Tasting Havana’s perfect smoke

IN the Embajadores room at the Habana Libre hotel the air is thick with the sweet, honeyed smoke of cigars. Outside, Havana’s La Rampa street bustles with the sound of the early-evening crowd. A queue forms around Coppelia’s parlour, a favorite with the locals, reputedly making the best ice cream on the island.

Beyond, a short walk away, lies the Malecón, the weathered promenade that snakes its way around Havana’s northern coastline, busy filling up with Cubans who go there to meet, flirt, smoke and exchange gossip.

Back inside the Habana Libre, once the headquarters of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary armed forces, the Embajadores room is virtually full. Around 500 cigar aficionados, a mix of distributors, importers, specialists and enthusiastic smokers have gathered for the premiere of Trinidad’s Robusto T.

On that evening a year ago, it is the first time the cigar is smoked anywhere in the world. Among the aficionados it is well received. Of the many descriptions heard that night is woody, spicy, full-bodied and creamy. Many people compliment it on having a wonderful draw.

As the cigars are handed out on trays, all eyes turn to a small group of VIPs notable for their late arrival. Among them is David Soul, better known as the actor who played Hutch in the television series Starsky and Hutch. For a moment he’s in danger of upstaging Fidelito, Fidel Castro’s son, a regular at such occasions. Welcome to night three of the Festival del Habano, a week-long celebration of the Cuban tobacco industry. If you thought the world of wine appreciation was niche, try cigars.

One year on, anyone who is anyone in the cigar world will this weekend be flying into Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport for the 12th annual festival. They will get five days of cigar tastings, tobacco-plantation visits, seminars, factory tours and smoking, lots and lots of smoking.

It is, says Simon Chase, a former director of London-based cigar importer Hunters & Frankau and a festival regular, a chance to rub shoulders with the movers and shakers in the Cuban tobacco industry and experience the tradition of Cuba’s cigar lineage first hand.

It was through Mr Chase that I enjoyed my first experience of cigars in 2004. My first lesson was not to inhale - as with wine, cigar appreciation is all about the taste. Although it is worth pointing out that the US National Cancer Institute warns that there is no safe tobacco, and cigar smoke, like cigarette smoke, contains toxic and cancer-causing chemicals that are harmful to both smokers and nonsmokers.

“One tastes a cigar and smokes a cigarette,” Mr Chase told me. “In that sense it is an entirely different experience. Like a fine wine, each cigar is a blend of aged tobacco. So one doesn’t inhale, one gently puffs, rather like sipping vintage Bordeaux.”

With this in mind I was invited a few years ago to judge in a contest to ascertain which brand of Cuban cigars matched best with Scotch whisky. After sipping and puffing my way through a number of combinations, I found that the sweeter the beverage the better the match. So port and rum work very well with most cigars. Some whiskies and particularly red wine (although premium aged blends and sweeter single malts tend to be an exception to the rule) do tend to dry the palate, which can leave a nasty, bitter flavor. In the end we chose Macallan, a whisky noted for its mahogany color and distinctive nose of dried fruit, chocolate orange, wood spices and full, rich oak flavor; which we paired with a Partagas Piramides cigar.

It was on that first trip to the Festival del Habano that I was struck by the similarities between wine appreciation and cigar appreciation. Both are agricultural products, have long and distinguished histories, command the same attention to detail in production and packaging, and can age for many years.

Moreover, as a great wine is defined by the terroir of its vineyard, so the character of a fine cigar is intimately connected with the land where the tobacco grows.

A key fixture of the festival is a visit to one of Cuba’s tobacco-growing regions. The early-morning drive from Havana to Vuelta Abajo in the westernmost corner of the Pinar del Rio tobacco-growing province passes through a patchwork of fields filled with lush, green plants.

Visually, I found it reminiscent of Chile’s Maipo valley, although instead of vineyards there are tobacco fields. Around 80,000 acres of tobacco are planted each year in the region. The growing process lasts around 10 months ending with the harvest between January and March.

After the harvest, the leaf is taken to the farmer’s curing barn where it is hung, dried and gathered together before undergoing a natural fermentation. This process sweats out the impurities, reducing acidity, tar and nicotine, and creating a finer, purer flavor. The leaves are then hand-sorted into sizes before being baled up and transferred to the warehouse, where they are left to age for three years.

The next step mirrors the blending art found in the wine and Scotch whisky industry as each tobacco plot produces a variety of flavors, which the master blender, or ligador, selects. The final blend is then rolled in the many factory houses dotted around Havana. In that sense, it is one of the world’s last luxury-goods items to be produced on a mass scale by hand.

As a shorthand guide, those wanting a full-bodied rich cigar should look out for Partagas, Cuaba, Bolivar and Ramon Allones. Perhaps a little lighter, but still heavy are Cohiba, Montecristo, Vegas Robaina and Trinidad. Romeo y Julieta, Quintero, Punch and H. Upmann offer a lighter smoke. The most delicate flavors are achieved by Hoyo de Monterrey, San Cristobal de la Habana and Guantanamera, which creates a nutty, intense and fragrant flavour.

This year, at the 12th festival, there will be a presentation of a new size of Romeo y Julieta cigar created with women smokers in mind. Mr Chase welcomes the development but says, ironically, it is the male interest that has fuelled the recent interest in the product.

“One thing about cigar smoking is that it is predominantly a male preserve,” he says. “Over the years there have been quite a lot of male bastions assailed and taken over by the other gender. Here is one [cigar smoking] which is still a male preserve.”

Ranald Macdonald, managing director of the London-based restaurant group Boisdale, has been taking a group to the festival for the past 10 years. He says that the pace of economic change in Havana has been such that a decade has been comparable to 40 years in Europe. As a result there has been a general improvement in cigar manufacturing, and thus the overall quality of cigars has never been higher.

“Cigars now taste so much better than they did 10 years ago,” Mr Macdonald says. “This is down to a number of improvements but to give one example, from 2002 they have been freezing cigars which has eliminated tobacco-eating pests such as weevil.”

This weekend, Mr Macdonald’s group will be scouring the cigar shops of Havana to stock up on a year’s supply of tobacco.

“Havana is one of the most enigmatic places on earth,” he says. “And everything about it, from where it sprung from in the 17th century to what it went through in the 20th century to where it is now, makes Europe feel rather dull.” I’ll smoke to that.

The 12th Festival del Habano takes place in Havana from February 22 to 26.

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