The Mexican Embassy has just been stormed, a stolen bus colliding with the front gates. Many of the key roads are closed, but not enough to prevent us from reaching the Palacio de Convenciones, the focal point of the Habano Festival 2002.The Habano Festival is the ultimate gathering of the greatest cigars in the world. Whether you’re a retailer, wholesaler or enthusiastic customer (as we are) this is the time and the place to enjoy the finest in cigars and associated products. Which is precisely why Whisky Magazine is here; to explore the combination of whisky and cigars, the flavours and the potential marriage of the two. Before we could get to the heart of the whisky and cigar marriage we became immersed in some of the pleasures of cigar tasting and education.The Sommelier Competition acts as a catalyst of discussion about what is the best way to serve a cigar. The finals are split in two, chaired by Simon Chase, a director of Havana Cigar importers Hunters & Frankau. Thankfully the translation earpieces are working well as Spanish and English speakers interchange.Each of the three finalists first review a cigar list and identify which cigars have the incorrect size listed. Rolando Blanco of El Floridita in Havana starts the ball rolling, confident and quick, followed by Emilio Blanes of La Boheme in Zaragoza, Spain and finally Denis Bucant of Hotel du Vin in Birmingham, England. They all fare well, but the real crux comes when they return to select and present two cigars to the judges, one of whom acts as an expert, one a novice cigar smoker. There are six cigars from which to choose, ranging from the Cohiba Esplendido to the Romeo y Julietta Exhibition Number 4. Each uses his own style and approach. Rolando provides a detailed history on each cigar, Denis moves swiftly from an overview to his selection and Emilio attracts widespread applause as he wafts his fan attentively over the end of his selected Cohiba.After two hours of private debate the judges conclude the winner is … Rolando Blanco, the local lad. So ends an entertaining session which has also educated all those who attended – and given a rare chance to witness 200 people smoking cigars at 9am.The cigar and whisky tasting
With Pernod Ricard supplying the acclaimed Chivas Regal and Aberlour 10-year-old single malt, we had an ideal selection of quality whiskies with which to find the most appropriate cigar accompaniment at the Boisdale and Whisky Magazine dinner at the Floridita, Havana’s celebrated dining palace. Five cigars were offered to each of the 52 guests in order of their weight (Hoyo de Monterrey Corona first, followed by Romeo y Julieta Petit Corona, Montecristo No. 4, Cohiba Siglo II and finally Partagas Petit Corona) and were tasted by guests from as far afield as Ranald Macdonald of Boisdale restaurant in London, John Darnton and Simon Chase of Hunters & Frankau, international photographer Richard Young, Toby Butterwick of Special Places and many more. The results and some selected comments from two hours of enthusiatic – research can be found below. Hoyo de Monterrey Corona
"Very good combination – very surprising,” states one guest. Ranald finds the Hoyo “a little dry for Chivas”. “Marries nicely with the light style of Chivas,” claims another. “A perfect combination”. “Enhances the sweetness of the whisky perfectly”.Aberlour
“The Hoyo is rewarded by the richness and delicacy of the Aberlour – a great combination”. “A good, safe match”. “Slightly smoky on the palate with a good, rounded flavour”.Cohiba Siglo II
“A great platform for the flavour of the Cohiba”. “The cigar is a little too mild for the whisky”. “A great relationship”. “The harsh, grassy flavour does not work well with the smokiness of the whisky”.Aberlour
Ranald finds the richness of the Cohiba “a lovely balance to the sweet sherry fruit of the Aberlour” – definitely his favourite combination. “Excellent”. James Forbes finds the Cohiba “a little too rich but has both the fruit and spice aplenty as well as a certain sweetness”.Montecristo no 4.
“A very smooth match. The salty mineral flavours of the Montecristo are perfect with the Chivas – an ideal match,” writes Ranald. Tavella Maurizio finds the combination “very strong, with a light, enticing finish”. Others state “there is not full joy in this combination” and “not recommended”. “Nutty, oaky flavour of the Monte worked well with the apply flavours of the whisky, almost perfect”.
“A better combination but not my cup of tea”. “Highly recommended – the richness of the whisky blends perfectly with the Montecristo”. “This cigar blends really well with the fruitiness of the Aberlour”. “Fresher flavours worked well with the slightly lighter whisky – a great blend”.Partagas Petit Corona
“Not a whisky cigar – too domineering for both the Chivas and Aberlour – a much better cognac partner”. Others agree saying “not a great combination – not recommended”. James from Oddbins found the Partagas “a little too overpowering and a little too dry for the Chivas”.
“The lightly smoked whisky was an OK combination with the Partagas”. “Two very strong characters – I’m not sure whether they complement or clash”. “Surprisingly good with the creamy feel of the Aberlour smoothing out the dryness of the Partagas”.Romeo y Julieta Petit Corona
“A little overpowered by the Petit Corona”. For Tavella “light vanilla flavours are strongly evident which mingle well with the light-bodied blend”. “Subtle and dependable mix”.Aberlour
“Perhaps a stronger malt is needed for the Romeo”. “Sadly the flavour of the cigar is slightly neutralised”. “No obvious balance here”. “The vanilla, toffee and dates flavour from the whisky gave a great intensity to the richness of the Romeo”.The week ends with the glorious Gala Dinner, this year held at the National Art Museum. A five-course dinner, each course with a different wine or liqueur, is complemented with cigar after cigar, the Robaina celebrating its fifth anniversary tonight.Just before the first course is served there is the clatter of cameras and the scuttling of feet – President Fidel Castro has arrived. It takes him almost 45 minutes to reach his table as dignitaries and guests swamp him. As he sits to dine, cameras still flash and the rest of the room settles down to eat. As soon as dinner finishes Castro and Simon Chase rise for the stage, preparing to host the infamous ‘cigar auction’. Fifteen humidors filled with cigars and wonderful Cuban works of art by, among others, Moises Gonzales Acosta, are auctioned for a colossal $656,200 (£470,000), and in a cloud of cigar smoke we drift home for a 2am sleep. If only there had been more whisky at the dinner! Perhaps next year?