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Smokin' Shops: Cigar Merchants

Visitors to Havana Will Be Pleasantly Surprised with the Selection and Knowledge of Its Top Cigar Merchants
| By James Suckling | From The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

It wasn't that long ago that a man of fashion procured his suits in London, shoes in Milan, shirts and ties in Paris and cigars in Havana. While many of today's savvy gentlemen may not be traveling around Europe to acquire clothing and accessories, Havana has reemerged as a hot spot to purchase cigars.

As any cigar aficionado knows, there's nothing quite like buying cigars in Havana. In terms of selection and price, nowhere else comes close. From cedar boxes of 100 Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas to five-packs of Cohiba Lanceros, top cigar stores in Havana now offer the excellent selection and service that were previously available only in a handful of shops in London and Geneva.

"This is my world," says Enrique Mons, the veteran tobacconist who recently left La Casa del Habano on 5th Avenue and 16th Street in the Miramar section of Havana to open another shop nearby. "I get the tobacco I want, and my customers get the tobacco they want. It's as simple as that. If the cigars I receive are not up to scratch, I don't accept them. I just send them back to the factory. Nothing but the best for my customers." Mons is the maestro of cigar merchants in Havana. No one in the city knows more about cigars than this burly and energetic Cuban who, for most of the 1970s and '80s, was in charge of quality control for the Cuban cigar industry. He now prefers a quieter life, supplying cigar smokers with only the best habanos.

"At the moment, the quality couldn't be any better," Mons says, between puffs of a Montecristo No. 1 and sips of Cuban coffee. "I admit that there were some problems a year ago with cigars. They were too young. But now they are beautiful." The 16th Street store was renovated recently and includes a large walk-in humidor, about 100 storage lockers, a meeting room and a bar. Mons's former colleague, Pedro Gonzalez, is the new manager.

Mons's new La Casa del Habano will be located at Club Habana, a private beach club in Miramar. The shop will also offer private lockers and a bar.

English-speaking patrons may findit difficult to communicate with Mons because he doesn't know their language. However, he doesn't think that's necessarily a drawback. "I don't really need to speak English. I always get by with my customers. Besides, cigars are an international language of their own."

Another well-versed cigar purveyor is Abel Diaz, the manager of La Casa del Habano at the Partagas cigar factory in downtown Havana. His shop accounts for the largest percentage of the 14 million cigars sold by Cuban tobacconists each year to tourists. While La Casa del Habano on 16th may have the feel of an exclusive tailor shop, Diaz's is remininscent of the clothes department at Macy's or Bloomingdales, a store in clear view of the hundreds of people who visit each day. The store is separated into three sections. The first part is a room that caters to the busloads of tourists who visit the factory and buy only a handful of cigars. The second area contains a narrow humidified walk-in cigar showcase, while the third section, a lounge, resembles a private club with sofas and chairs and a small bar. A limited number of lockers are also available for his best customers.

"There's no other place to buy cigars than Havana," says Diaz. "We always have a good selection of cigars, and what we don't have, we try to get for our customers, especially our regular ones. Just think about it for a minute. Buying cigars here has to be better than anywhere else in the world. The cigars come straight from the factory to here. They are in perfect condition."

Price still remains a big plus for buying cigars in Havana, although prices are not as low as they were a few years ago. Whereas not too long ago one could find a box of 25 Partagas Serie D No. 4s for $68 or a box of Punch Double Coronas for $86, cigar lovers can now expect to pay about $100 to $150, respectively, for such cigars. On the bright side, cigars purchased in Havana are anywhere from one fourth to one half the price of similar cigars in London or Geneva and about 15 percent less than prices in Spain.

Cigars remain one of the most coveted Cuban products for visitors to the island nation. Late last year the Cuban government increased the export allowance to $2,000 worth of cigars from $1,000. This means that tourists may now leave the country with $2,000 worth of cigars as long as they have receipts. Cuban customs officials usually allow travelers up to two boxes of cigars without any documentation. (Americans with visas are restricted to $100 in Cuban goods upon direct return to the United States. Otherwise, it is illegal for Americans to purchase Cuban goods anywhere in the world.)

However, buyer beware: purchasing cigars in Havana is not risk-free. The biggest drawback is service. Most shops have poorly informed and uninterested clerks, many of whom verge on being aggressively surly. They give the impression that they would be just as content selling you a $10 T-shirt as a $200 box of cigars. Most know very little about tabaco (what Cubans call cigars). "All the cigars here are about the same," says one clerk at a cigar shop at the Comodoro hotel, which at the time was also selling counterfeit cigars. "Besides, they all come from the same factory."

The other side of the coin is that some cigar shop workers are too smart for their own good. They keep the best cigars--such as torpedos, robustos and double coronas--in the back of the shop and sell them only to customers who are willing to pay an additional $10 or $20 a box. This is less of a dilemma now, however, since the government has cracked down on such practices. But the stories persist of a cigar lover buying boxes of double coronas at a shop while another customer couldn't buy any at the same place. "That's serious and hurts your business in the long run," says Mons. "If your customers know this goes on, then they won't be your customers for long."

Another problem is that most shops will not allow customers to open boxes and inspect cigars. "We can't let you open the boxes before buying," says a sales clerk at the cigar shop in the Hotel Meliá Cohiba. "Most of our customers buy their cigars as gifts and they don't like the seal of the boxes broken."

Anyone who buys cigars without first carefully examining them is asking for trouble. The chances are high that the box may be full of cigars with imperfections, whether poorly shaped or green tinted. Sometimes premium Cubans have been replaced with counterfeit ones. Another risk is one might get a box of light-wrapper smokes when the preference is for dark and oily ones. "That's crazy," Diaz says. "I want my customers to look at the cigars before they buy. I want them to be as happy as possible with their purchase. It's the customer that counts."

It's this sort of attitude that makes buying cigars in Havana one of the joys of the Cuban experience, and it's difficult to think of anything more satisfying for a cigar aficionado.

At last count Havana had more than two dozen cigar shops, but most are just in the business of shifting boxes and offer very little in selection and service. Here are the eight best, where selection and service are second to none. Outside Cuba, telephone numbers need the 53-7 prefix.

La Casa del Habano
5ta Avenida esquina 16
Phone: 24 11 85
Just 20 minutes by taxi from central Havana, this upscale cigar shop long run by Enrique Mons, is now being managed by Pedro Gonzalez. It offers a great selection of smokes and good service. Ask Gonzalez for recommendations; he always has boxes of well-aged cigars available. The store also has a comfortable bar and lounge area.

La Casa del Habano
Fabrica Partagas
Industria No. 520 entre Dragones y Barcelona
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 33 80 60
This La Casa del Habano is in the heart of the Partagas factory, next to the capitol. Manager Abel Diaz runs an excellent shop with plenty of cigars and efficient salespeople. But if a busload of tourists arrive, it's impossible to buy a box or even walk through the shop. There's always a serious crowd that sits down to smoke, drink and talk cigars in the big room in back.

Palacio del Tabaco
Fabrica La Corona
Agramonte No. 106 entre Colon y Refugio
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 33 83 89
This shop in the La Corona factory always has plenty of good cigars, and the small bar is a nice place to have a coffee or beer while smoking. Although changes in staff have made it less attractive than in the past, it's worth a visit because it often has hard-to-get cigars such as double coronas and figurados.

La Casa del Habano
Marina Hemingway
Ave. 5ta y 248 Santa Fe
Phone: 24 11 51, 24 11 59
Located about 30 minutes by car from central Havana, this store exudes a relaxed atmosphere and is worth the drive. The young staff is always helpful and friendly. There's usually a good selection of cabinet cigars. Unfortunately, there's no place to relax and smoke.

La Casa del Habano
Museo del Tabaco
Calle Mercaderes esquina a Obrapia
La Habana Vieja
Phone: no listing
This is the most central of all cigar shops in Havana, located in the renovated section of the old part of town. The cigar selection is usually limited, but what's available is always the best. Check out the little museum of tobacco paraphernalia. But go elsewhere--such as the bar at the Hotel Ambos Mundos a few doors down--if you want to smoke.

La Casa del Tabaco y el Ron
Calle Obispo esquina a Monserrate
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 33 89 11
The store is situated in the back of the largest shop of Cuban rums in Havana. Rather shabby and funky, it still has a serious selection of well-kept cigars, and the saleswomen are well trained. The prices can't be beat. Grab a cigar and try a few of the rums at the liquor shop.

Parque Central
Neptuno entre Prado y Zulueta
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 66 66 27
This is one of the newest cigar shops in Havana and has the potential to be one of the best. Located downtown in the recently opened Parque Central Hotel, this small store has a very good selection and an extremely friendly sales staff. English-speaking manager Emilio Amin Nasser admits that he's not a cigar expert, but he's a keen smoker who will go out of his way to help you.

La Casa del Habano
Club Habana
5ta Avenida 188-192
Miramar, Playa
Phone: 24 57 00
This cigar shop, slated to open in May, is managed by Enrique Mons, the former head of La Casa del Habano on 5th Avenue and 16th Street. The shop provides private lockers as well as a bar and restaurant.

"I will try to get them all personally obiđem.Zahvaljujem on a given choice " —September 30, 2010 19:00 PM

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