The Luck of The Draw in Havana

A Geneva tobacconist acquires the first 40th anniversary Cohiba humidor at the VIII Festival del Habano in March
| By James Suckling | From Kurt Russell, May/June 2006
The Luck of The  Draw in Havana

Some guys have all the luck. Raffi Aboulia, who owns the Geneva shop Raffi Cigars, won a raffle at the VIII Festival del Habano that gave him the privilege of buying the 40th anniversary Cohiba humidor. He was the only one of the more than 1,000 people at the cigar festival in Havana in early March to acquire the most expensive box of young cigars ever produced. He didn't actually win it, just the right to pay $18,000 for the humidor, and the 40 cigars inside it. That's the suggested retail price of the humidor.

Only 100 of the exquisite Elie Bleu boxes were produced. Each contains cigars of a unique size called Behike—a hybrid vitola, or shape, that's a cross between two of Cohiba's most popular sizes, the Siglo VI and the Lanceros. The humidor was unveiled on March 4, the morning before the final event of the annual cigar event on the island that attracts cigar merchants and buyers from just about every corner of the world.

Ironically, Aboulia sold a similar humidor a few years ago in his shop in Geneva, called the Raffi Siglo 21. The cigar and humidor dimensions were exactly the same as the 40th anniversary Cohiba. Aboulia himself conceived the cigar size—7 1/2 inches by 52 ring gauge—and Elie Bleu was the same maker of the humidor. It sold for 20,000 Swiss francs.

"It's strange," he said after the drawing during the festival's gala dinner. "I don't know why it [the Behike] is like the box that I did a few years ago. But I am happy to have the chance to buy the first of the 40th anniversary Cohiba humidors." Who would object? The box is sure to be worth two or three times the retail price in a few months, considering the beauty, rarity and quality of the cigars inside. A different limited-edition humidor was made for the 30th anniversary of Cohiba, and the box is now selling for about $30,000 at auction. It sold for about one-tenth that at its release. Only 30 boxes were made of the 30th anniversary double robusto cigar, which I rated 100 points.

Both cigars were made at the Cohiba factory, El Laguito, in Siboney, a posh Havana neighborhood. Roller Norma Fernandez Sastre, 55, made all the special double coronas for the 30th anniversary Cohiba and rolled all of the 4,000 Behike cigars, which she helped develop The new Cohiba was produced only for this project and will not be available commercially again in any shape or form, according to sources at Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing company for Cuban cigars. It's a shame that very few people will be able to savor the new cigar because it's a bombshell—a great cigar. I smoked two of them during my stay in Cuba (strangely, it was not offered at the gala dinner). The cigar is full bodied with loads of tobacco, cedar and mineral flavors, which are benchmark tastes for the best of Cohiba. The ones I smoked were too fresh, and, as a result, the flavors were slightly disjointed. This is a cigar that needs to be aged for a few more years. It will inevitably become a modern legend like the cigars in the special humidor made for Cohiba's 30th anniversary. Whether it's eventually worth 100 points remains to be seen, but I would already rate it 96 points.

The 40th anniversary humidors are numbered from 1 to 100, and every cigar includes a secondary band with "Behike" printed on it as well as a number from 1 to 4,000. Humidor buyers may also have their names etched in a plaque on the inside lid—although I am not sure this is a good idea if the box is later resold at auction or through cigar merchants. How many secondary buyers would want a box with the name of Enrique Sanchez, John Doe or anybody else on the lid?

Habanos agents were already taking orders for the new humidor. Max Gutmann, the Mexican agent for Cuban cigars, said he had five confirmed orders the day the first box was shown to the world. "But I have no idea how many humidors I will receive," he said.

Added Juan Giron, deputy director of marketing for Habanos: "The demand will obviously be more than the supply…. It will be the most exclusive and the most expensive cigar in the world."

According to Osmar León, the factory manager of El Laguito, Behike's blend is similar to that of a mid-range Cohiba, which I assume means the Siglo series. It contains a mix of tobacco with an average of five years of age. The wrappers come from some of the best farms in the Pinar del Río, Cuba's finest tobacco growing region. Growers include Alejandro Robaina, Pancho Cuba and Antonio Maria Paz, who supplied their best wrappers from the crop two years ago. Sastre, the roller, told me the day before the gala event that "the blend is a little stronger than the normal Cohiba blend." She started rolling the smokes in October, making between 80 and 100 cigars per day. She has worked more than three decades at El Laguito. Megabuck Cohiba humidors aside, the general mood at this year's festival was upbeat, despite the developed world's growing aversion to smoking. It's hard to believe that Italy, Ireland and Spain passed antismoking laws last year and the United Kingdom expects to do the same very soon. Last year's cigar festival was disrupted for a period due to the Cuban government's introduction of antismoking laws. Officials even considered prohibiting participants from smoking at the festival. However, this year, cigar smoking was everywhere. I seldom traveled without a lit cigar, and nobody ever stopped me, even in areas marked as no smoking, or no fumar.

Some of the hottest news I heard on the street was about the closure of the Romeo y Julieta factory in Havana. Apparently, the old factory had become too dilapidated to be refurbished. A new factory is being built just outside of Havana and the Romeo y Julieta workers will be moved there. In addition, cigar industry sources in Havana said that the old El Rey del Mundo factory will be converted to manufacturing Habanos's specialty items, such as all the limited-edition humidors. That will include the 200 H. Upmann special series replica of a vintage humidor holding 50 Tacos Imperiales, each 6 5/8 inches long by 49 ring, and the 500 Trinidad Habanos Collection book-like Humidor with 20 Torre Iznagas, each 6 11/16 by 52. Both will be released this year.

The sources didn't say whether the specialty factory would make regional cigars—limited-production smokes of about 1,000 boxes that are produced for particular geographical markets—which have been a great success. For example, this year six such cigars will be made, two each for three markets. They are: Punch Super Robustos (6 1/8 by 50) and Ramón Allones Estupendos (7 by 47) for the Asia Pacific region; Por Larrañaga Lonsdales (6 1/2 by 42) and Bolivar Colosales (6 1/8 by 50) for Germany; and Bolivar Libertadors (6 1/2 by 54) and Juan López Obúses (5 1/2 by 52) for France.

I didn't try any of those smokes yet, but I did puff on a number of the new Romeo y Julieta Short Churchills, a robusto that comes in a cardboard-papered box as well as a tube. The cigar is supposed to reach markets this spring. It is delicious. It reminds me of the decadent and rich flavor you get in a good Romeo y Julieta Churchill. It's spicy, almost peppery, with a meaty tobacco flavor that turns to cedar.

They didn't serve any of the Short Churchills during the festival's gala dinner. It was a night of smoking various Cohibas, including the Siglo VI, which I think is the best size in the brand. As usual, the gala included an auction of special humidors holding hundreds of rare cigars. The sale raised about $715,000 for the Cuban health system. A number of awards were also given during the event. I received Habanos Man of the Year in Communication.

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