THE FES­TI­VAL DEL HA­BANO

WHAT TO EX­PECT IN 2016

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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

pos­i­tive re­sponses.

Cas­tro made an ap­pear­ance at my first Fes­ti­val del

Ha­bano.

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