THE FESTIVAL DEL HABANO
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2016
On a Saturday afternoon in September, I was seated amongst a group of aficionados in my local cigar store where “sampling” is permitted. We had discussed topics ranging from Europe’s migration crisis to the underwhelming start to the season by the nearby Chelsea Football Club. After a pause someone said, “It’s about time I went to another Festival. Is there anything special happening next year?”
My first response was that if he did decide to go, he should make sure he got the right dates. As a rule of thumb, the Festival del Habano takes place during the last week of February. But in 2016, a leap year, the end of February is unusual because 29 February falls on a Monday. In its wisdom, Habanos S.A. has decided that the Festival will start on that Monday and run through until 4 March, so in fact only one day is in February. I know several die-hard Festival goers who booked flights and hotels well in advance only to find they had picked the wrong week.
Otherwise, I continued, there will be all the usual features like visits to the plantations in Pinar del Rio to see the harvest, conducted tours of Havana’s cigar factories, a seminar with a chance to learn how to roll a cigar yourself and a lively social programme starting with the Welcome Night party, a midweek dinner and the spectacular Gala Dinner and Auction on the Friday night.
Finally I added that the 2016 Festival, or the XVIII as they call it locally, is likely to be a bit special because it will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cohiba.
I will have to wait and see if my cigar smoking companion was sufficiently moved to invest in transatlantic tickets, but my mind inevitably turned to previous Cohiba events I had attended in Havana.
The first was a dinner that took place at the open-air Tropicana nightclub on Friday, 28 February, 1997. Its purpose was to celebrate Cohiba’s 30th anniversary, which actually fell in 1996, but things were difficult in Havana at that time, so in classic Cuban style it had been postponed by a couple of months. Nobody minded.
It was the height of the cigar boom in America and two years before the Festival as we know it today was founded. A couple of weeks before I left London for Havana, I received a telephone call from a wellknown journalist at The Sunday Times. He had heard about the dinner and asked me to confirm that all the Hollywood A-listers, who had appeared recently on the front covers of Cigar Aficionado magazine, had been invited by Habanos S.A. to attend. These included the likes of Tom Sellick, Danny de Vito, Demi Moore and Matt Dillon. I was well aware that back then Habanos S.A. never invited any particular individuals to events, so painstakingly I explained that this was not the way in which things worked in Havana and that the rumours were untrue.
A week later the story broke. All the celebs had been invited and they were going to be there. It went viral, albeit only in newsprint in those days, so much so that the US Treasury Department felt it had to issue a press release stating that if any US citizens did go to Cuba for the dinner they would be in serious trouble when they got home.
When I got to Havana the atmosphere was one of electric anticipation. Over 150 journalists and photographers had registered to attend what promised to be the celeb-fest of the year.
On the night just one Hollywood name braved his government’s wrath, perhaps emboldened by the fact that in his main movie roles he had been encased anonymously in a modern-day suit of armour. He remains anonymous to this day.
Nevertheless the prospect of global media coverage prompted President Fidel Castro to make his first ever appearance at a public cigar event just as the dessert was served. One journalist described his arrival as “like Elvis returning from the dead”. The place
went mad. Guests clambered over the tables to get a closer look. Once things settled down, the President gave a 50-minute peroration and then there was an auction.
Amongst the auction lots were two of the 30th Anniversary Cohiba humidors containing 50 Robustos Especiales, a special size measuring 192mm (7 ½ inches) by 50 ring gauge – the length of the longest and the girth of the fattest Cohibas made at that time. Only 45 of these numbered humidors were made. The original idea had been to auction only one, No. 30, but another, No. 1, had been given to Fidel Castro. After the President explained that, although he still dreamt of cigars, he had given up smoking them a decade before, he put his humidor into the auction to raise funds for the Cuban Public Health Service. It went for $49,000 to the late Nicholas Freeman of Hunters & Frankau, where it remains to this day.
There was another humidor containing 90 cigars created by Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamin, of which just 30 were made, and also 1,000 ceramic jars containing 25 Siglo Vs bearing the 30th Anniversary band were released.
Four years later in 2001, another commemorative humidor appeared to mark the 35th anniversary. Five-hundred were released containing 135 cigars including some rare sizes such as the Montecristo A-sized Cohiba Gran Corona and the Piramide.
Then, as 2006 approached, speculation mounted about how the 40th Anniversary in 2006 would be marked. Habanos S.A. responded with the now legendary Behike humidor produced by Elie Bleu. Just 100 were made, each containing 40 cigars. The vitola followed the same formula as had been used 10 years earlier for the Robusto Especial – the length of longest and the girth of the fattest cigar in Cohiba’s stan-
dard range. The length remained the same but the ring gauge went up to 52. A global retail price of € 15,000 was fixed for these rare boxes, but today, if you could find one to buy, you would have to think of paying around € 200,000 for it.
The 45th Anniversary was a comparatively low-key affair. It was celebrated with a Limited Edition release, the first from Cohiba for five years, called the Cohiba - Cohiba 1966. If any enthusiasts were displeased by the absence of a commemorative humidor, their disappointment was soon overcome when they tasted this Cañonazo Especial size, which measured 166mm (6½ inch) by 52 ring gauge cigar. It was a stunner.
Now the 50th Anniversary is almost upon us and what is Habanos S.A. planning to do about it?
My guess—and let me assure you it is only a guess because I am not privy to their plans—is that we can expect at least one commemorative humidor. But how on earth will they match, or surpass, the 2006 40th Anniversary Behike humidor? Who will make it, how many cigars will it contain and will there be more than 100 or fewer?
If they follow the previous anniversary formula, i.e. the length of the longest and the ring gauge of the fattest vitolas in Cohiba’s standard range, we can expect a cigar that is 192mm (7½ inches) long by 56 ring gauge. That is one big cigar.
Given the extraordinary success of last year’s Cohiba Limited Edition, the Robusto Supremo, will they be tempted to go to a 58 gauge monster?
Two years ago, I was told there would be a 60 ring gauge Cohiba in the humidor to be auctioned at the Gala Dinner. Shortly before I left for Havana I heard that the plan had been dropped because Tabacuba was not happy with the blend. After two years of practice, have they got the blend right, and will they decide to make the Cuban industry’s first ever 60 ring gauge vitola for Cohiba’s 50th?
To find out for sure, you have got to be in Havana from 29 February to 4 March. I hope to see you there.
Could we expect a 60 ring gauge from Cohiba this year?
Cohiba’s larger sticks have been garnering
Castro made an appearance at my first Festival del