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

Virtuozity - - The Humidor -

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.

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