Aged cigars are beautiful, rare things. As I tour the Partagas cigar factory, the quality control supervisor, Deborah Garcia Zulueta, brings out a box of Don Joaquims toward the end of the tour. The cigars inside are 48 years old, relics of a Cuba long gone by. Three workers color-sorting fresh cigars gather round the box and take a moment to stare at the cigars inside, which are older than they are. It's a simple moment that brings a smile to my face, a scene that makes the cigars I bought on this trip seem just a bit more precious than before.