Balcon de Habanos

My invitation to this incredible and exclusive event came as a real surprise. Sometimes it is who you know, and sometimes it is the people you just start speaking with that leads to new and wonderful experiences. Liza and I met a group at a bar the other night, and it turns out that one of the group, Danays, is a cigar expert and sommelier. After living nearly a decade in Canada, she returned to her beloved Cuba with her family. She teaches, she is a tour guide, and she studies cigars… especially the pairing of Habanos cigars with wines and rums. She told me about this group of sommeliers and chefs that gets together monthly to try different pairings, and as luck would have it, they were meeting this Friday. ‘Meet me at Gato Tuerco at 3pm… and please don’t be late!’

It turns out that Danays was taking me to two separate events. The first, this one, is for Las Mujeres de Habanos – the women of Habanos. This organization brings together, honours, and empowers women who are connected to the cigar industry in Cuba.

I walked in hesitating, but my concern was put to rest immediately as a young lady popped up and welcomed me in. From what I could understand of her bullet-paced Spanish, she knew I was Danays’ guest, and that Danays called to say she was running late, but to welcome me in. I was guided to a table, surrounded by a group of refined Cubans, everyone conversing jovially in the same speed-of-sound Spanish of which I only catch a few words.

The waitress brought everyone in the club a glass of sparkling wine (Freixenet, provided by their sponsor Havana Club) with a cherry in it, and the ladies I was sitting adjacent to invited me to raise Our glasses and toast our health. While nobody is smoking yet, the hostess table has two cabs of H. Upmann Magnum 54 cigars on it, and the staff is handing out Excellencias Gourmet and Arte Por Excellencias magazines. I am definitely in the right place… despite the signs that say ‘NO FUMAR’ – No Smoking – on the walls.

This, for a cigar lover and burgeoning cigar journalist, is exciting.

It is 3:25, and Danays arrived in time to take some pictures with the group’s photographer. She introduced me around, and keeping track of people will be tough. One person she introduced me to, Zoe, is the director of the Museo de Tobacco, and the president of this group. ‘She is a living encyclopedia of cigars, and anyone who writes about cigars in Cuba has to speak to her.’ I am looking forward to sitting with her later.

The music is excellent, and playing at a volume that would allow both dancing and comfortable conversation simultaneously. There is a stage in the corner, and I am told there is a great show here every evening. If time was not so short, I would remember to bring Liza back one night.

It is 3:35, and Zoe has a mic in her hand. The music is off, and she is welcoming us all to the event. Unfortunately I don’t understand what else she is saying, but she looks good saying it.

Okay, that was unexpected… Zoe called me up on stage to introduce myself to the group. I stumbled through it mostly in Spanish, and everyone cheered my terrible vocabulary. I truly feel welcome here. Thankfully Danays was able to help me translate the words I was missing… only most of them.

The bartender here, Barbara, recently won the national bar tending competition, and will be representing shortly at international competitions in Germany and a Great Britain. When she wins, I can proudly point out that she once served me a glass of Freixenet!

After an hour at the Gato, we piled six of us into a Lada – reminiscent of clowns climbing into a Volkswagen – and headed over to Café Laurent for the Balcon de Habanos. We climbed three flights to get to the terrace, where we were immediately greeted by the sweet aroma of cigars. The group president – Jesus Machin – was discussing the pairing of the featured cigar of the month – the Cohiba Siglo VI – with two drinks, a Glenlivet 15 and a Havana Club Union. Fernando Fernandez, together with Asbel Morales, worked together for two years to create the Union specifically to pair with the Siglo VI… and they did it perfectly. More on that shortly

The hostess handed each of us a cigar, while the wait staff poured a glass of each elixir for each of us. While I am no expert in rum, the Glenlivet is exactly in my wheelhouse, and I am in Highland Heaven.

I was naturally drawn to the whisky first, I was slightly disappointed in the pairing. Maybe it is because I would generally pair a Highland Malt with a lighter cigar, but it is also possible this extremely fresh cigar had a harshness to it due to its immaturity. I would have recommended an Islay Malt instead… but they are notoriously hard to find in Cuba.

When my whisky glass was empty, I took a break to enjoy he tapas they put in front of me. I like to cleanse my palette when going from one drink to another. My compliments to the chef, the food is outstanding.

Back to the cigars!

The rum was next, and I stuck my nose into the glass to get the nose. Interesting, I thought I smelled a sweetness that I am not accustomed to in rum. After a draw on my cigar I took my first sip, and it was… heavenly; no other words can describe it. A deep aroma of caramel and light chocolate, it was indeed perfectly paired with this cigar, youth notwithstanding. I am going to have to try to bring a bottle back to Canada with me… if I can find one. At cuc350 per bottle (and a bargain at cuc500 at the Hotel Nacional patio bar), I might not look too hard 😉

Being in a room of cigar sommeliers, I couldn’t help but wonder when the last time I was the least knowledgeable person in so large a group. I like to think I know my cigars, but as Jesus Machin continued inviting people to join him on stage to discuss their pairing notes, as well as their favourite pairings of cigars and drinks, I knew I was a real featherweight. Even from the little I understood, I learned so much.

Danays was the perfect hostess to me. She translated when she could, and never missed an opportunity to introduce me to people I have only heard of… and some I never had. To be able to exchange a few words with Fernando Fernández Millán, a Master Habanosommelier and the coordinator of the sommelier training program for Asesor Havana Club and Asesor Habanos is like an aspiring hockey player sitting and having a coffee with Wayne Gretzky. Senor Millán explained to me the process that he and his team went through to create the Havana Club Union, and was pleased that I enjoyed it so much.

I would love to speak to the tapas plate and deserts we were served, but in truth I only had a bite of the tuna salad on a chip, and the fried cheese. It was good, please don’t get me wrong; however I was not there to eat, and had they server Velveeta grilled cheese sandwiches, or nothing at all, I would have been equally happy.

I invited Danays to record a video after the event, but she had to go with her friends who were dragging her out. They invited me to join them, but I decided that there might be too much of a good thing. After a nice chat with a couple of managers from Havana Club, I took my leave and walked down to the Malecon, trying to process the incredible day that I had. Danays made me promise to let her know the next time I was coming to town, and the expression ‘wild horses couldn’t keep me away’ came to mind. When Senor Machin told me I was welcome back anytime, I was honoured.

As we prepared to leave, Danays was getting ready to light another cigar, but I asked her to put it away. In Cuba it is a great sign of friendship and respect to give someone a cigar, and I asked her to try one of Alejandro’s custom rolls from my stash. It is too long a smoke for her to have enjoyed it all in time, but I made her promise to tell me her thoughts on it. I am not sure if it might have been a faux pas to pull out a custom roll at a Habanos event, but I was reassured that everything was good and I was okay.

My email signature has the Japanese word kaizen at the bottom, meaning always improve, always learn. I learned more about cigars and cigar pairings today than in any single day in my life, including how much I have left to learn. Also, how much more I could learn if my Spanish was better. I will not say it was the best cigar day of my life… but owing in parts to the honour of the invitations, to the rum pairing with the spectacular cigar, and to the amazing people I got to meet, it was certainly in the top five. Thanks Danays!!

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