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El Laguito Factory Legendary Home of Cuba's Cohiba Cigar Brand

Havana -- Framed by towering royal palms, an undulating, well-manicured lawn and trimmed hedges, the imposing Italianate style mansion called "El Laguito", is Cuba's most exclusive cigar factory. It's here Cuba's most expensive commercial cigar brands, the Cohiba and Trinidad are manufactured. Easily identified by its red tiled roof, pastel yellow exterior and sweeping marble stairway, the factory is located in the Havana suburb of Miramar, a neighborhood populated with embassies and protocol houses managed by the Cuban government. Before its gentle conversion to a cigar factory in 1967, the mansion was the home of the former Marquez (prince) of Pinar del Rio. Inside El Laguito more than 100 workers, mostly women, produce Cuba's most expensive cigars, the Cohiba and Trinidad brands. Ask anyone in Havana connected with Cuba's cigar industry and they will tell you that El Laguito is a cigar factory unlike any other in Cuba. A 25 minute ride from the traffic and noise of Havana Vieja (old Havana) where the H. Upmann, Partagas, Romeo y Julieta and La Corona factories are located, besides its more suburban location, El Laguito also has the distinction of being managed by a woman, Emilla Tamayo. El Laguito isn't the only major Cuban cigar factory run by a woman, Hilda Baro is the director at Partagas, Cuba's oldest factory, founded in 1845, and while Partagas may have its history, El Laguito's isolation, uniformed employees and limited production make this Cuba's most exclusive cigar enclave.

Quality Employees

Joining Tamayo in her office is Osmar Hernandez, El Laguito's manager of technology and Normita Fernandez, the factory's manager of quality control. Earlier in the day, the pair escorted five of us through the factory. Since El Laguito isn't open to the public, tours of the factory must be arranged in advance through Habanos SA, Cuba's global marketer and distributor for its cigars. With the help of the U.K.-based cigar merchants Hunters & Frankau, and my friend Ajay Patel, of the Windsor and Broadweighs cigar shops in London, I was able to join the small group who had permission to enter the premises. ``This is Cuban history, right here before you,'' said Tamayo. ``It's the Cohiba brand that has made my factory famous and it's a legacy we must protect by making the best cigars possible.'' She credits her factory's notoriety among Cuban cigars smokers to workers like Luis Camejo Docal, a color sorter, who with his trained eye takes every Cohiba and Trinidad manufactured at El Laguito and groups them in batches so that each box will have cigars of uniform color. ``Luis has worked at El Laguito since 1967, but he's been color-sorting cigars for 50 years,'' Tamayo said. ``He has an eye like no other.'' As Tamayo refers to Cuban history she proudly recounts the lengthy Genesis of Cohiba, Cuba's first post-revolution cigar brand. She talks about the quality of the tobacco leaf used at the factory and how she personally prefers the old Corojo cigar wrapper leaf to some of the newer, less disease-resistant hybrid tobaccos that Cuba has experimented with. The discussion about wrapper leaf raises an interesting question because Avelino Lara, the first manager at El Laguito who was later replaced by Tamayo, said the wrapper leaf used for Cohiba came from outside Havana, in Ariguanabo, and not from the original El Corojo farm in Pinar del Rio Province in the Vuelta Abajo. Tamayo will not discuss Lara's assertions opting instead to reaffirm her belief that Corojo is better suited to Cohiba and Trinidad than Habana 2000.

Cohiba Uniforms

As she speaks, Tamayo, who occupies a office on the second of the building, relaxes in a reclining chair behind a simple wooden desk. Smoking a Cuban cigarette, Tamayo turns in her chair and looks at her guests and says, ``So what do you think of these uniforms? You've never seen anything like this at any other factory in Cuba have you?'' Hernandez was wearing a yellow shirt with black trim and black slacks. Fernandez wore a blouse with same color scheme and a jet-back skirt. The colors matched those of Cohiba brand. ``This is just another way of letting the workers know that El Laguito is a special place,'' Tamayo said. ``We started with the uniforms two years ago, to coincide with a visit from King Juan Carlos of Spain.'' Tamayo said the king was in Cuba for the Ibero-American Summit, hosted by Cuban President Fidel Castro, and because the king is a cigar aficionado too, he requested a tour of El Laguito. Spain and El Laguito have much in common because it was in Madrid in 1982, during the soccer World Cup, that Cuba first offered the Cohiba brand for sale to the public. Until it's introduction in Spain, President Castro dispensed the highly prized Cohiba to high-ranking diplomats and heads of state. The Cohiba was eventually replaced by the Trinidad as Cuba's official protocol cigar. In 1998, Habanos SA made the Trinidad available, first to cigar aficionados in Canada and Mexico, and a year later the brand went global. ``The Cohiba and Trinidad have made El Laguito famous with both the Cuban people and discerning cigar smokers around the world,'' Tamayo said. ``In this factory we get the best-of-the-best (cigar tobacco leaf) from only the finest farms.'' As is the usual Cuban custom, as Tamayo talks about her factory she serves small thimbles of strong, black coffee and distributes some unbanded Trinidad cigars that are fresh from one of the rolling galleries on the floor below. ``Give these Trinidad's about 36 hours before you smoke them,'' she cautions. ``They're too damp now, let them rest a bit and they'll be fine.''

Consolidating Production

While El Laguito may be the home of the Cohiba, the current factory is too small to produce all 11 sizes that make up the brand. Originally, Cohiba was made up of four vitolas (sizes) the Lancero (Laguito No. 1), Coronas Especiales (Laguito No.2), Panatela (Laguito No. 3) and Exquisito. The Cohiba Robusto and Esplendido came next, followed by the Linea 1492, a group of five cigars called the Cohiba Siglo series that are the Siglo I; Siglo II; Siglo III; Siglo IV and Siglo V. These cigars were manufactured to commemorate the five centuries, or siglos in Spanish, since Columbus discovered tobacco in the New World. While all these cigars bear the Cohiba brand, only the four original vitolas have ever been produced at El Laguito. Today, all 11 sizes are manufactured at other factories like Partagas, H. Upmann and La Corona. ``Ideally, I'd like to have all the Cohiba's made here and I'm working towards that goal,'' Tamayo said. ``It may take a while, but the plan is to make all Cohiba's in El Laguito.'' Tamayo said two factors prevent her from pulling all the Cohiba production into El Laguito, a lack of space and not enough skilled rollers. ``We can't alter this magnificent building, its architecture is of historical importance to Cuban history so we would not want to change it,'' Tamayo said. ``There are plans to add more rolling galleries on the property.'' Tamayo said that besides the Cohiba vitolas and the Trinidad brand, Habanos SA, Cuba's global marketer and distributor for its cigars, will ask her to produce special products like the Cohiba Grand Corona. The factory has produced the Cohiba Gran Corona only a few times. The first occasion was for a special cigar dinner in Paris, but most recently the Cohiba Gran Corona was served at 2nd International Festival of Habano in March 2000 and the 3rd International Festival of Habano in February 2001. Cohiba Gran Coronas were also manufactured for inclusion in the limited edition Cohiba 35th Aniversario humidors that went on sale in Havana in March 2002. The release of the Cohiba humidors, a true collectors item, coincided with the celebration of the 4th International Festival of Habano. ``We can roll large cigars here, but we don't have enough qualified rollers right now to sustain production for cigars like the Cohiba Robusto and Esplendido,'' she said. ``That will change as the factory expands, at least that is the plan.'' Workers who apprentice at El Lagutio are hand picked to attend the six to nine month on premises cigar manufacturing school. Family members who work at El Laguito also recommend apprentices to the factory. ``We like to have family members working here because I think it helps productivity and boosts morale,'' Tamayo said. Tamayo said as the manager her most important task is making sure the factory meets its production goals and that the quality of the cigars produced are as close to perfect as humanly possible. Before leaving, I asked Tamayo if she had any regrets about being the manager of Cuba's most prestigious cigar factory? ``No regrets,'' she said. ``A wish is a better word and that would be that the President (Fidel Castro) pay us a visit to see the quality of our cigars.'' By the way, when asked if she had a favorite Cohiba, Tamayo pulled a Cohiba Exquisito out of her desk, held it aloft and just smiled.
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