Habanos SA celebrates the Cuban cigar with a splendid party.
By Timothy S. Donahue
It isn’t easy. Sitting in the back corner of a tobacco field, Hector Luis Prieto told Tobacco Reporter that being a famous grower in Cuba has only made his job more complicated. It was easier when nobody knew his name. He wants to spend his time at his farm, with his family. That’s nearly impossible now that busloads of “turistas” visit his plantation almost daily.
“The crop is my life. It’s my family’s life. It’s everything to us. Tobacco is how we survive,” says Prieto. “I rarely leave; it’s my home.” Prieto is young (45), in farmer’s years. He wakes up every morning at 4 a.m. to inspect the fields. Every morning. Every leaf. Nothing is left unseen. No plant goes untouched. His dedication is impossible to overlook.
Prieto has to check his plants daily during the growing season, which can begin as early as late October and end sometime in February. He rises so early because he knows the tourists will be arriving soon, and once the busses start unloading, he won’t have time to manage his fields properly. Everybody wants to get their picture taken and possibly score a cigar rolled by Prieto himself. That’s a rarity nowadays; Hector only rolls for special friends. Handing me a fresh cigar, he said “aprecia esto”—appreciate this. He doesn’t plan on rolling many more. We were already smoking a cigar rolled by his friend, so this special one got put safely into a pocket.
It wasn’t always like this. Before 2008, the year Prieto won the Habanos Man of the Year award in the production category, his farm wasn’t on the list of stops for the tour buses full of tobacco travelers. Now, Prieto’s a legend. He is the youngest man ever to win the prestigious award. That is some pretty high praise, as Prieto’s operation is in the western Cuban province of Pinar del Rio in the town of San Juan y Martinez, an insanely bumpy two-hour drive from the capital city of Havana. My companion’s face hilariously smashed against the car roof numerous times as he tried to sleep on the trip there. Prieto won the award for having a higher yield of fine wrapper tobacco than any of his neighbors in the Vuelta Abajo region, home to perhaps some of the finest tobacco farms in the world.
Prieto isn’t alone in his love of tobacco. It’s a passion for these island people. Cuba has long been known for its exceptional cigars. Celebrating that tradition, Habanos SA, part of the state-run tobacco monopoly, has hosted the Festival del Habano for 19 years in a row now. The gathering is billed as the world’s top event for premium cigars. It is as advertised, too. It’s an intense week completely devoted to the knowledge and enjoyment of Habanos (Havana cigars) and the latest developments in the field. There is no tobacco event quite like it anywhere else in the world.
This year’s event, held from Feb. 27 to March 3, centered on the H. Upmann, Montecristo and Quai D’Orsay brands, all of which received some major additions to their portfolios during the festival. More than 2,000 participants from 50 countries attended the revelries, as well as 180 journalists and 70 companies from 11 countries. The event’s traditional trade fair includes numerous manufacturers and suppliers in the tobacco world, artisans, collectors, and suppliers of smoking accessories and luxury goods. The seminars are lumped in with the trade fair, which is held in the massive Palacio de Convenciones in Havana.
The event began with the traditional press conference held inside Havana’s International Conference Center, where Habanos SA company executives answered questions and provided an overview of the company’s sales figures for the previous year. Nothing is ever easy in Cuba, however. Oddly, event workers would often only open one side of a double-doored entranceway, making getting into or out of the different breakout sessions a complicated mess. To be fair, they were trying to check badges as well. Life also happens on Cuban time here, meaning everything starts an hour or two late. You learn to accept these things.
Starting off, Enrique Babot Espinosa, Habanos’ chief of market operations, told attendees that the company “reaped” $445 million worth of revenues in 2016, with 450 million units sold, accounting for 70 percent of the global market, excluding the U.S. Then, Habanos co-presidents Inocente Nunez and Luis Sanchez-Harguindey answered questions from the crowd.
When asked about the loosening of trade restrictions by the U.S., Sanchez-Harguindey said the steps are a move in the right direction. “We will be able to bring our culture, our product, closer to the U.S. customer. Our product is highly demanded and appreciated around the world … these are exactly the same expectations that we have for the U.S.,” he said through an interpreter. “These measures must be put into context, as there are conditions such as the number of cigars that can be imported in the U.S. The main difference, as compared to previous measures, is the limit of 100 units. This is as opposed to the previous measure of $100. The impact over the past 2 1/2 months [since the change] has not been significant.”
The best-selling vitola (format) worldwide has been Robusto. The Cohiba Robusto is the leading seller, followed by Partagas and Romeo y Julieta. In descending order, the largest markets for Cuban cigars are Spain, France, China, Germany, Cuba and Switzerland. Together, these six countries account for 50 percent of Habanos sales. “Increased tourism [13 percent growth from 2015 to 2016, totaling more than 4 million visitors a year] has appreciated the growth of sales in the Cuban market,” said Sanchez-Harguindey. Overall, Habanos claims to be experiencing a 5 percent yearly growth, while the industry overall grows at 0.5 percent. “A heads-up for 2017, we are aware of challenges, and we continue to remain consistent in our pursuit to launch new products,” said Sanchez-Harguindey. “We are consistent in our mission towards innovation and quality.”
Habanos SA was founded in 1994 to commercialize all the brands of Habanos and tobacco leaf worldwide. As an arm of the Cuban state tobacco company, Cubatabaco, Habanos controls the promotion, distribution and export of Cuban cigars and cigarettes. The company operates in more than 150 countries around the world. The term “Habanos” has been used since the late 19th century to identify the “puro” Cuban cigar. After more than 200 years, Habanos are the only cigars that continue to be made totally by hand with long filler, according to Habanos.
Visiting a Cuban cigar factory is a unique experience. The smell is unmistakably tobacco, with a sweet honey and crisp cedar scent. Real Fabrica de Tobaccos La Corona is one of the more modern factories in Cuba. Although rich with tradition, the factory has changed locations several times throughout its history. Formerly known as “La Casa de Hierro,” La Corona is also the home to the Romeo y Julieta brand.
The cigar factory is a living entity, and its rolling room is its central nervous system. Here, the dedicated hands of expert “torcedores”—cigar rollers—are hard at work. It’s crowded, and everyone has something to do. Only security guards and tour groups are standing around. Visitor Mark Ryan, of U.S.-based Daughters & Ryan, said he was in awe of the speed and quality of the Cuban craftsmanship. “Wow,” he exclaimed. “They are really good.”
Festivalgoers were also able to visit the historic Fabrica de Tabacos Torcido H. Upmann, one of the most renowned cigar factories in the world. This is where the first vitolas for H. Upmann were created, according to Habanos. This year, the factory began production of the first H. Upmann Gran Reserva Cosecha 2011, in its iconic Sir Winston vitola. It’s the first Gran Reserva presented by the H. Upmann brand since its founding over 170 years ago, according to Habanos.
This factory is special. Herman Upmann was a former banker who was the first to ship cigars in cedar boxes, according to our tour guide. When you enter, the rollers are smacking their chavetas (a crescent blade specifically designed for use in making cigars) on their rolling tables as a loud welcoming gesture. There are 695 workers in the H. Upmann rolling room alone. They produce up to 30,000 cigars a day. Music plays loudly, and everyone seems to be having fun producing product. Several rollers are simultaneously smoking cigars.
It’s old, the factory, and it has several floors that housed rollers, quality control, aging and packaging in different areas as you climb the black wrought-iron stairs. All the H. Upmann brand’s vitolas are produced at this factory, including the Linea Magnum with Magnum 46, Magnum 50 and the recently launched Magnum 54. Rollers here are also responsible for producing prestigious vitolas for the Montecristo brand, including the most premium line offered by Montecristo, the new Linea 1935.
While the trade show accompanying the festival offers its own excitement with beautiful women and well-dressed men showcasing uniquely Cuban humidors, antiques and other cultural items, the real draw is the seminars. Visitors can experience the International Habanosommelier Contest (think wine sommelier for cigars), as well as attend a master class on rolling cigars. There are also numerous lectures, and pairings of exclusive rums and brandies with cigars.
The rolling class is one of the most popular seminars. The class was led by master roller Arnaldo Ovalles, who had some help from rollers from Cohiba’s famed El Laguito factory who strolled the floor. Attendees were taught how to roll a Corona Gorda vitola, which is the third most popular Cuban vitola, behind only the Mareva and Robusto sizes, according to Ovalles. Each participant is given all of the ingredients they need to roll said cigar: a cutting board, a chaveta, glue and tobacco for the filler, binder, and wrapper. Visitor George Cassels-Smith, CEO of U.S.-based Tobacco Technologies Inc., rolled one of the better cigars. “It’s not bad,” he said of his slightly crooked smoke with a satisfied grin.
There was also a session on the history of the Quai D’Orsay cigar, “The Quai D’Orsay Brand—Then and Now.” Leading the lecture were journalist Yves Belaubre; Antoine Bathie of Seita, the former French distributor of Cuban cigars; Jose Maria Lopez Inchaurbe, strategic marketing director of Habanos SA; and Carlos Ferran, international marketing supervisor of Habanos.
In 1973, the Quai D’Orsay cigar was born out of the lack of a quality French-only cigar and the strong bond between the French and Cuban people. It was the first regional division of Habanos SA (then Cubatabaco). There are different stories as to what the Quai D’Orsay name refers to. One is that it refers simply to the famous Paris avenue of the same name; another suggests it refers to the French foreign ministry located on it. Both are true, according to Bathie, whose father was instrumental in the development of the Quai D’Orsay brand. “My father thought this would be a good name for a cigar to be presented at events like state dinners,” said Bathie.
An interesting addition to this year’s lecture series was named “The Art of Combination (the wrapper, the binder and the filler),” which was all about how the three parts of a cigar meld together to form the final product. Industry experts explained how a problem with one part can affect the entire smoking experience. Everyone was given one of four different cigars, each of which had something intentionally wrong with it, whether a twisted bunch, a draw that was too loose, poor construction issues or too much of one type of tobacco. Each person was then asked to smoke their sample and report back on what they thought was wrong with the cigar. The experts then explained what was wrong with the individual cigars and how they should have been constructed.
The Habano Festival includes several interesting evening gatherings. With the exception of Monday’s opening evening event, which was waylaid by weather, Cuba put on quite the show. Free cigars, rum and the island’s stimulating nightlife come alive for the privileged attendees who managed to secure invitations. The closing gala event is hottest ticket in town, however. It’s hard to imagine something as spectacular outside of Las Vegas.
The El Laguito reception hall served as host to dinner on Wednesday night. It was dedicated to Quai D’Orsay. Guests experienced the brand’s three vitolas—Coronas Claro and the new No. 50 and No. 54—as well as a vitola from its historical portfolio, Quai D’Orsay Imperiales. Only 2,000 were made exclusively for this dinner. The event featured various musical performances, all choreographed by Cuba’s maestro Santiago Alfonso’s company.
The gala dinner paid tribute to the Montecristo brand and was held Friday evening at the Pabexpo center in the Miramar neighborhood in Havana. As part of the festivities, Habanos gave out samples of, among other cigars, the new Montecristo Linea 1935 in three different vitolas: Legend, Dumas and Maltes. This year’s celebration included performances by a number of different artists, including Haila, David Torrens, Diana Fuentes and A Otro Tiempo, as well as the Ballet de Lizt Alfonso, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.
Then there was violinist Ara Malikian and his ensemble. It was one of the most spectacular shows of the event. Malikian and his instrument danced across the stage with great enthusiasm and energetic force. Many of these artists left the stage and circled among guests. After dinner and the shows came to an end, Habanos handed out awards in three different categories: business, communication and production. Cuban grower Josefa Acosta Ramos took the top spot in the production category, while Edward Sahakian, a U.K.-based tobacconist, won in the business category. Gordon Mott, senior contributing editor for Cigar Aficionado, prevailed in the communication category. Chile’s Puro Tabaco, with its representative Felipe Rojas, was unanimously voted the winner of the 16th edition of the International Habanosommelier Contest. Judges said it was the closest competition yet. “It’s an honor like no other,” Rojas said.
Finally, the gala dinner and overall festival closed in a major way—with the famed humidor auction. This year’s auction got heated early as two bidders fought fiercely for the Cohiba humidor, for which Canadian bidder Leander Da Silva raised his numbered paddle with the highest winning bid of the night, €380,000 ($406,000). A few humidors exceeded the €250,000 mark, and by the end of the auction, seven one-of-a-kind humidors sold for more than $1.3 million. The money will be donated to the Cuban public health system.
As the event officially ended, we said our goodbyes to the festival’s talented media team, headed by Habanos’ director of marketing operations, Daymi Difurniao, which organized the event. We passed through the large Pabexpo doors one last time, walking back into the humid Cuban air. Hundreds of taxi drivers stood like paparazzi waiting to ferry exhausted attendees home. Luckily, we already had a driver waiting for us who wisely parked a few blocks away so we didn’t have to sit through the chaotic traffic in front of the convention center. The Habano Festival was an amazing experience. There is just something rare and special about Cuba. Much like its cigars, its people are vibrant, beautiful and genuine. Next year, the world’s finest cigar show should be even better.
Latest releases from Habanos SA, Cuba’s cigar monopoly
There were several new cigars announced during the 19th Habano Festival. The first Gran Reserva from the H. Upmann brand in the Sir Winston (47 x 178 mm) vitola (format), was one of the most promising releases. This is one of the brand’s most special cigars; it has additional aging of its leaves and is only in limited production.
Also exciting was the launch of Linea 1935 under the Montecristo brand. Three new vitolas are incorporated into the brand’s regular portfolio; these will become the most premium Habanos offered by Montecristo. Two of the three vitolas are unprecedented in the Habanos portfolio: Maltes (53 x 153 mm) and Dumas (49 x 130 mm), while Leyenda (55 x 165 mm) takes the form of the special limited-edition Montecristo 80 Aniversario, launched in 2015 to commemorate the brand’s 80th anniversary.
Typically a strictly French offering, the Quai D’Orsay brand is reinventing itself. It is doing so by launching a new design and presenting two new vitolas, with international distribution in the major markets of Habanos SA. The Quai D’Orsay No. 50 (50 x 110 mm) and Quai D’Orsay No. 54 (54 x 135 mm) vitolas come in both in 10- and 25-unit presentations. These will be added to the Coronas Claro (42 x 142 mm) vitola to create an attractive brand portfolio that will be available worldwide in 2017 through the Habanos international distribution network.
Habanos also released the new Romeo y Julieta Petit Royales (47 x 95 mm), a totally new vitola that is incorporated into the brand’s regular portfolio. With a heavy ring gauge and short length, this is a Habano in line with the current trend in formats increasingly demanded by enthusiasts around the world, according to Habanos SA.
There were also three limited editions announced during the festival: Cohiba Talisman (54 x 154 mm), Partagas Serie No. 1 (52 ring gauge x 138 mm) and Punch Regios de Punch (48 x 120 mm). – TSD