Cigars and Rum
If you know nothing else about Cuba you know they make the worlds best Cigars and smooth Havana Club Rum. Happy to say I indulged in both, daily. I had no idea the production of these products is owned by the government and in the case of the cigars extremely labor intensive.
The Cigar Factory
Using my Lonely Planet we found the National Cigar Factory located in Centro just behind the capitol building. We walk there and find out “sorry we have moved to a new building here’s a map, they are probably not open, but here you go”. When leave and find several bicycle rickshaw called a ‘Bici-taxi’ lined up outside to take tourists to the new factory. We paid the driver 5 CUC for the ride to and from the factory. On the ride we saw a new KIA SUV and I asked “who can afford such a car?” and he replied “That is THE question”. A fitting opening to our first day in Havana.
Travel luck was on our side and we arrive just in time to join a tour. The group was ushered into a room to keep our bags and cameras, as there is no photography in the factory. “Don’t worry we will lock the room, your things are safe” was hard to believe but true. Also explains the absence of pictures.
Cigar making starts in the basement with tobacco leaf sorting. Bags of tobacco straight from the fields are hand stacked then opened and hand sorted by 6 to 10 men. There are three different types of leafs that all come from the same plant and each has a different purpose in the final cigar.
- Leafs from the bottom of the plant get the least sun and are dry, they make up the ‘burning leafs” and are mixed into the inside of the roll.
- Leafs from the middle have the best flavor and make up the body of the Cigar.
- Leafs from the top get the most sun and are flexible so they make up the outside of the Cigar.
Once sorted the leafs go up one floor and are sorted again, this time by quality Low Medium and High. In a large room women sit on over 100 year old sorting chairs efficiently combining leafs into bunches that hold all the components needed for one cigar. Tobacco leaves are bunched based on quality with only the best for Coheba.
The sorted Tobacco bunches go up another floor entirely dedicated to rolling only. The factory has a “Reader” who reads books, news and other approved documents to keep the workers minds engaged, like very old-school talk radio. Rollers are seated according to ability apprentice at the end and only the most skilled rollers can do the torpedo shape. Each person can roll an entire cigar in 2 minutes or less.
If a cigar is cracked, damaged or in any way imperfect it is discarded. From what I gather ‘discarded’ cigars are smoked by the staff, taken home and sold on the street.
Completed and sorted Cigars go to the top floor where boxes are built, assembled, labeled and filled then stacked and stowed in the humidor for storage and shipping.
We asked our tour guide where to buy Cigars, explaining that we didn’t really care about the type or having the fancy box. He asked how many cigars and if there is a particular type then we arranged to meet the next night to exchange. There are security cameras all over the factory, so we tried to be very discreet.
The following night we met our guide at a hotel that was “safe for locals” meaning that the owners let Cubans use the internet for a fee and locals are aloud to drink at the hotel bar, this apparently is rare. We had two Cuba Libres and a cigar and talked for over an hour. We learned about day to day life and shared news from the world, like the Arab Spring. Oh and we bought 75 Cigars for 75CUC.
Our guide explained the Cuban hustle, each person takes a little bit from their job; what ever they can re-sell to Cubans or foreigners. To get our 75 cigars several people skimmed off tobacco, stickers, boxes, and labels. He took all the ingredients back to his wife, a cigar roller, and she rolls cigars at home for him to sell. Effectively tripling their monthly salary with one sale.
According to several people everyone seems to hustle anything they can; rum, cigars, phone service, soap, internet access, even business licenses. As our guide put it “the only thing that matters is who you know, if you have the right contacts you can get anything”. That is not to say it is without risk, no one wants to be caught steeling from the government but they also didn’t tell me what happens if you are, no bueno.
Apparently if you want Cigars with the authentic stamp of approval you need to go to the government approved tobacco store, you will pay the same as abroad, but it wont be nearly the adventure.
Havana Club Rum
Served in three popular concoctions;
- Cuba Libre – Rum and Tu Cola = Cuban Coke
- Mojito – Rum, Sugar, Mint, Lime and Soda water, heavenly
- Daqueri – blended rum with lime and sugar, so refreshing
Most of the above are made with Havana Club Blanco Rum. It is clear and the cheapest of the Havana club options. You also wont find it much outside of Cuba, I’ve been looking.
There are several different types of gold color “Anejo” verities that are available outside the island. These have the complexity of whiskey with a smooth finish like honey, worth every penny in duty-free.
- Anejo Reserva – this is my favorite, smooth and very drinkable
- Anejo Reserva 7 Anos – aged for 7 years this is more whiskey like
- 15 anos…. and older – aged longer for strong flavor, deeper color and progressively more expensive.
While there is a Bacardi building in Havana (photo left, under restoration) you will not find Bacardi Rum available to drink. There is a bitter rivalry and once you have tasted Havana Club you may never go back to the Bacardi bat.
Havana Club Rum and Cuban Cigars are very much worth any hype that may exist. With every drop and drag I remember there is a human being hand crafting each part for 15 CUC per month.