I was being driven around Havana the other day when the taxi driver told me a joke. A Cuban descending into hell finds it divided by nationality. The torture of the day involves beatings with sticks sporting nails at their ends. Members of all the other nations fill the air with cries of pain. But the Cuban section is oddly quiet, and a queue has formed outside. "What is the matter?" asks the new arrival. "It is the same old story," responds an old-timer with a shrug, "shortage of wood, shortage of nails."
This joke sprang to mind a couple of hours later when I was watching the drum of white ash form at the tip of my cigar 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: the Gloria Cubana Gloriosos. The cigar, specially developed as a long robusto, was outstanding: beautiful to look at, the glossy cafe au lait sheen of the wrapper giving 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, and I could not wait for them to arrive in the U.K. 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 - and 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 - a size that has become popular as indoor smoking has become more difficult.
However, in Cuba at least, indoor smoking is tolerated. In the cigar factories it is positively encouraged, as 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 Cohiba cigars - and only Cohibas - are rolled.
Unlike other cigar factories, there is an almost serene feeling about El Laguito, which is situated in a Belle Epoque Mansion in Havana's quondam country-club district. 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 of course the ne plus ultra of Havanas, the first true cigar of the revolution. The story is that Fidel liked the cigars smoked by one of his bodyguards so much that he inaugurated the brand. Cohibas are distinguished by the black-and-orange livery, the extra fermentation that removes impurities and the price: while estimates of Cohiba production are around 12 million cigars a year, they are worth more than the sale of all Montecristos, which sell almost twice as many. And next year will see a very exciting launch: the Cohiba Gran Reserva.
The 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 Reserva program to the next level, with the production of a cigar made with tobaccos aged a minimum of five years. 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. I expect them to appear on schedule. Brown is not the sort of man to take excuses from any tardy boxmaker.
Sunday, November 02, 2008