|At top: Cohiba's limited-edition 40th anniversary cigar, Behike, debuted at this year's Habanos Festival.
The 8th Habanos Festival ushered in new vitolas, new regional and limited editions, and a pricey homage to Cohiba's 40th anniversary.
Photos & Contributing Reporting by Gary Heathcott
The 8th Annual Habanos Festival,
held on February 27-March 6, 2006 in Havana, Cuba, was dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the Cohiba cigar, drawing a record crowd of nearly 1,000 visitors from 60 countries to the island for a week-long celebration of its famed Habanos.
Once available solely as a gift from Cuban officials to visiting dignitaries, Cohiba grew from a low-key project of the once secretive El Laguito factory to a highly-desirable but unattainable major commercial line. While the cigar has only been distributed as a commercial product since 1982, the 40th anniversary of its creation in 1966 gave Habanos S.A. the opportunity this year to showcase what is perhaps Cuba's most emblematic contemporary brand, and to debut a very limited-edition anniversary edition of the cigar.
The five-day event included several other new cigar introductions; a first-time Armagnac/Habano matching contest; the annual Habano Somelier contest; a tour of tobacco plantations in the Vuelta Abajo region of Pinar del Río; a visit to the El Laguito factory, where Cohibas are made; a 44-booth trade fair; a series of international seminars; a distributor's night dedicated to Cuban cigars in the Italian market; and opening and closing night celebrations.
Festivities got underway with a welcoming night performance of "Shakespeare and his Masks" by the Cuban National Ballet featured at the Gran Teatro de la Habana, marking the 131st anniversary of the Romeo y Julieta brand. British actor Joseph Fiennes, who played the lead of Will Shakespeare in the 1998 film comedy Shakespeare in Love and was the guest of honor of the festival, was among an estimated 100 celebrities on hand for this year's festival.
In opening comments, Corporación Habanos co-chairmen Oscar Basulto and Buenaventura Jiménez noted that the number of visitors to the festival continues to grow each year.
Cohiba Behike: cuba's Most Exclusive Habano Ever
Corporación Habanos established a new plateau for exclusivity and price among Cuban cigars with the unveiling of the limited-edition 40th anniversary Cohiba Behike, which - with great suspense - didn't occur until the festival's closing night gala. Only 4,000 of the cigars will be produced, all made by a single roller - the most senior roller at the El Laguito factory. The cigars are presented in 100 exotic humidors made by Paris-based Elie Bleu, each containing 40 cigars and retailing for approximately 21,000 Canadian dollars (US $19,000).
|A cigar roller at the El Laguito factory where Cuba's Cohibas are produced.
Offered in a single vitola - the same length as the Cohiba Lanceros (7 1/2 inches) and the same ring gauge as the Cohiba Siglo VI (52) - each cigar is double-banded with an individually numbered Behike ring. While details of the blend are undisclosed, Habanos S.A. did divulge that the tobaccos were selected from the top farms in the Pinar del Rio's Vuelta Abajo growing region, and attributed the wrapper specifically to growers Pancho Cuba, Alejandro Robaina, and Antonio Mari Paz Valladares.
The Elie Bleu humidors are constructed from Galuchat or manta ray skin, black ebony, mother of pearl, sycamore, cedar, and ox bone. Each is individually-numbered on a plaque also engraved with the name of its buyer.
Additional Cigar Releases
Consumers haves shown considerable interest in regional cigars - one-time, limited edition cigars distributed exclusively to certain geographic markets - and Habanos continues to pick up the pace this year, with six new releases coinciding with the 2006 festival:
- Romeo y Julieta added a new Short Churchill to its line. It has the same ring gauge as the Romeo y Julieta Churchill (50 ring) but is only 47/8 inches long, compared to 7 inches for the Churchill. In addition, new packaging graphics were introduced for Romeo y Julieta tubes.
The only Cuban culebras (snakes) in production in recent years have been under the Partagás brand, three machine-made cigars hand-twisted into a tight spiral that were more novelty than fine smoke. Now, however, Habanos S.A. is producing Partagás Culebras as a hand made, long filler cigar.
Montecristo Maravilla (marvelous) are new 7 1/4 inch x 55 ring pyramid-shaped cigars that come packaged 20 to a box, designed to look like a book.
Cohiba Siglo II (5 x 42) is now offered in the same contemporary aluminum tubes used for the Cohiba Siglo VI.
Two additional book-shaped containers were also announced, holding Trinidad's rather large Torre Iznága (6 11/16 x 52) and Jose L. Piedra's Petite Cazadores.
This year's festival corresponded to the fifth anniversary of Edición Limitada (limited edition) cigars, and the three 2006 editions are culled from the most popular releases of the past five years: Cohiba Pirámides, Montecristo Robustos, and Partagas Serie D No. 3.
- In the San Cristóbal De La Habana line, three new sizes have been added to the permanent, all of which were temporarily featured in the fifth anniversary humidor in 2004. Muralla (7 x 54 torpedo); Mercaderes (6 1/2 x 48); and Oficios (5 1/4 x 43) are the first permanent additions to the line, which now has seven vitolas. The cigars are double-banded with a secondary Casa del Habanos retail shop ring.
Habano Man of the Year
- Asia-Pacific - Punch Super Robusto (6 1/2 x 50); and Ramon Allones Estupendos (7 x 47)
- Germany - Por Larrañaga Lonsdale (6 1/2 x 42); and Bolivar Colosales (6 1/8 x 50).
- France - Bolivar Libertado (6 1/2 x 54); and Juan López Obús (5 1/2 x 52)
Each year, Habanos S.A. presents awards in several categories to manufacturing and marketing executives, business personalities, journalists, and artists, singling out individuals and their distinguished contributions to the art of smoking in general and the Cuban habano in particular. Those honored in 2006 were:
HABANOS 2005 RESULTS
- Mai Paz Valladares, 87, a lifelong tobacco grower in San Juan y Martinez in the Pinar del Rio, one of Cuba's top growers and consistent harvesters, was awarded the Production award.
- Fred S.C. Kiang, president of Sunshine Duty Free of China, the top-performing retail shop at Shanghai's Pondong International Airport, received the Business award. The store is equipped with China's first walk-in humidor in the duty-free market. Sales of Habanos there tripled from 2003 to 2005.
- James Suckling, a U.S.-based premium cigar journalist and impartial author of cigar tasting, production, and event stories, was presented the Communications award.
According to Habanos S.A. vice-president Manuel Garcia, Cuba produced approximately 160 million cigars in 2005, accounting for $350 million in sales or 70% of worldwide, non-U.S. premium cigar sales. Worldwide cigar sales are estimated at 400 million sticks, approximately half of them in the U.S. Spain, France, and Germany were the top markets for Cuban cigars, with Asia showing substantial growth.
The view from Franco-Spanish group Altadis S.A., which owns a 50 percent share in Corporación Habanos, was equally positive. Cuban cigar sales through Altadis channels rose by about 13 percent last year. The company's strategy for Cuban cigars is based on a combination of ultimate luxury (limited editions) and affordable luxury (mini cigars for a selected number of brands) and has proven quite successful. Sales have been performing very well in mature markets such as Germany and Benelux, and showing very encouraging performance in emerging markets including the Middle East, Russia, and China.
With over 30 brands currently on the market, Habanos doesn't anticipate launching new ones any time soon, but instead continues to revitalize its best known brands.
SMOKESHOP - April, 2006