Tasting tips, etiquette and must-try drinks if you want to sample the delights of Havana’s cocktail and cigar culture, or visit the famous Partagás Cigar Factory.
A man’s voice crackles over an antiquated loud speaker system as he reads a chapter from a García Màrquez novel, the words filling the vast room where dozens of men and women listen. With heads bowed over wooden workbenches and with their hands methodically rolling, chopping and tucking, they create Cuba’s most famous product.
I am lucky enough to be one of the last people to take a cigar factory tour at the original Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás (Partagás Cigar Factory) in Old Havana (Calle Industria No.520) before it moved to its new location on the corner of Calle San Carlos in Central Havana. One of Havana’s oldest and most famous cigar factories, the landmark Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás had been making cigars here since 1845. For a cigar aficionado like myself, this is “the pilgrimage” for it is here that some of the world’s finest cigars are handcrafted, from the powerfully rich Cohiba Robusto to the magnificent Partagás Double Corona.
Whatever your views are about smoking, it’s a fascinating cultural insight to take a cigar factory tour. Being Cuba, factory tours can be ad hoc. Tours take around one hour, and cover the various stages of cigar production. Starting in the selection room, where sorters grade the various tobacco leaves and ending in a tiny room where the finished cigars are packed into cedar boxes, which are pasted with their official green and white seals to confirm authenticity.
But it’s in the rolling rooms, the galeras, the very heart and soul of the cigar-making process that I am able to fully appreciate the craftsmanship that has been handed down through generations of cigar rollers. The pungent aroma of rich tobacco leaf mingles with cigar smoke as several rollers enjoy the fruits of their labour while they work. Rolling is a prestigious job, and only the skilled get to roll famous cigar types like the Cohiba Esplendido and Montecristo No. 2. Using only a metal knife, a wooden board, a small guillotine and a bit of vegetable gum, most rollers make around 100 to 150 cigars a day. But I have to say; I’m a little disappointed not to witness any Cuban women rolling them on their thighs.
In the next room, Roberto Gomez’s job is to inspect the gauge size and uniformity of the finished product. The quality control is thorough, and he carefully places to one side any cigars that don’t make the grade.
“I’ve been doing this job for nearly forty years now, and reckon I can tell a good cigar from a bad one,” he says taking a deep puff on a Bolivar Belicoso.
If a Partagás factory tour is the pilgrimage, then the Holy Grail is the Havana cigar itself, smoked in any of the city’s time-honoured cafés or bars. Before leaving the factory it’s almost mandatory to visit the shop on the ground floor to select a cigar (or a box of cigars), and you needn’t go any further than the adjoining La Casa del Habano bar to smoke it. The faces of various Hollywood celebrities that have enjoyed the combination of a fine cigar with a Cuban cocktail in this atmospheric saloon, smile up from their autographed photos in an album on the bar top. This is definitely the place where you wouldn’t be surprised if you bumped into the likes of Jack Nicholson or Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoying a fat cigar or two.
It’s worth noting that although cigar production (and factory tours) ceased at the Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás a few years ago, you can still buy a selection of cigars there. A block or so away from the rebranded “New Partagás Factory” (where factory tours are available) is the Romeo y Julieta Factory (which also offers tours and produces several sizes of handcrafted Cohiba, Montecristos, H. Upmanns and of course, Romeo y Julietas.
It’s early evening and lighting up one of my favourite cigars, a superbly spicy Montecristo No. 2, I hit the streets and stroll past the grand Capitolio Nacional inspired by the US Capitol building in Washington D.C and hang a right into the back streets of Old Havana. Despite decades of economic decline, the old magic of Havana shines through like a scratchy, crackling scene from a 1950s Cary Grant movie. It was this very magic that attracted people like authors Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene, most of Hollywood, the Windsors and the Churchills.
Smoking my cigar, I’m easy prey for the black market street peddlers who zero in. “Hey, my friend, where are you from? You want good cigars? I have Montecristos for a good price?” “Sorry, I already have some,” I reply, having bought a genuine box of cigars earlier, and escape through the doors of El Floridita, to imbibe the bar’s infamous cocktail, the daiquiri.
In addition to cigars, Havana has long been famous for its cocktails, and while El Floridita didn’t invent the daiquiri, it certainly reinvented it by introducing an electric ice-blender into the equation in the 1920s. Served up by red-jacketed barmen who make a great show with their cocktail shakers, these frosty dreams of rum, lemon juice, sugar, maraschino and crushed ice are just the thing to combat the heat outside.
Ernest Hemingway spent over 20 years living in Cuba and many an hour sipping daiquiris and smoking cigars in this hallowed haunt. Another Cuban cocktail is the mojito (rum, lemon juice, sugar, soda, mint leaf and ice cubes, stirred) made famous by the Nobel prize-winning novelist when he penned “my daiquiri in the Floridita and my mojito in the Bodeguita” on one of the walls of the La Bodeguita del Medio bar. Since Hemingway’s time, a visit to this funky bar has become de rigueur, and other notables such as Nat King Cole and Fidel Castro have left their autographs on the wall.
The streets of Communist Havana are living testimony to tough times. To say that time seems to have stopped ticking somewhere back in the 1950s is to state the obvious. An ancient Oldsmobile rumbles down Calle Obispo, Old Havana’s main thoroughfare, as I head for the La Bodeguita, nearly pinning me against the crumbling walls of a building as its hulk practically fills the narrow street. When I arrive, the place is crammed with hordes of tourists all drinking mojitos, so I decide to visit the nearby La Lluvia de Oro instead. Besides, the mojitos here are half the price and go down well with the sizzling salsa beat of a live band.
In my boutique hotel suite tucked away in one of the residential streets, I’m surrounded by the hum of Havana life. I wake every morning to roosters crowing and mothers getting children off to school and fall asleep each evening to the sound of a dozen different television sets floating in through my open balcony windows.
The following day I’m back exploring the streets of Old Havana. In addition to walking, another great way to see the sights is to jump in the back of one the cities’ colourful three-wheeled taxi cycles. “How’s your stay in Havana so far,” Gustavo my cigar-puffing driver asks me, as we head off past the grand steps of the Capitolio Nacional with its dominating dome that cost $17 million US to build in 1926, then throw a left into the back streets of Old Havana.
At the speed of peddle power, we pass by the popular lunchtime haunt of Café de Paris and the cool neo-deco atmosphere of Café Del Oriente, just two other great venues to pursue the hedonistic delights of sampling various cocktails while savouring on the palate the rich coffee-laden, spicy overtones of a hand-rolled Cuban cigar …
Cuban cigars: Tasting tips and etiquette
• Select: When choosing a cigar the wrapper can offer the first clue. Lighter wrappers generally indicate a milder flavour with darker wrappers offering a more full-bodied smoke. When squeezed, a cigar should give slightly and then when released, spring back into its original shape without the wrapper leaf cracking As a general rule, milder cigars are more suited to earlier in the day, while the full- bodied choice is best saved to finish off a good meal or to pair with a dark rum for example.
A good cross-section of full-bodied Havanas include the Cohiba Esplendido or Robusto, a Partagás Lusitania Double Corona, the Montecristo No.2, Romeo y Julieta Belicoso, Bolivar Royal Corona, an H. Upmann Monarch, a Punch Double Corona, a Romeo y Julieta Exhibicion No. 2 or the powerful Exhibicion No. 4. Before cutting and lighting, survey the wrapper for consistent colour, smoothness, and sheen and savour the scent of the cigar.
• Cut: Some cigar smokers swear by using one’s teeth, but it’s best to use a proper cigar cutter for the job. A good rule of thumb is to cut about 3mm from the head of the cigar. This is sufficient to give a good draw, without the risk of loosening the wrapper.
• Light: Using a good quality butane lighter hold the cigar just above the flame (do not let the flame touch the cigar) at a 45-degree angle so that the heat, not the flame, causes combustion and the outer ring of the cigar is evenly lit. Rotate the cigar through the first few puffs to assure an even burn. Listen to the faint crackle as you light your cigar, the soft exhalation as you release the smoke…these are the sounds of satisfaction.
• Savour: Roll the smoke around your mouth and enjoy the rich bouquet of varied flavours. A long solid cylinder of white ash indicates a good soil and more taste. Don’t be tempted to tap the ash, just let it fall off naturally in the ashtray. As the cigar burns down its length, the tastes and aroma will change, most likely becoming more pronounced.
This tropical country seems to have cornered the market it cocktails. Here’s a little history behind some of the delights you can order:
• Cuba Libre: This rum and coke blend was created during the Spanish-American War. This cocktail is quite clearly a nod to the home team as Cuba Libre is Spanish for free Cuba.
• Mojito: The origins of the mojito have been linked back to a 16th-century drink named after Sir Francis Drake. The lime juice and rum mix was said to help combat scurvy and dysentery.
• Daiquiri: Supposedly invented by a US mining engineer who was in Cuba during the Spanish-American war. This rum, citrus and sugar mix could be named after a beach or a local iron mine.
• Canchanchara: This is the drink that the daiquiri is believed to have derived from. The rustic lime, honey and rum beverage is believed to be created by early freedom fighters.