A primer on the best sticks from Cuba
It is often easy to spot American cigar smokers in Europe. They are the ones who overpay for a dried-out Cuban cigar and then proudly puff away at it as the wrapper cracks and unwinds. But that does not matter, for they are relishing a forbidden fruit, no matter how harsh and bitter the smoke may taste. Such is the siren song of Havana cigars, which undoubtedly would not have their unbridled allure had they not been banned in America.
In the 53 years since the embargo, Cuban cigars have acquired an enormous mystique in the United States. But the truth is, not all Cuban cigars are great—in fact, about half of the roughly 40 brands produced there are not worth considering.
“The big quality problem was about 15 years ago," says Jemma Freeman, the managing director of Hunters & Frankau, the United Kingdom’s sole Havana cigar importer. “Even Habanos (the international marketing and distribution arm of Cuban state tobacco company Cubatabaco) admit that things were not right in 1999 to 2000, and I believe the lesson of overproduction was learned in this period. Nevertheless, quality is always a priority for the tobacco industry in Cuba, and they have done a great deal to address it since those days."
Hunters & Frankau inspects every box of Havanas sold in the U.K. and applies an EMS (English Market Selection) stamp to each box before it leaves the company’s warehouse. Because of this and other quality controls, such as controlled humidity during storage, the U.K. is among the best places—along with Spain and Switzerland—to buy Cuban cigars.
For a product of emblematic of a nation, a steady supply of quality tobacco is actually scarce on this island nation, and there are only so many top (Grade 9) rollers, whose talents are reserved for the better brands, such as Cohiba, Montecristo, Partagás, Romeo y Julieta, and H. Upmann, to name five of the most popular Havanas.
A Grade 9 pedigree is evident in the consistency of the shape, the smoothness of the wrapper, and the lack of any hard or soft spots along the body of the cigar itself. Some inferior cigars will be rolled too tightly, resulting in a difficult draw. Others will be too loosely constructed, allowing an overabundance of air to be taken in with the smoke, which often leads to hyperventilation—that light-headed feeling—while puffing.
Also keep in mind that counterfeits are rampant in Cuba, too, especially in Havana. Avoid buying from street vendors and hotel clerks, and choose reputable sources, including La Casa del Habano stores (which are partially owned by the Cuban government); direct sales at the factories; or the cigar shops of the better hotels, such as the Meliá Cohiba and the Iberostar Parque Central.
Finally, although La Casa del Habano offers fairly consistent prices and some of the best values, cigar costs can fluctuate elsewhere, so it is a good idea to shop around. Most Cuban cigars cost from $7 to $25 (RM30 to RM105), depending on brand, size, and where they are purchased.
ROBB REPORT’S TOP 10 CUBAN CIGARS
Here are Robb Report Collection’s top 10 recommendations.
Cohiba, particularly the Espléndido or better yet, a Behike, a large-ringed variation that is the perfect digestif cigar. These are medium-full in character but not overpowering. However, newer smokers may want to select the kinder, gentler Cohiba Siglo series. According to Freeman, due to its popularity, Cohiba is the most frequently counterfeited brand.
Trinidad. This started out as Castro’s “secret" VIP cigar that replaced the Cohiba in popularity when it began to be sold to the public in 1982. One of the most expensive choices, depending on where you buy it.
Montecristo. The No. 2 specifically is a perennial favourite. Medium-full-bodied, it carries an undertone of sweet spice.
Partagás. Series D, No. 4 (a robusto) is a popular size for this powerhouse brand. It is tantamount to smoking a porterhouse steak; if you have an hour to spare, try a Lusitania.
H. Upmann. Medium strength, this gentle smoke still retains enough earthiness to make it suitable for either early or late evenings.
Romeo y Julieta. Medium strength with a touch of sweetness, this is a perfect cigar when you are not quite sure what to buy.
Punch. Subtly powerful yet smooth, with a rich, leathery finish.
Hoyo de Monterrey. Fairly mild; think Irish whiskey, or blended Scotch.
Vegas Robaina. Medium full in flavour; one of the most complex and spicy Havanas around and perfect for any time after lunch and beyond.
Cuaba. The shapes are all figurados; a mild-mannered smoke ideal for novice and connoisseur alike.