Inside Cuba

The New Geneva

Hong Kong smokes Cuban Davidoffs, Dunhills and anything else great and rare
| By James Suckling | From Michael Jordan, July/August 2005
The New Geneva

Reprinted from the August 2005 issue of Cigar Aficionado.

George Wong, perhaps the greatest cigar collector on earth, was handing out 30th Anniversary Cohibas to late-night revelers in his private club in Hong Kong like candy canes to children. No cigar lover could refuse this modern legend in Cuban cigar making -- a double robusto with a rat-tail end made especially for the 30th birthday of the famous brand.

The 30th Anniversary was launched in 1996 at a cigar festival in Havana. Only 45 humidors of the Cohiba with 50 cigars each were produced that year, and Wong owns 10 of them. A number of them are already empty.

"Nobody is leaving this room until we finish the entire box," Wong, 52, said to the group of about 15 people who were with him on this mid-April evening. About half of those in the room were taking turns at karaoke in between puffs of the glorious smoke and glasses of Lafleur 1983 from a magnum.

A full 30th Anniversary Cohiba Humidor goes for about $30,000, if you can find one in a shop or at auction. Single sticks are about $800 at retail, but I know only one shop in the world that sells them and it's in Hong Kong: Cigarro.

"What is better in life than a great cigar and a great glass of wine?" asked Wong, whose family, one of the biggest land developers in the world, is currently changing the Battersea Power Station in London into one of the biggest shopping and residential centers in Europe. He had a huge grin on his face as the red-amber ash glowed off the end of his Cohiba. "You smoke a great cigar and you have no troubles in the world."

Luckily, Wong didn't keep to his word that night and insist that we finish the box, which was still half full. The 30th Anniversary Cohiba was an amazing cigar by all accounts (See Connoisseur's Corner on page 186 for a full tasting note) and not for the fainthearted. It was a blockbuster of a smoke that delivered masses of flavor and character. I would say it still needed some age to mellow, but it was still a perfect smoke for me -- 100 points.

Wong and his son Alex, 26, are part of a small group of Hong Kong Chinese who are incredible cigar aficionados. Their collections, as well as knowledge, are second to none. Just consider the walk-in humidor of the Wong family: it's about 20 feet long by 10 feet wide with two levels, humidity- and temperature- controlled, and packed to the ceiling with boxes of Cuban Davidoffs, Cuban Dunhills, pre-Castro cigars and rare limited-edition humidors from the island. Hell, I don't think even the Davidoff or Dunhill shops in London had such a stock when their namesake Cuban cigars were freely available in the market at the beginning of the 1990s.

But the Wongs are not the only cigar connoisseurs in Hong Kong. I have also met a real estate and entertainment tycoon, Peter Lam, 47, whose nickname should be "Mr. Dunhill Cabinetta" or, better, "The 100-point smoker." He apparently has close to 100 boxes of Dunhill Cabinettas in his walk-in humidor -- not to mention hundreds of Davidoffs as well as 1492 Humidors and 30th Anniversary Humidors. He's seldom seen around town without a 100-point cigar smoldering in his fist.

I smoked a Dunhill Estupendo -- the rarest of all the aged cigars in this brand -- with Lam during a barbecue, and he said he just can't get enough of the smokes -- no matter the price. "What I like is the smoothness of these cigars from Dunhill," said Lam, one of the biggest film producers in China. "They are also very rich and powerful."

Then there's entrepreneur Howard Yeung, 48, who bought almost the entire stock of Cuban Davidoffs from London's Davidoff shop in the early 1990s when the company stopped publicly selling the brand. (A long-running dispute between the Swiss cigarmaker and Cubatabaco, Cuba's cigar distribution agency, over quality, brand ownership and other issues had led to an agreement to halt production of Cuban Davidoffs.) Yeung knew that Davidoff no longer made the Cuban smoke, so he bought as much as he could before they ran out so that he wouldn't run out -- clever smoker! Today, he still has hundreds of boxes, from No. 2 to Dom Perignon.

"The amazing thing is that these guys all smoke these great cigars," said Thomas Bohrer, whose small company, Habanos Rare Wine and Cigars, supplied a large part of the above cigars to these collectors and furnishes rare vintage smokes to anyone else in Hong Kong who enjoys the leaf. He has a tiny core of affluent smokers and wine drinkers around the world who only want the best, and he travels the globe to source these rarities.

The good news is, you don't have to be a cigar-collecting tycoon to enjoy a great smoke -- or even an aged cigar -- in Hong Kong. A number of excellent cigar shops exist where the city's top smokers mingle with visitors to buy and smoke the best available at retail. Hong Kong is Cuban-centric or non-Cuban-phobic when it comes to cigars. They can barely give away a non-Cuban cigar in this towering town of skyscrapers and tall buildings. And you can smoke just about anywhere.

"Like with food and wine, Hong Kong connoisseurs always opt for the highest quality and best producers," said Bohrer. "Cigars are no exception. For us in Hong Kong, Havanas are the benchmark when comes to great smokes…. The [affluent] Chinese have discriminating tastes, and whether it is cigars, cars, watches or anything else, they want the best quality."

Some cynics might say that they are only interested in famous brands, or bands in regards to cigars. In other words, they think that if it's the most expensive, it's the best. While this is probably true, it can also sound like the attitude of the uninformed and nouveau riche. But the sophisticated Chinese I have smoked with are true connoisseurs. They don't just smoke with great gusto, they understand the subtleties of a great cigar. And more important, unlike a lot of so-called collectors, they smoke fine cigars on a daily basis rather than hoarding them and then smoking something new and less expensive.

It's not by chance that a Hong Kong resident wrote the best cigar book on rare Cuban cigars, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Post-Revolution Havana Cigars, in 2003. Min Ron Nee, a cigar-crazy Hong Kong doctor, co-authored the book with Andriano Martinez Rios, a former executive at the Cuban global export company Habanos. The tome includes photos and comments on just about every brand and vitola, or size, ever made in Cuba. It is the definitive work on the subject for the moment.

"It is a very select group of people, but more and more people in Hong Kong are understanding the quality of a great aged cigar," said Bohrer. "They know that each day cigars such as Davidoff or Dunhill get rarer and rarer because they are smoking them. One day there will not be any more."

In fact, the most interesting cigar shop in Hong Kong began as a distributor for the Nicaraguan brand OneOff, but finally had to give up the line due to the difficulty in selling non-Cuban cigars. Cigarro -- which used to be called Cigair because of its connection with OneOff -- is now specializing in vintage cigars. It is the only shop in the world that I know of where you can buy a large selection of single sticks of such legendary smokes as 1492, Dunhill Cabinetta, 30th Anniversary Cohiba and Davidoff Château d'Yquem (all 100 points), as well as pre-Castro and other aged Havanas.

"Our biggest seller is Davidoff Haut-Brion 1990," said Benson Tse, the general manager of Cigarro. Tse sells Haut-Brions, which haven't been made since 1990, for about $100 per cigar. When I visited, a huge pyramid of about 100 boxes of them sat on a shelf above the shop's entrance -- which is the amount the shop has sold in the past year. "Cuban Davidoff. Cuban Davidoff. There is nothing else really that my customers want," he added.

He had just about every Cuban Davidoff ever produced on his shelves, as well as Dunhill and other rarities, not to mention a few pre-Castro smokes. For instance, if you fancy trying a Davidoff Dom Perignon, it's available here for about $520 a cigar. The long and slender Davidoff No. 2 is a steal by comparison at $85. Or how about a 100-pointer like the Dunhill Cabinetta for $520 or the 99-point Estupendos for the same price?

"People really enjoy the opportunity to try one of these rare cigars. And besides, who can afford a whole box?" said Tse. "But some of my customers come back and buy a box because they just can't get enough of these cigars."

The vintage selection in the shop was originally started when Bohrer, with the help of a handful of others in Hong Kong, bought a huge cigar collection from an American, whose identity will remain anonymous. There were thousands of boxes of everything from Davidoff to pre-Castros. Part of the haul went to start the shop and the rest to the investors. Although most of those cigars have either been sold or smoked, the shop continues to source cigars from around the world, as well as from collectors here in Hong Kong -- it's a sort of rare-cigar thrift shop for some of the biggest cigar collectors in the world!

Cigarro is not the only cigar shop in Hong Kong, of course. There are a handful of others in chic hotels and affluent shop centers. The two others I know well -- the Red Chamber Cigar Divan and Cohiba Cigar Divan -- have excellent stocks of current cigars from Havana and an informed staff. Cohiba Cigar Divan also sells aged cigars and puts away 40 or 50 boxes of top newly released smokes to sell a few years later. The shop calls those cigars its Vintage Selection.

All cigar shops seem to be good places to hang out, to smoke and to find out the latest news in Hong Kong -- from big business deals to the hottest new restaurants. Plus, prices are no longer much higher here than in other cities around the world due to recent price increases. I figure prices in Hong Kong are only 15 to 25 percent more than Madrid, Paris or Geneva -- and much less than London.

Smoking a 1995 Bolivar Royal Corona in Cigarro and looking at all the Cuban Davidoffs around me, I began to think back to the early 1990s when I visited the late great cigar guru Zino Davidoff in his shop in Geneva. He smoked cigarettes and I smoked a Davidoff No. 2. We spoke for hours about cigars, Havana and life in general. It was one of those great cigar moments in my life. Although Zino is no longer with us, we can still experience his dreams and his cigars in Hong Kong -- which for me is the new Geneva for cigars.

Hong Kong Cigar Shops:

Habanos Holdings
Unit 1901 19/F Chaung's Tower
30-32 Connaught Road
Hong Kong
Telephone: 011-852-2522-8490

Red Chamber Cigar Divan
Shop M1, Mezzaine Floor
Pedder Bulding
12 Pedder Street
Hong Kong
Telephone: 011-852-25370977

Cohiba Cigar Divan
Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong
5 Connaught Road
Hong Kong
Telephone: 011-852-28254074

Shop 5, G/F
St. George's Building
2 Ice House Street
Hong Kong
Telephone: 011-852-28101883

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