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

Virtuozity - - The Humidor -

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

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