An­niver­saries are worth wait­ing for

Hav­ing fi­nally got His Hands on the Mon­te­cristo aniver­sario 80, si­mon chase Muses on the brand’s His­tory

Virtuozity - - The Humidor -

In my April 2015 col­umn, I re­ported the im­mi­nent ar­rival of a mighty cigar from mon­te­cristo, the 155 mm by 55 ring gauge Aniver­sario 80. It had been show­cased at the 2015 Fes­ti­val del Ha­bano and was ex­pected as the fo­cal point of the birth­day cel­e­bra­tions for Cuba’s most pop­u­lar brand that had been founded 80 years be­fore, in 1935.

How­ever, at the time of writ­ing this col­umn, suf­fi­cient quan­ti­ties of these cel­e­bra­tory cigars to stage a launch have not yet been shipped to the world’s Ha­banos dis­trib­u­tors, al­though there is ev­ery chance that they will have been by the time you read these words.

An­niver­saries are al­ways a prob­lem be­cause they tie you to a date. Those of us who are mar­ried know it’s all too easy to for­get them com­pletely, but in the world of Cuban cigars, what al­most amounts to a tra­di­tion has built up of let­ting the dates slip by a lit­tle. I re­mem­ber when, in novem­ber 1992, Co­hiba’s línea 1492 cigars were an­nounced to mark the 500th an­niver­sary of Christo­pher Colum­bus’s dis­cov­ery of to­bacco. There were a few Sig­los in Ha­vana, but a whole year passed be­fore they were avail­able in the world at large. like­wise, Co­hiba’s 30th An­niver­sary was not cel­e­brated un­til 1997, 31 years af­ter its birth.

The causes of de­lays when you are mak­ing a brand new, premium cigar can be many. In the sim­plest terms, you must have the to­bacco, the per­fect blend of leaves and the boxes to put the cigars into. In the case of the mon­te­cristo Aniver­sario 80, most of the cigars were made in good time last year and there was a con­fi­dent smile on the mas­ter blender’s face, but the boxes fell foul of the Cuban-amer­i­can trade em­bargo. Those of you who be­lieve that the em­bargo is a thing of the past have an­other thing com­ing. Vir­tu­ally noth­ing has changed since Barak Obama’s shock an­nounce­ment in De­cem­ber 2014, and there are now moves in the repub­li­can-dom­i­nated US Congress to make the em­bargo even tighter.

So, as 2016 ticks away, we are still await­ing these spe­cial cigars in their boxes, which

were fi­nally man­u­fac­tured out­side Cuba.

Look­ing back, as I tend to do in these col­umns, I can find some his­tor­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for this sit­u­a­tion.

Mon­te­cristo was the brain­child of two Spa­niards who had set­tled in Cuba— Alonso Me­nen­dez and José Manuel (Pépé) Gar­cía. The for­mer came from a fam­ily of leaf bro­kers and the lat­ter had been a se­nior man­ager at Parta­gas. To­gether, they em­barked on a new ven­ture when they bought a com­pany called Par­tic­u­lares S.A., which made cigars un­der its own name as well as the Lord By­ron brand, which en­joyed note­wor­thy suc­cess in the UK.

The first ever men­tion of Mon­te­cristo in print ap­peared in the Au­gust 1935 is­sue of the Cuban cigar in­dus­try mag­a­zine, Ha­bano. Alonso Me­nen­dez gave his new baby the briefest pos­si­ble men­tion in a piece about re­struc­tur­ing Par­tic­u­lares S.A. The ar­ti­cle went on to say that his part­ner, Pépé Gar­cía, would shortly be vis­it­ing Eng­land to ex­plain what was go­ing on.

Pépé’s real goal in Lon­don was to find an im­porter for Mon­te­cristo in the UK, which in those days was the largest sin­gle mar­ket for Ha­vanas. Leg­end has it that he vis­ited all the ma­jor Bri­tish com­pa­nies, but none of them showed the slight­est in­ter­est in his fledg­ling brand. Then he ar­rived at John Hunter, Mor­ris & Elkan Ltd, one of the fore­bears of Hunters & Frankau, the present day Ha­banos Dis­trib­u­tor in the UK. It was here that the 35-year-old manag­ing di­rec­tor, a for­mer First World War pi­lot called Jack Ben­ham, saw the po­ten­tial for a more modern style of Ha­vana brand and asked to be its dis­trib­u­tor.

Sadly, Ben­ham, who is cred­ited with help­ing to de­sign Mon­te­cristo’s dis­tinc­tive liv­ery, was killed in ac­tion two years af­ter

re-join­ing the RAF in 1939 and never saw his con­fi­dence in the brand re­warded as it climbed to be­come Ha­vana’s most pop­u­lar cigar.

Pépé was still in the UK in De­cem­ber 1935 when he was in­ter­viewed by To­bacco Mag­a­zine. They asked what he thought English cigar smok­ers. A diplo­mat to his fin­ger­tips, he replied: “They are the best judges of cigars in the world. If there’s any­thing wrong with a ship­ment, the first com­plaint comes from Eng­land; any­thing ex­tra spe­cial, the first praise is from an English­man.”

Shortly af­ter Pépé re­turned to Cuba, Hunters re­ceived a let­ter from Alonso Me­nen­dez of­fer­ing them a 15-year con­tract, af­ter a two-year trial pe­riod “in re­gard to the ex­clu­sive reservation for the English mar­ket of our brand “Mon­te­cristo”. It was dated 10 Fe­bru­ary, 1936.

I find it quite re­mark­able that this re­la­tion­ship with Mon­te­cristo be­tween the man­u­fac­turer in Cuba and its Bri­tish dis­trib­u­tor has con­tin­ued un­bro­ken ever since, through thick and thin, de­spite the ef­fects of a World War and a Revo­lu­tion.

The United States was the other mar­ket where Me­nen­dez and Gar­cia wanted to sell Mon­te­cristo, but the brand was al­ready owned there by a to­bacco fam­ily called Cull­man. If the name is fa­mil­iar, think of the late Edgar M. Cull­man Sr., erst­while pres­i­dent of the Gen­eral Cigar Com­pany and the man who, more than any other, made Ma­canudo what it is to­day. I once heard Edgar tell the story of how, in the mid-1930s, his fa­ther, Joseph Cull­man Jr. sold the Mon­te­cristo

trade­mark in the USA to Benjamin Me­nen­dez, Alonso’s fa­ther, for $1.

“It was a lit­tle naive on my fa­ther’s part,” com­mented Edgar, “when you con­sider the worth of the mark to­day.” But the two fam­i­lies were firm friends and that was how busi­ness was done back then.

Which mar­ket re­ceived the first ship­ment of Mon­te­cristo is not clear, but the first cigars started to ar­rive in Bri­tain in March 1936, which means that 2016 is the more ap­pro­pri­ate year to cel­e­brate the 80th an­niver­sary than 2015 was.

With this in mind, Hunters & Frankau man­aged to ob­tain enough Mon­te­cristo Aniver­sario 80s to serve at its an­nual Sum­mer Cigar Party, which took place this year in the Gar­den Lounge at Lon­don’s Corinthia Ho­tel on 14 June. One-hun­dred-and-fifty guests, me in­cluded, were able to smoke the cigar at long last.

There is no doubt that the Aniver­sario 80 is a large cigar. To be hon­est, these days, I tend to quail at some of the heavy-girth cigars I see. A 55 ring gauge is about as far as I am pre­pared to go. Cou­ple that with over 15 cen­time­tres, or six inches, of solid to­bacco and the cigar has to be re­ally in­ter­est­ing if I am to fin­ish it. The big ques­tion for me about this cigar was whether it would live up to its medium-to-full-flavoured billing and, more im­por­tantly, if it would dis­play the clas­sic tangy Mon­te­cristo taste with hints of orange peel.

Per­haps be­cause of the girth, the cor­rect rich­ness of flavour was ev­i­dent al­most from the start. I had to be more pa­tient for the tangi­ness, but by the time I reached the sec­ond third, there it was. And it in­creased all the way through un­til I aban­doned not much more than an inch in an ash­tray.

If this English­man lives up to Pépé Gar­cía’s diplo­matic de­scrip­tion all those years ago, and as­sum­ing that he meant what he said in the first place, then I would say the Aniver­sario 80 is “ex­tra spe­cial” and has been well worth wait­ing for.

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