Inside Cuba’s Festival of Havana, one of the world’s largest cigar celebrations

Cuba Festival of Havana

From lavish events to walking plant grounds, visitors are immersed in the culture of the centuries-old favourite

Forty years ago, the Rolling Stones released Undercover of the Night. Not one of their most successful singles, it peaked at number 11 on the UK charts, but it was accompanied by a memorable video depicting an ill-fated evening that kicks off at a lavish poolside party on the sprawling grounds of a heavily guarded mansion.

On the night of 1 March earlier this year, I find myself at that party. Or close enough. It recalls the oppressive, humid, tropical heat and that unique Latin American atmosphere in which anything can, and probably will, happen: the wild fervour of the Stones video; the magic realism of the novels of Márquez and Allende; or, in the case of this evening, a man clad in an illuminated suit of armour rocketing out of the viridian waters of a large kidney-shaped pool with spraying jets elevating the flyboard beneath his feet.

Moving in time to an epic soft-rock instrumental booming out across the sticky night air, he propels himself to the top of the palm trees surrounding the pool, swoops back down to skim the surface, and backflips, spinning head over heels, leaving behind a jet of water tracing his parabola in the inky sky. So unexpected and bizarre is his appearance that some time passes before I notice that he’s carrying a box. He carefully lowers himself until he’s hovering just inches above the surface of the pool—then glides slowly toward a glamorously clad model standing at the water’s edge and, taking the utmost care not to soak her dress, proffers her the box, which, it turns out, is packed with cigars.

It is indeed a moment worthy of Márquez: Part Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, part James Bond wannabe, this is the culminating moment of an evening dedicated to the launch of the Bolívar New Gold Medal cigar. Although what flyboarding has to do with handmade cigars, or for that matter their namesake early-19th-century South American liberator, is not immediately apparent.

Cuba Festival of Havana
Central Havana, still a bastion of midcentury cars

We are halfway through the week-long 23rd Festival of Havana, and around 1,500 cigar lovers have gathered at one of the Cuban capital’s “protocol houses,” lavish venues for official entertaining—in this case a sprawling Oscar Niemeyer–esque cantilevered structure on a slope. Impressive though it is, the modernist grandeur of the building is easily overpowered by the event taking place. The flyboarder is just one among many attractions.

On stage at one end of the garden, a man in front of a huge screen is delivering a Steve Jobs–style keynote. I presume he is lauding the qualities of the new Bolívar, but it’s difficult to hear him over the screaming trumpets of the nearby dance band, not to mention the brouhaha coming from crowded food and beverage stations dispensing everything from chunks of roast pig to coffee and chocolate milk spiked with rum. On one of the terraces, the selfie station (with the words “New Gold Medal” spelt out in large illuminated letters) is doing brisk business with hostesses kept busy being photographed alongside large men in guayaberas clutching plastic ballistics lockboxes of cigars the size of mini sarcophagi. And all the while, a light show scythes through the nimbus of fragrant blue cigar smoke hanging above partygoers’ heads.

Inside the cavernous hall are more food stations and another band with three drum kits, belting out deafening Cuban toe-tappers to an utterly indifferent, mainly Chinese crowd waving wads of hype-rinflationary Cuban banknotes in the air as if in a betting ring, in order to catch the attention of the vendors of the Bolívar. Occasionally a body detaches itself from the writhing mass, triumphantly laden with carrier bags bulging with boxes of cigars.

It’s a typical night during the Festival del Habano. After a week of launches and parties, Friday evening features a gala in honour of Línea Maestra, a new range of Partagás cigars; a seated dinner for 1,200, a charity auction, and a variety performance including appearances by Cuban queen of bolero dance music Migdalia Hechavarría, still wiggling her hips in her early 80s; numerous dance troupes; one or two choirs; most of a carnival procession; and a Boney M. concert.

Presented with all of this, you may well be asking, “Why?” The truth is, right now, handmade cigars are enjoying the sort of popularity not seen since the early 2000s, when the world went cigar mad and every celebrity was photographed with a smouldering “stick” clamped between their jaws—not just Jack, Arnie, et al., but also Penélope Cruz, Madonna, and Cindy Crawford. Back then, even White House scandals involved cigars.

“The New Cigar Boom: Handmade cigars are selling at levels not seen in 20 years,” blared a headline in Cigar Aficionado in the summer of 2021. Grand View Research reported 362 million handmade cigars were imported into the US in 2019, breaking a spending record set in 1997. In 2021, that number jumped to more than 456 million, up 25 per cent from 2020. Total volume for all types of cigars also climbed to an all-time high of 15.25 billion sticks that year. And if the feeding frenzy in Havana this year is any indication, things are only getting crazier. Jemma Freeman, owner of the UK cigar importer Hunters & Frankau, has noticed a dramatic growth in the premium market: “We estimate demand has tripled in the last 24 months, and there has been a 150 per cent increase in [non-Cuban] sales over the last two to three years.”

A generation barely born during the last boom is getting into cigars, my sons included. Max, age 26, works for Davidoff; his younger brother, Freddie, is at this year’s festival shooting a short film about cigar making; and as a family, we make a YouTube show about cigars called Foulkes & Sons that we began during the pandemic and have continued ever since.

“There are many more people trying cigars, and a younger age profile is interested,” says second-generation London cigar merchant Eddie Sahakian, a former banker who left finance to join Davidoff, his family’s business, and who is in Havana with his father for the festival. “We are seeing groups of young friends gathering with cigars. A day doesn’t pass without someone coming in to try a cigar for the first time. It links in with the growth of social media.”

According to Sahakian, this has made the idea of enjoying a cigar less daunting. “Even before they come into the shop, there is a familiarity,” he explains. “They have watched the videos we make on YouTube and Instagram. A new, younger smoking class is emerging. They are not addicts; they are enthusiasts. Covid was this incubator of interest for all hobbies but particularly cigars, whiskeys, and watches. There is so much overlap with watches: New-generation cigar lovers are observant of what you are wearing.” Sahakian has a couple of Audemars Piguets and some of his father’s old Rolexes, but in Cuba he is wearing one of his complete set of MoonSwatches. “It’s similar to the whiskeys: They are talking about pairings of cigars with collectible whiskeys.”

Evidence of this alliance of interests is to be seen all around the festival. During the packed week of events, there are numerous cigar-and-spirit tastings: Hunters & Frankau is holding a Ramón Allones Aniversario 225–and–vintage rum tasting on the terrace of the new Grand Packard hotel; while Pacific Cigar, which distributes Havanas in the Far East, is hosting a sake-and-cigar masterclass. As for watches, at the festival last year I bumped into one of the world’s leading Patek collectors, while the top lot at this year’s auction is a massive humidor of Cuban Cohibas accompanied by a unique Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 minute repeater.

How very different this night is to the one 24 years earlier when I presented myself in a white linen suit for what ended up being the very first of the festivals. I was trying to talk my way past an armed guard, as my invitation had been stolen and sold on the black market. Customary blandishments having failed, I mustered all my courage, tried not to look at the pistol at my obstacle’s hip, and said, “I have been nominated as Havana Hombre of the Year.”

As it happened, this was entirely true. (Many nominations later, I won the prize, albeit with my name misspelt on the trophy.) Stranger still, my declaration acted like a password. The young conscript regarded me as if I were a man of substance and almost saluted as he opened the gate. Fidel Castro made an appearance halfway through dinner to give one of his shorter speeches (just under an hour) and provide moral support to the auctioneer selling locally produced figurative humidors. Afterward, we trotted off to the Hotel Nacional for a nightcap. No selfies. No social media. No flyboarding. No fireworks. I don’t think that evening was even officially billed as a festival, but history, or rather Habanos S.A., the semi-state-owned commercial entity responsible for marketing all Cuban cigars, would subsequently decide this was the inaugural Festival del Habano.

Today it is probably the largest and most lucrative international event on the Cuban calendar. Think of Art Basel Miami Beach, splice it with the annual Geneva watch jamboree Watches and Wonders, mix in a healthy splash of the elaborately contrived, strutting sprezzatura of the men’s fashion trade fair Pitti Uomo, sprinkle liberally with post-Covid carpe diem spirit, and serve over five days of round-the-clock smoking of the world’s finest handmade cigars. Havana is packed with cigar distributors, merchants, collectors, and enthusiasts, humidor makers, lighter manufacturers, film crews, bloggers, vloggers, TikTokers, YouTubers, influencers, influencers who prefer to be called educators, and even one or two old-fashioned writers such as myself.

Cuba Festival of Havana
The rolling room at the H. Upmann and Partagás Habanos factory in Havana

Last May, Habanos S.A. recognised the ascension of certain cigars to the luxury-goods pantheon when it announced a price hike for two Cuban brands, Cohiba and Trinidad. (There are two “Cohiba” cigar brands: one from Cuba, which is not permitted to be sold in the US, and a US-owned brand of the same name, which is.) From now on, prices around the world for these brands would be aligned with prices in Hong Kong, with Habanos issuing a statement that its pricing policy was now “similar to how other luxury goods like watches, jewellery, or handbags are sold.”

The Cuban Cohiba uses tobacco that undergoes an extra fermentation and is not just a cigar brand here—it’s an entire ecosystem. In addition to all manner of limited, special, and commemorative releases, there are dozens of different sizes across four separate lines: Clásica (including the famous Robusto); the slightly less powerful Línea 1492 (my favourite is the Siglo VI); the darker Maduro series; and the celebrated tree-trunk-sized Behike, which, as well as the extra fermentation, benefits from the inclusion of medio tiempo, the name given to the two top leaves of a sun-grown tobacco plant, leaves of extra strength and flavour that do not appear every year. Behike can be likened in celebrity to Château Pétrus or Le Pin. Since its launch in 2010, a Behike, or BHK as it’s known worldwide, has increased in price by as much as 1,700 per cent.

All of which should be good news for the cigar industry here in Cuba, and it would be had it not been for what happened in the early hours of September 27, 2022, when Hurricane Ian ripped right through Pinar del Río province, home to the prime tobacco-growing regions. Add to that disaster the effects of Covid, including pandemic-related inflation, and Cuba’s already fragile economy has been pushed to its limits. Back at the end of the 1990s, Cuba was exporting 126 million cigars. Today its ambition is 90 million, but last year the total was just 56 million.

Even so, the official press conference is upbeat about the situation, stating that revenue of US$545 million from cigar sales was up 2 per cent last year over 2021. Something may be lost in translation. It doesn’t help that the event is held in conference hall 4 while translators have been sent to hall 3, but I come away from the briefing with the feeling that Hurricane Ian, which had destroyed 80 per cent of the curing barns in Pinar del Río and which was described as the worst in living memory, is being played down… maybe not as an unalloyed benefit for the cigar industry but as the perfect opportunity for Cuban people to unite and overcome a natural disaster with Stakhanovite fervour. Nor is the opportunity lost for officials to blame the US embargo, now over 60 years old and showing no signs of abating, for the difficulty in acquiring agricultural supplies.

Nevertheless, the seriousness of the situation—and the importance of cigars to the local economy, where they jockey for position with tourism, sugar, and nickel at the top of Cuba’s exports—has been reflected in changes at the helm of Tabacuba, the state-owned entity that runs the agricultural and industrial side of cigar making, with former economy minister Marino Murillo being placed in control. Although not participating in the general press conference, he makes himself available to Robb Report for a private meeting later that day.

Dressed soberly in a guayabera and black trousers, Murillo is an imposing presence, a lifetime as a Cuban power player etched into his no-nonsense features. Although not a tobacco expert, or even, until recently, a smoker, he was “very involved in the financial knowledge of the tobacco industry,” he says. “Because as you might know, it helps to finance important elements of the Cuban economy, like food.”

Murillo does not mess around. Fearing the destructive impact of the hurricane, he decided to visit the stricken area shortly after sunrise on the morning after Ian hit Cuba. “I was going up the main highway toward Pinar del Río and could feel how strong the wind was—the car was being blown about,” he recalls. “It was practically unbearable. When we were halfway there, the driver was telling me, ‘Let’s go back,’ but I said we are already halfway there, so turning back will be just as bad, so let’s go on. As soon as I got there, the impact made a great impression upon me. I saw this scene of destruction and knew that we wouldn’t be able to plant 11,000 hectares as planned.”

It was not so much the state of the fields—it was very near the beginning of the season, and the plants were still seedlings—but the fact that so many curing barns in which the tobacco hangs, turning from green to brown as it dries, had been destroyed. “We came to the decision that we needed to plant exactly the amount of tobacco for the infrastructure that we would be able to rebuild in time for the harvest.”

Cuba Festival of Havana
President of UBPC Felipe Herrera Acea, walking a plantation in Pinar del Río

Clearly a man who gets things done, Murillo mobilised industry, local government, and the banking system, which he persuaded to offer farmers 10-year loans with the first two years interest-free. These were generous terms from a man who, even when in a good mood (as he was while enjoying a cigar with me), does not often take no for an answer.

Another high-level recent appointee, Maritza Gonzalez, co-president of Habanos, also has no doubts about the seriousness of the situation. The first woman to hold this post, she explains that the hurricane was just the latest in a concatenation of unfortunate circumstances. “Covid automatically reduced production by 50 per cent because it was necessary to keep extra distance between rollers in the factories,” she says. “Also, the economic situation in Cuba last year caused problems with the electricity, which caused a lot of blackouts and interrupted production. It was impossible to buy the petrol that we need to maintain generators, and that also affects production.”

Petrol shortages hinder output in other ways, too. “Transportation for the workers to the factory has been disrupted; at the moment it is not possible in some places to guarantee the transportation for staff,” Gonzalez explains. “It is a very basic example, but very important, because it affects production.” She is a clever, determined woman and confident about returning exports to around 90 million cigars. “But it will take no less than three years.”

Things are bad, but they’ve been that way since the “special period,” the euphemism for the collapse of the USSR, when one year a shortage of string with which to tie the bales of tobacco leaves threatened the harvest. Cuba is used to working around difficulties. As Gonzalez presents the challenges hindering the industry, she also offers me a cigar from her handbag. One of the benefits of life here is that you can enjoy a smoke more easily than elsewhere—facing each other in ludicrously oversized, once-white executive swivel chairs, we ready our cutters and lighters.

The cigar is a Partagás Serie P No. 2, a piramide, the shape often, incorrectly, described as a torpedo—a good and dependable cigar but more workhorse than thoroughbred. Or so I think until I clip and light it. It is truly exceptional—the first mouthful delivers an intense sweetness that is simultaneously refreshing, invigorating the palate in a way that is delightfully unexpected. After that it just gets better and better. One of the most remarkable Partagás I have ever ignited, it creates an instant and indelible memory.

Provided my mental faculties remain even halfway intact as I age, the memory of these 45 minutes in its company will stay with me until I draw my last breath (hopefully, Havana cigar in hand). It is particularly impressive that such depths and flavours can be achieved in the face of such incredible impediments.

In the fields and factories, one is struck by the pride taken in the labour of people highly skilled at what they do, who have spent their working lives overcoming shortages, obstacles, and difficulties. On this visit, I stop at a couple of farms in Lázaro Peña, known for producing the wrapper leaf. A farmer may have half a million plants to care for, and between seed and harvest, each plant might be visited up to 150 times; it is painstaking, back-breaking work.

Seeing these plants as they near maturity, cultivated under translucent awnings of cheese-cloth, is always an experience. It’s as if someone has built a marquee over an expanse of tall, beautiful, plump-leafed foliage spreading as far as is possible to see. The heat is intense; so, too, are the colours. The rust-red loaminess of the iron-rich soil throws the large chlorophyll-bright leaves of the tobacco plants into relief while the billowing muslin canopy provides a third unambiguous band of white. It’s as if nature has decided to paint a Rothko in vivid hues. Much in the way that grapes in top vineyards are picked almost individually, so tobacco leaves are harvested one or two at a time from the bottom of the plant up.

Cuba Festival of Havana
Cigars on display

Of course, the cultivation of tobacco and the manufacturing of cigars are agricultural and industrial activities, but in Cuba they are more than that: There is also a cultural dimension. Like watchmaking in Switzerland or viticulture in the Gironde, cigar making has been a way of life here for centuries. I am visiting a curing barn, where the leaves are sewn together in pairs and suspended in the lofty darkness to begin their transformation from verdant green to brown, when, all of a sudden, a woman with whom I am taking the tour, formerly an economics professor at Havana University and a quondam senior executive at Habanos, begins to get quite emotional—not tearful but clearly touched by what she’s seeing.

A minute later she is working alongside two women dextrously stitching together tobacco leaves. She explains that she grew up in Pinar del Río during the optimistic decades shortly after what is still unironically referred to as the Triumph of the Revolution, and at the time of the tobacco harvest, schoolchildren would spend a month toiling on the plantations: boys in the fields, girls in the curing barns.

The sight of those nimble fingers on the just-plucked leaves returned her to her childhood almost 50 years ago, when as a young girl she and her schoolfellows had left their lessons to work the land. A lifetime has passed, yet the actions remain familiar—a deeply embedded muscle memory.

The best part of any visit to the campo is the chance to stop in at the Tobacco Research Institute, a low brick building surrounded by neatly clipped hedges, whose unassuming appearance belies the remarkable work being conducted inside. You might call this the genetic memory bank that stores what makes Havana cigars unique: the rich black tobacco first identified in 1907 as Nicotiana tabacum var. havanensis.

Although now in his 80s and officially retired, Eumelio Espino still comes into the research centre most weeks. Like the building in which he spent much of his working life, you would not give him a second glance, or if you did all you would see is a wiry, below-average-height pensioner in a neatly pressed, short-sleeved yellow shirt and baggy chinos. But, by rights, there should be a statue erected in his honour at every tobacco plantation the length and breadth of the nation. Cuba was estimated to have lost 90 per cent of its tobacco production in 1980 because of an outbreak of blue mould. Pesticides provided a short-term solution, but Espino was the genetic scientist who identified a strain of Cuban black tobacco that was resistant to this infestation, enabling the country to overcome its phylloxera moment.

I first met Espino in 2010, when he introduced me to the mysteries of the medio tiempo, the sacred leaf responsible for the unique flavour of the Behike. “Legend” is a term abused and overused. In Espino’s case, it is appropriate, and I am happy to report that, although he retired as director of the institute a decade ago, he is still active in the industry.

That is the thing about cigar making in Cuba: You never really leave it. I also renew my acquaintance with Arnaldo Vichot, who started work in cigars in the early 1950s. Over his long career, he blended smokes for HRH the Duke of Windsor, who liked mild aromatic tobacco, and the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, who required something so punchy that Vichot had to include two leaves of the potent ligero in every cigar.

Vichot worked as master blender at Partagás into his late 80s, devising every blend for Bolívar and Partagás for two decades, retiring only in 2018. When I arrive at the Partagás factory, this cheerful nonagenarian is there visiting former colleagues, and to judge from the shouts of greeting and chants of “Vichot! Vichot!” he is regarded as fondly and fiercely as any sports or music star.

Meanwhile at El Laguito, a large mansion that once belonged to a treacle baron and is now the home factory of Cohiba, I am privileged to meet 75-year-old Yolanda Medina. In 1967 she became one of the first women cigar rollers in post-revolutionary Cuba, joining the all-female team at El Laguito charged with creating Castro’s favourite cigar, the elegant wand of tobacco known as the Laguito No. 1. Back in the febrile 1960s, this job had required high-security clearance, and at first production moved location every few months. Medina was considered for the job only because her uncle was one of El Comandante’s bodyguards. Thus began a life in cigar making.

The new era that Havana cigars are now entering was built on the efforts of Medina, Vichot, Espino, and thousands like them, but as young at heart as those individuals may be, they belong to a generation fading into history. The starkest instance of how much the cigar world is changing comes near the end of the closing gala, the importance of which is underlined by the attendance of the Cuban president.

After dinner and awards but before the concert, the penultimate event of the gala evening is the auction. This used to be an almost quaint affair, the gavel wielded by Simon Chase, a British authority who would don black tie to take to the rostrum. On the evening of that first festival back in 1999, Fidel Castro even lent Chase a hand on stage and signed the lots. The entire auction raised US$750,000 and was judged a rousing success, with gasps all around the room at the US$250,000 paid for 200 Cohiba Gran Coronas, a special size made to celebrate the new millennium. This year just a single lot of six fetches below US$1 million, with the star entry of Cohiba humidor and AP minute repeater garnering US$4.5 million, almost as much as all six lots in 2020, the last festival before the intervention of Covid. The total is a staggering US$11.8 million.

Nor are the purchasers the usual suspects. The leading Mexican cigar collector is knocked out of the bidding at US$900,000. Tonight the big winners are from China and the Far East—something perhaps not unconnected with the fact that this is the first festival for Habanos with its new shareholder, a Hong Kong–based consortium that bought out Imperial tobacco, the previous shareholder, in a deal rumoured to be worth over a billion dollars.

Elsewhere on the island there are signs of Sino-Cuban cooperation—even the body-scanning equipment at José Martí Airport comes from China. Forget the Cuban Missile Crisis: Chinese soft power has succeeded where the USSR failed. With this new investor, the augury for the cigar industry is good. Money is clearly no longer an issue, nor, one imagines, will be supplies. With help from new friends in the East, problems getting fertiliser and equipment may soon be sorted, and those curing barns will be re-erected sooner than you might think to enable 90 million cigars to be exported from Cuba each year.

I only hope that by the time proper export levels are resumed, I will still be able to afford them.

This story was first published on Robb Report USA