The Big Show
At the Festival del Habanos closing party, David Torrens, Haila, Vania, the group A Otro Tiempo and the outstanding rock violinist Ara Malikian kept guests enthralled.
Cigar lovers and industry heavyweights gathered in Havana in March to celebrate the best of Cuba, its tobacco and its culture

Is it the gala dinners? Is it the lively entertainment? Is it the daily seminars and trips to the Vuelta Abajo and cigar factories? Is it the launches of new brands and cigars? For most attendees, the annual Festival del Habanos never comes down to a single choice, but a combination of those attractions. The 19th edition, held February 27 to March 3, was no different.

Cigars always lead the way. The 2017 lineup was an interesting combination of an ultra-premium addition to Montecristo (Cuba's biggest-selling brand), a reconceived global strategy for Quai d'Orsay and the anticipated release of individual, special production cigars.

Montecristo will come to market with the Linea 1935, a nod to the year the brand was founded. The cigar will be released initially in three sizes: the Leyenda, in factory jargon, a Montesco No. 1 (6 1/2 inches long by 55 ring gauge); the Maltes, or Sobresalientes (6 by 53); and the Dumas, or Prominente Corto (5 1/8 by 49). According to Habanos S.A., these new cigars are designed to have a fuller flavor profile and more power than the standard Montecristo brand, which is generally considered a medium-bodied smoke. A test smoke of the Dumas certainly lived up to the description, and it should age extremely well.

Quai d'Orsay was also reintroduced with a new marketing strategy. What was once primarily a French market cigar will now become one of Cuba's global brands. The new concept debuts in three sizes. Two are new additions to Quai d'Orsay: the No. 54, or Edmundo Grueso, (5 3/8 by 54); and the No. 50, or D No. 5, (4 3/8 by 50). The third cigar, a Corona Claro, or Corona, (5 5/8 by 42), is part of the existing Quai d'Orsay brand. In an interesting note, Habanos handed out one of the old sizes of Quai d'Orsay, the Churchill-sized Imperiales, at the Wednesday night dinner honoring the brand. That smoke is not part of the new lineup of sizes in the new look and taste of Quai d'Orsay.

The next big news was the 2017 Edición Limitadas, an annual release of three cigars from the best-known Cuban brands but in vitolas, or sizes, not usually associated with the brands. The Cohiba Talismán, or Cañonazo Doble, (6 1/8 by 54), led the way for the 2017 ELs. The others were the Partagás Series No. 1, or Nobleza, (5 1/2 by 52) and a Punch Regios de Punch, or Hermoso Especial, (4 3/4 by 48). None of those cigars were given out during the Festival, which is somewhat unusual. If past years are any indication, it may be the end of 2017 before the Edición Limitadas reach the world's retailers.

Habanos S.A. also announced the upcoming Romeo y Julieta Petit Royales, a 3 3/4 by 47 cigar also called a Capricho. Two cigars will be sold only as Casa del Habano exclusives: a 6 1/2 by 52 Trinidad La Trova (Cañonazo Especial), and a 6 by 54 H. Upmann Connoisseur B, or a Geniales.

The Festival also saw the release of the 2017 Gran Reserva, an H. Upmann Sir Winston Gran Reserva 2011, known in factories as a Julieta No. 2. The cigar will have classic Churchill dimensions (7 by 47). It will be released in 5,000 numbered boxes of 20 cigars each. Many Festival goers were disappointed not to get one, because the opening night festivities, when it was handed out, had been almost washed out by rain. Many were erroneously told the event had been called off and so didn't attend.

The full Festival included a visit to tobacco fields in Pinar del Río, which were in the final stages of the harvest. Another day was devoted to educational and historical seminars, and this year's topics included cigars and the arts, a cigar-rolling session taught by a master roller from El Laguito, the mother factory of Cohiba, a history of the Quai d'Orsay brand and a tasting of Spanish brandy with select Cuban cigars. There were also guided tours of two Havana cigar factories, La Corona and H. Upmann, but many people (including the team from Cigar Aficionado) spent that day exploring Havana's best Casa del Habano cigar shops, and savoring some vintage cigars. Friday brought the close of the festival, with the finals of the Habanos Sommelier contest, won this year by Felipe Rojas, of Chile.

The closing dinner Friday night brought together 1,200 people, including the Festival attendees, leading Cuban cigar-industry figures and government officials, as well as other invited guests. They were treated to an evening of nonstop entertainment from top Cuban artists and limitless Montecristo cigars.

The highlight of the evening was the annual live auction of extra-large, custom designed humidors from seven of Cuba's top cigar brands, each one stuffed with cigars. The auction raised 1.265 million euros ($1.34 million) for Cuba's public health system. The Cohiba humidor was the star of the night, and it brought in 380,000 euros ($403,000). It was purchased by Leander D'Silva of Apéro, a Canadian company.

D'Silva also bought the Hoyo de Monterrey humidor for 100,000 euros ($106,000) and the Bolivar humidor for 90,000 euros ($95,000). Mohamed Mohebi, of the United Arab Emirates, placed the winning bid of 220,000 euros ($233,000) for the Montecristo humidor, and an H. Upmann humidor sold for 200,000 euros ($212,000) to Dag Holmboe, the CEO of Pacific Cigar Co. A Romeo y Julieta humidor went to Ricardo Cases, of Andorra, for 150,000 euros ($159,000) and a Partagás humidor was acquired by Peter Giannoulis from Vancouver, Canada, for 115,000 euros ($122,000).

D'Silva, the managing director of Apéri, a private members club, revealed that he bought the three humidors for resale to his members. "But the Cuban public health system is a good cause to support," D'Silva added. "It's money well spent."