15th Festival del Habanos: Habano Heaven
Cuba's annual celebration of its iconic cigars is the largest in the world and a glitzy showcase for its newest releases.

By Gary Heathcott

Increased global demand for Cuban cigars last year ensured that the throngs of visitors who attended the 15th Annual International Habanos Cigar Festival, held from February 26 to March 2 throughout Havana, were in an upbeat mood even before they arrived. The 1,500 participants in what is widely acknowledged to be the largest international gathering of cigar enthusiasts in the world joined in paying tribute to Cuba's Montecrísto and Partagás brands, and enjoyed an panoply of programs that included factory tours, a trade fair, educational seminars, tastings, competitions, master classes, and social events. Most importantly, they came because of their shared passion for what is the world's most recognized e symbol of Cuban culture and tradition.

Despite the economic woes that plagued most of the world last year, Cuban cigars performed well. At the festival's International Seminar, Jorge Luis Fernandez Maique, vice president of Habanos S.A., reported that the exporter earned $416 million in revenues in 2012, a six percent increase from the previous year. Sales of Cuban cigars in Eastern Europe grew both in units and revenue, added Maique, while the Asia-Pacific region - despite a drop in units sold - gained in revenue. Three out of Cuba's top 10 markets posted sales declines - including Spain, the largest, which was down by eight percent, and Greece and the U.K., each of which was down by three percent - while others' sales increased. According to Habanos S.A. marketing vice president Javier Terres, France is the second largest Habanos market, followed by China, where sales continue to climb. Russian markets also posted increased sales in 2012, while domestic sales within Cuba grew by two percent, with similar growth reported in Canada, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates.

Examining curing leaf during a plantation visit.

Maique added that there are 143 La Casa del Habanos retail stores in 66 countries, and that the leading Habanos brand in terms of units sold worldwide is Romeo y Julieta, followed by Montecrísto and José L. Piedra, while Cohiba is the company's top revenue-generating brand. The battle against counterfeit cigars continues apace, said Terres, noting that Habanos introduced a web-based barcode tracking system last year that consumers can use to verify the warranty seal on purchased cigars. Terres added that new and even more sophisticated security and safety measures are expected in the near future.

Predictably, news on the American front continued to be discouraging. Maique reckoned that the U.S. trade ban with Cuba deprives Habanos of $350 to $400 million in revenue annually. Should the ban be lifted, he suggested, the impact would be dramatic, with sales of Cuban cigars in the U.S amounting to $50 million after one year and $150 million after eight.

Attendees had the chance to preview two new Montecrísto sizes at the festival's welcoming evening reception at the historic Morro Fortress, both of which are made at the H. Upmann factory in Centro Habana and should reach retail stores later this year. The Montecrísto Petite No. 2, a new figurado in the Línea Clasica (classic line), measures 4 3/4 x 52 and is - as its name suggests - a shorter version of the legendary Montecrísto No. 2 (6 1/8 x 52). Like its distinguished precursor, the new Petite No. 2 has a torpedo-shaped head. Early indications are that it delivers every bit of the hallmark flavors of its full-size, mild- to medium-bodied forerunner.

Montecrísto Double Edmundo; Montecrísto Petite No. 2.

The new Montecrísto Double Edmundo, on the other hand, tips the scales at 6 1/8 x 50 and delivers a solid one-hour smoke. Longer than the Montecrísto Edmundo - which measures 5 3/8 inches by 52 ring gauge - it is also slightly narrower, ensuring that it has a personality all its own. It's only the third cigar in the Línea Edmundo, which also includes the Edmundo Petit (4 3/4 x 52). Samples enjoyed by festival attendees were well received.

The new sizes will be available in three-count pouches and in 10- or 25-count boxes, and both feature the new Montecrísto ring. A much higher quality band produced in The Netherlands, it boasts detailed embossing, a deep, rich brown color, and high-gloss, hot-foil gold highlights - including the iconic central fleur-de-lis symbol - and more precise die-cutting. The upgraded design not only raises the profile of the Montecrísto brand, but, given the complex production techniques required to produce it, makes it more difficult to counterfeit.

A dinner held at the El Laguito protocol hall honored Cuba's tobacco growers and celebrated the re-launch of the Vegueros brand (discontinued in 2012) with the introduction of a new "medium- to-full flavor" blend, new sizes, and new graphics. Vegueros - the Cuban term for tobacco farmers - are produced at the Francisco Donatién factory, located in the heart of western Cuba's tobacco growing regions, centered in San Luis, Pinar del Rio, Consolacion del Sur, and Guane. The brand was launched for export in 1997 following years of production solely for domestic distribution.

The reblended and repackaged Vegueros line.

The three front marks for the new line all have larger ring gauges and shorter lengths than those of the previous. In fact, the shapes - Tapados (4 3/4 x 46), Entretiempos (4 1/3 x 52), and Mañanitas (4 x 46) - are more contemporary in than they are the classic slender Cuban variety. Also new are updated sleek bands, glossy five-count packs, and contemporary 16-count metal canisters. Pricing for the three sizes is described as "affordable," falling into the medium-to-low range for premium, hand-rolled Habanos. Canada, Italy, Spain, and Germany had all been the top international markets for the Vegueros brand before it was discontinued, but with the re-launch, look for the company to target other countries for brand growth.

Later that evening, participants got their first glimpse and taste of the Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure Edición Limitada 2013, the first of three Edición Limitadas (limited edition cigars) that will be released this year. The very strong and full-bodied Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure has a dark wrapper and measures 5 1/4 inches by 55 ring gauge, making it a longer and thicker version of the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, with dimensions that exactly match those of the Romeo y Wide Churchill. The sneak-peak excited attendees, who were forced to hide their dismay at the news that the cigars aren't expected to be in stores until late in the year.

While there had been speculation that the Punch Serie d'Oro No. 2 Edición Limitada 2013 - the first limited edition cigar in the Punch line - would be unveiled at the festival, that was not the case. Even less is known about the third release in the series, the Romeo y Julieta Romeo de Luxe Edición Limitada 2013, ensuring that many smokers will spend the next few months in a heightened state of anxious anticipation.

The festival's four-day trade show was also a hit, as attendees flocked to informative lectures on germane topics such as Cuba's independent cigar brands, the pairing of liquors and cigars, the 500 steps required to create a cigar. There also were several interactive seminars, including a master class on hand-rolling cigars and blind taste tests.

Author Gary Heathcott samples the baked "tobacco fish" entre at the tobacco and gastronomy cooking demonstration seminar.

One of this year's seminar highlights was a tobacco and gastronomy cooking demonstration by three pioneering Croation chefs. Pepper, chiles, spices, and herbs are all standard fare in chef's kitchens. Why not tobacco? The Croatian chefs answered this question in the affirmative, unveiling a selection of dishes whose "secret ingredient" was tobacco from Pinar del Río's Vuelta Abajo. The presentation was led by Grgur Baksic, the owner and executive chef of Gastronomadi Dinner Club, in Zagreb, Croatia.

The chefs first demonstrated how they created tobacco salt, which can be used to season any dish, and tobacco sauce-infused butter, perfect for spreading on fresh bread. But the audience's interest spiked when the chefs prepared an entrée of mild bass wrapped in a tobacco leaf and a banana leaf, seasoned with garlic and honey, and gently baked. The result was a one-of-a-kind preparation and to the amazement of those who tasted the dish, it did not smell or taste like tobacco. It was spicy - but more like it had been seasoned with a mild chili, rather than Cuban tobacco. For desert, Italian chef Bruno Lucian from the Alian Internacional e Il Maestro del Dolce presented a sweet ice cream that packed a distinct wallop.

2013 Habanosommelier World Champion Pedro Tejeda Torres of La Bodeguita del Medio Restaurant and Bar, Havana.

The Habanosommelier International competition is a perennial Trade Fair favorite. An almost encyclopedic knowledge of Habanos brands and spirits is required; competitions are held around the world (with the exception of the U.S.) for pairing after-meal drinks and liquors with Cuban cigars. Ultimately, seven or eight finalists come to the Habanos Festival for the final leg of the competition. After being subjected to a rigorous series of written and oral "exams" during the week, each finalist presents his ideal combination of a particular Habano and a specific alcoholic beverage. Judges from around the world assess the competitors based on their knowledge of specific cigar characteristics including names and sizes; the strength of tobacco, the time needed to leisurely smoke a given cigar; as well as the history of production factories and year of origin. An almost encyclopedic knowledge of Habanos brands and spirits is required.

The Cuban finalist in the contest, Pedro Tejeda Torres from Havana's La Bodeguita del Medio Restaurant and Bar, was the winner of this year's contest; his wife, Zudlay Nápoles, was one of the first women to win the title, in 2008. Tejeda impressed judges with a combination that included Cuban-made sour chocolate, a 15-year Legendario rum, and a Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill. Venezuela's José Gregorio Pereira placed second, and Peter Dobronti Marie, from the United Kingdom, was the third place finisher. The award for best pairing of a Habano and wine was won by the French competitor, Fabrice Sommier, who matched Chateau D'Yquem, a French dessert wine made from Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, and a Cohiba Behike 56.

Other contest winners included Osiris Oramas, maitre d' and Habanosommelier of Havana's La Barca Restaurant, who was the winner of the Blind Cigar Tasting.

Cuban farmer and 2006 Habanos Man of the Year Gerardo Medina welcomes guests to his plantation in Vuelta Abajo, Pinar del Rio, Cuba.

No Habanos Festival is complete without special visits to the tobacco plantations and cigar factories. Once again, the tobacco farms of Vuelta Abajo, in Cuba's western province of Pinar del Rio, welcomed festival participants. Those who made the two-hour trip learned about and saw first-hand the centuries-old process of planting and harvesting Cuban tobacco. During the tour, participants had the opportunity to talk with the men and women who have learned that it takes long hours of hard work in often extreme weather conditions to grow and harvest the tobacco that is ultimately rolled into Habanos.

Partagás Gran Reserva Cosecha 2007.

The Habanos Festival always saves its best for last, capping an exhilarating week with the annual gala evening, held this year on Saturday, March 2. Partágas was the featured cigar of the evening, with several different frontmarks handed out throughout the evening.

But it was the long-awaited launch of Cuba's first Partagás Gran Reserva that kept revelers rapt with anticipation. The Lusitanias Gran Reserva Cosecha 2007, measuring 7 5/8 inches by 49 ring gauge, are rolled exclusively from tobacco harvested from the Vuelta Abajo fields of San Juan y Martínez and San Luis. The cigar's blend was created by Arnaldo Bichot, the larger-than-life master blender at Havana's Partagás cigar factory, who selected the leaves for this release from the 2007 harvest and then allowed them to age, using a secret process, for five years in wooden barrels. Only 5,000 boxes containing 15 cigars each are being released.

American actor Danny Glover, with his wife Eliane Cavalleiro, accepting the 2013 Habanos Special Prize for "peace and justice;" German tennis star Boris Becker at the Gala Evening humidor auction; Omara Portuondo, 82 years old; from the original Buena Vista Social Club; Dancers from Santiago Alfonso's dance troupe.

The main gala evening event is the annual Habanos Awards, which since 1995 have been presented by Habanos S.A. to the year's most exemplary Cuban cigar partners worldwide in a number of categories. To add to the excitement, Habanos S.A. taps celebrity festival attendees to present a number of the awards.

This year, German tennis star and Olympic medalist Boris Becker - who was just 17 when he became the youngest player ever to win the Wimbledon tournament - presented the Communications Category Award to Phoenicia Trading, the Habanos S.A. distributor for the Middle East and Africa. The Production Category Award went to Inocente Osvaldo Encarnación, while Mauricio Abraham Abady - the Habanos S.A. distributor in the Caribbean - came away with the Habano Business Award.

Film star Danny Glover was also at the Gala, though he came not to present an award but to receive one - the 2013 Habanos Special Prize. Glover is more than an avid smoker who favors Cuban cigars: He has visited Cuba many times, in private and in his role as Unicef Goodwill ambassador. Festival organizers presented him with a silver sculpture (made by local artist Raul Valladares) in acknowledgement of his work for "battle for peace and justice." Glover accepted the award in the name of the "Cuban Five," and in his remarks - his wife at his side - thanked his hosts, saying, "I am here to praise the centuries-old culture of Cuban tobacco, the Habano, and all of Cuba."

Other notables who appeared at Gala included the Italian tenor Darío Balzanelli, who sang the well-known song "La Comparsa," written by the great Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, and the legendary 82-year-old singer and dancer Omara Portuondo, one of the original members of the Cuarteto d'Aida, who appeared on the hit 1996 album, The Buena Vista Social Club and also toured with the group. Portuondo gave a very moving performance dancing with Maestro Patterson's orchestra and Maestro Santiago Alfonso's dance troupe.

The evening ended with the festival's traditional humidor auction, the proceeds of which are donated to the Cuban public health system. Among the items auctioned this year were six lots of themed humidors paying tribute to - and filled with - Cuba's most prestigious Habanos brands, including Cohiba, Montecrísto, Romeo y Julieta, Partagás, Hoyo de Monterrey, and H. Upmann. By the end of the evening, the auction brought in $1.4 million. The past 13 festivals have now garnered more than $11 million for the health system.

While the official program ended with the auction, the entertainment resumed, helping the Festival live on for a few hours more, deep into the Havana night as revelers shared one last cigar.

SMOKE 2012, Issue 4


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