Cuban Taste Test

Thursday was a busy one for team Cigar Aficionado in Havana. After a smoky breakfast, Marvin Shanken, Gordon Mott and I headed out to Cuba´s premier cigar factory, El Laguito (You can read all about that part of the day in Gordon Mott's blog) I noticed they had some of the Cohiba 1966 Edicion Limitadas at the factory, but these were only made here for the festival. It's not likely that the cigars will be rolled here when they go into actual production much later in the year.

I set off on my own around midday, walking the streets near El Capitolio Nacional, a nearly 100-year-old building that was built to mirror the look of the U.S. capitol dome, and which served as Cuba´s government building in the days before the Revolution. Today it´s home to Cuba´s Academy of Sciences. The streets were teeming with locals on a bright, sunny day; bustling with cars, about a fifth of them gems from the 1950s, some in absolute pristine condition. I walked past a theater and various shops, then through a park where a few people were engaged in an energetic conversation. I stopped for a little lunch then hopped into a cab to drive back to Miramar and rejoin the festival.

The driver was puffing on a cigarette when I got into the cab, and he threw it out the window. I offered him a Montecristo No. 2, which he happily accepted. A quick bite of the tip and he fired up. I took out the new Partagas Serie D No. 5 and lit up as well.

It was a smoky (and quite pleasant) ride from downtown Havana to Miramar and the Palacio de Conventiones, or convention center. I paid the driver, shook his hand, and went back inside.

It was just about time for the afternoon sessions to begin, and I made my way into a large conference room with long tables outfitted with microphone stands every few seats, plug-ins for the translation devices (five languages were offered, but I was told the Russian translation wasn´t working). I puffed away on my Partagas, enjoying it immensely. This short, squat smoke measures 4 3/8 by 50. It began as an Edicion Limitada back in 2008, but now it´s being put into regular production. It is among the best cigars I´ve smoked while here in Havana-very rich, a bit sweet, with enough power to keep me very interested. I preferred it to the larger (and new) Partagas Serie E No. 2, which is not a pyramid as the name would suggest but a 5 and a half inch long, 54 ring gauge parejo. The Serie E I smoked wasn't bad, by any means, but it just didn´t have the intensity of the Serie D No. 5.

Pepin, Janny and Jaime Garcia.

As I finished my little robusto, the blind tasting was ready to begin. The Habanos crew had put together a panel of experts from the Cuban cigar industry to test their knowledge of smoking. As they put on actual blindfolds, I thought they were taking things a bit too far. When we blind taste at Cigar Aficionado, it means we take off the identifying bands so the smoking panel can judge a cigar without the label. These guys were doing something different, trying to guess the vitola, or size, without seeing.

The audience joined in, getting unbanded cigars that we tried to guess. When we rate cigars for Cigar Aficionado, we try to judge them without trying to guess their identity. We don´t care what we´re smoking, we just want it to be a good cigar, and trying to guess the identity wouldn't help our objectivity in a blind tasting. That said, I didn't think I would do very well in this guessing game.

A cigar smoker next to me thought the first cigar, a diminutive smoke, was a Cohiba Siglo I, but it had the squared off look of a smoke from a dress box, so I knew that wasn´t right. I puffed, and it was strong and slightly sharp. I thought it might be a Bolivar Petit Corona. The room was split, with various guesses thrown out, and it turned out to be a Partagas Short.

The second cigar was bigger, and was sweet and a bit firm on the draw, without a lot of power. I thought it might be an H. Upmann Magnum 46 from a tube. A tobacco man from the La Corona Factory thought it was the Upmann as well, and others in the room thought it was something else. That one fooled me, too, as it turned out to be a Cohiba Siglo IV.

I finally got one right with the fourth cigar, which was quite large and a pleasure to smoke.It was the Montecristo Edmundo, and a number of people in the room got that one right.

All this cigar smoking is thirsty business, and the crowd eagerly (and energetically) pushed their way into the next room for the final tasting of the day, which paired Cuban cigars with rums. We lit the robusto first, and it was quite delicious, very, very rich and well made. We tried it with two rums, each of them anejos, and the crowed found it went best with rum number two, Santiago 11 year old. The cigar (later identified as a Ramon Allones Specially Selected) was also a fine match (but not as popular) with Caney Anejo Centurion.

Cigar number two, a dark pyramid, didn't perform nearly as well for me. It was tight, didn't burn very well and those construction problems inhibited the flavor. It was hard for me to pair it with the rums. This happens sometimes with a hand-rolled product. The audience found it went best with one called Mulata 12 year old rum.

The audience was pleased, and there were smiles all around. After all, this is a natural pairing. Cuban rum and Cuban cigars were meant to be enjoyed together.

As I write this, the Festival is nearing its close. Tonight, the three of us will don our tuxedos and head to the gala dinner to conclude the Festival del Habano. Marvin, who was named the first Habanos Man of the Year back in 1995, is speaking tonight and handing out an award. There will be plenty more great cigars for us to enjoy.

"Regarding the cabbie in La Habana: An authentic Montecristo No. 2 would be a huge treat for him, less than 1 percent of the population are able to afford such luxury. One No. 2 (CUC price) is about three or four weeks worth of wages. The working class Cubans who do smoke cigars get the peso cigars sometimes banded as Bauza or Relobo, even though they are not a proper blends nor brands. Tobacco is a rationed allotment similar to food or medicine. Of course the black and grey markets are prevalent. This reminds me of a similar experience at Estadio Latinoamericano watching Industriales. I gave a gentleman sitting next to me two Cohiba Robustos and he nearly kissed me, he was so pleased. Later he and his wife invited my brother and I to their home for a late Cuban dinner. We all smoked and had a great time even though the language was a bit of a hurdle . . . the fellowship of tobacco is a wonderful thing. " —February 27, 2011 23:17 PM
"David, what was the best Cuban rum to drink while smoking a good cuban cigar?" —February 27, 2011 21:21 PM
"Stantine, most of the speakers at the Festival del Habano speak Spanish. At the tastings I wrote up here, there were interpreters (United Nations style) up above in glassed off rooms. Every attendee had an earpiece, and there was a dock to plug in the device and get a translation in a few languages. I listened in English (I know a bit of Spanish, but it's a work in progress. One day I hope to speak half as good Spanish as Gordon, who is absolutely fluent.) A couple in front of me used the French translation and it worked fine, but I heard another person complain that the Russian translation was inoperable. At the gala dinner, every speech was offered in Spanish and English. When a presenter spoke in Spanish (and that was most often the case) an interpreter read the exact transcript in English, bit by bit. A Spanish translation was offered when there was an English speaker. You'll read more about the gala tomorrow." —February 27, 2011 11:03 AM
"Inspired by the driver chomping the end off the piramide (something I don't recommend, by the way) I left my cutter in my pocket and bit the head of my smoke, a parejo. Teeth can work just fine, if you're careful. I don't know how he did it with a Monte 2." —February 27, 2011 10:57 AM
"Do they speak English or Spanish at these Cigar events? or Spanglish? Dave do you speak Spanish?" —February 26, 2011 20:26 PM
"Dave, After getting into the cab and watching the driver bite off his cigar tip, did you bite off your tip off also? " —February 26, 2011 14:17 PM
"Removing the bands is the correct way to do it. An experiment if you are so inclined: find a dark room, so dark you cannot see your hand in front of your nose, cut and light your cigar then turn off the lights. You'll find that your tasting ability is seriously impaired and the cigar inferior. Enjoying cigars is an extra sensory experience and being able to see the smoke wafting around the room is a huge part also seeing it enhances your olfactory senses greatly. One of the reasons I generally prefer to smoke indoors with some ventilation; window. Out doors when the weather is very clam and warm is fine as well. I for one take particular pleasure with the smoke dancing gracefully, gently around a room." —February 26, 2011 13:14 PM
"If only you'd had some really good rum." —February 25, 2011 17:47 PM