Smokeshop / July-August 1997
By Larry Luxner
When Graciela Cabezas talks about cigars, nostalgia seems to sweep over her like the warm Caribbean breezes that bathe Havana's seaside Malecón.
Cabezas fled her native Cuba in 1970 -- just 11 years after the Communist revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power and cut U.S. trade with the island. Now 28, she manages the Grand Havana Room retail outlet, and is also the cigar buyer for GHR's New York and Washington locations.
"I'm one of only two women who knows the merchandise, and I think that's crucial," she said in a recent interview. "My grandfather rolled his own cigars in Cuba, and I was raised with this knowledge. Growing up in Miami, it was an aroma I knew extremely well -- along with Cuban politics, certain little secrets and costumbres (customs) you don't learn in books. When I feel and smell a good Cuban cigar, it takes me back to my youth."
That knowledge has served Cabezas well in her current job, which requires her to travel regularly to half a dozen Central American and Caribbean cigar-producing nations except her native island. Currently, the store stocks over 50 brands of cigars. The best-selling stogie, she says, is Sirena Gran Reserva of the Dominican Republic ($12.75 for a single, $425 per box), and Nicaragua's Padrón Aniversario ($6.80 each). "We don't sell that one by the box, because they're too hard to get."
The cheapest cigar in GHR's store is Charles the Great from Honduras ($3 each); the most expensive is Partagas 150 Aniversario AA ($36 each). Apparently, the high prices don't dissuade too many people. "I have a person who comes in every week and buys at least eight of them," she says.
Cabezas says all the cigars in her store are maintained at 72° F. and between 70% and 72% humidity, in order to duplicate climatic conditions found in Cuba. Besides cigars, the store stocks dozens of luxury goods such as a $220 blue glass-blown cigar ashtray, and an Elie Bleu cedar-wood lacquered cigar box that holds 300 cigars and costs $4,000.
Interestingly, the cigar expert's favorite brand isn't a hard-to-find Cuban but a Dominican brand -- Hemingway Short Story.
"I had saved two of them for the day when Cuba would be free, and my cousin smoked them without knowing. One day, I was telling [cigar executive] Cynthia Fuentes the story, and she told me it was her favorite brand too. She pulled out one from her pocketbook and said she wanted me to have the last one."
To be sure, Cabezas has mixed feelings about whether the United States should lift its 35-year-old trade embargo against her homeland. As far as the impact it would have on the cigar industry, however, she's absolutely sure.
"The only thing it would do to us is enhance our industry, because it would weed out companies whose cigars weren't that good and can't stand up to a Cuban cigar. Lots of U.S. cigar companies are benefiting from Cuban companies not being able to sell their cigars. If the embargo were lifted, they'd be out of business in a couple of months."
In addition, says Cabezas, Americans would have "access to great tobacco" from Cuba.
"You can't duplicate the soil Cuba produces a great cigar, but look at the conditions they work under. They don't have music, they go to work with empty stomachs. If you don't have an incentive to produce, you'll feel it in the cigar -- it's like a dead soul."