An interesting facet of the Habanos portfolio is that the closest things they have to mass market cigars – the Montecristo No. 4, the PSD4, and the Romeo No. 1 et al – are actually from ancient and prestigious luxury brands. If you’re in the market for a cigar from Nicaragua’s second most prestigious producer you will only find it only in a locked display cabinet in a specialist cigar shop. If you want a Monte 4 you can buy it at a well-stocked petrol station. If you do find a Nicaraguan cigar next to the Mobil 1, it won’t be an Arturo Funete, but some anonymous trash you’ve never heard of.
Cuba, however, does have cigars that are specifically pitched as low cost, low quality cigars. Today’s dusky beauty, which rings up at less than half the cost of a Montecristo No. 4, is the lowliest cigar to ever grace these pages, the Quintero Favoritos. There is no petrol station in the world that carries Quintero: if you want one you’ll have to find a high end Habanos specialist. It’s an interesting paradigm: only the true connoisseurs smoke the shit.
The cigar begins very well, with extremely light tobacco and a hint of black tea. This is a short-filler cigar, the first to ever grace these pages. In a long filler cigar, whole leaves are bunched up and then wrapped in other whole leaves. In a short-filler cigar, small trimmings are bunched up, and then wrapped in a couple of whole leaves. A whole tobacco leaf will have a natural progression in nicotine levels and flavours as it travels from foot to tip, and long filler cigars exploit this. The scraps that make up short filler cigars come from many different leaves, and therefore if the flavours change it will be sudden and erratic, not the stately metamorphosis of their premium sisters. Traditionally short-filler cigars are also a bit looser and hence burn a hotter and rougher, which also kills the nuances a bit.
I remember the first time I ever laid eyes on a box of Quinteros. I was still young in my cigar journey, as I was in life (I was about twenty three). I was working as an IT contractor, and my boss asked me to come meet a potential client and pitch for an idea they wanted to build. Their office was the top floor of a small tower in the heart of the city. The office I worked out of at the time was a converted warehouse that didn’t put a lot of emphasis on the conversion: our desks were rickety salvage pieces picked up from the hard rubbish, the computers were not much better, and there were meandering cracks between the floorboards that in the worst places could accommodate a ping pong ball. The office we visited that day was the total opposite: everything bedecked in black marble, dark wood and leather. The company was named Steeple Mortuary Services and they were a corporate behemoth in the funeral business, even though nobody had ever heard of them. They owned a number of smaller, specialised funeral parlour brands, and as the parent company they provided the group with shared services like a morgue, HR, accounting, and the software package we were to build.
Unlike my own open plan wasteland, every employee at this company had their own enclosed office. There was space for twenty, but as we walked around the floor I counted three that were occupied. I later found out that they had an identical office in Sydney and most of the staff had desks in both places. We were shown into the boardroom and seated in comfortable leather seats at the 20 person single piece table. On one wall there was a large plasma screen TV (the height of luxury in those days), and beneath it a full wet bar with every kind of booze imaginable. When the CEO, Ken, a heavyset, cheerful sort of fellow walked in, the first thing he did was offer us a drink. My boss was a bit of a wowser, and balked at the idea of alcohol at 11:30am, but I had no such qualms, and accepted his offer of a scotch a Coke – the whisky was Johnny Black, poured from a 4.5L bottle in a cradle.
About an inch in the cigar gives off an unusual note of dirty spice; clove or maybe cardamom, perhaps turmeric. It is thickening up, and by the mid-point it is quite punchy, just a notch or two below strong. There is a thick note of coffee and leather. True to prediction this has been a quick smoke: the halfway point falls barely 30 minutes in.
The system he wanted to build would be pitched today at a start-up incubator as “Uber for corpses.” In 2015 it would be a fairly straightforward smartphone app, but in 2005 it was revolutionary. The idea was that they would have unmarked vans driving the streets of the city at all times. When a hospital or nursing home had a corpse that needed picking up, they would visit a web page and log their address and some details about the deceased. The system would then figure out which driver was closet (via their last known whereabouts – GPS units were available, but they weren’t at a stage where they could be communicate with a web service), and instruct them to pick up the corpse (via SMS). Once the corpse was in hand it would be taken to Steeple’s central mortuary where someone would pick up a phone and notify the next of kin that they had the body and offer them a funeral. If they had another funeral parlour they’d rather use that was no problem, the body would be transferred for free, but Ken didn’t think many people would do that: the whole thing was a gigantic marketing manoeuvre, and one that he was very confident would pay off.
After Ken had laid everything out he left me and my boss alone for a while to discuss our solution, and then brought us into his private office to discuss it: this was the pitch, where the job would be lost or won. I was just the boffin, really: it was my boss’ job to do the selling, and so I sat, only half listening, my gaze wandering around the office. He had some interesting stuff in there, some ivory and more exotic booze, but as a blossoming cigar aficionado my gaze fell foremost on the box of Quintero Panatelas in the centre of the desk. It was a brand I’d never heard of before, but it was Cuban and I was intrigued.
About half an hour into the pitch Ken pulled out a pack of cigarettes and asked if we minded if he smoked. My boss wrinkled his nose: “I don’t think it’s legal to smoke in offices anymore.”
Ken was disgusted, “you’re going to force me out on the balcony? You don’t smoke at all?”
“How about if you’re at a party and someone starts handing around a bit of choof?”
He shook his head and looked at me. “How about you mate? You smoke?”
“Choof at a party? Definitely.”
This pleased him. “How about ciggies?”
“Ah, not really, but I like a good cigar.”
Quick as a flash he handed me a Quintero, took one for himself and, with a parting sneer over his shoulder at my boss, ushered me out onto the balcony.
We must have been out there for about thirty minutes, cracking jokes and telling tall tales while my boss glared at us through the window. Finally Ken tossed his nub carelessly over the balcony onto the sidewalk below, and leaned in conspiratorially. “Mate, if I sign with you guys, will I be dealing mostly with you, or with him in there?”
“Just me… I do all the actual work, he’s just the salesman.”
“Yeah, good. I just want to deal with a human being, y’know.”
Needless to say, we got the gig.
The cigar ends full and rich, with plenty of tar and not too much else, but it’s not too unpleasant for it. Total smoking time was around three quarters of an hour. All things considered this is a very decent cigar that holds its own with my base comparison cigars, the Monte 4 and PSD4, and substantially beats out the Upmann Petite Coronas. Given that it costs half or less than any of those, it is probably the best value for money cigar coming out of Cuba today.