How to Smoke a Cigar, Cuban Style
One of the most pleasing aspects of Havana cigars, for me at any rate, is that they remain, even after nearly two centuries, a very personal product.
The Cuban cigar industry still produces twenty-seven different brands, each with its own style and flavour. Every one boasts its own selection of sizes chosen from over seventy different shapes, which give enthusiasts a total of around two hundred and thirty different Havana cigars to choose from.
The reason that such an array can still be made available in the 21st century is simply that each cigar is still made by hand, to order, so to speak.
With this in mind, companies in Britain like Hunters & Frankau, which distribute Havana cigars in different territories around the world have, for the last four years, been invited by Habanos SA in Cuba to bid for the chance to develop their own special sizes in the less well-known brands. These cigars are made in limited quantities for sale only in each distributors market and they are known as Regional Editions.
As you might imagine, this has led to a certain amount of competitive spirit amongst distributors, to find a way to make their Regional Editions stand out from the crowd.
At Hunters & Frankau, where we can trace our origins back to 1790, we have chosen to delve back into the rich history of Havanas and to re-create distinctive design elements from the past to adorn our special cigars.
In 2007 we introduced the Por Larraaga Magnifico, a substantial 7 inch by 50 ring gauge cigar, for which we reproduced a spectacular, century old, golden cigar band, which, oddly enough, I had received still wrapped around a cigar as a gift from a doctor I consulted. (I should add that the doctor was not a smoker; the cigar was a relic that had belonged to his grandfather).
The Magnificos proved exceptionally popular and sold out almost as soon as they arrived.
This year we have been awarded a cigar called the Gloria Cubana Glorioso, which measures 6 inches by 50 ring gauge. Just 2,040 Gloriosos have been made at Partagas, the Havana factory responsible for Gloria Cubana. They will come in 2,040 numbered, varnished boxes containing 10 cigars each. Once again, we have set about making them look different.
The Gloriosos band is copied from an example found in a collection in Havana by Jemma Freeman, our Managing Director. Its exact date is unknown but the high quality image of the Belle Epoque lady, who looks as if she has just stepped out of a Toulouse Lautrec painting, suggests that it comes from the late 1890s or the early years of the 20th century.
On the inside of the lid is a reproduction of a label that will be familiar to those who have hunted for cigar memorabilia in Havanas street markets. Although not uncommon, this label is a classic example of cigar box art, boasting, as it does, the goddess of peace supported by two cherubs one of which is regaled as a Native Cuban.
It also bears six of the customary gold medals from bygone exhibitions. When it came to copying these medals there was a problem because the embossing on the old labels was indistinct. However, with the aid of Google we were able to establish that the six medals were in fact the front and back designs of three medals awarded at three events: the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris; the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo and the 1901/02 South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition in Charleston.
Consequently the printer was able to make faithful copies of the original medals. At the same time it became clear that the design dated from the first decade of the 20th century.
Two elements of the labels design were deliberately changed. First, the name and address of the former manufacturer, J F Rocha SA, was replaced with Habana – Cuba. And second, a new message was added to the scroll under the goddess seat, in Spanish, which reads: Esta producin de Gloriosos ha sido realizado en exclusive para Rena Unido. Habanos S.A. Cuba 2008 or, This production of Gloriosos has been made exclusively for the UK. Habanos S.A. Cuba 2008.
Whilst it is one thing to make a box of cigars look interesting, what really matters is the taste of the cigars themselves. So, in February, during the 2008 Festival del Habano in Havana, Jemma Freeman, Ana Lopez and I from H&F along with a group of cigar enthusiasts met with Deborah Garcia and Arnaldo Vichort, respectively the Quality Control Manager and the Master Blender at Partagas, to taste the blend.
Seated in the clubby surroundings of the VIP room at the back of the Casa del Habano shop at the Partagas factory, ten of us lit up in unison.
It should be understood that tasting a Cuban cigar takes time. To learn what a cigar can offer, you have to smoke most of it because its flavour will develop as it burns. Customarily we study the taste in thirds. The first third, particularly when the cigar has come fresh from the cigar makers bench, can be misleading. You start to understand the true merits of the blend when you reach the second third and then, if you like what you are tasting, the third third becomes a great joy.
In this case, by the time we reached the second third, a dispute broke out. Whilst a substantial minority were delighted with the flavour, voices were heard expressing the view that it lacked depth.
In the end we decided that it would benefit from the addition of a bit more of what we call ligero leaf. This is the leaf taken from the top of the tobacco plant that adds richness to the blend.
More samples were prepared over the subsequent weeks and, after they arrived in Britain, the medium- to full-flavoured blend that you will find in the Glorioso, was agreed.
At the time of writing, thanks to hurricanes Gustave, Ike and Paloma, which devastated Cuba during the autumn and delayed shipments from the island, we are still awaiting the bulk delivery of these precious cigars.
However, we did have the chance to share some Gloriosos with British smokers at the 13th November opening of the new Casa del Habano shop in Teddington, SW London.
Casas del Habano (Havana Houses) are cigar shops specialising in Cuban cigars franchised by Habanos SA that can be found all over the world. Ajay Patel and his wife, Bhavna, have created a first-rate Casa at 76 High Street, Teddington with a magnificent sampling lounge downstairs.
It was here in the presence of the Cuban Ambassador that the Gloria Cubana Glorioso received its first rousing welcome on these shores.