Cigars are social tools, and therefore, smoking them should be a social activity. This truth goes back way back to when cigars were “discovered” — it was something that the Europeans and the natives of the “new world” could have in common. The concept of the peace pipe isn’t that far off. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that this practice continues till today: take a bunch of cigars, throw in a mix of friends, and watch as the magic happens.
This post is in memoriam of Sue Wahab. May she rest in peace.
Despite the passing of Sue Wahab yesterday, who was a loved member of the Trinidad family, the show had to go on. Certainly, that’s what she would have wanted. Though a bit late, Gustava Garcia Bello and his hosts from Trinidad arrived at Uncle Chili’s last night and proceeded to put one on a show that most would find hard to forget, so skilled was he in his Art.
Like a maestro, careful, methodological and purposeful, Senhor Gustavo put together cigars made to order by an appreciative audience. Corona gordas, robustos (his personal favourite), pyramides and even the artful panatelas rolled off his desk in magnificent form. It never ceases to amaze me to watch the transformation of a bunch of wrinkled dried leaves into a stick of subtle art.
The person next to me asked, “What makes him a ‘master’?”
I replied, “It’s in the consistency. A master is not only adept in all the critical vitolas, including the extremely difficult diademas, but he is able to make 100, even 1,000 sticks of each that look, feel, draw and smoke exactly the same as each other. It’s a lot more difficult than it sounds, believe me. That is what a master makes.”
Watch this in HD if you can, his skill deserves it
And Gustavo Garcia Bello is one such master. Hailing from Havana, he works on the factory floor in the Partagas factory, a famed landmark of the cigar world. One of the very few rollers who has been entrusted with rolling top-end cigars outside of El Laguito (hint: the 1966s), Gustavo speaks excellent English and regaled the crowd with stories of his life, and the life of his fellow cigar roller. Through a flurry of heavily accented words, he described how his day begins with a visit to the master blender who hands him his inventory of tobacco for the day. Given specific instructions on the composition of the cigars he has to make that day, he often takes short notes, before proceeding to his desk to work. The first cigar he rolls? That’s the one he’ll smoke.
“Cigar rollers are allowed to smoke from the cigars they roll. It helps keeps things in perspective; we try to save some to meet the daily quota!” he laughed. Rolling between 100-150 cigars on a good day, the mark of a “master roller” is his or her consistency of production. Variables in a hand-made product are always going to exist, certainly in something as subjective as a cigar. The very best rollers are able to minimize that variable between sticks.
His attention to detail is amazing; in a dazzling display of dexterity, he puts together 5 corona gordas (a very popular vitola, or “size” of cigar). Each cigar looks exactly the same but that’s not all. “Each will also taste the same!” Gustavo declares proudly. Amazing, considering the leaf he used came from three different piles, had different shades of colour and even variances in individual texture.
As the evening wore on, and the crowd slowly thinned out, Gustavo slowed down, sipped on his espresso, and took short breaks to languidly puff on a short cigar he had rolled for himself. That’s when the discussion turned a bit more serious.
“Which cigar is your favourite?” someone asked. With a slight sigh, and shrug of the shoulders, it’s obvious that this is a question has often been asked. He takes a moment before answering, “You know, i can smoke any cigar i want, and i have, and i love them all. But i can’t afford to smoke the cigars i make; on my salary, an aged cigar, a gran cigar is beyond me.” He shrugged again, and got back to his craft.
Quite an indictment of the state of life in Cuba for the common man, or in this case, an extraordinary man. There aren’t many Level 9 rollers on the island, and those that do attain this rank, are the elite of the cigar producing fraternity. It was humbling to hear the words uttered by such an elite; imagine the lives of those who have not shared his opportunities. Suddenly, the cigar he had rolled for me, felt very heavy indeed in my mouth, and the smoke took on a slight tinge of bitter.
Sensing the sudden change in the mood, Gustavo recovered quickly, and returned to lighter topics such as the weather in Cuba, and the recent batches of cigars leaving the island that he remarked were “excelente“, especially the remarkable Cohiba 1966.
But, i was still thinking about what Gustavo had said earlier: many of us, around the world, far removed from the streets of Havana, or the rustic time-warp of the tobacco vegas, we take for granted the joy that a Cuban cigar gives us. It’s easy to forget the person who put these cigars together, are real people with lives, thoughts, loves and hates, just like us, but unlike us, struggle in a difficult society. Their passion allows us to enjoy great cigars whenever we want. What are we able to give them in return, commensurate with their skill, dedication and perseverance?
Even later on that night, with my cigar half burned down, i sat down next to Gustavo, keeping him company with light banter and tales of Malaysia. As our cultures mixed and exchanged, i suddenly said, “Thank you, senhor. This is an amazing cigar.” I took a long draw to punctuate the point, then smiled. He looked at me for a moment, understanding perhaps what i really meant, and returned the smile, “This is the joy for me, when a customer looks me in the eye and tells me he is happy.”
Perhaps that’s all that needed to be said.
What do you get when you cross the best hotel in Kuala Lumpur with a Cuban Master Roller with some very serious cigar aficionados? Lots of laughter and mirth, gallons of espresso, and a very smoky lounge!
The gang turned out to participate in Ms Morales’ debut appearance at the Mandarin Oriental last night. She was rolling some seriously wicked looking cigars as part of a fine dining promotion organized by the Pacifica Grill, a superb menu including fine cognac and a freshly rolled cigar to top it off, all for RM188 per pax.
Her craft and talent is quite remarkable. Morales is obviously a perfectionist, taking very special care to ensure that each stick passes her condition of quality. To my eye, her work is much more detailed than Briones, the last Master Roller to visit Malaysia.
She rolled a couple of cigars for me, the highlight being a very nicely done salamones. Comparing it with the salamones made by Briones, its almost a no contest: Briones’ rolls was less tidy, and led to a funky shaped salamones, Morales, with her care and attention to detail, produced a salamones that more closely resembled the classic vitola. Perhaps El Laguito has got higher standards for its Master Rollers than the Romeo y Julieta factory?
How did the cigars smoke? As the sticks were still quite damp, i decided to give mine a rest for a day or two in the humi back home before lighting one up, but Sharil (who bought a whole bucketload of freshly rolled cigars), couldn’t resist.
According to him, the cigar he had was outstanding, Cohiba leaf of the finest quality, superior in every way to the Briones (RyJ blend). The draw was fairly loose, but that’s to be expected somewhat of free hand rolled cigars (no bunching molds used). The smoke volume was pushed to the max — Sharil literally resembled a chimney the whole evening. And the aroma, to my nose, was very, very pleasing.
The lounge of the Mandarin Oriental is a perfect place to smoke a cigar: beautiful high ceiling, plush carpets, luxurious sofas; the service impeccable, the hot chocolate i had with my Bolivar Belicosos Finos was the perfect companion. The cigar itself was a superb choice, giving me just enough buzz to make everything fuzzy and happy.
All in all a perfect night. A job well done to the boys at Trinidad for putting it all together.
What an incredible night! Meeting RyJ Master Roller, Arnaldo Ovalles Bri?ones, watching him expertly roll some amazing cigars and chatting with him, sharing his experiences and wide ranging knowledge of the industry was a true treat; the truest treat a budding aficionado like myself could ever hope for.
It was a fairly quiet evening by Qba’s standards; the hip cigar lounge and Cuban restaurant located in the Westin Hotel in the heart of KL is usually extremely busy during the weekends, but as a weekday, the crowd was sparse, but lively.
Brinones set up his humble table in a corner of Qba, and he was busy the whole night, rolling, chatting, smiling, quiping anecdotes from his 17 years in the business. As the Assistant Manager of the RyJ factory, he oversees a large portion of the production line, making daily inspections of the day’s production, performing quality spot checks, and ensuring that the consistency in the factory is kept at an optimal level.
Brinones rolled a couple handfuls of 109s for me tonight!
He conceded that prior to 2000, before Altadis took up a major share of Habanos SA, Cuban cigar production suffered a sharp decline in quality control, mostly due to the increasingly significant numbers of cigars the small island nation was being asked to produce; he admitted this was a shame since 1998-1999 produced some of the most outstanding leaf in recent memory. But Altadis didn’t just bring with them investment euros, they brought with them advanced cigar production technologies, that contributed positively to the whole process chain of production and manufacturing. For example, the crop yield has been getting better and better each year when new growing and harvesting techniques were introduced. Altadis also played a large role in improving quality control of the final product — prior to their arrival, at its worst, 10-15% of the sticks leaving the factory were “poor” (tight draw, inconsistent blends, etc.). Now, especially 2003-2004, only 1-3% of the cigars are “poor”, and they have a target of 0% tolerance to “poor” cigars by the end of 2010.
I asked him what the deal was with the ELs. He said Habanos SA has been stockpiling some of its best leaf these past 10 years, and this leaf is finding its way into the EL series. Price-wise, Habanos never intended for them to be as expensive as they are now, but Altadis insisted that the ELs cater to the upper market, something “special” beyond that regular production Cubans.
The guys and me enjoying a freshly rolled Brinones!
One of his favourite ELs are the current Cohiba Sublimes; he encouraged me to get as many boxes as i can when they become widely available. I laughed and said that the price for the Sublimes was prohibitive. He laughed at me and said, “Who cares, eh, when you are smoking the best cigar Cuba has produced in 20 years!”
The gang, with Brinones and Hernandez, the manager of Qba
The evening came to a close prematurely, i felt. He was very tired (he only arrived late yesterday after a long flight), and begged to be allowed to retire. I was disappointed, but i think the 60 minutes i spent with him was a solid experience that i wouldn’t trade for anything. I’ll see him again on Saturday, and perhaps have another chance to talk to him, but i doubt it — Qba’s Saturday crowd is expected to be huge. But, certainly, that won’t deter me from trying.