A night to remember: an intimate meeting with Don Alejandro Robaina, of the famed Vegas Robaina, Cuba, everything Cuban on the house — rum, coffee, cigars, food prepared by Master Chef Fredo Reyes Corona, great Cuban salsa, and the who’s-who of the cigar scene in Malaysia.

Where shall i start?

Naresh tipped me off that Don Alejandro Robaina would be at the event early last night, before the crowd, before all the guests — he would be at the Westin Hecho en Cuba humidor, for an intimate meeting with a few close friends and aficionados; i was invited to attend.

I knew that Robaina was in town for the weekend to patronize a charity event, but i didn’t think i would get to see him (RM1000 per seat price tags at that event sorta made it difficult for a mortal like myself to get in). So you can imagine i was thrilled to be presented with this opportunity.

I arrived at Hecho en Cuba quite early: its a quaint little store, a limited selection, but well stocked in the good stuff — a very solid collection of ELs are available, even the much sought after and increasingly rare Partagas EL pyramide. I smiled inwardly at the sight of the Robainas pushed to the fore of the display: the Old Man himself was coming, so it was the right thing to do.

While waiting, i shared a few drinks with Naresh and his crew. All were busy buzzing around, a bustle of activity in what would prove to be the first night of a “marathon” — a 3-month long Cuban-themed campaign designed to bring all things Cuban to the whole country. Unprecedented, bold, and very ambitious.

The first cigar of the night was a VR Famosos, i just managed to snip it when a sudden rush of activity announced the arrival of Robaina. There were just a handful of us squashed into that small little shop, but with Robaina in there with us, it made the place feel as large as a soccer field. He is 86 years old, but seemed to have a particular inner strength and charisma that was infectious — a smile from him warmed the heart, a word or two would make everyone laugh.

Everyone shook hands with him, the cameras started clicking away. It was a good time. He signed my cigar journal, smiled and put his arm around my shoulders, saying something to me in Spanish i couldn’t understand. My cigar was lit, we adjourned to a comfortable sofa at Qba downstairs, and as people filtered away to get their drinks, i suddenly found myself all alone with Robaina and his grandson, the Latino-God, Hiroshi.

Hiroshi Robaina, 29, is one hell of a hunk of a man. I’m no puffster, but i can appreciate beauty when i see it! 🙂 He speaks good English, and he was very happy to translate for me as i spoke directly to Robaina.

The first thing Robaina said to me was, what was the cigar i had in my hand. When i replied that it was a Famosos, he said that its a good cigar, but not a single leaf in it was grown on his farm. Vegas Robaina leaf actually ends up in Cohiba and Partagas cigars.

Puffing on my Robaina, and for some reason feeling slightly cheated (haha!), the questions started pouring out. I knew i only had a few minutes before the rest of the guests arrived, so i wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass.

I asked him how he started into the cigar business. Robaina started as a 14 year old farm hand on a tobacco farm, not the current farm that he oversees, but a farm on the other end of the island. As the years past, he became known for his creative methods of ensuring the quality of his crop: he had an uncanny timing — he knew exactly how long to keep the crop in the fields before the harvest, he timed the amount of time the leaf should be dried based on the annual weather conditions. His methods also ensured very bountiful harvests year in, year out. Word got around, and the Robaina fame grew.

How does the leaf to today compare with the leaf he grew years ago? He laughed and said that it was like comparing apples and oranges — the strain of tobacco used changes every 7 years, like clockwork; the latest, Corojo98, started being used roughly 3 years ago, and before that H2000. Cuban bioengineers work very hard to make their tobacco resistant to maladies such as the blue mold, and its been found that it takes approximately 7 years before those maladies become immune to the tobacco’s resistances. Normally, what determines the quality of the harvest is less to do with the strain of tobacco used, and more with the weather — too much water is bad, too little water is worse, and if its too hot and dry in a particular year, that’s the worse. His favourite time is when the harvest is brought in, the leaves have been dried, and he has the privilege of “tasting” the crop — with some gestures of his hands, Robaina demonstrated how he would make a quick bunch of tobacco, and light it to smoke. In that precise moment, he said, he would always know whether the crop was going to be good that year.

When was the last good crop? Without hesitation, he answered, 2002, the first year corojo98 was grown. He asked me when was the last great Cuban cigar i smoked, i told him i had a 2004 BBF a few days ago that was particularly good. Cigars in 2004 are actually made from 2002 tobacco, i was told, so he was not surprised that i had enjoyed that cigar. 2-3 years is normally the amount of time it takes for a Cuban cigar to go from harvest to sale. How is this year’s harvest going to be? Robaina smiled, waved his hand around, and said, “So far so good. You’ll find out in a couple of years, my friend.”

At this moment, a throng of guests started arriving and i knew that my time with Robaina was over. 15 minutes with a great man, it felt good, and i knew i should be thankful. I made my excuses, gave the other guests some room, and mingled.

The visiting Master Roller Morales was in attendance last night, furiously rolling away, each cigar a masterpiece. More and more people started flowing in, the royal patron of Festival Cubano arrived and presided over the launching ceremony. Eventually, i found myself with Nestor Valera, a representative from Habanos SA. He spoke wonderfully fluent English, and after a few moments of poking, he revealed that Habanos SA still has a lot of surprises in store for us in the coming months and the next year or two. He raved about the Partagas Reserva, waved lyrical about the Serie P, and urged me to spend every single remaining dollar i had on the ELs, “Trust me, in 2 years, the Sublime will be truly sublime, and, hahahaha, by then there won’t be a single box of it left available anywhere! Better buy now, before its too late!”

A great big humidor was being carried around by a few young ladies, offering cigars to everyone — a Partagas Corona and Punch Corona were available. I managed to smoke both, my Famosos having been nubbed. Both were pretty good, very young though, but definitely offering a distinct taste of Cuba.

The event came to an end soon after, but the party was just beginning! When i left at about 8.45pm, everyone was still there, very much in the mood, the night being still very young. A tremendous start to what promises to be a tremendous couple of months for cigar aficionados everywhere in Malaysia. I’m looking forward to it, most definitely.