Avid followers of the cigar industry are no doubt familiar with the term store exclusive, a term used to describe a cigar made for a single store in most cases, though sometimes extended to retailers with multiple locations.

In the case of Cuban cigars, specifically those made under the Habanos S.A. banner, there are store exclusives, but they are generally reserved for La Casa del Habano stores, the group of franchised retailers around the world who exclusively carry Habanos S.A. cigars and are generally required to offer a bar and smoking lounge, as well as be held to the highest standards of detail and care for their products and customers. The first La Casa del Habano, or LCDH as they are commonly called, opened in 1990 in Cancún, Mexico, and today the number of stores has grown to over 140 locations on five continents.

In 2004, Habanos S.A. began releasing cigars exclusively to LCDH retailers, first by way of a trio of regular production Bolívar cigars as part of the brand’s 100th anniversary celebration. The Cuban cigar conglomerate created 200 individually-numbered humidors containing 50 Bolívar Belicoso Finos and 50 Bolívar Hermosos No.4. Additionally, the Bolívar Gold Medal was released to the German distributor 5ta Avenida. The cigar was a 6 1/2 x 42 lonsdale, with 1,000 10-count boxes produced, and the cigars bearing what has become a somewhat iconic wrap of gold foil on their upper two thirds.

Since that time, the line has evolved a bit, with subsequent releases including the H.Upmann Noellas, a 2009 release that came in a clear glass jar containing 25 cigars. Since 2009, there has generally been one release every year exclusively for La Casa del Habano stores, though in 2015, the 25th anniversary of that first store was celebrated with a humidor designed to look like a colonial style house and painted in the colors of an LCDH storefront. Inside were 30 cigars, 15 each of the La Gloria Cubana Pirámides and Robustos Extra.

Additionally, the line has featured a fairly small group of brands, namely Bolívar, H.Upmann, La Gloria Cubana, Ramón Allones, Hoyo de Monterrey, Trinidad, and San Cristóbal de la Habana.

That last line, San Cristóbal as it is more commonly called, is one of the youngest in the Habanos S.A. portfolio. It was launched towards the end of 1999, named for both the original name of what we now call Havana—or Habana, or La Habana if you will—as well as Christopher Columbus, the famed explorer. The regular production vitolas in the marca are named for forts that guarded the city in the colonial days, while limited editions have been named for famous streets in the city.

In 2004, Habanos S.A. released a trio of regular production cigars, the Mercaderes (6 3/5 x 48), Muralla (7 1/10 x 54 pyramid) and Oficias (5 3/10 x 43) as part of a humidor commemorating the brand’s fifth anniversary. As noted above, these are named for significant streets in Habana Vieja, or Old Town Havana, the section near the harbor. In 2006, they reappeared as a La Casa del Habano release, bearing the store’s signature maroon and gold secondary band.

The cigars would stay on the market until 2011, when Habanos S.A. changed its policy towards LCDH releases, deciding that they should be limited production releases instead of offering them with ongoing availability, though those numbers are not disclosed.

  • Cigar Reviewed: San Cristóbal de la Habana Mercaderes (La Casa del Habano Exclusive)
  • Country of Origin: Cuba
  • Factory: n/a
  • Wrapper: Cuba
  • Binder: Cuba
  • Filler: Cuba
  • Length: 6 3/5 Inches
  • Ring Gauge: 48
  • Vitola: Grand Corona
  • MSRP: n/a
  • Release Date: 2006
  • Number of Cigars Released: n/a
  • Number of Cigars Smoked For Review: 3

Given the love shown to the 6ish x 50ish toro vitola by cigar makers outside of Cuba, the San Cristóbal Mercaderes feels almost immediately familiar in the hand as it checks in at 6 3/5 x 48, though a quick measurement makes it seem more like a 50 ring gauge. It’s a good looking cigar; the wrapper is a matte shade of just tanner-than-medium brown without much oils or prominent vein structure, looking almost a bit like Ecuadorian habano. The triple cap is well constructed on each cigar, though one sample appears to have sustained some damage in travel. The wrapper also has an interesting texture to the fingers, as it is very smooth and I can almost feel both the thinness and the elasticity with ease. Each of the three Mercaderes is a bit soft and spongy in spots, not so much so as to be concerning, but certainly noticeable, while the third cigar is very firm in the lower half and spongier towards the head. The foot of the cigar has a bit of sweet cereal, and the more sniffs I take, the more the sweetness stands out and evolves, starting with sugar and evolving to a bit of banana and then banana bread. The cold draw is fairly good as far as airflow but varies from sample to sample, while the flavor has me thinking of banana bread again, both because of the flavor and that it’s easy to pick up the cigar’s sponginess. There’s just a little pepper to be found, masked a bit by some subtle creaminess.

Despite feeling underfilled on one sample and quite firm on another, there are no issues getting a good draw on the San Cristóbal Mercaderes once lit. If anything, there’s a bit of resistance to it, generally what I’ve come to expect as the right amount for my preferences and seemingly that of numerous others. The first puffs are fairly mild but quickly add a bit of pepper that makes for an interesting combination with the underlying cereal grains. By the time the first bit of ash looks long enough to warrant tapping off, the cigar has settled in at a medium level of flavor intensity and a medium-minus level of strength. The cigar adds an interesting taste that has me thinking of mint or some sort of mint-based jelly, though I can’t place it and it’s gone before I can fully run through my mental catalog of flavors. Approaching the second third, my mind is drawn back to the fact that these cigars are somewhere between seven and 14 years old, and contemplating what age has done to both the strength and flavor profile. While I’m not sure, the result so far seems to be quite good.

At the start of the San Cristóbal’s second third, there’s a definite difference in how the smoke is perceived based on what senses are experiencing it; on the tongue it is generally smooth and creamy with just a hint of pepper, while through the nose the proportions are reversed and pepper is far more dominant, though not rough or overly aggressive. It’s not a universal statement, as the third sample is by far the most robust of the samples, and while I’m not sure there’s a direct correlation, the tighter draw doesn’t seem to be helping the situation. There’s a bit of graham cracker to be found around the midpoint, but I’m finding myself lacking for real descriptors other than to say it tastes like tobacco for most of this section. While I’m trying not to get preoccupied with the age of the cigar, by the midpoint of the third sample it is a consideration as while there’s plenty of stimulation, I’m not getting many distinct flavors. The tail end of the second third sees the first sample struggle with staying lit, something that is a disappointment given how well it had been burning. Flavor-wise, pepper comes back into the equation, particularly via retrohales but on the palate as well.

The San Cristóbal de la Habana Mercaderes crosses into its final third without much fanfare or noticeable changes, namely because the cigar has not been forcing me to jot down a shopping list of flavors. It’s still medium to medium-plus in body and flavor strength, with the latter being driven by a fairly typical tobacco flavor, more of the graham cracker, a bit of black pepper, and some vanilla extract that has come on subtly in recent puffs. There are a few burn issues to be found; combustion problems plague the first sample, while a draw that is a few ticks to tight hampers the third. The closer the burn line gets to the cap, the hotter the smoke gets while also turning a bit more charred, though still fairly palatable except for the third sample, where a tight draw only compounds the problem and leads me to put it down earlier than I would have liked.

Final Notes

  • I mentioned being able to feel both the thinness and elasticity of the wrapper before lighting it up; well each sample showed some issues with wrapper durability by the final third.
  • The third sample had a brightness to its pre-light aroma and cold draw that I couldn’t place; it seemed almost like an artificial banana note and while not off-putting, was not what I expected.
  • The San Cristóbal line is also getting a Habanos Specialist release, the Prado, a 5 x 50 petit pyramid named for a major arterial and walkway leading from the city’s central park to the Malecón, the iconic waterfront thoroughfare.
  • San Cristóbal translates as Saint Christopher, though as far as the Catholic religion is concerned, Columbus never obtained sainthood, despite calls for it in the latter half of the 19th century.
  • While Columbus has certainly received his share of praise and admiration for his sailings and charting of the Caribbean and North America, he has also received his share of criticism in recent years, notably for his treatment of the native peoples of those lands. In fact, some places no longer celebrate Columbus Day; South Dakota renamed Columbus Day to Native American Day, Hawaii celebrates Discovers’ Day in honor of the Polynesian explorers, while Minneapolis and Seattle renamed it to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
  • Nicotine strength was almost non-existent in each of the three samples.
  • The box code for these cigars was not made available.
  • The cigars for this review were purchased by halfwheel on the secondary market at the cost of $120 for five cigars
  • Final smoking time was one hour and 40 minutes on average.
83 Overall Score

When the San Cristóbal de la Habana Mercaderes has its technical issues squared away, which in this case was really only with one of the three samples, the profile is very enjoyable, especially considering its age. Frequent relighting and a tight draw are both detractors, though the tobacco does its best to deliver an enjoyable profile despite those challenges, getting too robust for its own benefit only in the final third. While I would have liked a bit more variety in the profile, what I really wanted from these three cigars was consistency, mainly in the technical performance category, as I think it would have served the score and opinion of it well. Fortunately there’s still plenty of life left in these cigars, though I’m left feeling like I didn’t get the best the blend has to offer.

Patrick Lagreid

I strive to capture the essence of a cigar and the people behind them in my work – every cigar you light up is the culmination of the work of countless people and often represents generations of struggle and stories. For me, it’s about so much more than the cigar – it’s about the story behind it, the experience of enjoying the work of artisans and the way that a good cigar can bring people together. In addition to my work with halfwheel, I’m the public address announcer for the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks during spring training, as well as for the Salt River Rafters of the Arizona Fall League, the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and the Arizona Rattlers of the Indoor Football League. I also work in a number of roles for MLB.com, plus I'm a voice over artist. I previously covered the Phoenix and national cigar scene for Examiner.com, and was an editor for Cigar Snob magazine.