Cigar Aficionado

The New Code in Havana

Posted August 14, 2000, 5:15 p.m. e.s.t.

I have just returned from a room measuring about 40 feet long and 10 across filled to the ceiling with Cuban cigars. Heaven? No. It's the cigar shop run by Enrique Mons in Havana, the La Casa del Habano at the Club Habana.

It's been a few months since I was last in Havana, and I wasn't expecting to see much in the way of good smokes. But there are plenty. Despite the bellyaching of Cuban cigar merchants and aficionados from around the world about the lack of high-quality smokes, the shelves of the best shops in Havana are filled with good stuff -- maybe that's why there are none anywhere else?

"No, we don't get the first of every shipment of the best-quality cigars," said Mons, a bear of a man and arguably one of the most knowledgeable men in the business here. He has been a cigar merchant for more than a decade, and prior to that, he spent about the same amount of time as the quality-control man for export cigars from the island. "But if good cigars are being exported," said Mons, "we certainly will get our share."

If this is the case, be prepared to find a superb selection of top-quality cigars in key markets around the world. Mons had it all -- except for Partagas Serie D No. 4. The shelves were full of Hoyo Double Coronas, Hoyo Epicure No. 1s and 2s, Partagas Lusitanias, Bolivar Belicosos -- many were in cabinets of 50.

"The quality of the cigars we have is very good," said Mons, smoking a Monte No. 1 sized cigar. Mons, like most Cubans in the cigar trade, can be one for hyperbole, but from what I could see, he was talking straight.

While looking at his stock, I could not help but notice the new codes on the back of the boxes denoting when the cigars were put in the box. Most of the boxes in his shop had been filled in February, March or July of this year and had the new code -- FEB00, MAR00 or JUL00. Only a few boxes with the old code were on the shelves.

Besides the date, I was amazed to find three or four extra letters on the box in the same place. It was the factory code. I had heard through various sources -- and therefore, wrote in a previous column -- that the factory code was not included. I was wrong. It's all there, just like before, printed in black ink. It's a three-letter system and it does not change monthly as some people have said -- giving misinformation is a popular pastime on the island.

None of my sources would tell me which code was for which factory -- not very good sources, I guess! However, some simple deduction gets you a few of the key names. The easiest to crack is El Laguito, the primary factory for Cohiba. All the slender, elegant-sized Cohibas such as the Lanceros, Coronas Especials and Panetelas are made exclusively at that factory. So, look at the bottom of their boxes and aqui tiene, as they say in Havana -- here it is. The code for El Laguito is LOME.

I thought about other exclusive cigars. How about Cuaba, the perfecto-shape brand made only at Romeo y Julieta? All of the boxes had PEL on them, so we now know the code for R & J. The same was true for Diplomatico, the underrated brand with the same sizecigars as Montecristo, made exclusively at the H. Upmann factory. All the boxes of Diplomaticos had the code ECA. That's right -- H. Upmann (also known by the post-revolution name of José Martí), is ECA.

Partagas was a tougher nut to crack since it doesn't have an exclusive brand made under its roof. Nonetheless, after a few minutes of comparing cabinets of Partagas Lusitanias, Bolivar Belicosos and Ramon Allones Specially Selecteds, it was obvious that Partagas is OSU. The Partagas factory is the mother factory for all these brands, as well as La Gloria Cubana and Cifuentes. This doesn't mean that the brands are only made here, but it does mean that the Partagas factory oversees all the production -- meaning blends of tobacco for the filler of the cigars -- for all of the brands.

I am not 100 percent sure about the La Corona code, but from looking at boxes of Hoyo and Punch, it appears that the code is SUA. The next time the factory makes San Cristobal de la Habana cigars we will know for sure, because the brand is made exclusively at La Corona. Look at the code and you'll know it. The same should hold true for the super-quality factory in the town of Pinar del Río, Francisco Donatien. It is the exclusive producer of the Vegueros brand, and now it also makes some Montecristos and Cohibas.

I wish that I knew the code for Heroes Moncada, located on the outskirts of Havana. It remains one of my favorite factories in Cuba. It's a small, extremely family-oriented factory where fathers work with sons or nephews, mothers with daughters or cousins. It means that tradition and quality cigar making is carried on through generations. In others words, the factory makes super cigars.

They deserve to be recognized -- as other quality cigar-producing factories -- for their brilliant craftsmanship, not because of some hollow recommendation from a Cuban organization that oversees cigar production, but from consumers, the group that really counts. If we believe in the quality of their cigars, we will buy them. That's why we should know the code.

Related Stories:

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Posted September 27, 1999
Cubans Plan to Change Box Codes Again

Posted May 7, 1999
New Cuban Box Code Cracked

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