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The finest of smokes

Havanna S.A., the king of Cuban tobacco, sets the global standard for cigars

by Executive Staff

“A woman is an occasional pleasure but a cigar is always a smoke,” Groucho Marx once famously said. Many are the comparisons between women and cigars, whereby real cigar aficionados, when forced to choose, never doubt what comes first. If a cigar is indeed like a woman, than she must be Cuban, as the world’s most famous cigars all come hand-rolled from the Caribbean isle.

As is the case with grapes and wine, the taste of first-class cigars largely depends on the soil and climate in which the tobacco has been grown. And it just so happened that God created the perfect growing conditions for tobacco in the hot and humid Cuban province of Pinar Del Rio, which almost single-handedly turned the Cuban cigar into simply the best cigar in the world.

Some 25 percent of the 400 million cigars sold worldwide in 2008 were from Cuba. With the exception of the US market, as Washington has upheld a trade ban on all things Cuban since 1962, Cuba has 80 percent of the global cigar trade in terms of value. Spaniards, French, Germans and Cubans themselves are the world’s most fervent smokers.

Cuba’s cigar industry is a monopoly controlled by Havanna S.A. Its president, Manual Garcia, last February announced that the company saw worldwide sales in 2008 slip by 3 percent to amount to $390 million.

Garcia blamed the world financial crisis, which had reduced the demand for luxury goods, including cigars. An 11 percent drop in global travel had slowed cigar sales at duty free shops, which account for a quarter of the company’s business. Stricter smoking laws in Germany, France, Britain and United Arab Emirates, he said, had also decreased demand.

Where there’s smoke, there’s sales

Western Europe is Havanna’s top sales market, with 57 percent of total sales, followed by Latin America, at 14 percent. The Middle East and Asia together make up about 9 percent of the market or some 36 million cigars. Comparatively, in 2008, some 60 billion cigarettes were sold in the GCC.

Havanna S.A. was founded in 1994 as a joint venture between the Cuban government and the Spanish-French tobacco firm Altadis, with the latter subsequently being bought by Britain’s Imperial Tobacco Group in 2007. The company produces 27 premium cigar brands in some 80 formats, among which Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta and Cohiba are arguably the most famous.

The company distributes its cigars through its 144 Casas del Habano outlets around the world. According to one representative of Casa del Habano in Beirut, Lebanese cigar sales have not been affected by the crisis and are expected to continue to grow at an annual average growth rate of 15 percent. He did, however, expect Lebanese expatriates from the Gulf to spend less on cigars when they return for the summer holiday.

Lebanon and the Middle East are no exception from the rest of the world in the sense that Montecristo, Cohiba and Romeo y Julieta are the best selling brands. Montecristo is in fact the world’s bestselling brand with a 25 percent market share in terms of value, followed by Cohiba (23 percent) and Romeo y Julieta with 13 percent. According to Havanna President Garcia however, Cohiba rakes in the greatest profit.

Made with two types of tobacco leaf and put through extra fermentation to add flavor, the Cohiba is the company’s flagship cigar. It was especially created in 1966 for Fidel Castro and other Cuban leaders. It was made available on the open market in 1982.

An expanded selection

Cigar lovers will be happy to hear that Havanna this year announced the launch of a handful of new Cuban Delights, including the Montecristo Open and the Gran Reserva Cohiba Siglo VI, which were “designed” with the help of “master blenders, expert rollers, and tasters.”

Montecristo Open offers four new types and sizes: the Eagle (54 gauge x 150 mm long), Regata (46 x 135 mm), Master (50 x 124mm) and Junior (38 gauge x 110 mm long). The Siglo VI measures 52 by 150mm. Another major launch for Havanna in 2009 is the Robustos T (50 x 124mm), which is part of the Trinidad brand.

Then there are the limited editions: the San Cristóbal de la Habana O’Reilly (56 x 160mm), of which only 1,000 units will be sold, a special box with 50 Montecristo Doble Coronas cigars (49 x 194 mm), of which only 350 units will be sold.

If anyone thinks 194 mm is a long cigar, then think again: Cuban cigar roller Jose Castelar Cairo this year entered the world record books with a cigar no less than 45.38 meters long. Smoke that!

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