What are the three failings of the revolution? Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Thankfully, no one told Rodolfo Brizumla Jimene the old Cuban joke. He runs one of the best restaurants in the country. It’s on his finca, 40 minutes’ drive from Havana down the highway to the beach resort of Varadero.
The table — there is only one — is sheet metal and the seats are two wooden planks on top of rough hewn concrete blocks. The food is whatever he grows, rears or catches, mainly pigs, lobster, sea bass, beans, rice, avocado, plantains, fiery hot pepper sauce, grapefruit and three types of mango. The only thing to drink is rum, and the bottles hang from the trees.
Today, he is serving no ordinary rum. Asbel Morales, the master blender of Havana Club who creates all the rums produced at the Havana Club distillery in nearby San Jose, has three special editions to taste. The reason? ‘I want to create the perfect spirit to accompany a cigar that has been 225 years in the marking,’ he says.
This year marks the 225th anniversary of the foundation of Hunters & Frankau, the London-based firm that dominates Europe’s cigar trade. It is run by Jemma Freeman, who is the sixth generation of her family in the business. She has overseen the crafting of the Hunters & Frankau Aniversario 225 Cigar to celebrate the milestone and has decided to pair it with a rum that is such a limited edition it is not for sale. ‘Cigars and rum are the grand cru of Cuba, alive with history and craftsmanship. We want to celebrate both,’ she says.
The cigar, crafted by Ramon Allones, is based on a cigar from 1926 — the Ramon Allones Petit Nacional. It is a gordito — 50 ring diameter (20mm) by 141mm long — and has a rare cabeza tombala or ‘collapsed head’, halfway between a torpedo and a normal rounded head. When it was launched it cost 24 shillings for 100. The first band on each cigar says ‘Ramon Allones’ and a special second band reads ‘Hunters & Frankau Aniversario 225’. ‘It’s highly unusual for a second band to be named after a particular company,’ says Freeman. The cigars were rolled and shipped in early 2013 to Hunters & Frankau in the UK, where they have been ‘resting’ ever since.
For Freeman, the choice of Ramon Allones was easy. ‘In 1911 Hunters bought the Ramon Allones factory in Havana, so we have a long history with the brand,’ she says. ‘It’s also a brand that the English market is very fond of. It’s not big and loud.’
The new cigar will be available in an old-fashioned cabinet-style humidor, made from cedar wood, that will hold 100, with a ‘secret’ mini humidor in the lid. The cigars will be ‘cabinet selection’ — not pressed into a box. Each humidor will come with 100 spills (wooden lighter sticks concealed in a drawer) and a small booklet that explains the history of the cigar. The cigar was first presented at the Havana Cigar Festival in February and will go on sale in June.
Only 225 humidors will be hand-crafted and, in all, only 50,000 cigars will be made. Those lucky enough to buy one will also have the chance to receive a bottle of Havana Club rum blended by Morales. Oddly, he says, rum and cigar pairings are rare. Hine recently teamed up with Cohiba to create Cigar Reserve Cognac, but the uniquely Cuban combination of limited-edition rum and a cigar ‘is a new expression of our culture’, he says.
Both the cigar and the rum (below) ‘have great structure which means they get along very well together,’ he explains. ‘I’m defending my rum’s notes and the cigar is defending its notes. They should not mirror each other, nor contrast too much. It’s like a perfectly balanced marriage.’
Morales has used very old base spirits to create the new blend. The rum is insistent, sharp, spicy up front, but there’s sweetness and fruit on the palate. It opens up to reveal great complexity with chocolate, more fruit notes and a very long finish. Only 500 bottles will be made, each individually numbered. Cuban artists Nelson Ponce and Giselle Monzón have hand-drawn the label.
I tasted the Aniversario 225 that day at lunch in the finca, and it has a creamy aroma. Its vanilla hints are offset by earthy notes, creating great balance. But I’m no expert. So I went to the factory on San Carlos Street in Havana where the cigar is made. There I met Arnaldo Vichot, master cigar blender and roller, who has been creating cigars since 1953 and is now 85 years old.
The tobacco for the Aniversario 225, he tells me, is from Pinar del Rio and is aromatic and strong. ‘I know the farmer who grows the tobacco. We selected bales that are the right size, quality and strength. We used a bigger leaf than normal for a fuller flavour and better draw.’ The wrapper — cover leaf — is crucial because it is the ‘face’ of the cigar. On the Aniversario 225 the wrapper is grown in the dark under muslin — tapando or ‘shade growth’, Cuban farmers call it — to create extra moisture and flavour. Vichot tells me he selected a lighter colour of wrapper leaf ‘to denote the clean, pure taste’.
Sitting under a picture of Fidel Castro and a slogan that reads ‘To be efficient, join our socialism’, Vichot tells me that only the most experienced rollers can make a gordito. ‘It’s so rare that I last made one in 1958,’ he laughs. Once rolled, each box is colour graded for colour consistency. There are 68 different shades of brown. ‘The lightest is to the left and darkest to the right, but your eye will not be able to tell the difference.’ He’s right. I can’t.
Vichot has never made an edicion especial cigar — to the give the Aniversario 225 its formal name — for the English market, which is where it will be sold. Nor has he been to England. But, he says, ‘my impression is English people are very elegant, chic unusual people. The English market is very, very demanding.’
And the taste? Vichot takes me to the tasting room to meet Odelaine Paneque, a 27-year-old wiry taster wearing skinny jeans and with her hair scraped back. She smoked 40 Aniversario 225s during its creation — more than anyone else.
‘It was very strong at first but now it has settled down a bit,’ she says. ‘It is strong as the oils in the cigar open, but not aggressive. The aroma and strength are now in perfect balance. There is a creaminess, too, like you get when you taste coconut water. It is correct from the beginning to the end. Women know when it is correct because we roll cigars from our heart.
Aniversario 225 Humidors start from £4,000 each and are on sale from 20 June
John Arlidge writes for The Sunday Times in London and Conde Nast in New York