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Cigar Culture

All About The Habanos Cigar Festival

J. Bennett Alexander Alexander's picture

J. Bennett Alexander

It seems to me that there is a lot of FOMO among cigar aficionados. (FOMO is “fear of missing out” in case you missed that memo.) I sense that most veteran cigar smokers tend to exhibit less FOMO, probably because a lot of them have “been-there-done-that.” Among the things that most younger cigar lovers really, really, really want to do is go to Cuba. And when they learn that every year the Cubans hold a cigar festival, well, the number of times one can use “really” becomes embarrassing.

THE HABANOS CIGAR FESTIVAL

This week-long event takes place every February and has since 1998. The gathering is designed to celebrate Cuban cigars and each year new cigars are introduced – either blends or shapes – under iconic brand labels. In 2020, the event started on February 25, as always with a kickoff party, this year dedicated to the Bolivar brand.

OPENING NIGHT

As is the custom, attendees are handed two cigars. On this night, one was a Bolivar Royal Corona, a Robusto, 4.875 x 50, about $28, that was Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar of the Year from 2006; and the second was a Bolivar Libertador, 6.5 x 54, about $36, a La Casa del Habano exclusive cigar. (La Casa del Habano is the name of the official Cuban cigar shops around the world.) These puros were given to guests as they entered the old Biltmore Yacht and Country Club in Havana. The name was changed to Club Habana after the Castro Revolution.

The day before, Habanos S.A., the state-run Cuban cigar operation, announced that a new Bolivar would be released, a Belicoso Fino, 5.5 x 52, about $27-plus, as a reserve from the 2016 harvest. It’s the first time a Bolivar has gotten the reserve designation. That cigar was included in the bag given at registration for the festival. The new thing at the opening party this year was an aerial acrobat floating over the cocktail party. She was tethered to a hot air balloon and held a box of the new release.

The party moved into the club itself where there was live music, food, drinks – including, of course, Cuban rum – and ashtrays.

WHO ATTENDS AND WHAT DO THEY DO THERE?

The usual suspects include cigar retailers, distributors, and fans. If you’re paying for yourself, expect to shell out close to $1,000 for the complete program. This will include the opening reception, visits to tobacco plantations, factory tours, a gala dinner, a farewell lunch and, before that, a visit to the trade fair where the newly introduced cigars will be showcased.  There will be tastings along the way. Additionally, there is now an annual Habanos World Challenge.

THE HABANOS WORLD CHALLENGE

The first round is on the opening day. The event tests your knowledge of Cuban cigars. Think of it as Trivial Pursuit for cigars. The first part has 30 questions among five categories, including cigar testing and tobacco cultivation. There’s a blind tasting in which you have to state the factory name, brand, flavor, and a pairing suggestion for each cigar. Personally, I find the whole thing rather contrary to the idea of actually enjoying a cigar. Too much pressure! Only the very accomplished aficionados are even considered as worthy of this event. Most of the good ones work in some of the finest shops around the world and “train” all year for this event. (I helped a participant who worked at a London cigar shop “work out” one day last year over champagne and some Montecristo Linea 1935 Dumas cigars.)

FACTORY TOURS

During this festival, the tours offered were of the Partagas factory in old Havana where cigars are no longer made, but can be bought; and La Corona, which makes a lot of different brands including Romeo y Julieta, Hoyo de Monterrey, and some Montecristos. Each is worth the time.

THE TRADE SHOW

This is where all the new Cuban cigar products for the year are unveiled. You can see and taste the cigars and learn about the blends and when the cigars will be available. This year, there will be regional releases for Partagás, Bolivar, and Hoyo de Monterey. This is a fun event as you meet a lot of like-minded people and share opinions about the cigars.

HONORING MONTECRISTO

This year’s festival banquet feted the 30 years of La Casa del Habano, and 85 years of the Montecristo brand. There was a cocktail party and dinner, and then you smoke the cigars offered that night, beginning with a Montecristo Media Corona, 3.5 x 44, about $13. After each course of dinner, another cigar is offered, beginning with a Montecristo Open Master, 4.875 x 50, about $27.

The second cigar at dinner was the Montecristo Supremos Edición Limitada 2019, 5 x 55, about $35. This fattest of Montecristos is difficult to find, first because it’s a limited edition and also because many distributors and shops are still waiting to be shipped the first boxes.

The final cigar of the dinner was the Montecristo Linea 1935 Leyenda, 6.5 x 55, nearly $50. This is Montecristo’s version of a super-premium line. You get to pay just that much more for it too.

The farewell cigar in everybody’s swag bag on this night was the Montecristo Herederos, 6.375 x 47, price TBA. Two of them were in a leather two-finger case embossed with the La Casa del Habano logo. This, many later agreed, was the best cigar of the evening.

BOTTOM LINE

There’s no question that the Habanos Cigar Festival is something that, if you’re a true lover of Cuban cigars and are likely to go to Cuba only once, you should definitely try to attend. The festival attracts a lot of celebrities, including Americans, and everyone is pretty relaxed. I will tell you, there are a lot more perks if you’re a member of the media covering the event and you get invited to private parties and talk to a lot of interesting people about cigars. You’ll have plenty of time to go shopping and be frustrated when you can’t find your favorite vitolas. The large cigars go fast.

My suggestion, FOMO aside, is to try to get to the festival, but add a few days or a week to your trip and get to know Cuba beyond the world of cigars. It’s a very valuable, if disturbing, perspective. And, yes, you’ll see old American cars.

If you can’t make the festival, do what I’ve done on other trips. Get some friends together, rent an apartment and spend your days in Havana smoking, drinking, and eating. You’ll still be able to tour the plantations and the factories and you’ll have a lot less competition for cigars in the shops.

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