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Cuban Cigars

Famous Cuban Cigars: Cohiba Esplendido

J. Bennett Alexander Alexander's picture

J. Bennett Alexander

I remember it well. The Cohiba Esplendido, a 7 x 47 Churchill, was introduced in 1989 as part of the expanded Cohiba Linea Clasica (Classic Line). Also introduced that year was the Cohiba Robusto. Immediately, all the promise and all the problems of the early Cohiba production became evident.

Cohiba’s History

If you follow our reporting, you know that the Cohiba brand came about as a result of serendipity. The story goes that, in or around 1966, Fidel Castro liked the aroma of a cigar one of his bodyguards was smoking. Castro himself explained the origins in a 1994 interview with Cigar Aficionado.

"I used to see the man smoking a very aromatic, very nice cigar,” Castro recounted, “and I asked him what brand he was smoking. He told me that it was a special blend, but that it came from a friend who makes cigars and he gave them to him. I said, let's find this man. I tried the cigar, and I found it so good that we got in touch with him and asked him how he made it. Then we set up the house [the El Laguito factory], and he explained the blend of tobacco he used. He told which leaves he used from which tobacco plantations. He also told us about the wrappers he used and other things. We found a group of cigar makers. We gave them the material and that is how the factory was founded. Now Cohiba is known all over the world."

The legend was born. Initially, the Cohiba cigars were a private brand used as diplomatic gifts and among high-ranking Cuban officials. In 1982, Cohiba (which is the Taino Indian word for tobacco) was launched as a commercial brand with the introduction of the Cohiba Panatela, 4.5 x 26. Seven years later, the world got the Cohiba Esplendido.

The Promise

At its best, the Cohiba Esplendido shows off a rich palate of full-bodied flavor. Full-bodied for a Cuban cigar, that is. Earlier ones had strong notes of salted caramel, black cherry, and apple. At nearly US$70-plus a cigar in London’s James J. Fox emporium, this is a cigar that really should never disappoint. In 2014, Cigar Aficionado named the Cohiba Esplendido the number 11 cigar of the year, and it has always ranked high in the magazine’s ratings and reviews. In Puerto Vallarta’s La Casa del Habano, the official Cuban cigar store, I was surprised to see the Esplendido for a little more than US$40 in 2019. Canada has prices similar to those in London thanks to taxes.

The Problems

Very simply, like many Cuban cigars, and especially the brands that quickly become popular, the Cohiba Esplendido suffered from its own success. Early on, the cigar was lauded and was fairly consistent. Trouble came soon. The Cuban nation and its cigar industry, which in the late 1980s and the 1990s felt the impact of the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of subsidies, was desperate for cash. After the Soviet crash, Cuba’s GDP declined 33 percent between 1990 and 1993. Exports fell by 61%. The Cuban cigar industry had little money to invest in infrastructure, especially farms and factories. By the late 1990s, as a result of trying to produce too many cigars with too-young tobacco, including the wrapper leaves, Cuban cigar quality fell dramatically. Many cigars were plugged, meaning you couldn’t draw much smoke through them. This, it seemed, was especially the case with the more popular brands. And many of them were counterfeits.

Roller Coaster of Quality

In 1989, I smoked my first Cohiba Esplendido in Cuba. And my first Cohiba Robusto. I found the Esplendido to be tight. The flavor, from the limited smoke that came through, was fairly full, but grassy. This is usually the sign of young tobacco or a cigar that has not been properly aged. The Robusto was different. It was almost perfect, though still a little grassy. The Robusto has generally been well made over the years. The Esplendido has been riding a roller coaster. Why?

I feel that one out of every three Esplendidos I have smoked has either been a counterfeit or very poorly constructed. I don’t really remember buying more than a couple, and that was in Cuba. Those were fine. But as Cuba continued to suffer economically and as its cigar industry continued to lose talent as rollers left the country or aged out, the Esplendido became an iffy investment.

The Comeback

Late in the 1990s, the Cubans pushed to produce more than 200 million cigars. They fully understood that meant quality would decline, but they needed the income. The partial salvation came in 2000, when the French-Spanish tobacco company, Altadis, purchased half of Habanos, SA. This brought a much-needed investment to the Cuban cigar industry to begin a return to better quality.

Today, the Splendid Esplendido

In the last few years, the Cohiba Esplendido has reached a more consistent level of quality that harks back to the early days. The ratings in most reviews are high, but the flavor profile has been recognized as medium since the spectrum of power in a cigar has expanded over the years. Today, the Cohiba Esplendido is solidly in the mainstream of Cuban cigars. I do think the flavor has become a bit more complex in the Esplendido. The most recent smoking experience yielded some citrus notes and some vanilla. There was a bit of spice, and some leather and caramel in the finish. It’s a better cigar today. And, again, it is considered to be among the most counterfeited cigars in the world. That’s clearly a mark of success, but it’s important to note that while even the best Esplendido can, indeed, be a splendid smoking experience, some of them still have a tendency to be a little too tight on the draw.

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