The fifth and final day of the XVII Festival Habanos seemed like it might be a quiet day, but by the time the lights came on at the PABEXPO center after the gala closing dinner, it turned out to be fairly full finale.
Friday started with the final round of the Habanosommelier competition, with a packed room of festival attendees and media to watch. It’s a different format from the first round, which was held on Monday, as three finalists are randomly given a scenario that they would encounter in their role as a Habanosommelier: a married couple celebrating their 10th anniversary, a pair of ladies who just graduated from a Habanosommelier program, or business colleagues looking for a smoke after dinner.
Each contestant is given a menu of drinks and cigars—16 different vitolas from six different brands—from which they are to work from. The sommelier must engage the “customers” before making his recommendation, asking what they have recently eaten, what they like to drink, how much time they have and so on, and then present the menus before making a pair of cigar recommendations. Each section gets about five minutes of presentation time, and then a specific recommendation is to be made to one of the two customers, with preparation of the cigar to commence immediately after. The total process is about 30 minutes and is an interesting process to watch in person and one that is rarely seen by most cigar consumers.
It is a balance of presentation, knowledge and technical skills—a successful contestant must be absolutely correct in his knowledge of the cigars at hand, as there is simply no room for factual errors, but at the same time must also exude personality and professionalism, able to quickly transform a convention center room into a restaurant or bar and find an immediate connection to the people playing the role of customers.
With another coffee and pastry break following the competition, it was onto a master lecture on the Montecristo marca, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. International Market Supervisor Roberto Delgado Pérez led the talk about one of the youngest of Habanos S.A.’s global brands, which also include Cohiba, Hoyo de Monterrey, Partagás, H. Upmann and Jose L. Piedra. The brand was the creation of Alonso Menéndez, a businessman from New York and Florida who established the line in 1935 in Cuba, specifically in the Particulares factory at Virtudes 609 in Habana Vieja. The brand has moved factories several times, first to the new H. Upmann factory created in 1944 to a former cigarette factory to its current location at the site visited earlier this week. The line originally came out as part of the Particulares line, but broke away and stood on its own in advertisements in 1937.
The line started with five sizes, numbered sequentially from biggest to smallest, No.1 through No.5. Alfred Dunhill added his name to a number of the first line extensions; first, the Los Supremas line simply added his logo to the box while keeping the same five sizes, then the Dunhill Especial No.1 and Dunhill Selección Suprema Tubos Coronas Grandes joined the portfolio, the collection of which helped to grow the name both in Europe and the United States, as well as around the world.
Of course, there is the issue of when the brand was taken over by the Cuban government; the phrase “handed over” was used and certainly doesn’t adequately address the full truth of the matter. Having spoken with several people about the takeover, including Benji Menéndez, hearing the praise of Alonso Menéndez throughout the day just didn’t sit right with me, as I sensed that if he’d have his way, the brand would still be in the family as opposed to in the hands of the Cuban government.
Numerous other vitolas were added and subsequently discontinued after 1970, such as the Montecristo A & B, the former of which still exists, and the 36 x 125 (4 11/12 inches) No.6 and 28 x 175 (6 8/9 inches) No.7, introduced in 1980 and discontinued 1998. The line has also seen a number of limited edition releases, from the Millennium Robusto in 1999 to several releases under the Edición Limitada banner and the Gran Reserva releases in 2007 and 2011. The Montecristo Open line debuted in 2009, directed to the next generation of cigar smokers that is a bit milder than the core line but found favor among a wide range of smokers. Several other additions have joined the line, from the expanded Edmundo line, the Petit No.2 and the recently released Montecristo Añejados Churchill, both a new size and new aging process the cigar goes through before being released to the market. From the original five vitolas, the line currently sits at 21 vitolas
As mentioned earlier in the week, the brand has also been used as part of Habanos S.A.’s diversification efforts, from Edmundo Dantes rum to Montecristo coffee.
Currently, Montecristo accounts for 15 percent of the total number of units sold by Habanos and 18 percent of sales revenue, while the Montecristo No.4 is the best selling vitola in the line.
The half day in the convention center wrapped up with the official closing of the trade fair and the presentation of several awards for best trade show booth, as well as the announcement of the winner of the International Habanosomellier Contest and longest ash contest. Ali Alami from Kuwait ended up with the longest ash yesterday, smoking his San Cristobal de La Habana Morro from 180mm (7 1/10 inches) down to just 11mm—less than a half inch—while Walter Saes from Brazil claimed the International Habanosomellier title. Having seen both his first and second round performances, it was clear to see that he understood exactly what was needed to win the competition, balancing a thorough knowledge of the Habanos S.A. portfolio with a jovial and passionate attitude toward cigars, spirits and creating pairings in the interest of satisfying his customers’ interests.
A note from the trade show—according to a source with Habanos S.A., there’s no sign of ELs in the booth because they wanted to keep the focus on three new releases this week, as well as the Añejados releases. They’re still coming and are on schedule, per the company, but any follower of the Cuban cigar industry knows what that can mean. There are also a number of other new releases that weren’t on display, more on that later.
The final event of the day and the XVII Festival Habanos happens this evening at the PABEXPO center: the Gala Night, which is dedicated to Montecristo and features the official unveiling of the Montecristo 80 Aniversario, as well as the humidor auction. It’s a massive production of an event, with so much music that I lost count of just how long the variety of artists who took turns on stage played. From a sheer volume of entertainment perspective, it rivaled almost everything I’ve seen in recent memory, with 20 dancers, multiple performers, two full bands and an impressive video and light show.
There’s also a red carpet entrance that welcomed Naomi Campbell and Paris Hilton, but both left early in the evening, leaving their stage-side table empty for the bulk of the event.
Before the auction paddles were raised, a trio of awards were presented: Rogello Otúzar picked up the production award, George Fercos nabbed the business award and Gary Heathcott was named the communication category winner.
As for the humidor auction, it brought in €662,550, or in US dollars, $741,787. The Cohiba humidor was the big score, commanding €250,000, while none of the other five cracked six figures: H. Upmann (€85,000), Hoyo de Monterrey (€75,000), Romeo y Julieta (€70,000), Partagás (€85,000) and Montecristo (€97,500). I was partial to the gated Montecristo humidor, while the illuminated stained glass front of the H. Upmann was certainly eye-catching and Hoyo de Monterrey or Partagás would have been my choice based solely on the cigars inside. But Cohiba is Cohiba…
During the auction, it was announced that several new releases are coming this year, the headliner of which is the Montecristo Media Corona, a half corona that is said to measure 90mm in length, just over 3 1/2 inches. As we reported last August when the list of new releases for 2015 emerged, it will have a 44 ring gauge, just a touch bigger than the 42 ring gauge of the Montecristo No.3 & No.4. The company representatives I spoke with are holding off on releasing official details, but said it is the headlining new release of the year.
Also talked about from the auction block with little in the way of “official” info is a Partagás 170 Aniversario release and a new Romeo y Julieta in aluminum tubes, likely the cigar known as Club Kings, both of which were also found in the 2015 price list released last summer.
And with that, the XVII Festival Habanos came to a close, an exciting week highlighted by three evening events with five full days in the middle to easily satisfy the Cuban cigar itch.
It’s a different event from the ProCigar festival that Charlie Minato and I attended last week in the Dominican Republic and it’s hard to compare the two; as Charlie noted in his final day recap, the access that ProCigar provides to manufacturers is its biggest selling point, while at the Habanos Festival, participants are being exposed to what Habanos S.A. is featuring that year, and the faces of the company are fewer and farther between that what you’d find in the D.R.
It’s hard to imagine that the ProCigar members would come together to honor a particular brand in a certain year the way Habanos does, though it’s an interesting challenge. Habanos Festival is also a bit more formal, with several lectures, a trade show and the Habanosomellier competition that give it a bit of a different spin. Both were very enjoyable and it’s hard to pick which one I prefer; while travel restrictions make ProCigar easier to attend, there is certainly something appealing about being in Havana with a focus on Cuban cigars. Yet I find myself still chewing on some of the things that happened this week, most notably the handling of Montecristo’s history, which just leaves me uncomfortable when thinking about it.
They are simply different festivals that leave me feeling differently now that both are in the books.
As for what I smoked today, the highlight was a house roll from the La Casa del Habano in the Commodoro hotel in Miramar. it had an incredibly enjoyable rich molasses note and absolutely zero harshness, something I have yet to say about most of the 2013 and 2014 box codes I’ve sampled this trip. While house rolls can be hit and miss, these are a definite hit, and I’m glad I’m staying close to the Commodoro as I’ll likely be back to pick up a few more.
The Montecristo No.4 and Cohiba Siglo II I picked up in the La Casa del Habano in the Hotel Palco, which is attached to the convention center, were both decent but far from stellar, certainly in need of some time. There’s been a lot of talk about what Americans should allocate the $100 worth of cigars they’re allowed to bring back to, and as of now, I’d say it’s still the Monsdale from the LCDH at Club Havana and the LCDH Commodoro house roll. They are affordable, unique cigars, and two of the better ones I have had this week.
I’ve got a couple more days in Havana and look forward to seeing more friends and exploring more of the city, as well as seeing a beisbol game in Havana before I head back to resume the other half of my professional life, working in pro baseball in the U.S.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Havana is constantly developing and changing, and the recent developments between the U.S. and Cuba make it that much more interesting. I had a great late lunch at a paladar that sits right on the water, with the Caribbean Sea waves crashing into the back of the property and splashing into the pool. About halfway through my meal, the construction crew fired up a jackhammer to make some changes to the pool area, a sound I could have done without but one that also is pleasing to the ears as it signaled development and renovation, something this city and country both need more of as they look to embrace the uncertain but promising future.