A lengthy cocktail hour in the big, swoopy leather chairs in the open courtyard at the wonderfully restored Conde de Villanueva hotel in Old Havana, smoking a Vegas Robaina Unicos, sipping sweet seven-year-old rum, is about as good as it gets. It's a simplistic view of a hardscrabble city, of course, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that if and when the embargo ends, Havana will be the greatest vacation destination south of New Orleans, maybe south of New York.
It's difficult to take the measure of a city in just five days, even if they are three-cigar days followed by eight-mojito nights, with a lot of walking around. But I tried. Although the old heart of Havana has been restored, I found a crumbling, peeling capital awaiting its return to beauty. It has a colonial-tropical, faded-glory charm that makes you feel a bit guilty loving it. The Cubans endure the rubble and rust, but they also understand the appeal of the movie-set backdrop. Radio-dispatched prerevolution Detroit cars make popular taxis for American tourists who sneak in via Mexico or Canada, though you can just as easily hire a spanking-new Peugeot or Passat. Images of Che Guevara abound but seem as much decorative as revolutionary, with a 1960s nostalgic kick—CheFK, as it were.
The smokes, however, still smolder authentically. Cuban cigars in Cuba are as particular a pleasure as, say, a glass of twenty-year-old brandy sipped on the small farm in Armagnac where it was made: memorable, instructive, not transferable. Cuban cigars can be strong yet delicately fragrant at the same time. The draw and burn are notably even in the best ones (and there are mediocre ones), producing a long ash that seems almost imperturbable until, if you have pushed your luck, it falls in your lap, a hot coal.
Aficionados like to admire a cigar's construction before lighting up, as if they were holding an object of such high craftsmanship that it could be compared to a nineteenth-century pocket watch that also happened to be smokable. A walk around the fragrant "rolling rooms" of the 1845 Partagas factory in Havana reveals why. Before it gets here, prime tobacco has been subject to elaborate care, often grown under white muslin to prevent sunburn; next it is hung and aged, then carefully fermented and turned like God's own garden compost, fermented again, then sorted for quality and purpose. A cigar is a blend of filler leaves that are rolled in a binder leaf, compressed into cigar shape, then rolled with exquisite dexterity inside an unblemished, supple wrapper leaf and sealed with a vegetable glue; a separate little cap is applied to one end, and the other end is guillotined. All of this done by torcedores who are trained and rated for their skill with approximately the importance paid to the training of Navy carrier pilots. They are, after all, defenders of the national honor.
Few locals can afford the top-grade government-seal stogies, such as those to be found in the Conde de Villanueva hotel. Thus I found the place almost empty and experienced it like a Havana aristocrat slowly killing himself in his nineteenth-century digs, ruminating about the price of sugar.
It's hard to overstate how mesmerizing the best Havana cigar shops are: a bar, a couch and a room or three of glass cabinets containing an overwhelming display of coronas, piramides, robustos, belvederes, lonsdales and the awesome, megaphallic Montecristo A, which is more than nine inches long. In the comfy little cigar annex at El Aljibe restaurant, they'll pour you a seven-year Santiago de Cuba ron anejo, or "aged rum," and you can puff a Cohiba robusto from a leather chair and talk to Emilio, one of the most pleasant tobacco men in Havana. El Aljibe is more or less an enormous open-air BBQ roadhouse that seems to be frequented by women more beautiful than any I saw at the Delano in South Beach, Miami, the night before. I practically got whiplash.
But I digress. The national drink of Cuba is the mojito, a minty-limy rum fizz, not served very strong and often complained about by foreign writers as just watery. We were shorted a few times, true, but I came to like a cocktail I could gulp. "The mojito," my buddy John remarked, "slips in and hides somewhere, and then it comes to get you later."
I have found no definitive account of the history of this drink. A variation seems to have appeared sometime in the early twentieth century in Cuba, a period in which a great many cocktails were invented in the Americas on the principal of balancing sweet and sour against the fire of liquor. In any case, the mojito is a natural agreement between locally available ingredients—rum, sugar and lime—with the interesting addition of a great deal of mint. It absolutely requires the freshness of the fruit and mint, which keeps the barmen honest in most places.
Since travel to Cuba is still technically illegal for most Americans, you may want to mix your own mojitos and consume your cubanos abroad. But beware: A few weeks after my Partagas cigar factory tour I was in London, outside a touristy cigar shop, watching a man smoking what he evidently thought to be the real thing, such was the look on his face. As he did so, the cigar was unwrapping with each puff, splaying its leaves in gross fashion—a performance by the cigar that any torcedore would be sacked for. I went into the shop and saw a parody of a shopkeeper selling a supposed Havana Montecristo to an American, the seller laying on British-shop charm thicker than the clotted cream on a Savoy scone. I examined the cigars. Good God, man, I wanted to say, these look like I rolled them in my Havana hotel room! The bands resembled the output of remedial schoolchildren. At the dismal exchange rate now prevailing, this fleecing went for thirty dollars. It was a crime worthy of a Castro-sanctioned punishment.
Stronger than the Havana variety: up to a full three ounces of rum for a tall glass.
Abundant fresh mint
1.5 heaping teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2-3 ounces white or light rum
Stuff a tall glass with a generous handful of mint—don't skimp—and sprinkle the sugar over. Pour in the lime juice. Muddle (vigorously mash it with a wooden stick or spoon). Pour in the rum. Add ice. Top off with soda. Stir. Drink.
Time taken to smoke a prime Cuban cigar in a comfortable setting reveals that they really are complex, interesting and delicious. These were my two favorites.
You want a full-bodied smoke?Try a Cuban Cohiba, fresh as can be with a nice oily wrapper. As with most cigars I smoked there, the cap was perfect and the burn very consistent. This cigar had cedar flavors at the start and grew peppery and herbal closer to the band.
Vegas Robaina Torpedo
Named after the world-famous tobacco grower Alejandro Robaina, whom I had a chance to chat with on his farm near Pinar del Rio. A dark-chocolate-colored cigar with a steady burn, with a creamy flavor and a rich finish. This is another full-bodied cigar.