A week in Cuba at Festival del Habano XIX

Cuba is known for its rum, beaches, classic American cars and salsa dancing, but the country is known one thing above all others, and that is the cigar.

Cuban cigars are coveted around the globe, and for one week each year at the end of February, cigar lovers from as many countries descend on Cuba for the annual Festival del Habano. This year marked the 19th for the festival.

The beginning

Monday morning is a time of news and preparation. The tradeshow floor is busy getting up and running while the press conference takes place, and attending the conference gives a visitor an idea of the scope of this event. The hallways are jammed with media – journalists, photographers and camera operators – all waiting for the doors to open so they can vie for a seat. It is not usual to be provided with a cigar for a press conference, but this is, after all, the Festival del Habano, and each member of the press is given a Montecristo upon entering the room.

Subhead: A successful year

While luxury goods as a whole had a tough year with flat growth in 2016, that was not the case for Spanish-Cuban company Habanos, whose sales grew 5%, to US$445 million globally. Habanos' Vice President for Development Javier Terres stated that the reason for this growth rate was the “recovery” of the company’s traditional market base – mainly France and Spain – while increasing business in developing markets such as Eastern Europe, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Latin America. He affirms that the company will be putting efforts into increasing business in these regions in the coming years. The big celebrations for last year’s 50th anniversary of the Cohiba was also mentioned as a reason for the uptick.

Those in the duty free industry, with its focus on luxury items such as these cigars, might feel gladdened by those numbers. They will be even happier to hear that the duty free/travel retail channel is incredibly important to the company. This channel is Habanos’ second largest market after Europe, with 24% of its sales overall. According to some of the people in the industry who attended the H. Upmann Welcome Night, in the Gulf region up to 70% of Habanos sales come through this channel – an incredible figure.

THE EVENTS

Welcome Night in honor of H. Upmann

The first evening’s Welcome Night cocktail event took place at Club Habana, a stately mansion, long-time beach club and formerly Havana’s Yacht Club. This evening was devoted to the H. Upmann Sir Winston Gran Reserva 2011, a special limited edition version of the classic Churchill vitola.

The gushing rain made for a difficult early evening, but luckily the skies parted, the club was prepared and guests were allowed in. Greeted at the door and given a package of the honored cigar, guests were then ushered up the divided staircase to the bars, lounges and balconies above.

At the first of what would prove to be many busy events, despite the early rain the Club Habana was full, from the large upper balcony, where guests were entertained with traditional Cuban music, the VIP room, where the cigar was the only subject of interest, the hallways, which were lined with bottomless offerings of food, and the patios, where guests enjoyed easy conversation, champagne and cocktails. And everywhere, H. Upmann Sir Winston Gran Reserva 2011 cigars.

Wednesday’s Quai D’Orsay evening

The location for the Quai D’Orsay evening, which many people considered the most enjoyable evening of the week, took place at the El Laguito Convention Lounge. This lovely location might have been in any major city in the world. Before entering, most guests enjoyed a Quai D’Orsay on the patio.

The lovely sit-down multi-course dinner was highlighted by continuous offerings of different sizes of this cigar brand, which has existed since 1970 but has just been revamped for the global market – the French market in particular, which is no great surprise considering the cigar was created specifically for that country.  

A wonderful band played throughout the evening and the guest entertainers were varied and interesting, with a number of well-known Cuban musicians. Cuba’s dancers are legendary, and they were an integral part of the evening’s festivities. While perhaps not as flashy as the gala evening to come, it’s safe to say this evening was eminently enjoyable.

The Gala Evening

The highlight of the week was Friday’s Gala Evening was attended by thousands of the elegantly dressed, many of whom stopped by the front of the stage to inspect the exquisite humidors, each one designed and handcrafted by skilled Cuban artisans and filled with its respective cigar. The impressive event took place at the PABEXPO, where an orchestra backed up some of the country’s most famous performers including Haila, David Torrens and Vania, leading up to a special, dazzling performance by the incredible Spanish-Lebonese violinist Ara Malikian – half rock star, half classical violinist, all entertainer. The meal’s courses, each served with a complementary wine, were interspersed with gifts of the evening’s honored cigar, the new Montecristo Linea 1935.

The highlight of the Festival every year is the auctioning of the humidors, which marks the end of the evening and the end of the festival. These incredible pieces of art are auctioned to raise funds to benefit the Cuban health care system. This year’s sale of six humidors raised €1.2 million, or US$1.27 million


Other events

The parties might be a focal point, but the festival holds many other events, all of great interest to the cigar aficionado.

Each year a number of festival guests head out of the city to the plantations of Vuelta Abajo, Pinar del Rio, where they learn not only about growing different tobacco leaves but also about drying and other treatment methods. Thursday morning’s visit was to the factories of La Corona and H. Upmann. They say from plant to cigar, a hundred pair of hands touch every single Habano, and that begins to become apparent throughout these visits. Creating a Habano is both a science and a work of art.

Throughout the week Habanos offers a number of seminars and conferences. This year’s offerings included talks on Habanos and the Arts, a Masterclass on rolling techniques and Pairings of cigars with rums and with brandy, among other popular events. One of the highlights of each festival is the International Habanosommelier Contest, where outstanding servers from around the globe prove their deep knowledge of the Habano by offering cigar and cocktail pairings to suit individual tastes and preferences. This year’s finalists hailed from Chile, UAE, England, and the wild card Andrea Balzani, from Italy.