Those who smoke Cohiba understand why they have a special place in the pantheon of premium Cuban cigars. And we’re not saying that lightly. Cohiba cigars are measured up against other stellar brethren, popular brands like Montecristo, H Upmann, Bolivar, Partagas, Romeo y Julieta. Go down the list.
Still, there are reasons that set Cohiba apart. They are certainly enormously popular, and not just among the more knowledgable cigar smokers. And they are certainly the most expensive regular production cigar sold around the world. Cuban cigar sales topped $538 million in 2019, according to state monopoly Habanos S.A.
They were Fidel Castro’s favourite brand, created in 1966. A full strength cigar, Cohiba cigars were offered to the public in three sizes – Lanceros, Coronas Especiales, and Panetelas. Esplendidos, Robustos and Exquisitos were added in 1989. Five sizes were added in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Cuba in 1492 – Siglos I, II, III, IV and V.
So if you’re going to do some cigar shopping for spring, let’s boil it down for you. Why are Cohiba cigars considered superior to all others?
The brand, name and meaning
The name “Cohiba” actually comes from the Taino word for “tobacco”. The Taino are the indigenous people of the Caribbean who were the principal inhabitants of Cuba when it was discovered by Europeans in the late 15th century.
Cuba has been a tobacco-producing country since the 16th century. They’ve been making sought-after cigars for almost as long as that. In all that time, Cuba’s cigar-makers have perfected their art, reaching a point where they are completely unrivalled among their international peers.
Ask someone for the best brand name watch, and the response is likely “Rolex”. Champagne? “Dom Perignon”. Sports car? “Ferrari”. And premium cigar? That would be “Cohiba”.
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The history. Why they were first made. How they became a commercial product.
As said, this was Fidel’s brand, and Fidel wouldn’t reach for second rate. Castro, the revolutionary and president of Cuba, was seldom photographed without a cigar in his hand. Castro’s father introduced him to cigars during his teen years and smoked until he was 59. His favourite was the Cohiba Lancero – 7 9/16 inches long with a 38 ring gauge. Castro died in 2016 at the age of 90.
Cohiba was originally a limited production private brand supplied only to Castro and high level members of the Cuban government and the Cuba Communist Party. It fast developed a reputation for its quality. The Cuban leadership would offer Cuban cigars as diplomatic gifts, and was released for sale to the public for the first time in 1982.
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Said Castro to Cigar Aficionado magazine in 1994: “I used to see the man smoking a very aromatic, very nice cigar, and I asked him what brand he was smoking. He told me that it was a special blend, but that it came from a friend who makes cigars and he gave them to him. I said, let’s find this man.
I tried the cigar, and I found it so good that we got in touch with him and asked him how he made it. Then we set up the house (El Laguito factory) and he explained the blend of tobacco he used. He told which leaves he used from which tobacco plantations. He also told us about the wrappers he used and other things. We found a group of cigar makers. We gave them the material and that is how the factory was founded. Now Cohiba is known all over the world.”
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The El Laguito factory
The El Laguito cigar factory, where Cohiba cigars are hand-rolled, is where the rubber really hits the road. The factory is located in Havana’s Cubanacán district, close to the embassy district. The factory is usually closed to the public. But when it is opened briefly for a public look-see, during the Festival del Habano, it’s a must-stop when visiting the country.
This is the year Cuba celebrates its most prestigious brand, Cohiba, with its 55th anniversary, and plans were in place for the festival, scheduled for this past February. Covid-19 put the brakes on that. When the world opens back up, go see it. It’s a majestic, two-story villa, located next to a lake. The word “Cohiba” is written on the walls of the place. Each of the rooms is occupied by cigar rollers.
It’s a masterclass in cigar production there, a hand-rolling tradition that goes back hundreds of years. There are roughly 200 steps that go into the production of a single Cuban cigar.
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The finest tobacco and triple fermentation process
Cohiba cigars are made from the finest tobacco available in Cuba. Specifically, the tobacco is selected from the San Luis and San Juan y Martinez zones in the Vuelta Abajo region in the extreme western part of the island.
Plus there’s a knowledge of tobacco cultivation (300 to 400 steps) that is superior. Another differentiator when talking the Cohiba brand is the use of Medio Tiempo tobacco, the small leaves found at top of the tobacco plant. These are rarely seen on the plants, and are cherished by growers for the richness of their flavour. These are used in the Cohiba Behike cigars.
The aroma and smoother flavour with Cohibas compared to other cigars comes down to a unique third fermentation process in wooden barrels at the El Laguito factory.
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Wide variety of vitolas for Cuba’s flagship cigar brand
Cohiba features four different lines, or líneas. There was the Línea Clásica, six sizes introduced between 1966 and 1989. In 1982, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in Cuba, the Línea 1492 came out, five new sizes, followed by the iconic Siglo VI in that line, in 2002.
The Línea Maduro 5 with three sizes, wrapped in dark, flavourful maduro leaves, came out in 2007. And in 2010, three sizes in the exceptionally rich Línea Behike series, using that rare medio tiempo leaf, was introduced.
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