Who started the Robusto Revolution?
AS DIFFICULT AS IT IS TO BELIEVE, THE ROBUSTO’S POPULARITY IS A RELATIVELY RECENT PHENOMENON. SIMON CHASE INVESTIGATES HOW THE VITOLA BECOME ONE OF THE WORLD’S FAVOURITES IN A FEW SHORT DECADES
THERE HAS BEEN NO greater upheaval during my five decades in the Havana cigar trade than the change in the preference for sizes of cigars. Had I prophesied 40 years ago that, one day, the most popular Cuban cigar size would be Robustos, I would have been laughed off the premises of any of the noble merchants of London’s St James’s Street. In those days, Havanas were virtually all Lonsdales, Coronas or Petit Coronas, all 42 ring gauge shapes, and, if anything, customers looking for alternatives would go for something even slimmer—like 33 ring gauge Ninfas or Palmas.
That is not to say that Robustos did not exist back then. There were four cigars that fitted the strict dimensions of 4 inches by 124mm by 50 ring gauge, which defined the vitola de galera, or factory name, Robusto: the Bolivar Royal Corona, the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, the Partagas Serie D No. 4 and the Ramon Allones Specially Selected. The problem was that nobody wanted to smoke them.
I know this is hard to believe these days. Over the years I have searched long and hard for a way to illustrate just how unpopular Robustos used to be. My quest ended during a conversation with my good friend and long-time colleague, Ana Lopez, mid 1980s, Ana was responsible for liaising with the Partagas factory. She recalled how, probably in 1985, the total annual order for Partagas Serie D No. 4 for all the markets in the world was just 5,000 cigars. Today the equivalent figure is measured in millions because the D4, as it is known, has become Cuba’s biggest selling single vitola.
The point at which what can only be described as the Robusto Revolution started was in 1989, when Cohiba first extended its range. Three new sizes were added to the original, slender gauge line-up of the Lanceros, Coronas Especiales and the Panetela, one of which was a Robusto size. What made this vitola different was that, for the first time, the name Robusto, which had previously been confined to the factory floor, came out into the public domain.
I remember those days well. London’s commercial life was dominated by the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of the City, known as the “Big Bang”. Sleepy financial institutions suddenly had to compete on world markets and long lunches topped with a leisurely Double Corona became a thing of the past. The
is a factory job card that I bought some years ago, along with several others, from a dealer in Havana. These cards carry all the information required by the factories to produce the right cigars in the right boxes to meet a customer’s needs. Their beauty is that they are normally dated.
Although the card in question is for the Belinda brand, it should be remembered that, before the revolution, Belinda was owned by F. Palicio & Co, which also made Hoyo de Monterrey. The front of the card shows the design for a cabinet of 25 cigars called the Belinda Epicure No. 1. Hand-written at the top, it gives the size as a Corona Gorda, like today’s Hoyo Epicure No. 1. It is dated July 1962. But the treasure lies on the back, where not only is the Corona Gorda size confirmed as the No. 1, but also the No. 2 is listed as Robustos. This is the earliest record I have ever come across of the use of the word Robustos in the Cuban industry.
The story of how the Belinda Epicure Nos. 1 and 2 morphed to Hoyo de Monterrey is lost, but it probably took place in the mid-1960s shortly after the word Robusto was coined.
Whether the title of the Founder of the Robusto Revolution should lie with Partagas or Hoyo remains a matter for conjecture, but our thanks are due to all those who, for many decades, worked on the size, particularly during its wilderness years, before it became what it is today—our favourite.