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Quarter 2, 2008

The Cohiba Ritual:
A Tradition of Excellence
by Gary Heathcott
A look at the history and art of the Cuban cigar institution.

Little did the sailors under the command of the great Italian explorer Christopher Columbus know, but that the “firebrands” being puffed upon by the ancient Taino Indians in the eastern region of Cuba would become the very gold that the Queen of Spain was searching for back in 1492. How were they to know that the aromatic and delicious leaves would spread throughout the entire word, transforming economies of the most powerful countries despite being prohibited initially.

History credits Don Christopher Columbus’ first voyage as the discovery of the Americas. In his own record, Great Admiral Columbus tells the story that upon arriving in Cuba, his ship was welcomed by canoes steered by men and women who held small batches of golden leaves. Given their shape, he notes they resembled a “musket’s lit on one end” that natives pressed between their lips, delightfully inhaling an aromatic smoke from an exotic plant.

Those peaceful people were soon offering their “cohiba” leaves to the visitors as a token of friendship. This historical ritual has transcended more than 500 years and has become an art form passed on from generation to generation. An island nation of people have kept the fire burning just as those original Taino Indians did - making Cohiba an inseparable companion almost from birth to death.

Through various translations, the word “cohiba” was ultimately replaced by another “old world” term: TOBACCO. Mythology states that many believed that tobacco had the ability to unify all peoples in a spiritual mass of sorts. In the mid-1960s cohiba was revived to become the moniker for the most prestigious tobacco ever created.

The actual birth date of the now-famous exclusive Cuban product dates back to early 1963, when a chief bodyguard to Fidel Castro, Bievenido Perez Salazar - know as Chicho - offered an unnamed cigar to El Comandante. The cigar had been created by Chicho’s friend, Eduardo Rivera Irizarri. Castro was so impressed by the mild, elegant, and so near-to-perfection aromatic cigar, that it was soon-to-be the nameless cigar that became such a familiar sign in the leader’s hand and mouth.

Norma Fernandez, the very first female Cuban cigar roller was recently interviewed about the 40 year-old product. “In 1963 when Chicho offered the Comandante the special tobacco, he found it to be so exquisite that he asked for a separate production for himself to smoke for his own enjoyment. From the first time it was made, that particular vitola was very exquisite, very fine, and with a good appearance.”

Thanks to that chance occurrence, one of the world’s most precious treasures of the modern age began to emerge. A new type of cigar, of a new size and shape known as a “vitola” moved into top-secret production.

Norma offered unique insight to the early days of Cohiba. “For this production there were many necessary factors. Rollers and tobacco processors who were highly skilled and trustworthy were needed because the Comandante Jefe would be smoking these cigars. A private place was needed where not anyone could enter, even if they were good people, because security was always of most importance with this work. I was one of only three female rollers chosen to carry out this production within the same factory, but in a separate room where only we and the director could enter. There was also the co-worker who prepared the raw materials we used.”

Initially, the new cigar was reserved exclusively for President Castro, senior members of his government, and on occasion, important world figures.

While the development of this new product involved only a small group of handpicked professionals, its creation involved the long experience of entire generations of Cuban cigar producers with the in-depth knowledge to generate the finest cigar in history. The full-scale manufacturing process came to fruition by 1966 in an old residential, palace-like home. Perched on a hillside in the Siboney neighborhood, located on the outskirts of the island nation’s capital city, the “El Laguito” factory boasts exquisite architecture in a beautiful peaceful setting.

Initially, Castro determined that only women would be trained to roll his new creation. His rationale was two-fold, women could be intrinsically linked with the art of cigar rolling and that they presented a new source of labor. Norma elaborated: “ A lot of the female coworkers were wives, daughters, or sisters of other tobacco workers. And there were others like me - I did not come from a tobacco family; I am the only one in my family who has ever been involved in tobacco. I came in through the Federation. I came on the first day, was shown around and I liked the world of tobacco so much that I stayed here, and I have been here ever since.”

While many names for the new product were considered, Celia Sánchez Manduley determined that Cohiba was the perfect choice. The unique moniker conveyed the very origins of tobacco and the Indians who introduced it to the world. Of course, a label had to be created before the package could be completed. Between 1969 to 1980, Humberto Cabezas Suarez was the Director of Public Relations and Publicity of the Cuban tobacco industry. Humberto served on the team that accepted the task of creating the new band - one that would be worthy enough to adorn the splendid new cigar.

Humberto loves to recite his role in that historical process: “Toward the end of the sixties, the secretary of State Celia Sánchez asked us develop a label design for the tobacco being produced at El Laguito. The product was often being given as gifts by our government to leaders of other countries, as well as high-ranked individuals who visited Cuba.

“Initially a design was made for the Cohiba band. The name Cohiba was first suggested by Celia Sánchez because it was the name for tobacco in the language of the Aruaco Indians of Cuba. The first design for the label was determined to not be satisfactory and was discontinued after a short period of time. Plans for a new one were soon in the works. I worked with Celia and the rollers, most of whom were women. These were the first female rollers and they produced a very high quality cigar. At this point, we decided to have someone in publicity be in charge of executing our ideas. Our concept was to use the image of the defiant Taino Indians, as depicted in studies of the cranium of an Aruaco from the Science Academy of Cuba. We added the proud word Cohiba, cast in gold, signifying total durability, power, grandeur, and overwhelming exclusiveness of the special leaf. The Cohiba name was over a background of black and white squares above a yellow stripe.

“We presented the new design and it was immediately approved. The Compañía Litográfica de la Habana began printing the lithographed labels for the different cigar boxes which were: ‘cubierta,’ ‘vista,’ ‘bofetón,’ ‘costero,’ and ‘filetes.’ We also designed boxes, which held five cigars, for the three styles of Cohiba that we had at the time: the number one ‘Lancero,’ the number two and the number three, which was a small cigar at that time. That is how we launched the new lithographed label production.”

On June 16, 1966, the first new cigar since well before the revolution was presented. By 1969, Cohiba offered three distinctive vitolas carrying the unique names of “Lanceros,” “Coronas Especiales,” and “Panetelas” but still these jewels of the Caribbean were reserved only for Heads of State and visiting diplomats. It was not until the mid to late ’70s that a brand image of Cohiba was even sold - and then only in extremely limited quantities.

Then in 1982, the decision was made to launch Cuba’s most prestigious cigars to the world market - and then only after the product had returned from outer space. In 1980, Cuba agreed to participate with the Soviet Union and the rest of the socialist countries in the “Intercosmos” space program. On its maiden flight, a Cuban astronaut would take some samples of the most typical things from his country. One of the proudest component of that collection was 25 Cohiba cigars.

While the packaging and design may have changed in the somewhat short life of Cohiba, the secret formula for this great blend of treasured tobaccos has remained the same. All Cuban tobacco undergoes two general fermentations in the countryside. Only Cohiba tobacco implements a third. The tobacco is placed in barrels after losing its humidity from the first two fermentations. The barrels are placed in a completely enclosed area and from that moment on, the tobacco begins to generate heat, reaching fifty degrees Celsius. As a result of this process, the enzymes begin to ferment and the leaves expel the harmful tars and other bitter substances. This step is as important to the Cohiba aging process as it is for fine wines and cognacs. The result is an extremely smooth smoke with a long clean finish.

But long before the fermentation process begins, the Cohiba tobacco is nurtured like a newborn baby. The leaves for Cohiba are the “cream of the crop,” coming exclusively from the five finest tobacco farms in the San Juan y Martinez and San Luis zones of the Vuelta Abajo region in Cuba. Perhaps the best-known tobacco farmer in the entire world is Don Alejandro Robaina. He recently granted a special interview for the purpose of describing the best quality tobacco leaves.

“A cigar, in order to have good burning characteristics and good flavor, needs a binder leaf that burns well and is of high quality. It needs to have a light leaf layer - ‘ligero,’ a dry leaf layer, and a middle leaf layer - ‘de medio tiempo.’ It should at least have four different qualities, because if only one type of tobacco is used, the cigar would not be good, no one would smoke it. The tobacco needs to have a blend of three or four different leaves so it will have a good flavor and be a pleasure to smoke.”

Once the most premium of all Cuban tobaccos make their way to the once secret, but now famous El Laguito factory, extreme measures are taken to create the legendary Cohiba. The topic of quality is very important to the management and staff at the factory. Their process involves an intense quality control process in every single department. They are very strict about the quality of the raw materials chosen, which includes the properties of the filler tobacco, the binder leaf, and the outer leaf. For several years now, the Cubans have been using extremely modern equipment, some of which offers distinct advantages over the traditional way of keeping the leaves damp throughout the manufacturing procedures.

Quality technicians review every step of every Cohiba cigar produced. If more than two mistakes are found, that cigar is rejected. Also, the pay systems they have established at El Laguito are in place to encourage the near-perfection of craftsmanship. Many of the incentives are aimed at stimulating the quality of work, not the speed of production. Rollers with a lot of experience may be able to double their production in a day, but if the work does not meet the quality requirements, they may make less than half of another employee.

When it comes to the finished product, there is also a rigorous process in the revision of work and quality control. In each department, two individuals check 100% of the day’s production. That production, which includes the work of the those who select the cigars and those who place the bands on them, is also checked by two quality control specialists before it is ready to be sold.

The Cubans place importance on quality for two fundamental reasons. First, they have the responsibility to preserve the prestige of the Cohiba brand in the world market. Then they are extremely loyal the philosophy set forth by the one-time Minister of Industry, Che Guevera: “Quality shows respect for the consumer.”

It has been proclaimed that more than 100 pairs of Cuban hands are involved in creating a Cohiba - from planting the seeds to attaching the labels to nailing shut the box. As with all Cuban cigars, creating Cohiba offers a great sense of pride to all of those involved. One of Cuba’s greatest cigar rollers, Felix Rodriguez is quoted as saying, “After more than 40 years of working in this factory, it is still marvelous for me to see how a bunch of leaves can be put together to create this wonderful and unique product. I remain amazed at how it starts with the planting of a seed here in Cuba and ultimately gets into a smoker’s hand somewhere else in the world!”

Indeed, the taste of success is realized around the world in the many different shapes and sizes of Cohiba. Tobacco growing goes back to the discovery of the “new world” and has become a culture rooted in centuries of experience. As the Cuban people are so proud of their homegrown products like coffee, sugar, and rum - the whole country throws itself, heart and soul, into the birth of every one of their exclusive products of luxury and passion.

This history lesson would not be complete without a quote from the original creator himself, Eduardo Irizzari, “There is not a cigar in the world with higher quality in the composition of its leaf blend and its production than Cohiba. It was my greatest pleasure of this life to bring this 100% Cuban product to the world.”

Tobacco Products International - Quarter 2, 2008
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