The activity is constant at the Casa del Habano, located in the central 23rd avenue, P corner, in Vedado. The salesclerk can’t cope with so many questions and orders. It’s barely 11 a.m. in a cold day in this always-warm Havana, but there are already over 20 foreigners and a couple of Miami-based Cubans in the store.
All of them have the same goal: buying as many Habanos as they can, different brands, at the lowest possible price. It won’t be easy, since these cigars are expensive; but they are actually “cheaper” than in Spain, says a lady that, with her accent, shows her nationality. “This wave of buyers never stops”, the salesclerk points out, with a tired voice, while he explains, with patient impatience, the characteristics of a Cohiba and gives the Cuban-American couple their receipt, an essential element because they’ll later have to show it at the US customs in order to prove that they didn’t spend over 100 dollars in cigars. This was one of the first measures implemented by the Obama administration after the thaw of relations on December 17, 2014. Both North-American and Cuban-American citizens are now allowed to carry Cuban cigars and rum, but “moderation” is the key word.
The cigar industry is one of the most prosperous lines in Cuba. In 2015, Habanos S.A, a joint venture, managed by Cubatabaco and Spanish Altadis, from British Imperial Tobacco Group PLC, reported a 4 percent growth in its sale levels, which went nearly up to 450 million dollars. These Premium cigars —rolled by hand— are presently marketed in 165 countries, except for the Unites States, because of the Embargo.
Moreover, Habanos manages 140 specialized stores, distributed in 106 cities of 61 nations. The company holds 27 Premium brands, six of which are global: Cohiba, Montecristo, Partagás, Romeo y Julieta, Hoyo de Monterrey and H. Upmann, and they represent nearly 80 percent of Habanos’ overall sales.
Just as it has happened over the past 17 years, Havana becomes the capital of Premium cigars these days. The Habano Festival has strengthened its position as the leading event for enthusiasts of these cigars, perhaps only comparable to the Big Smoke, in Las Vegas. In this edition, the 18th, the organizers have foreseen the attendance of 1,600 people (a new record), from 60 countries, including the United States. They come to taste the cigars, visit factories, tobacco plantations in Pinar del Rio, and they also do business, since the Festival comprises a Trade Fair.
This edition of the Festival will be paying tribute to the 50th anniversary of Habanos’ most emblematic brand: Cohiba. This is an ancient word used by the Taino natives, the original settlers of Cuba, so as to define the rolled tobacco leaves they used to smoke. Cohiba features five lines, denominated Clásica, 1492, Siglo VI, Maduro 5 and Behike, the most exclusive of all.
The event has been a runway for celebrities throughout its history. Last year, for example, the presence of Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell in Havana was all the rage in social networks. The organizers haven’t aired the name of the celebrities that could attend the event, but they have announced the performance of such prestigious musicians as Cuban Chucho Valdes, Flemish-Spanish singer Estrella Morente and Uruguayan songwriter and singer Jorge Drexler, winner of one Oscar and two Latin Grammies.
The main evenings within the framework of the Festival will be dedicated to two different habano brands. Hoyo de Monterrey will have the welcome evening, with its Reserva Cosecha 2012; and the gala is going to be dedicated to Cohiba, with the presence of Valdes, Morente and Drexler.
Like in previous years, the organizers are going to hold the Habanosommelier International Contest, in which the “Master of Masters” is given an award, the one that achieves the perfect pairing between habanos and the most famous drinks and cocktails of the world.
Another interesting moment of the Festival will come with the third edition of “the longest ash” international contest. In this singular competition, the smokers, showing great patience, balance and neck strength, try to hold the ash on the cigar for as long as they can.
The attendees will have access to the main factory of Cohiba, nestled in El Laguito, a place that, beyond these events, is truly complicated to be visited. Moreover, they will take the usual tours through agricultural areas in Pinar del Rio. The special characteristics of the land in this area of Cuba have a direct impact on the special features of habanos from Vueltabajo.
Among the much-anticipated rollouts in the Festival, we can mention the launch of the exclusive edition of Cuaba brand, which celebrates its 20th anniversary; while Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta and Trinidad are going to show their Ediciones Limitadas 2016 and Habanos Añejados will have its Partagás Coronas Gordas Añejados and Hoyo de Monterrey Hermosos Nº4 Añejados.
The Festival will come to a close with a millionaire auction of humidors. Buyers from different areas of the world will bid for these luxurious elements. Once again, the organizers have guaranteed that the funds raised will be donated to the Cuban Public Healthcare System.
None of the curious visitors that were trying to find the cheapest habanos at the specialized store, in the heart of Havana’s Vedado, said to know the characteristics of the Festival; but they did buy some cigars, thus spending 50 – 80 exchangeable pesos (CUC) [1 USD = 0,87 CUC]. “This never stops,” the salesclerk was repeating while counting the bills and handing receipts. So, day after day, the business of extracting the aroma of premium cigars continues its “healthy” development, not only in Havana.