I walked into the bar at 9 a.m. on the executive floor of the Meliá Cohiba hotel in Havana and I could barely see across it because of the smoke. There was a table of six guys smoking mostly Montecristo No. 2s and drinking strong coffees. They were talking and laughing loudly. Cigar merchants from the Middle East, they looked as if they had not gone to bed after a gala dinner to end Cuba's IX Festival del Habano that finished about two in the morning.
Their party mood was easy to understand, especially if you love cigars. The event has become for cigars what the Oscars are for movies. It's not quite as glitzy as Los Angeles with the film industry in party mode, but the Cuban capital comes alive with people from all over the world to celebrate the virtues and pleasures of the leaf. Most are Cuban cigar agents and merchants from around the globe, but plenty of cigar aficionados also attend, even Americans who travel illegally to the island.
This year's five-day event included various cocktails, dinners, seminars, cigar factory visits and forays to the tobacco plantations, just like in previous years. It finished with a gala dinner, complete with a multi-course meal, fine wines, numerous cigars, live music, awards and an auction. The event attracts worldwide press coverage, especially when Fidel Castro attends. However, Castro was not at the event because of his illness last year, from which he is still recovering, but in the end it didn't diminish the festivities. He also didn't sign any of the special humidors for sale in the auction, as he normally does. But the crowd of about 1,000 people sent him a get-well message with applause when the auction began. And bidders still were in a serious buying mood.
Many of the veteran attendees thought the five humidors, most of which resembled some sort of artwork, would sell for substantially less because El Commandante was not there. Moreover, it was the first time Castro had not signed the humidors for the auction, despite news reports that he had, so everyone was sure the bids would be lower. Yet a record was set for a strange-looking humidor that paid homage to Cohiba and resembled a modern altar with a statue of a female Terminator-like figure in the center. It sold for 270,000 euros (about $354,000). Altadis S.A.'s cigar division, which owns half of Habanos S.A.—Cuba's exporting organization—bought the lot, and it helped raise the evening's total to more than 530,000 euros (about $695,000) for the Cuban health system. The other notable bidder at the auction was British design guru Sir Terence Conran, who paid 105,000 euros (about $138,000) for an ornate Indian-style treasure chest of 250 cigars, including every size of Montecristo produced as well as the legendary maravillas and robusto edición limitada 2006.
|The Cohiba humidor, which sold for a record 270,000 euros.|
"We were happy the auction did so well," said Antonio Vasquez, chairman of Altadis, who traveled from Madrid for the dinner. "There was some concern before the sale [because Castro had not signed the boxes], but it did very well."
Everything also went pretty well for the hundreds of cigar smokers who filled Havana during the week for the festival. One of the highlights was the opportunity to try three new Cohiba sizes with five-year-old maduro wrappers. They were the Genios, 52 ring by 5 1/2 inches; Mágicos, 52 by 4 1/2 inches; and Secretos, 40 by 4 1/3 inches. The dark-wrapper smokes were originally supposed to have small pigtail ends, but the caps were left round like normal Cohibas in the end because the Cubans believed it was not in keeping with the brand. Who cares, anyway? The new trio is excellent.
I have a slight preference for the two larger sizes. I would rate them both "classic" quality, or 95—100 points. They share the wonderful Cohiba character of a soft texture and rich, round yet refined style. The aged maduro wrapper gives them a spicier, coffee-bean and dark- chocolate flavor profile compared with a normal Cohiba. Some might even call it roasted. I find that the extra two years on the wrapper delivers more balance to the cigar than many of the edición limitadas I have smoked over the years. The three-year-old dark wrapper on the limitadas sometimes slightly dominates the flavor. Not so with the new Cohibas. The cigars are expected to be on the market this summer.
The cigars are made in the El Laguito and H. Upmann factories. The former is the mother factory for the Cohiba, whereby it controls the blend and quality of the island's most prestigious brand. Twelve rollers at El Laguito are rolling the two larger-size maduros while the smaller one is made in Partagas. One of the managers of El Laguito, in describing the new cigars, using the word chocolate when I dropped in at the factory a few weeks before the festival.
I mentioned to Fernando Lopez, the director of all cigar factories on the island, that the maduros reminded me of cigars I had smoked from the early 1980s that came in boxes with maduro printed on the underside. "We are not creating anything new with these dark wrappers," Lopez said. "We are just keeping with tradition."
|The new Cohiba maduro debuted at the festival.|
I think many Americans have the wrong idea about what maduros are supposed to be. True maduros are not the black, almost dirty-wrapper smokes that are sold in the States. Some of those are even artificially colored. I have even seen cigars that leave black coloring on your mouth when you smoke them! True maduros are dark brown and produced from leaves that come from the top of the tobacco plant. They are picked later than other leaves; hence the word maduro, or ripe. They are then fermented and aged longer than normal wrapper leaves. I was in El Laguito when they were color-sorting a stash of Mágicos and the difference between a regular Cohiba wrapper and the maduro was impressive. The regular one almost looked like a cream-colored Connecticut wrapper compared with the dark-brown maduro.
Another cigar everyone was talking about during the festival was the Edmundo Dantes Conde 109, which is being made especially for the Mexican market this year. It is part of the ediciones regionales program of Habanos, in which special cigars are made for specific markets for one year only. The Conde 109 is essentially a robusto extra with a tapered end. The cigar (50 ring gauge by 7 1/4 inches) was last made in 1995 for the 150th anniversary of Partagas. That cigar came in a special humidor to celebrate the birthday of the brand, which included 50 of the cigars. About 7,500 cigars were made in total, and one roller made all the cigars. The molds used for the new 109 are the same original five used for the special Partagas humidor cigars.
"I have always loved the 109," said Max Gutmann, the Mexican agent for Cuban cigars. "It is a rich cigar with wonderful balance. More importantly, you have to take your time to smoke a 109. It's not a quick smoke like a robusto or one of the smaller cigars that are so popular in the market at the moment."
I smoked the cigar during the gala dinner and was blown away by the quality. It reminds me of the original 109, and it showed lots of tea, light cedar and tobacco character. It was full and rich, yet harmonious and balanced. It turned peppery and spicy as I smoked it. I gave it a provisional 95—98 points. The cigar is expected to be on the market in Mexico in a few months in special boxes of 25. Only 600 boxes will be available.
|Attendees at the festival get a lesson in cigar rolling.|
A couple of other special cigars are nearing completion, one for the United Kingdom and one for Lebanon. The former is the remake of the famous Por Larrañaga Magnum, which will be called the Magnifico, and the latter, currently unnamed, is a cigar similar in size to the Cohiba Siglo VI but under a different band yet to be determined. I smoked the prototype of the latter and it reminded me of the Flor de Cano Diademas, which was one of the great cigars of the early 1990s. It's a super-clean, balanced smoke with lovely creamy, cedar and tobacco character: 92—94 points. Stay tuned.
I didn't have the chance to smoke the new reserve Montecristo No. 4, which is expected to come out this fall. Following the reserve Partagas Serie D No. 4s sold a couple of years ago, the Montecristos will come in beautiful, dark-lacquered boxes of 20 cigars. As Manuel Garcia, commercial director of Habanos, said during the gala dinner, "We are paying tribute to all the smokers in the world who enjoy Cuba's best-selling cigar."
It's that sort of accolade that keeps people coming back to Havana for the annual cigar festival. Whether you're smoking a cigar at breakfast at the Meliá Cohiba with your friends or with hundreds of people at the gala dinner, the festival gives its attendees the chance to enjoy a good cigar together.
Photos by Ramón Iglesias Centeno