I brought Hardy a little gift from California: a box of Nicaragua cigars. Talk about bringing coals to Newcastle. But these weren’t just any cigars. They were Casa Magna Colorado Robustos which had just been rated by Cigar Aficionado magazine as the number one cigar in the world.
He appreciated the gift but that didn’t mean we were going to skip a visit to the Partagás cigar factory, which just happened to be almost directly across from our hotel, the Saratoga.
This is a very cool place and if you hit it just right (as we did three years ago), you can take a guided tour where you’ll end up in the “golden” room, on the top floor, where some 300 torcedors (cigar rollers), mostly women these days, sit at long wooden tables rolling out Cohibas, Partagás, Ramon Allones, Montecristos, and some two dozen other brands. There’s a pecking order in the room; the newbies sit in back and the guys that roll the Cohiba maduros sit in front (it takes at least seven years experience rolling cigars before you can even think about being a Cohiba torcedor. And for the pleasure of being the best in the world at what you do, you make all of about $20 a month).
On the main floor of the factory is La Casa del Habanao, one of the finest cigar shops in Havana. They carry so many different types of cigars it’s just mind-boggling. Particularly the first time you visit. So the thing to do is strike up a conversation with one of the employees on the floor, like Abel Esposito, the manager. If Abel likes you and thinks you are serious about the cigars (i.e., that you’re going to drop a couple of hundred bucks on a box of something really nice like the Montecristo No. 4 Reserva which goes for $375 for a box of 25), then he might invite you into the smoke-filled VIP room in the back where you can sit in the leather lounge chairs where Cuba’s Comandante en Jefe hobnobbed with Steven Spielberg back in ’02 (he was there, at Cuba’s invitation, to attend the premier of Minority Report with Tom Cruise) and Abel will fire-up a free house cigar and offer you a glass of 7-year-old rum—even if it is barely 10 in the morning.
You don’t even have to smoke a cigar to enjoy the flavor. There’s so much smoke in the room that you can sample a chocolaty Cohiba Maduro or earthy Bolivar Royal Corona just by walking around (when the smoke gets too thick, even for Abel, he flips on an industrial fan to momentarily clear the air).
But do have a breakfast rum with your smoke. It will smooth out the harsh edges.
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