In January 1959 the Cuban Revolution swept down from the hills and into the Sodom and Gomorrah that was the capital, Havana. Normally rebels seize strategic locations: radio stations, army barracks, police stations, seats of government. But this being Havana, priorities were slightly different. Much in the way that Hemingway liberated the Ritz at the end of the second world war, among the first buildings that Castro and his soldiers secured was the Havana Hilton (now the Habana Libre). When opened in 1958 it had been the tallest hotel in Latin America and, as a symbol of American hegemony and the island’s status as a satrap sin bin for the US, it was the nonpareil.
Half a century later, in the hotel’s newly opened La Casa del Habano cigar shop, another revolution is taking place. It is only 10 o’clock in the morning, but already this large and airy shop is filled with the blue-grey smoke of more than 100 Havana cigars.
Each Friday towards the end of the year, regular weekly tastings of proposed new lines of cigars are held in Havana. Locations are never the same to ensure the secrecy with which the Cuban cigar industry likes to shroud its product development. In this one room are gathered some of the world’s most experienced and respected cigar smokers: every factory submits an expert panel of tasters called catadores, and they are joined by university lecturers, research scientists, tobacco-leaf experts, master blenders, export directors, production managers, and so on. Imagine a red-wine tasting featuring all the winemakers of the grands crus of Bordeaux, the châteaux owners, oenological experts and viticultural specialists, then chuck in Robert Parker for good measure, and you get a sense of the level at which this tasting operates. I have been going to Havana almost every year since 1995, and in 2007 I was named Habanos SA’s Havana Man of the Year, but only recently was I invited to participate in this, the star chamber of the cigar.
As this is Cuba, the atmosphere is relaxed, even jovial; after all, cigars are a pleasure. But one group seems not entirely at ease. While others chat animatedly, inspecting the glowing tips of their glossy café au lait-coloured sticks of tobacco, wafting them under their noses, or exhaling portentously and gazing pensively into the middle distance, this one knot of people is silent, even nervous. And soon it becomes clear why: we are tasting cigars that they have made and which will be launched in the UK in 2012. The cigar in question is a long robusto or canonaza (52-ring gauge and just under 6in in length) and is to be sold as the Punch Medalla d’Oro. It will be made in limited quantities, no more than 30,000 sticks, for the UK only. But what makes it really interesting is that it is not rolled in one of the better-known factories in Havana; instead, it comes from the José Manuel Seguí factory in a small town called Güira de Melena, about 40 miles south of Havana. And it is from the Seguí factory that this anxious group has come.
The Seguí factory, and almost a dozen others like it in a 100-mile radius of Havana, exists almost completely under the radar. The majority of Havana cigar importers around the world have not heard of Seguí, let alone visited it. The cigars made here are a cult, known only to a very few people outside Cuba.
Having visited, it is easy to see why. The factories of Havana are well used to visitors; Partagás and its associated shop and VIP smoking room is a favourite with Americans keen to savour the forbidden fruit of Cuban tobacco; and it is impossible to visit without being pestered by vendors of illicit cigars. By contrast, the atmosphere just 40 or 50 miles out of the capital is utterly different; transport is by bullock cart, horse and trap, bicycle and very occasionally a wheezing sexagenarian Oldsmobile or Soviet-era rustbucket. The loudest sound you will hear is a crowing cockerel. There is a simplicity and a Stakhanovite quality about these rural cigar factories. Even the director’s office is typically little more than a small room with a desk. The galera where 100 or so rollers work is little more than a large barn. Floors are of stamped earth or corrugated metal. Air conditioning is unknown. Hospitality is similarly warm and rudimentary, a shot glass of rum with a splash of Tu-Kola.
Yet the Seguí factory has been responsible for some of the most sensational cigars to come out of Cuba so far this century. “The cigars from Seguí are a revelation,” says Jemma Freeman, MD of Hunters & Frankau, the exclusive importer of Cuban cigars into the UK, “but virtually no one knows about them – only a handful of fanatical collectors around the world.” Edward Sahakian, chairman of Davidoff of London and one of very few, perhaps even the only cigar merchant ever, to visit, agrees: “I have been visiting Cuba since the 1980s and the cigars here are among the best I have ever tasted.”
I first heard about the Seguí factory two and a half years ago, when the Juan López Selección Suprema (£23 each at Davidoff) was launched in Britain. I had tasted some Juan López before and was unimpressed, so it was with low expectations that I clipped the end of this 6.5in 52-ring gauge cigar. It was a revelation; smooth, flavoursome without being too strong, intensifying in strength incrementally rather than hitting the palate explosively. It was beautifully rolled, and was neither overfilled and hard to draw upon nor with declivities indicating the under-filling that can lead to uneven burn. The wrapper was a marvel: silken, caramel in colour, with an inviting sheen. I became curious to visit the factory where these had been made.
As the Cuban economy is centralised and all the brands are the property of the state, no one factory produces a single marque. So while a cigar may have a home, such as Cohiba at El Laguito, and Partagás and its eponymous factory, production for additional cigars is assigned to factories with spare capacity. The factory of origin is denoted by a code stamped on each box and changed every few months to deter those wishing to sleuth out the produce of one factory or another.
In small runs, however, such as limited editions or regional specialities where production is in the tens rather than hundreds of thousands, the cigars come from a single factory. It was not a coincidence that when I first visited the Seguí factory it was piled with boxes of a 2009 Limited Edition H Upmann Magnum 48 (£14.50 each at Davidoff), which to my taste remains the most perfectly balanced of what I call “espresso cigars”, a 15-minute burst of flavour tailored to the needs of the cigar lover who has to contend with increasingly restrictive smoking laws.
Indeed, the more I looked into it the more it seemed that some of the best limited runs of recent years had been made at the Seguí factory: the Juan López Maximo, made for Switzerland in 2008; the Juan López Short Torpedo which appeared the same year in the Caribbean; Juan López Seleccion No 3 and No 4 made in 2010 for Benelux and Asia respectively; and the Fonseca No 4, also sold in the Low Countries.
As an interesting footnote, when I first visited the Seguí factory in 2009, they were also making one of the largest format cigars, the Sancho Panza Sanchos (£28.50 each at Davidoff), a broomstick of tobacco that takes at least two hours to appreciate. It is the sort of cigar that you can only smoke in Cuba or in your house with the curtains drawn – at almost a foot long, it looks ridiculous but tastes divine.
It is the rise of the regional edition, usually an obscure brand in an obscure size, that has brought the excellent work in the Seguí factory to the fore. And now, being asked to try its rollers’ hands at a prestigious regional edition in the internationally renowned brand Punch, it is in effect cementing its position in the premier league. As with the best things in Cuba, it seems to have happened entirely by accident. The only explanation that Oscar Basulto, the co-president of Habanos SA, advances for this rural centre of excellence is that “people from small towns seem to be more sensitive and hard-working than people from the city. A cigar factory in a small town is the heart of the village, and so it is highly appreciated by all the inhabitants, who devote dedication and love to it.”
And while he denies that there has been any conscious effort to raise the standard of out-of-town factories, it is worth noting that the factory in the tobacco-growing town of Pinar del Río, reasonably well known for a non-Havana operation, was designated the official home of Trinidad (from about £9.50 each at Davidoff), which, after Cohiba, is arguably Cuba’s second most prestigious marque.
To return to the smoke-filled room at the Habana Libre, where the Del Monte moment had arrived. Tasters had filled in slips rating the cigar on a variety of factors from appearance, construction and combustibility to aroma, strength and flavour. After a few minutes’ deliberation, before the results were announced, Basulto explained that both the cigars tasted were of such quality in terms of construction that the panellists’ minds needed to be focused not on the quality but on the cigar that best reflected the brand.
Essentially, this meant that one of these two wonderful cigars, which will be sold in Britain in the year of the Olympics, was to be rejected – as the name is Medalla d’Oro, there can only be one gold medallist. The ultimate choice is as yet unknown, but what was sure was that with this tasting, the Seguí factory had secured a place among the most illustrious of Havana names on the medallists’ podium.