Whisky & Culture

Smoke less, smoke better

James Leavey avoids the anti-smoking lobby and cigar flavoured coffee in order to update Whisky Magazine readers on what's been happening to the world's favourite cigars – Havanas
By James Leavey
Fancy a cup of Cohiba-flavoured cappuccino or a mug of Montecristo mocha? Yes? Well, these could soon be on the menu in coffee shops if ‘liquid nicotine’, the latest “anti-smoking wonder cure” from America set to make quitting smoking as easy as sipping a cup of java, goes on sale in about two years time.They recommend adding it to your favourite drink whenever you feel the urge to light up. As it’s said to taste similar to washing down the contents of an ashtray, most smokers will probably stick to their usual spoonful of sugar instead.
That’s just part of what looks to be an horrendously politically correct future, if the anti-smoking puritans get their way. So you may as well make the most of the present by firing up your favourite stogie, while I fill you in on what’s been happening to the world’s favourite cigars – Havanas.The good news is that exports of Cuban cigars grew rapidly from 68 million sticks during the second half of the 1990s and stabilised in 2000 at 120 million. The bad news is that the Cubans’ drive to increase production up to 1999 exhausted their reserves of aged tobaccos and resulted in the closure of many Cuban cigar factories during the early months of 2000.Production recovered later in the year when the leaves from the next years’ harvests (the product of three separate year’s harvests are needed for the blends in each Havana) were released. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to prevent the annual production of Havana cigars falling to a three year low. Not only that, but many cigar retailers are now selling Havana cigars that were only rolled about a year ago. Buy them by all means, but it’s best to keep them in your humidor for at least two years when they will be ready to smoke. A sorry state indeed. So what are they doing about it? “The Cuban industry has now defined clear priorities not only to rebuild its stocks of aged tobaccos but also to increase its stocks of finished cigars in order to guard against future interruptions in supply,” said Simon Chase, Marketing Director of Hunters & Frankau Ltd – the UK’s main importer of fine Cuban cigars.“At the same time, it has resolved to pay more attention to world demand for individual brands and sizes, in particular to overcome problems like the recent erratic supply of Montecristo No.2s. This has already started to benefit the UK where we stock a very wide range of specialist brands and sizes. Supplies have improved dramatically this year and we now have virtually everything available. Having said that, it is hard to envisage an over-supply of Havanas over the next two years, as the export level in 2001 is unlikely to exceed 2000.”In 2000, the world market for Premium – large, handmade cigars – was estimated to have fallen 14% to 450 million sticks per annum. This largely reflected the post-boom effects in the US market where sales are said to have fallen to 275 million from a 1997 peak of around 400 million. The problem, as Chase succinctly puts it: “Aficionados bought so many cigars during the boom, when they could find them, that they have still got plenty to smoke!”Meanwhile, the new set-up with the Franco-Spanish company, Altadis SA, owning half of Habanos SA and the rest of the cigar industry concentrated under a single umbrella corporation, now called Tabacuba, is bedding down. Its focus will be on building stocks of aged tobaccos and cigars as well as continuing to improve quality. According to Chase, Tabacuba has no plans to launch any new brands of Havana to add to the five launched between 1996 and 1999: Cuaba, Vegas Robaina, Trinidad and San Cristobal de la Habana and Vegueros – the latter not in UK. However, there are plans to offer limited editions or specialities in existing brands, like the Edicion Limitada – using aged wrappers from the 1997/98 harvest and out last December as the Partagas Piramide, Montecristo Robusto, Romeo y Julieta Exhibicion No. 2, and Hoyo Particulares. There will also be four more available in time for Christmas 2001.For those of you who enjoy an in-between Havanas smoke, another welcome development has been the introduction of a range of machine-made small and mini cigarillos under the famous Cuban brand names. They are all made from the same high quality Vuelta Abajo tobaccos that go into the larger ring gauges. All these ‘baby’ cigars give the authentic taste of the finest Havana tobacco, at a much lower price. The idea being to turn the small or broken Cuban tobacco leaves, which previously were used in cigarettes for the local market or thrown away, into much needed hard-currency-earning products for the feisty little Caribbean island. The ultimate aim is that they should all be made on machines in Cuba but, at present, some are still made in Europe. On the UK market at present are the Montecristo Mini, Romeo y Julieta Small, H. Upmann Mini, Punch Mini Reserve, Hoyo de Monterrey Mini, Jose L. Piedra Mini and the Partagas Club. Many of them were enjoyed at this year’s Havana Festival, which took place from 19th to 23rd February. The gala dinner’s auction in Havana raised, with a little help from guest auctioneer Fidel Castro, $602,500 (£430,0000) for eight lots. These included Compay Segundo’s hat, a snip at $17,500 (£12,500). A highlight of this annual celebration of Havanas was the first Malt Whisky, Cigars and Jazz event laid on by Ranald Macdonald of Boisdale’s cigar-friendly restaurant in Belgravia, London, which was so successful they plan to repeat it next year.If you can make it to Havana in February 2002, they’ll be celebrating Vegas Robaina’s 5th anniversary and Bolivar’s 100th. If you can’t get to Cuba, Simon Bolivar’s birthday is 24th July, so why not light up your favourite Havana to celebrate the 218th anniversary of his birth.Looking back, Christie’s in London held two cigar auctions, one in October 2000 and one in March 2001. The October auction saw a continuing rise in prices with a new world record set by the first £1,000 cigar (actually it was £3,000 for a dusty old cardboard carton of three Partagas Lusitanias, dating from the 1960s). March 2001’s auction saw the first downturn in six years, which happened to coincide with a substantial crash on the Nasdaq market, so perhaps the usual cigar buying aficionados had other things to think about. The established rarities – Cubatabaco 1492 Humidors (50 cigars at £8,000), 25 Cuban Davidoff Dom Perignon (at £5,000 to £6,000), and 25 Cuban Dunhill Cabinettas (£4,200) – held their prices, but you could pick up a decent aged box of Montecristo No. 1s or H. Upmann Sir Winston for £500 or less. Fine, rare Havanas was then, and apparently remains, a buyer’s market, although Havana cigars still hold sway over non-Cuban brands, which have failed to command any significant prices. Christie’s next cigar auction will be held on 18 October 2001.All of which translates to buy the best Havanas you can afford now, and save them for a rainy day. That said, the St Cristobal is a very nice smoke…