Something Special

| By James Suckling | From Arnold Schwarzenegger, July/Aug 03

Some people may believe that it's too much of a good thing with this year's releases from Havana of limited-edition cigars and humidors. Coupled with the improving quality of the country's mainline brands, the special releases are helping to turn Havana's cigar shops into a real shopper's bazaar. I have only one thing to tell the Cubans: keep the novelties coming. It adds to the buzz around premium cigars, particularly Cubans, and everyone benefits from the cigars' quality.

It's getting hard to remember the days -- not that long ago -- when I would meet stone-faced Communist Party members who were involved in the marketing and selling of Cuban cigars. They were bean counters. They only cared about the hard currency that cigars might bring their country, and they didn't give a damn about the prestige and history that tabaco represented for Cuba. They dismissed the admiration that many smokers around the world had for their cigars.

Better days are here. Most of those bureaucrats appear to be long gone. The Cubans are pushing the envelope to bring the world better and more interesting cigars. I think the best is still to come.

In compiling a list of the island's latest innovations, I may have missed a few things. And I don't have prices for all of the items being brought to market (all prices are listed in U.S. dollars at shops in Havana). But you can't go wrong with the following offerings:

Cohiba Siglo VI: This is almost sure to be the best Cohiba of them all. Measuring just less than 6 inches long by 50 ring gauge, the cigar is rich and exciting with amazing flavors. I score it 95 points. About $375 for a cabinet of 25 in Havana.

Cohiba Siglo 10th Anniversary Humidor: A bit pricey (about $3,000 in Havana), but a gorgeous, small, humidified chest with 15 cigars of every Siglo, from I to VI.

Seleccion Cohiba: A fabulous "taster" of aged Cohibas in a special cedar box, with four Espléndidos, six Robustos, six Corona Especials, eight Piramides and six Media Coronas. The latter is a unique size (basically a Corona Especial with half an inch cut off). In Havana, the box runs $756.

510th Anniversary Humidor: Only 510 of these humidors were made to commemorate the 510 years since Columbus brought tobacco from Cuba to Europe. It consists of 100 cigars, 20 of each of the following vitolas: Cohiba EsplÈndidos, Montecristo No. 2s, Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 1s, Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 3s and Partagas Royales. The last two have been brought out of mothballs, with the Royales measuring 4 1/2 inches long by 45 ring and the Hermosos measuring 5 1/2 inches long by 49 ring. It takes about $3,000 in Havana to score one -- a lot of money for a fancy humidor.

Compay 95th Anniversary Montecristo Humidor: This release seems like a gimmick because the aged song man told me he used to work at Partagas before he became a musician. But apparently the limited-edition humidor is beautiful and comes packed with 95 cigars in two sizes: 55 Montecristo No. 4s and 40 Montecristo Salomones No. 2s, rare figurados with a large ring gauge. Price is $3,180 in Havana.

Colección Habanos Second Volume Partagas Serie C No. 1: Another killer smoke with the red-and-gold-lettered "Serie" band, this 6 5/8 by 48 cigar is packed with flavor. The smokes come in a cedar box looking like a book with 20 cigars. Only 500 were produced. I scored it 93 points when I smoked it in Havana in February.

35th Anniversary Cohiba Gran Corona Humidor: A great-looking humidor that comes with 50 Montecristo "A"-sized cigars (9 1/4 by 47). Sells for about $2,265 in Havana.

Trinidad Plantation Box: This originally was a limited-edition box. It is numbered and carved out of cedar to resemble a tobacco plantation house. It is filled with 10 each of Robustos, A's and Fundadores. This year the box came in an unnumbered edition. It sells for about $595 in Havana shops.

Vegas Robaina 5th Anniversary Humidor: I have never seen one personally, but it's said to be a winner, with 100 cigars. The box consists of 20 of each of the following: Don Alejandros, Unicos, Famosos, Robustos and Corona Gordas. The humidor sells for $1,800. Only 500 were produced.

There's even bigger news on the horizon.

Seleccion Limitada 2003: This is the third installment of the highly successful limitada range, which offers reasonably priced, rich smokes with two- to three-year-old wrappers. Habanos aficionados should put this on their must-buy list.

The new releases in June will include (Havana retail prices in parentheses): Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 1, super hermoso, 6 1/2 inches long by 48 ring gauge ($123); Partagas Serie D No. 2, super robusto, 6 /18 by 50 ($139); Hoyo de Monterrey Piramides, torpedo, 6 1/8 by 52 ($130); Cohiba Prominentes, double corona, 7 1/2 by 49 ($418); and Montecristo C, corona gorda, 5 5/8 by 46 ($236).

Two new Trinidad vitolas: This is a fabulous brand made exclusively at the El Laguito factory. It came originally in a Lancero size, but it has long deserved other sizes. The Cubans are bringing out the Robusto "A," a 7 inch by 50 ring gauge rat-tailed smoke, as well as the small and elegant Coloniales, measuring 6 3/4 by 44.

Cuaba Salomones: This was first released in 1999 as part of a
limited-edition humidor of 47 smokes, but the large perfecto cigar will soon be available on a regular basis in cedar boxes of 10. This was one of my favorite smokes of recent. I score the limited-edition Cuaba Salomones II 97 points.

Cabinet Selection of Robustos: A cabinet of 25 cigars, this tasters' assortment will consist of robustos from the following brands: Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, Partagas and Hoyo de Monterrey. There's talk of assortments focusing on other vitolas for later in the year.

The mere mention of any of these cigars gets Cuban cigar aficionados salivating. I posted a question entitled "Too much of a good thing?" on the Cuban cigar forum of Cigar Aficionado Online regarding the limitada range. The inquiry attracted close to 1,000 views in less than 24 hours. About 50 people posted responses and they were overwhelmingly positive.

For example, the first post came from Shann: "I LOVE what they are doing with the ELs [edición limitadas]. In fact the EL's were my main purchases last year, and I am anticipating the same for this year. The reasons are: 1. I love the flavor profiles offered. 2. Which is as important as #1, if not more so, is my opinion that you know for SURE what you're getting with the ELs in the quality department. 3. Some of the El profile blends should age especially well."

ryj7x47, one of the most prolific posters on the site and a top Habanos expert, opined: "I really like the line...they're fantastic cigars, and I like them more than the regular line. The flavor is there, the strength is there, the finesse is there, the body is there, the character is there, the construction is there, and the appearance is there...these cigars have it all."

Some of the comments did express concern, such as those from TraderNick: "Let me start by saying that I love the E's I've smoked, particularly the PSD3s [Partagas Serie D No. 3s] and RyJ [Romeo y Julieta] Robustos. That said, what I would really like to see is a dialing down of new issues and instead a renewed commitment on the part of Habanos S.A. to ensure that the "classic" cigars of Havana lore are restored to their former glory."

I have voiced similar concerns to officials at Habanos, the global marketing and distribution company of Cuban cigars. They assure me that quality is improving across the board, not only with the new specialty smokes. As I have written in past columns, I have seen the improvements with my own eyes, both in the factories as well as with new cigars coming to market.

Limitadas, and other novelties, should not just be viewed as the cream on top of the milk, because all Cuban cigars are starting to look like cream. Those that don't meet those higher quality standards are becoming the exception.

Maybe Mr. Coin, another longtime poster on the Cuban forum, has it right? "James -- You can never have too much of a good thing, as long as it remains a GOOD thing."

Those are words that I hope the Cuban cigar executives are listening to, and hearing.

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