Any cigar aficionado writing out his bucket list needs to include one item right near the top—buying a Cuban cigar in Havana. I live my life surrounded by cigars, but when I walk into a humidor that's loaded with fine Cubans I feel like a kid on Christmas morning. Today was like Christmas over and over again.
I'm spending all this week in Havana with Cigar Aficionado executive editor Gordon Mott. We're taking the pulse of the Cuban cigar industry, and a big part of our job is to see what's for sale here on the island. After arriving Sunday night after a long, long day of travel (see Gordon's blog for details) we set out early Monday morning eager to smoke some more cigars and check out the shops in Cuba's capital city.
Buying a Cuban cigar in Havana means paying a visit to one of the city's Casa del Habano cigar stores, which deal exclusively in Cuban smokes. These stores are franchises of Cuba's cigar export organization, Habanos S.A., which counts the millions of cigars sold ever year in Cuban cigar shops to be export sales, as nearly all are purchased by tourists.
The wind was whipping from the ocean this morning, and the waves were spraying sea mist high over the Malecon, Havana's famed seawall. It rained late Sunday night, and a cold front has moved through, making it a bit chilly for locals but the breezy air felt good to my northern bones. Gordon and I headed out, and the first shop we visited was not only Cuba's newest but also the largest Casa del Habano on the entire island—the Casa del Habano at the Habana Libre Hotel, which opened for business in February. When you enter the cigar shop, the first item that catches your eye is the fountain, complete with turtles, about 15 feet from the door. (I think this is the only cigar shop in the world that has a fountain.) The bubbling water makes for a tranquil scene inside.
All Casa del Habanos are required to stock 95 percent of Cuba's cigar brands, have at least 60 square meters of space (duty-free shops can be smaller, due to the size restrictions of airports); walk-in humidors, humidified lockers, a cigar roller, seats for smokers and a small (at least) bar area. The Casa at the Habana Libre has several comfortable seating areas, a small bar serving coffee and Havana Club rum, a huge walk-in humidor, a cigar roller outside, and an outside veranda that, for now, is empty but will later be outdoor smoking space, which is a fine idea. The shop is stocked with all manner of Cuban cigars: Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, Trinidad, Hoyo de Monterrey, H. Upmann, Vegas Robaina—you name it. Prices in Cuba are fantastic, among the lowest on the planet. Cigar shop prices in Havana are set by the government, so they're supposed to be identical from shop to shop. A diminutive Montecristo No. 5 sells for 3.60 Cuban Convertible Pesos (about $4.25) while a Cohiba Esplendido is 17.95 CUC ($21.50).
The Habana Libre Casa also had in stock the first regional edition cigar made for Cuba, jars of La Gloria Cubanas, for 246 CUC per jar. These are the first cigars to have the secondary band reading "Exclusivo Cuba" on them. What I didn't see were Cohiba Behikes—they're in short supply on the island. Just as they have been selling out in worldwide cigars shops, they've been selling out here as well. I chose an H. Upmann Magnum 46, one of my favorites, and grabbed a pair of Romeo y Julieta Cazadores (a Gordon Mott favorite). We shot some video (which we'll upload upon our return) and we were on our way.
Our second stop was at a much better known cigar store, the Casa del Habano at Fifth and 16. Gordon and I said hello to one of the managers, Carlos Robaina (son of the late Alejandro Robaina) and puffed away in this clubby, elegant shop. It's a far smaller store with dark woods, stained glass decorations with the names of Cuba's greatest cigar brands, a bar, a small room for private dining and plenty of cigars. They were cleaning or rearranging the humidor—there were boxes of Havanas everywhere. Again, I saw no Behikes.
I puffed away on a Montecristo No. 2 as we sipped Cubita coffee, which 5 y 16 serves unlike any other place I know—with a tobacco leaf under the cup. Nice touch.
The third store was another famous one, Club Havana, at the old yacht club. This gorgeous store is run by Enrique Mons, who was out of town when we arrived. Inside the well-stocked humidor, arranged beautifully on a shelf, was a trio of new Cuban releases: the new H. Upmann Noellas (123 CUC), the Trinidad 40th Anniversary Humidor, which is absolutely gorgeous (1,575 CUC) and the La Glorias, along with a replica of an old Montecristo Humidor loaded with Monte Double Coronas. The stocks in this shop reminded me of how much things have changed in Cuba since my first visit in 1996, when big cigars simply didn't exist in Cuba. Club Habana had every big cigar you could think of, from Punch and Hoyo Doubles to Ramon Allones Gigantes to Partagas Lusitanias as well as that special release Monte double. Big leaves aplenty! And Cuban doubles are smoking great right now—we've loved recent production Hoyo DCs, Ramon Allones Gigantes and Partagas Lusis.
After a delicious late lunch at a paladar called Vistalmar (Gordon will tell you all about that), and a stop at the headquarters of Habanos S.A., we returned to the Melia Cohiba hotel, which also has its own La Casa del Habano. Ten years ago, when I was last in Cuba, this shop was something to be avoided. The selection was limited, and the help wasn't terribly friendly. What a transformation. Gordon and I walked into a beautiful, spacious and well-appointed cigar shop that had everything a cigar lover could want, and an attentive staff that was eager to answer questions.
And they have Behikes. I know many of you have wondered how much Cohiba Behike BHKs are selling for in Havana. These wonderful smokes (we rated the Cohiba BHK 52 cigar 94 points, and gave a score of 93 points to the BHK 54) sell for as much as $1,100 per box in Canada, but here in Cuba they are 180 CUC ($216), 238 CUC ($285) and 259 CUC ($310) per box of 10. It's a steal, and it tells me why you can't find them in other Cuban cigar shops.
The Casa at the Melia Cohiba had plenty of other fine things, including some aged stock. After flipping over some boxes we found four-year-old Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 1s and a few boxes from as far back as 2003. The bar area of the shop is huge and very nicely appointed, and there's even an Internet café (for a price) in the back. A great shop that's not to be missed.
Cuba is a great city for cigars, and cigar shopping. So far the cigars on this trip have been delicious (I'm puffing on that Romeo Cazadore as I write this, and it has an earthy backbone with great flavor.) Soon we'll be off into the Havana night to another paladar for dinner, and tomorrow we head to the factories to watch cigars being rolled. This is going to be quite the week.