It was shortly after nine in the morning on November 8 last year, and Edward Sahakian, proprietor of Davidoff of London, had just opened his shop. This is not the busiest time of day for a cigar merchant, so Sahakian usually takes the opportunity to sit in one of the shop’s leather armchairs and read the paper. He was about to do exactly that when a woman came in. Although not a native English speaker, she kept repeating the words “Cohiba Talisman”. The preceding evening had seen the worldwide launch of the new Cohiba limited edition Talisman at the Corinthia Hotel and although she had not been at the launch and had most likely not even tasted the cigar, she wanted 100 boxes.
Sahakian, mindful not to disappoint 100 of his regular customers, offered to sell her a box. The purchaser was the first of many from mainland China and within days the retail prices of boxes had doubled to around £1,200.
“I had never seen anything like it,” says Sahakian. “When I took my first delivery of Cohiba, in the mid-1980s, it was quite unknown. People were asking what it was, how to pronounce the name and so on.” And then came the 50-ring-gauge Cohiba Robusto in 1989. “The Robusto was the first of the Mohicans,” says Sahakian. “For quite a while, the Cohiba Robusto was the largest girth Cuban cigar you could get alongside Hoyo Epicure 2 and Series D No 4 from Partagas.” And this year, the cigar responsible for starting the Cohiba frenzy all those years ago is available in a very special limited edition: the Cohiba Robusto Reserva, made from tobacco aged for at least three years before being delivered to the factory.
This new release is the latest instalment in a narrative that traces its roots back over half a century to the Cuban Revolution, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nuclear Armageddon averted, at last Castro could turn his mind to truly important matters, not least the aroma of his driver’s cigars that perfumed the interior of his Oldsmobile. The cigar roller was summoned into the Comandante’s presence and henceforward became the roller by appointment to the revolutionary elite. One thing led to another and, in 1966, a brand was born, taking its name from the indigenous Taíno word for the bunched leaves of tobacco that Columbus had seen being enjoyed by the island’s inhabitants on his arrival. Initially Cohiba cigars were used as diplomatic gifts; they only became commercially available in 1982 and eventually made it to the UK in 1985.
When the Cohiba Robusto launched, just 25,000 were made for the whole world. Of course, now a 50-ring-gauge cigar is standard, but I remember it seeming a forbiddingly indulgent cigar at the time. However, the power was like that delivered by the effortlessly torquey, turbocharged V8 of an old Bentley; the smoothness was due to the additional period of fermentation undergone by the seco and ligero leaves on top of the usual three fermentations – a process that lowers the nicotine and acidity. Moreover, the tobacco used in the blend is harvested from what are considered the five best plantations in the Vuelta Abajo: La Perla and Santa Damiana in San Juan y Martínez; and Cuchillas de Barbacoa, La Fé and El Corojo in San Luis. The range grew quickly and acquired the name Linea Classica, to differentiate it from the slightly lighter Linea 1492, or Siglo range, which made its debut in 1992.
A good Cohiba reminds me why I started enjoying cigars. The character develops throughout the life of the cigar, the flavours are rich and mouth-filling yet subtle and nuanced, and the strength is there but kept in the background to provide a framework for the flavours. Like a symphony, there may be moments when the whole orchestra is involved in a towering crescendo and at other times a single instrument performs a haunting solo.
In my opinion, among the standard lines of Cohiba, the most likely to deliver that experience will be the Siglo VI that appeared in 2002. Like the Robusto at the end of the 1980s, this cigar set standards for the years to come. A totally new vitola called cañonazo, it was the first parejo (straight-sided) Havana cigar to have a ring gauge of more than 50 (52 in this case). “We experiment within Cohiba, and we will always launch new products within the brand,” Inocente Núñez Blanco, Cuban co-president of Habanos SA, explained to me in Havana earlier this year. “We will always try to surprise with very novel products,” confirms his Spanish counterpart Luis Sánchez-Harguindey.
Indeed, the 21st century has seen the Cohiba brand become the most avant-garde, as well as the most prestigious, of Havanas. There have been seven limited editions: the first in 2001; two years later, Cohiba became the first brand to be offered as a Reserva and subsequently there has been a Gran Reserva and, this year, the Reserva Robusto; in 2007, the new Maduro range of Cohiba debuted with a dark wrapper and a sweeter taste; 2010 saw the arrival of the Cohiba Behike range, launched in three fashionable heavy-ring gauges (52, 54, 56), using the small but flavourful medio tiempo leaf that occurs only in exceptional years; and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the brand in 2016, commemorative humidors were made for the first-ever 60-ring-gauge Havana, the Cohiba Grandioso.
Such innovations have had a huge impact on the popularity of the brand and nowhere has this been more strongly felt than in China. “It is exactly the same as when the Chinese were introduced to Latour and were told, ‘This is the brand that has the recognition and shows where you should be in society’,” says one British collector who prefers to remain anonymous. This has translated into a scramble for almost any cigar with the yellow, black and white Cohiba band.
“The Chinese market has a voracious appetite for Cohiba and in particular EMS (English Market Selection), such is their fear of fakes,” says Mitchell Orchant, proprietor of C Gars. “I have gigantic shops around England and a tiny shop in Mayfair; this summer, my Mayfair shop did twice as much business as my next biggest store. Often customers would be spending between £3,000 to £20,000, on Cohibas: walking in and wiping us out. We would be resupplying the shop twice a day.”
Rising demand has compounded the effect that recent bad harvests have had on the availability of larger-size Cuban cigars. Even Siglo VI are very hard to find and there is a Behike drought, pushing prices up to £250 a stick for the most popular Behike 56. But this is just nursery slope in terms of pricing for super-premium Cohibas. Edward Sahakian describes the prices as being a little like the stock market in that they move on a near-daily basis.
At time of writing, he reckoned that among the limited editions, the 1966 from 2011 could fetch upwards of £350 a cigar; double coronas from 2003 were approaching £450 each; and 2004 Cohiba Sublimes £500 per cigar. His son Eddie commented that the Siglo VI Gran Reserva box of 15 cigars would easily command £9,000 “if you can find one”. Anniversary cigars fetch even more: Majestuosos (released for the 50th anniversary and sold in 1966 humidors of 20 cigars) can cost up to £1,000 a cigar. “Original” Behikes from the 40th anniversary have been said to fetch between £4,000 to £5,000 per cigar. And should it ever be sold singly, the fabled Grandioso is likely to have a five-figure price tag.
I recently came across a 1966 in the bottom of one of my humidors – where it had been lurking since 2011. I set fire to it and can report that it kept developing throughout the next 45 minutes to an hour. Sometimes the flavours were of almonds, at other times it was like having a blanket of cashmere and vanilla laid gently over the tongue.
The pleasure of stimulating every part of the palate is only part of Cohiba’s preeminence. “Collecting Cohibas rather than smoking them has become a huge factor,” explains Manu Harit, cigar development manager of The Arts Club. “People love the magical rarity: what money cannot buy is the thrill of the chase, and the satisfaction of finding a box or even a single cigar.”
Of course, each time a Cohiba is smoked the remaining ones become just that little bit harder to find, lending them an almost unicorn-like status in the pantheon of Cuban cigars. Over at Birley Cigars, the shop next to Five Hertford Street, there is a new generation of cigar lovers in their 20s who have only heard of those cigars, so there is considerable excitement when they first set eyes upon them.
“Some people talk about the Cohiba Sublime as if God had blended and rolled it,” says Jemma Freeman, managing director of Hunters & Frankau, the UK importer of Havana cigars. She believes that the mystery cloaking these special cigars accounts for much of their appeal. “Nobody knows how many they make, none of us knows when, or indeed if, we are going to get a shipment.” And, of course, desirability is only heightened by the prolonged shortages of Behike and Siglo VI. “For the time being, people are trained into this ‘see it, buy it’ mentality,” she says. In other words, conditions are set for a perfect storm around the arrival in the UK of the Cohiba Robusto Reserva during the peak buying season of late autumn and early winter.
At the time of going to press, there is no fixed date but I daresay we will know when we see pre-dawn queues outside cigar merchants – as plutocrats prepare to battle it out for what I am sure Sahakian is already calling “the next of the Mohicans”.