My first full day in Havana started out early, albeit not as early as the day before. I was up at 5 a.m. just in time to see the sun rise, well rested and eager to get started. The first thing that needed to be done was possibly the most important: getting press passes from both the country of Cuba that would allow me to photograph in the country as well as a pass from Habanos S.A. that would allow me to photograph all of the festival related activities.
After that long and somewhat drawn out process—which actually did not conclude until after the first event—it was time for the press conference. Enrique Babot Espinosa, Habanos S.A.’s chief of market operations, spoke and answered questions about Habanos S.A., its assorted business dealings and the future and there were a few interesting tidbits that came to light.
In terms of attendance, there will be a total of approximately 2,000 attendees to the festival this year, as well as 180 journalists and 70 companies from 11 countries taking part in the fair itself. According to Espinosa, Habanos S.A. brought in $445 million in revenue in 2016, selling 450 million units total. In addition, the company says that its sales account for 70 percent of the world’s market share, excluding the U.S.
In response to some questions from the audience, Espinosa told the assembled crowd that while Habanos S.A. sees the relaxing of the U.S. regulations dictating the number of products that people can bring back from Cuba as a positive thing, the overall impact in terms of turnover of product has not been significant. In addition, a question from the audience prompted Espinosa to reassure the crowd that Habanos S.A. is both “willing and able” to cover any additional demand of its products if the embargo was lifted.
After the press conference was over, I meandered over to the Trade Show, which was showing off some very new cigars like the H. Upmann Sir Winston Gran Reserva Cosecha 2011, Cohiba Talisman Edición Limitada 2017, Partagás Serie No.1 Edición Limitada 2017 and Punch Regios de Punch Edición Limitada 2017. In addition, Habanos S.A. previewed the H.Upmann Connoisseur B and the Trinidad La Trova, both of which are new additions to its La Casa del Habano (LCDH) Series, where they will be sold exclusively.
As was the case last year, the Trade Show is quite small—albeit with about 20 more exhibitors—and the majority were showing off the same things they always do, but there were a couple of vendors showing off some interesting new products, the first of which was Humidors Habana, which had an amazing custom-made humidor that was made in the shape of a boat complete with cannon, oars and a castle turret on top.
Second, Havana Club was showing off its Tributo 2017, a 40 percent ABV rum that is the second release in the company’s Tributo Series. Limited to just 2,500 bottles, the rum for this series is personally selected from Havana Club’s Abel Morales and will debut every year at the Festival del Habano.
Finally, one of the most interesting additions to the show was from Escultor del Tabaco, which brought a five-foot figure made entirely of tobacco by artist Janio Nuñez Leal. According to the company, the project took more than six months to complete and incorporates more than 75 pounds of tobacco from the Vuelta Abajo region of Cuba.
After I walked around the Trade Show for a while, I decided to visit the 16th International Habanosommelier competition, which was going through its preliminary rounds. As in years past, the event involves contestants who judge a combination of a Cuban cigar and a drink of their choosing.
However, while last year’s event was nicknamed the Maestro de Maestros—or Master of Masters—this year’s competition includes people from around the world who had won events in their home countries: Jesus E. Chacon (Cuba), Kristin Hordejuk (UAE), Slalomer Marek Bielicki (U.K.), Andrea Balzani (Italy) and Felipe Rojas (Chile).
The event started off with a blindfolded tasting session during which each contestant drank from five different cups in order to try and determine the amount of age on five different spirits. After that, Chacon, Balzani and Rojas continued their trials, which consisted of a Habanosommelier lighting and explaining some of the history behind the cigars they chose to smoke as well as the beverage that they chose to pair it with. In addition, each of the contestants demonstrated their knowledge of Habanos S.A. in “creative ways,” both by competing in some practical tests as well as by proposing a “unique and innovative pairing of their own creation.”
After that, it was time to get ready for the Welcome Evening, which this year was being held at the historic Club Habana, which is located on a beach on the western side of the city. Opened in 1928, the location has gorgeous outside lounges and plenty of space for an event of this magnitude.
Or, at least that was the plan.
Unfortunately, mother nature did not cooperate, and it started pouring down in a virtual monsoon about one hour before the event was scheduled to start. As a result, the beach section of the event was closed, all but one of the musical acts that were scheduled to perform were cancelled and the festivities started about two hours late.
Having said that, attendees were still able to smoke the H. Upmann Sir Winston Gran Reserva Cosecha 2011 as well as three other cigars–and it did not rain for the remainder of the night.