Whisky & Culture

Viva Havanas

Happy days are here again, according to cigar guru James Leavey
By James Leavey
Several months ago, I was invited to an exhibition in Paris to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the S.T. Dupont lighter. Arriving early, I nipped into a nearby café for a couple of espressos and Montecristo No.3s, which I shared with Martin Winters, Managing Director of the famous French company’s UK division. Not only were the Havanas almost half the price I would normally pay back home in London, they offered something I hadn’t experienced for some time from a Cuban cigar – an easy, pleasant draw. Let me explain. When the mid-1990s Havana boom arrived, Cuba, still reeling from the Soviet Union’s collapse, was in no condition to respond. It was hard to find a Havana anywhere let alone one of the size and brand you wanted. Not wishing to miss the new wave of enthusiasm for their flagship product, the Cubans unleashed the customary five-year plan to build exports to previously unimagined levels. From a mere 65 million Havanas made in 1995, there was talk of 200 million by the end of the decade. The numbers mounted, comfortably exceeding the 100 million mark but then, in 2000, the tobacco ran out. Worse still the drive to make cigars had concentrated on a few easily made sizes and ignored the change in fashion for more stylish shapes like the Robusto or Torpedo-shaped Montecristo No. 2. The result was that for several years the Havanas we wanted were being rushed through to retailers' shelves and were being smoked too young. Now, there’s nothing wrong with buying freshly-rolled Havanas, just as long as you bear in mind that they can be a struggle to smoke and should be kept for at least a year, preferably two, before they are reach perfect condition.Fortunately, the Cuban cigar industry has been busy rebuilding its stocks of aged tobaccos and increasing its stocks of finished cigars in sizes we want, to guard against future interruptions in supply, and the current batch now on sale in Britain‘s cigar emporiums appear to be getting back to normal.I have also just been reassured by several cigar merchants in London, including Edward Sahakian of Davidoff, Philip Shervington, Desmond Sautter, and Robert Emery of JJ Fox, that the ‘plugged’ Havana problem (i.e. a cigar that requires the suction power of a Dyson vacuum cleaner to extract the slightest degree of smoke) has now largely disappeared. That said, the occasional ‘plugged’ Havana still turns up, usually in boxes of 25. There is apparently no problem with tubed Havanas.Needless to say the main UK importers of fine Cuban cigars, Hunters & Frankau, have been wrestling with the problem. They have increased the quality checks they put all the Havanas through for British shops before giving them their EMS (English Market Selection) quality stamp by opening every box and sending back to Cuba the ones that aren’t up to scratch. But as Simon Chase (one of Hunters’ Directors) freely admits, the only sure way to check the draw on a cigar is to smoke it and that they cannot do. He does however reassure me that if you buy a box of Havanas in Britain bearing the EMS stamp and come across one or two cigars that are impossible to smoke, most of Britain's reputable cigar merchants will happily replace them.Thank God. There was a time when the flag on the pole above my humidor was lowered to half-mast, while I waited for my beloved Havana cigars to get back to normal. It seems I can now raise it to the top again, and toast the event with a dram of my favourite whisky. But what if you are stuck with some of those immature Havanas that you bought in another less fussy country, and which are tightly rolled and virtually impossible to inhale, aside from waiting and hoping?The answer, according to Desmond Sautter, who has long specialised in selling the much sought-after pre-Castro Havanas, is to do what the British have long done with their cigars, i.e. keep them out of the humidor and allow them to dry out.For the problem with today’s Havanas, according to Mr Sautter, who owns a well-known cigar emporium in London’s Mayfair, is over-humidification. A ‘dry’ cigar will, once lit and at cruising temperature, exude enough moisture to make it easy to smoke. When a freshly-rolled Havana is cut and lit, it will exude at least twice as much moisture, resulting in the very tight or ‘plugged’ draw that some of us experienced when Havana cigars were at their lowest ebb.It was during that terrible period that I started filling my humidor with premium Dominican, Canary Island and Brazilian cigars, when I could find them. But the problem with buying premium, long-filler cigars, especially in Britain, is that the price paid per Cuban ‘stick’ is roughly the same as that paid for non-Cuban smokes. And Havanas, despite the recent problems, still retain their reputation the finest cigars in the world. Saying that, you could do a lot worse than igniting the better class of short-filler cigars, such as mild-pressed Villigers (full of Cuban tobacco!), or any small cigars produced by PJ Hajenius in Holland, whose Sumatra-wrapped cheroots are the best I’ve tried for many a year.All the more reason to make the most of the present lull before Britain’s forthcoming no-smoking-in-public-places storm. It’s time to load your cigar case and travel humidor and devote a day to fine food, booze and properly aged cigars, when you can find them.As for the work you’re supposed to be doing to pay for your cigars and single malts habit, do bear in mind what Jerome K Jerome said about the subject: "It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do."The trick to enjoying an ongoing series of premium Havana cigars is to start your day with a small mild one, such as a post-breakfast, light, fragrant El Rey del Mondo demi-tasse. Then build up to a rich-tasting, after-dinner cigar, such as a Partagas Lusitania, or Bolivar Belicoso Fino.A perfect marriage with your mid-morning espresso is either the Ramon Allones Ramonita, or the Cuaba Divinos. Both last no more than 15 minutes, far longer than that small, intense cup of caffeine that zonks your brain into gear for the rest of the day – well, until lunchtime.Another hour or so of nose-to-the-grindstone in your non-smoking office and you’ll be ready for that pre-lunch, apéritif cigar, such as the light but tasty Petit Punch, which will last a good half-hour and not spoil the munchies.Ideal post-lunch cigars would be the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure 2, or, slightly lighter, the Juan Lopez Seleccion No. 2.Now it’s time for that ‘afternoon tea’ cigar. Any of the finer Dominican brands will do, such as the Don Tomas robusto, or, even better, the light-ish, sophisticated Davidoff Grand Crû No 1 – which usually lasts an hour or so and goes nicely with a pot of tea and a cake. The Fuente Opus X is another excellent Dominican smoke but it is also strong enough to remove the tops of most people’s heads – but what a great way to finish off a curry.As for the post-dinner cigar, most aficionados opt for the Montecristo No. 2 – a sublime, mellow, velvety, chocolate-coffee flavoured Cuban torpedo, with a spicy finish. The trouble is, there’s always a shortage of them, especially the properly aged variety. Failing that, go for a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure 2, another great Havana.After-dinner coffee and liqueurs sharpen the senses; a good time to compare flavours. This is more complex than it sounds. As with malt whisky, great cigars vary in style. The taste of a freshly lit cigar is very different to that of the same cigar, half-smoked. Try tasting cigars at different levels, i.e after 10, 20 and 30 minutes, with your favourite whisky.If it’s around midnight and you’re snacking on an Indian, African, Chinese, Japanese meal or, for that matter, a doner kebab, you could do worse than ignite a Fox epicure – a splendid Dominican cigar with a gorgeous rounded flavour and a beautiful finish.Finally, after a day of heavy smoking, you can always lie back in the Iron Lung, and dream of all those beautifully aged Cuban cigars I’ve just mentioned.Talking about dreaming and cigars, I have been invited on many radio shows to discuss smoking. Very few radio programmes actually allowed me to enjoy a good cigar anywhere near the microphone. A rare exception was Cuban National Radio, where a friend and I were interviewed on the day of what would have been Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s birthday.I also smoked when I was a regular contributor to Matt ‘Mr Cigar’ Alan’s weekly radio show called Lighten Up! It’s broadcast live from Matt’s Californian backyard, one of the few places where you can now openly enjoy a public smoke in the Sunshine State. There are signs that Matt’s programme may be taken up as the next Howard Stern-type show, by American television, God forbid – but more on that, shortly.Then there was the time I found myself on the top deck of an open-top London tourist bus, being interviewed by the BBC World Service, while savouring a Montecristo No. 2. I pointed out the most interesting doorways London’s cigar aficionados could light up in to the listeners, while waving benevolently at beleaguered smokers.Which brings me back to the subject of cigars and radio, and how nicotine companions like me have been turned into the latest sideshow, for the vicarious amusement of anti-smokers. And the occasional enlightenment of fellow puffers.That’s the thing about smoking cigars on radio, if they can’t see us enjoying them, then maybe they’ll let us alone. With that in mind, here’s a message for Matt ‘Mr Cigar’ Alan: please don’t move to TV. The anti’s will crucify you.