The History of Cohiba
To celebrate this week's Habanos Cigar Festival we've dug into the archives to celebrate the Cuban cigar world's flagship marque. The Cohiba has become synonymous with the tiny island nation as well as the Commandante's revolution. The brand has a legendary history, but most importantly, writes Nick Foulkes, originally as a feature in Issue 46 of The Rake, the experience of smoking a Cohiba remains one of life's indelible pleasures.
Some time during the heat of the battle in the summer of 1815, an eager artillery officer is supposed to have rushed up to the side of the Duke of Wellington, to tell him that Napoleon was within range and to request permission to fire. The laconic Wellington supposedly turned a baleful eye upon the eager soldier and informed him that, "It is not the business of commanders to be firing upon one another." It would, one assumes, have been ungentlemanly to attempt to bump off one’s opponent. Far better to win the battle by straightforward means, even if it meant tens of thousands of men losing their lives. If history is to be believed, Wellington seems to have spent much of his life talking in pithy one-liners. So it would have been interesting to hear what the Iron Duke would have had to say about the president of the United States’ desire to do away with Fidel Castro. The way Fabian Escalante, former chief of Cuban State Security, puts it in his book ‘The Secret War’ such was the frequency of the C.I.A.’s attempts to take out the Commandante that you could set your watch by them. "During the year 1962 and within the context of Operation Mongoose, the C.I.A. and the counter-revolutionary organisations dreamed up dozens of plans to assassinate Fidel Castro," Escalante wrote. "It was the time when the United States administration was most determined to rid itself of the Cuban government, believing that decapitating the revolution was fundamental to achieving its objectives." In a roundabout way, I am rather grateful to the C.I.A. for trying so assiduously to bump off Fidel, for without their lethal but laughable attempts to kill the Cuban leader (think tuberculosis infected diving gear), the history of the post-revolutionary Havana cigar might have been very different. Of course the most famous method of trying to end the Castro regime was with an exploding cigar. Among practical jokers the exploding cigar was apparently a firm favourite, and at one stage, someone at the C.I.A. experienced a moment of Newtonian epiphany: here was the perfect tool with which to halt the spread of socialism in the Caribbean. Instead, inadvertently it led to the creation of the greatest of all cigar marques.
The beginnings of the story are wreathed in myth and cigar smoke. It was 1963. The cloud of nuclear doom that had hovered over the Caribbean during the tense days of the 1962 missile crisis had cleared and the sunlit uplands of Cuban socialism beckoned. Once again a man could enjoy a cigar in peace, without fear of being interrupted by nuclear Armageddon. Thus it was Castro’s driver and chief bodyguard, Bienvenido Perez Salazar, or ‘Chicho’ was sitting in El Commandante’s Oldsmobile enjoying a cigar rolled for him by a friend. Long, thin, elegant and distinguished by a little twisted pigtail of tobacco leaf at the end: it tasted as good as it looked. Castro was so impressed by the lingering aroma that Chicho offered him one. El Commandante enjoyed it enough to have its roller, Eduardo Rivera, summoned from his torcedor’s bench and entrusted with the solemn responsibility of rolling the leader’s cigars. At the time, Rivera was working in the old La Corona factory. The factory dated from the turn of the century and was reputedly the first metal-framed building to be built in Havana. I have a fondness for it because it was where, a little under than 20 years ago I met Taboada, a legendary roller who used to make bundles of 50 Salomones, which were among the finest cigars I ever enjoyed. Alas, La Corona closed some years ago and relocated to a site a little further out of the centre, and Taboada is long-retired; a pity as, had I known more about the history of the Cohiba back then, I might have been tempted to ask Taboada if he had known Rivera and if he had been present at his torcedor’s bench on the day the announcement crackled over the loudspeaker instructing Rivera to make his way to the factory entrance, where a comrade in military fatigues (who announced himself as one of the Commandante’s bodyguards) had been instructed to take him to a top-secret meeting. At this meeting he was asked to roll some more of the delicious cigars. At first he thought he was making them for a friend, but soon these slender wands of tobacco became an indispensable revolutionary accessory: as much a part of Castro’s look as the luxuriant facial hair (apparently there was also a plot to make his beard fall out), heavy boots and olive green military fatigues. According to the poster boy of radical chic, the man who adorned thousands of student bedsits in the 1960s and seventies, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, never had he smoked a better cigar – it is a near constant companion of his in photographs of that time, and it is said that even after he left the island to export the revolution to Bolivia, he was sent supplies of his favourite cigars.
For security reasons, Rivera was moved between factories and sometimes rolled cigars at home; and when they established a factory to make these top secret cigars, it was a high-security site. To this day an aura of secrecy still surrounds the brand, and it remains by far the most difficult cigar factory to visit. What is fascinating about this cigar is that it appears to have been a genuine tool of the Revolution. The cigar that we know today as the Lancero, a long panatela of just over 7.5 inches with a ring gauge of 38 (one ring gauge point equals 1/64th of an inch) became something of an ambassador for the country. I suppose that it is an example of soft power, as it was used as a diplomatic gift, presented with a personal band, with the likes of Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia and Colonel Nasser of Egypt among the lucky recipients. In order to demonstrate the equality of the Revolution, it was decreed that women would be trained as cigar rollers, too. And It was another woman Celia Sanchez, the ‘Flower of the Revolution’, who took the Taino Indian word for the bunched leaves of tobacco that Columbus had been seen enjoying on his arrival on the island and used it to name the new cigar: Cohiba. The cigar now had a name and a workforce. And in 1967 it moved into its current premises, El Laguito, in the former country club district of Havana; a sprawling mansion once belonging to a British treacle tycoon, a building that looks like it cannot quite make up its mind whether it wants to be Petit Trianon or just an oversized wedding cake. However Cohiba did not really emerge as a brand until much later. According to the official history, We Shall Call them Cohiba by Adargelio Garrido de la Grana, ‘the first Cohiba brand design was used for a very short time. It was considered as portraying a concept far removed from that desired, due to the prominence of the colonial over the indigenous.' The second design, therefore, stressed modernity and authenticity with a graphic representation of a Taino head in profile against a tobacco leaf. But it was not until the 1980s that Cohiba was finally widely distributed outside Cuba under a new livery in just three sizes: the Lanceros, Coronas Especiales (which by the way is smoking superbly at the moment), and Panatelas. Today, the black, white and egg-yolk yellow of the Cohiba is an axiom of modern good living that has taken its place alongside the Calatrava cross of Patek Philippe and the distinctive shadowed-and- serifed red lettering of a bottle of Chateau Petrus. Yet, I still remember my excitement at coming across Cohiba for the first time about 25 years ago. I was of course, familiar with Montecristo and Davidoff, but this was something different. For a start, the band was straight-edged, rather swelling to a lozenge in the middle, and instead of the paper-covered box with the elaborate 19th century-style illustrations of star-crossed lovers or South American liberators; it came in a varnished box, either hinged or sliding lid, branded with distinctive block lettering and the Taino head. During the 1980s, cigar tastes tended towards the long, slender cigar, of which the Lancero was the epitome. I became interested in cigars at about the time the Cohiba Robusto was introduced: until 1989 Cohibas could only be bought in Cuba (a long way to go), Spain or in Duty Free shops. The invention of the Cohiba Robusto coincided with the release of the marque on the world market (excepting, of course, the U.S.). Maybe it is because it is the first Cuban cigar I revered, or maybe it really was significant in the history of the modern cigar, but I would call the Cohiba Robusto a game-changer – and you can tell how strongly I feel that to be the case, because in the normal run of events I would use any other euphemism or collection of words to try and express the same sentiment. But there is no way round it: this was a landmark cigar.
There was a time, in the 1980s, when the Robusto format was all but extinct. Mirabile dictu, but in 1984 Cuba produced just 5,000 of its then only current Robusto, the Partagas Serie D No.4, and when the Cohiba Robusto launched in 1989, just 25,000 were made for the world. With its 50-ring gauge I remember it seeming an unconscionably indulgent cigar, but, in a ribbon–bound bundle of 25 cigars and their oily toffee-coloured wrappers almost glowing, it was incredibly seductive. Still, it took me some time to work up the courage to tackle one. I feared the strength, but I need not have done, for the power was like that delivered by the effortlessly turbocharged V8 of a Bentley; smooth and controlled. In the cigar's case, that was down to the quality of the tobacco harvested from the five best plantations in the Vuelta Abajo area as well the additional fermentation undergone by the seco and ligero leaves; a process that lowers the nicotine and acidity. It was a Montecristo No.4 offered to me by my wife’s stepfather that got me into cigar smoking and it was the Cohiba Robusto that kept me there. I was at the dinner at Claridge’s in 1992 when Cohiba's Linea 1492 range was launched. The Linea range was the successor to the Cuban Davidoffs, which had been made at El Laguito. Davidoff subsequently relocated production to the Dominican Republic. The new range of Cohibas, Siglos IV (one for each century since the arrival of Columbus in the New World) promised a slightly lighter style and the Corona Gorda sized Siglo IV (46 ring gauge by just over 5.5 inches) became a rival to the Robusto in my affections. Nowadys, the taste is for cigars of ever-increasing girth, so a Siglo VI (52 ring gauge x just under six inches) was added, and most recently the best just got better with the arrival of the Behike. Until a few years ago, I was only aware of three types of leaf from the tobacco plants that often grow to the height of man: volado, from the bottom, for combustibility; seco, from the middle for aroma and some of the flavour and, further up the plant, the slower-burning ligero, which imparts strength and accounts for the steeple of ash that forms at the end of a lit cigar. Then I learned about Medio Tiempo, which comes from the very top of the sun-grown tobacco plant. I was told that there are just two leaves per plant and that they cannot be relied upon to appear every year. It is these leaves that give the Behike range their unique potency. But while these are rich and flavourful cigars, their large ring gauges 52, 54, and the hard-to-manage 56, mean that the blenders have a bigger canvas on which to balance the flavours to provide an experience that, at its best is close to sublime. I say close to sublime, because of course, the best cigar so far this century is actually sublime, the Cohiba Sublime, a limited edition from 2004 and highly sought after, although the Cohiba 1966 limited edition of 2011 comes a close second. Not every Cohiba has been brilliant. I am not a fan of the Maduros, and they cannot always be smoked instantly: the Robustos Supremos limited edition of 2014 needs time to sort itself out, and even after a short time it has improved from when I first tasted it upon its U.K. arrival (let's put it down to jet lag). However, given that, when you include the limited runs and special editions, there are around three dozen different Cohibas (where there used only to three) it is little short of miraculous (given the difficulties that the Cuban cigar industry has to face) that they are as consistently enjoyable as they are. And when it comes to important anniversaries, such as the 50th birthday celebrations for Cohiba, the Cuban cigar industry really put on a show. At the festival of Havana cigars in the same year, the first of a series of 50 celebratory humidors fetched $320,000 at auction, which works out at $6,400 for each of the 50 cigars it contains. But for that money, at least they are big cigars - very big cigars. In fact a relatively new vitola, called Cohiba 50 Anniversario (60 ring gauge x 178mm length), is a real beast, the first in the Habanos portfolio with a 60 ring gauge (23.80mm) and treated to both a new band and a gold foil-covered foot. Of course, for that sort of money, you get a nice box, a very nice box: a cabinet humidor made of different precious woods, including Macassar ebony, sycamore and Scented Guarea. Its doors are decorated with ligero leaves from the Vuelta Abajo coated with 24-carat gold leaf. Extras include a travel humidor, a handmade leather cigar case, and an ashtray decorated with the same technique as the door. It can also be connected to the internet, as there is an app (of course) to control temperature and humidity (although wi-fi in Cuba is a bit hit and miss). I am sure that these are splendid cigars, but considering the price, I doubt I will taste them. However, I am not too worried about that, as even 'ordinary' Cohibas have a habit of being remarkable cigars, especially when they have a bit of age on them. I had the good fortune to come across a box of Siglo VI from 2004. I lit one and was reminded of why I got into cigar smoking: the rich aroma, the almost textbook progression and development of body and flavour. As I pondered the aroma, I could not help feeling slightly grateful towards the Americans. After all, if the Comandante had not had to take such extreme measures to safeguard his production against the C.I.A.'s exploding cigars, we might never have been given the Cohiba. This article originally appeared in Issue 46 of The Rake.