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What s the mystery that makes Cuban cigars so great?

I know how this sounds, but I live in Havana and I don't smoke cigars. I'm clueless about them, actually. Even the cutting thingy that trims off the tip is a mystery.

That's why I decided to embark on a cigar crash course, learning what makes Cubans some of the finest cigars in the world.

"If you're interested in cigars, we're already friends," says James Suckling, Cigar Aficionado Magazine's "Man in Havana." He's an American based in Italy who has been coming to Cuba since 1992 and agreed to dispense some advice on a recent visit.

We're sitting in leather easy chairs in the Conde de Villaneuva cigar shop in Old Havana, where the air hangs sweet and sticky with the essence of past cigars. The cheapest handmade variety here is Romeo y Julieta's short Corona, in individual metal tubes for about 3 U.S. dollars a piece. Top of the line is Cohiba's Esplendido, at 20 dollars each.

Suckling and I are smoking Hoyo de Monterrey's Hoyo Corona, a smooth, sweet-smelling cigar perfect for beginners. He's getting a "cedar or a nutty flavor" from his. I've been inhaling too much and my throat burns.

Nothing is more Cuban than cigars, and they are hard to top for romanticism and mystique. Fidel Castro gave up his trademark stogies on doctor's orders, but Winston Churchill's love of Romeo y Julieta was such that the brand named a long, fat variety after him in 1947. John F. Kennedy preferred H. Upmann and so craved Cubans that he dispatched his press secretary to stockpile 1,200 Petit Upmanns before signing the US trade embargo against the island in 1961.

Some experts say Cuba's cigar quality has been surpassed in Nicaragua and Honduras, where Cubans work in the factories using their country's fabled hand-rolling techniques.

But for most American cigar smokers, the true appeal of Cubans has little to do with quality or taste.

"It's the forbidden fruit factor," Suckling says. "It's like the Holy Grail of cigars."

Cuba's cigar monopoly, Habanos, S.A., produces 27 premium brands that come in 220 different sizes, ranging in length from 10 to 25 cm, or from slightly larger than a cigarette to longer than a Chihuahua.

Cuba sold more than 400 million dollars worth of cigars in 2007. Americans alone buy 300 million dollars in cigars annually, and despite the embargo, officials estimate that 10 million dollars of that is spent on cuban cigars bought on the Internet or elsewhere, though many could be fakes.

Like fine wine, top tobacco depends on the right mix of sunlight and humidity. Cuba's "Vuelta Abajo" region in Pinar del Rio province has perfect soil, with a hint of sand. The average temperature is 23 degrees Celsius, and humidity hovers around 65 percent.

Cuban cigars are made of five kinds of tobacco, and leafs at the top of the plant, which receive the most sunlight and have the strongest flavor, provide the filler tobacco, with the most-potent sprinkled in sparingly for extra kick. Leaves farther down make binders that hold together the filler. Tan-hued wrapper leafs are grown in the shade and have a thin, stretchy feel like vinyl.

Cuba's flagship brand is Cohiba. Founded in 1966 to make cigars for Castro, the brand did not begin selling on the open market until 1982.

All tobacco leaves for Cuban cigars are fermented at least twice and aged for months or even years. Two types of leaves used in Cohibas go through a third fermentation for extra flavor.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Source: Xinhua, China

What s the mystery that makes Cuban cigars so great?