By Nick Foulkes | NEWSWEEK (edited for clarity)
In the VIP tasting room of the Partagas factory, opposite the Cuban capitol building, the air was blue with fragrant smoke as a dozen people (including the director of the Partagas factory, a feisty woman named Hilda Barros, her staff and the board of directors of Britain’s Cuban cigar monopoly Hunters & Frankau) sampled a new cigar called the Gloria Cubana “Gloriosos”.
The cigar, a long robusto, was outstanding. It was beautiful to look at and the glossy café au lait sheen of the wrapper gave way to an even burn and deliciously creamy flavor. It is part of the 2008 run of “regional specialties”, limited runs of unique cigars developed for individual export markets but with only 25,000 slated for production, I was worried they would sell out fast.
I asked Barros when they would be shipped, and she replied that they had been made last November by a dedicated team of a dozen rollers. I asked again and got that fatalistic shrug that one encounters frequently in Havana; it appeared that while the cigars had been ready for almost a year, the boxes were still under construction.
Cuba makes around 120 million cigars a year, and about a fifth of them compose the popular Montecristo brand, a dependable and therefore predictable cigar. But the real changes have been at the connoisseur end of the market, with boutique cigars like the Gloria Cubana creating much of the interest. A mere 6 percent of Havana cigars fall into the boutique category which includes regional specialties and other limited-edition runs yet it is this segment where the future of the industry lies.
The Montecristo Sublime is one of three 2008 Limited Editions making their way onto the market. Having worked my way through a couple, I can report that this is a not a cigar to be taken lightly. It ought to be preceded by a heavy meal and followed by a lie-down. While in Cuba, I also managed to taste the other two limited editions: a zeppelin from Cuaba and a punchy little cigar from Partagas, the Series D Number 5, a short robusto that offers a concentrated 20-minute burst of flavor.
It was with a long, slender, beautifully glossy Cohiba Lancero I tried in the company of Miguel Brown, the new director of El Laguito, the factory where only Cohiba cigars are rolled.
Susana Vera / Reuters-Corbis
Unlike other Cuba cigar factories, there is an almost serene feeling about El Laguito, which is situated in a Belle Epoque Mansion in Havana’s former Country Club neighborhood. I am particularly delighted that Brown has wound up here. Before this he was responsible for the more rough and tumble H. Upmann factory, and his cigar career was preceded by a spell in local politics, where he was responsible for instigating the restoration of Havana’s historic center. Brown now has what many see as the most important job in the cigar world, and he has already set about to increase production by a million cigars a year.
Cohiba is the ultimate Cuban cigar and the first true cigar of the revolution. Next year will see the very exciting launch of the Cohiba Gran Reserva.
The Gran Reserva program started a few years ago and involved cigars made with tobaccos at least three years old. Now Brown has been charged with taking the Gran Reserva program to the next level, with the production of a cigar made with tobaccos aged a minimum of five years. Gran Reserva cigars are characterized by a silky smoothness, so it will be fascinating to see what this additional aging will deliver. The Cohiba Gran Reserva will not be released until next February and will only be available in a limited run of 5,000 boxes of 15 cigars each.
A short video creating a box of Cohibas at El Laguito cigar factory in Havana Cuba.
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