My Top Ten Havanas
SIMON CHASE HAS THE DIFFICULT JOB OF LISTING HIS FAVOURITE HAVANA CIGARS, BUT WITH MORE THAN 40 YEARS IN THE BUSINESS HE BRAVELY UNDERTOOK THE TASK
ONE OF THE HARDEST things I do from time to time is to come up with a list of my top ten Havanas. The problem is that there are over 300 different brands and sizes in Habanos S.A.’S portfolio, so narrowing down the choice to just ten is a huge challenge. Tasting them is too, but, as I am about to celebrate my fortieth anniversary in the Havana trade, I have had a year or two to get the hang of what most of them are likely to offer gustatorily.
As it happens I conducted the same exercise in 1997 for a book someone wrote, and I did it again in 2007 for a magazine article. Repeating it now means that I can look back over twenty years to see if my tastes have changed and, if so, how.
On each occasion my purpose has been to arrive at a short list of cigars that over time I have found particularly satisfying in the hope that it might prove interesting, perhaps even useful, to fellow enthusiasts. There is one big caveat. My top ten is my top ten. It is based on my own tastes and preferences. I am often asked what is the best Havana. There is no answer to that, other than to say that it is the one that you enjoy most.
Another condition I lay down is that the selection should be made only from sizes that are part of the standard range in any brand. You are probably aware that since the turn of the century there has been an ever-increasing flow of short run specials from Cuba: Limited Editions with dark wrappers, Regional Specialties for particular countries, Reservas and Gran Reservas made with specially aged tobaccos from particular years’ harvests and so on. Whilst many of these cigars are terrific, they are never around for long. My goal is to share with you a selection of cigars that you will be able to buy this year, next year and thereafter - always assuming they stay in production.
In each list I have struck a balance between sizes, brands and thereby flavours. There are different sizes and tastes for different circumstances; for example, the time available to smoke, the accompanying drink, the menu just consumed and many more. I am aiming to cover most foreseeable eventualities and to create a selection that I would like to have on hand in my humidor so that I don’t have to rush out at the last minute in search of a solution.
On this basis, it is very important not to set too much store by the rank order of the cigars because most are selected for different purposes. However, there is one exception to this rule – No1. This is the cigar that I would choose above all others from Havana if the firing were levelling its rifles at my chest and I was granted a wish of one last cigar to smoke. In the past, the Ramon Allones Specially Selected has always held this position for me. To my surprise, I have changed my allegiance to a comparative newcomer The Hoyo de
“It is very important not to set too much store by the rank order of the cigars because most are selected for different purposes.”
Monterrey Le Hoyo de San Juan.
Many things can change over twenty years and one of them is the preference for taste. In 1997 I was fifty-something, in 2007 sixty-something and now I am seventy something. Just as many red wine lovers move as they grow older from the bold, Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wines of Bordeaux to the lighter Pinot Noirs from Burgundy, so I have found that my preference in Havanas has transferred to lighter, more complex tobacco blends.
1.THE HOYO DE MONTERREY LE HOYO DE SAN JUAN: LIGHT FLAVOUR 5 7/8”/150 MM X 54 RING GAUGE.
For some reason, I ignored this vitola when it first came out in 2014. Perhaps it was because Habanos S.A. had changed the size names on the Le Hoyo series from French (du Roi, du Prince, du Gourmet etc.) to Spanish (de San Juan) – I never approve of interfering with brands’ traditions. What I didn’t know was that the Cuban industry had undertaken a complete review of the nature of the tobaccos grown in its two most precious tobacco growing districts in Vuelta Abajo San Juan y Martinez and San Luis. The outcome of this work went into the blend for the San Juan. It produced a delightful light and subtle strain of leaves that form the basis for the blend. Once discovered, it went straight to the top of my list.
2. THE SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LA HABANA EL PRINCIPE: LIGHT TO MEDIUM 4 3/8”/110 MM X 42 RING GAUGE.
San Cristóbal de la Habana, the 16th century name for Havana City, was introduced as recently as 1999. At the height of the 1990s cigar boom, Fidel Castro realized that, for trademark reasons, Cuba would have very few, if any, brands to sell in the US if the embargo were lifted. Consequently, he instructed Habanos S.A. to create new ones. In total five brands were founded with this goal in mind between 1996 and the end of the 20th century: Cuaba, Vegueros, Vegas Robaina, Trinidad and finally San Cristóbal.
From the start, I liked all four of the original San Cristóbal sizes, which share a distinctive light to medium taste. Nevertheless, it is the baby of the range, El Principe, that is my pick. It is the perfect anytime smoke with a delightfully complex flavour that is a credit to the La Corona
“Despite the name, this is one cigar Churchill never smoked because it did not see the light of day until 2005.”
factory, the home also of Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey, where it’s made.
3. THE ROMEO Y JULIETA SHORT CHURCHILL: MEDIUM 4 7/8”/124 MM X 50 RING GAUGE.
How could a Brit compile a list of his top cigars without commemorating his county’s most famous cigar smoker? A mention of the man, who did more than any other to preserve our freedom, is all the more poignant these days when the forces of intolerance have made it so difficult for us to enjoy the cigars he loved.
Despite the name, this is one cigar Churchill never smoked because it did not see the light of day until 2005. The Short Churchill is a medium-bodied robusto that has proved remarkably reliable ever since.`
4. THE TRINIDAD VIGIA: MEDIUM FLAVOUR 4 3/8”/110 MM X 54 RING GAUGE.
Back in 1997 I was appointed to the tasting panel in Havana for the new blend of tobaccos to be used in the first Cuban Trinidad that was to be introduced to the
public, the Fundador. My contribution was minimal, but it gave me the chance to meet Raúl Valladares Snr, then the top tobacco blender at the state-owned corporation Tabacuba, which manages all the agricultural and manufacturing functions of the Cuban tobacco industry.
Raúl had been briefed by Habanos S.A.’S then Marketing Director, Ana Lopez, to bear two words in mind when creating his new confection: fragrance and aroma. There was plenty of scepticism at the time about whether it was possible to produce a distinctly different taste for a Cuban cigar. Raúl did it. I remember the first time I smoked it; it was smooth, easy and, above all, approachable.
The Vigia, which means a “lookout” and is named after a tower that once served such purpose on an old sugar mill near to the Cuban city of Trinidad. It was also introduced in 2014 and Raúl’s original blend is preserved in its chunky, modern format.
5. THE PARTAGAS SHORT: FULL FLAVOUR 4 3/8”/110 MM X 42 RING GAUGE.
Given my new taste preferences, you could argue that a full flavoured, small cigar has no place in my top ten. But the Short is an old friend, and there is still a need for a small cigar with plenty of flavour to kick- start the palate with a morning espresso. I find its old-style, 42 ring gauge format less overwhelming than some of the more recent, fatter short shapes from Partagas.
6.THE COHIBA SIGLO III: MEDIUM FLAVOUR 6⅛”/155 MM X 42 RING GAUGE.
This is cigar that brings back memories of a remarkable London launch dinner. It took place in November 1993 and was the first appearance of the Cohiba Siglo range outside Cuba. It was also the first night on which a box of cigars signed by Fidel Castro was auctioned for charity. They were Cohiba Lanceros in a box of 50 and they went for £12,500 ($18,750).
The Siglo III was the cigar that stuck in my mind that night and it has stayed there ever since. It is a medium bodied Corona with all of the class you expect from Cohiba.
7. THE RAMON ALLONES SPECIALLY SELECTED: FULL FLAVOUR 4 7/8”/124 MM X 50 RING GAUGE.
It’s quite a wrench to see the Specially Selected slip down my batting order. I almost struck it out, but thinking of how much we have been through together – it pre-dates my time in the trade – I simply couldn’t do it. It’s deep, earthy, full-bodied flavour will always be dear to me, but I choose it less often these days.
8. THE COHIBA BHK 52: FULL FLAVOUR 4¾”/119 MM X 52 RING GAUGE.
It was touch and go as to whether one of the BHKS would make the list. It’s always tempting to include the buzz-cigar of the moment, which applies to all the BHKS, but that doesn’t really appeal to me. What I do like about Cohiba’s latest Línea is that its taste is based on genuine tobacco innovation. Since my first visit to Cuba
“To me the medio tiempo adds an intense tobacco taste that is delicate rather than overpowering. I rate it medium, maybe medium to full.”
thirty-two years ago I have pursued the mystery of the medio tiempo grade of filler leaves. In 2010 it was harnessed for the BHK’S blend and it makes for a very special taste. Habanos S.A. classifies the BHKS as full flavoured. I disagree. To me the medio tiempo adds an intense tobacco taste that is delicate rather than overpowering. I rate it medium, maybe medium to full. The smallest format makes my list always assuming that you can find it, and afford it when you can.
9. THE H. UPMANN HALF CORONA: LIGHT TO MEDIUM FLAVOUR 3½” /90 MM X 44 RING GAUGE.
In a lecture at the 2006 Havana Festival I told a story about how at the beginning of the 20th century a tiny 3 ½ inch/90 millimetre cigar called a Half Corona became Britain’s biggest selling Havana. Five years later, as smoking bans took hold, Habanos S.A. introduced H. Upmann’s 21st century version. It is simply the most versatile cigar size and the perfect travelling companion.
10.THE MONTECRISTO NO. 2: MEDIUM FOR FULL FLAVOUR 6⅛”/156 MM X 52 RING GAUGE.
The Montecristo No. 2 is perhaps the most iconic of Cuban cigars. It was well established when I joined the trade and its rich medium to full flavour has kept it right up there. It defines the Pirámide or Torpedo shape, it is instantly recognizable, it burns beautifully, and I cannot think of any serious smoker I have met, who does not include it in their top ten. Nevertheless I am finding it a bit rich these days so I smoke fewer, but it has to make the cut.
So there you have it. Just four cigars have survived all three lists. Four newcomers have made into my 2017 pick. At my age it is inevitable that a conservative strain runs through the selection. It contains more 42 ring gauge cigars than you might choose. I have tiptoed into new fashion for heavy gauge, but cannot bring myself to exceed a 54 ring - after all, even if my taste preference is changing, my mouth isn’t getting any bigger.
Left-to-right: The Hoyo De Monterray; the San Cristobal de la Habana; The Romeo Y Julieta and the Trinidad Vigia
Top-to-bottom:the Patrigas Short; the Chobia Siglo and the Ramon Allones
Top-to-bottom: The H. Upmann half Corona and the Montecristo No. 2