Reflections On 50 Years of Cohiba
With a big reveal expected for Cohiba’s 50-year anniversary, simon chase looks back on the origins of the luxury brand.
Amongst All the luxury brands that have achieved global status in recent decades there can be few, if any, that can boast an origin as curious as Cohiba.
such icons of the modern world tend to have emerged during the years of peace after the second World War from the catwalks of Paris, Milan, London or New York, the fragrant fields of Grasse or the engineering workshops of Germany.
Instead, picture the frontline of the Cold War at its height in the early 1960s. the failure of the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in the spring of 1961 and the terrifying super power standoff during the missile crisis in the following year meant that the focus of hostilities fell on the small Caribbean island where Fidel Castro had recently led his successful revolution against the tyrannical dictator, Fulgencio Batista.
By 1963, Cuba’s position, isolated by a trade embargo from its powerful northern neighbour and largely excluded from the economies of the western world, was precarious. True, it had earned the support of the soviet union, but it faced economic difficulties that would remain testing for many years to come.
Nevertheless, it was against this back- drop, far removed from a world of luxury, that Cohiba was conceived.
Opinion was widespread in the usA that, if Fidel Castro could be removed from the scene, the Cuban revolution would fail. so, the boys from langley, Virginia, (the CIA) became determined to dispose of him by any means they could, including, believe it or not, an exploding cigar – I didn’t believe it until I saw a tV interview with a former CIA agent, who confirmed it. Castro’s security people, just like Churchill’s before him when he was wartime Prime minister, were well aware how vulnerable their protégées were to their enjoyment of cigars, so they kept a close eye on their supplies.
At some point in 1963, Castro noticed that his chief bodyguard, a man called Bienvenido Pérez, nicknamed “Chicho”, was smoking an unusually shaped, long, thin cigar and asked if he could try one. Chicho complied. Castro found it delicious and asked what it was. Chicho explained that it came from his personal supply made by a friend of his, named Eduardo Rivera, who worked as a top-grade torcedor at
La Corona, one of Havana’s most famous cigar factories. Rivera had devised his own blend of tobaccos to suit the elegant 7.5- inch (192mm) by 38 ring gauge vitola that was also his own creation.
As time went by, the Commander- in-Chief’s demands for Rivera’s cigars increased as he shared them with his com- rades, including Ché Guevara, who opined that he had never smoked a better cigar. Sometimes they were made after hours at La Corona and sometimes at the Rivera home.
Eventually, it was decided to put the production of Rivera’s fumas (a Cuban word for the cigars that torcedores make for themselves) onto a more formal foot- ing. So in 1965, he was set up in a small, residential villa in Cubanacan, a western suburb of Havana where, to satisfy the security services, absolute secrecy could be imposed.
He was joined by two other two highly skilled torcedores, Luis Pérez and José Manuel Gómez, known as “Gomito”, and four young ladies—Josefina Hernández, Margarita Delgado, Nélida Hernández and María Cristina Oviedo, who the Presi- dent wanted to be trained to make cigars.
At this point, the cigars had no name. However, as production mounted, increasing quantities without bands, packed in a variety of decorated boxes, were gifted to senior government officials and visiting dignitaries.
Cohiba’s baptism took place in 1966, when Fidel Castro’s close confidante, Celia Sánchez, chose the name. Rivera had wanted to call it Palma, after Cuba’s national tree, the royal palm, but Sánchez preferred to return to the very origin of cigars in Cuba. Cohiba was the word used by the island’s indigenous population,
the Taino Indians, to describe the roughly rolled leaves that they smoked in religious ceremonies, so in effect it was the first name for cigars—in Cuba at any rate.
By 1967, the small factory was bursting at the seams—not only because there were now 18 cigar rollers making Cohibas, but also because the school to teach women to roll cigars was also situated there and had proven a great success.
A new, more spacious setting was found in an early 20th-century, Italianate mansion set in its own grounds, which had been built for an English family of sugar magnates named Fowler, renowned in Britain for Fowler’s Treacle. Situated on Avenue 146 between 21A and 23, it was also in Cubanacan in a district near to a small lake known as El Laguito (the little lake).
So it was that Cohiba settled in to its new home, now renowned throughout the world as El Laguito, which has acted as the brand’s headquarters ever since.
Rivera immediately set about developing Cohiba’s range. His original long, thin vitola was to remain the flagship size, to which he added a shorter, six-inch (152mm) ver- sion with the same 38 ring gauge, as well as a tiny, 4.5-inch (115mm) cigar with a
26 ring gauge. In the factory, they were called Laguito Nos. 1, 2 and 3, but outside they were named the Lancero, the Corona Especial and the Panetela.
For the next 23 years, these were the only sizes of Cohiba made, and for 16 of those years, their existence was kept secret from everyone—except the fortunate few who received them as gifts from the Cuban President.
In 1969 Rivera, a man who did not enjoy running a large factory, quit El Laguito and returned to work on his family’s farm. His place was taken by Avelino Lara, a 49-year- old, top-ranking torcedor, who had spent his whole life in tobacco. It was Lara who set the rules for the production of Cohiba, including the strict colour grading and the much-vaunted “third fermentation” for
the seco and ligero leaves in barrels now referred to as an “extra fermentation”. His goal was simply to ensure that Cohiba met the highest standards for any cigar that Cuba could make.
Lara’s reign lasted 25 years, the first 12 of which were spent mostly making Cohi- ba’s sizes for Davidoff as the No. 1, No. 2 and Ambassadrice, and for Montecristo as the Especial, Especial and Joyita.
It was not until 1982 that Cohiba’s three sizes were finally put on sale to the public in their own right. Lara flew to Spain to demonstrate how they were rolled at a launch, which was timed to coincide with
the FIFA World Cup that was taking place there. Both Spain’s King, Juan Carlos, and the then-Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, become firm Cohiba fans.
Lara also supervised the 1989 range extension that added the Exquisito, Robusto and Esplendido to Cohiba’s line- up, as well as the 1992 introduction of the five Siglo sizes, before handing over at the end of 1994 to the first woman ever to run a Cuban cigar factory, Emilia Tamayo.
It is extraordinary to recall the extent to which, in the early days, Cohiba’s story was shrouded in secrecy. For example, Eduardo Rivera’s identity was completely unknown outside Cuba until one day in March 1995, when I visited El Laguito and met Emilia Tamayo for the first time. The year before, Fidel Castro had revealed in a Cigar Aficionado interview the story of how his bodyguard’s friend had made the first cigars, but gave no details.
Avelino Lara, who I met several times, had kept his lips sealed probably because he wanted to make Cohiba’s story his own, but Tamayo had no such reservations. She not only recounted the whole tale, but also told me that I could meet Eduardo, if I wanted to, down the road at the Comodoro Hotel, where he was rolling cigars in a shop. I was there in a flash.
Tamayo started at El Laguito in 1975, when she was not allowed to tell anyone, even her family, where she went to work every day. During the decade that she ran the factory, she introduced the phenomenally successful, heavy-gauge Siglo VI size and, oddly enough, presided over the introduction of male cigar rollers to the galera, which had always been a female domain.
One way to plot Cohiba’s rise from Cold War obscurity to its present status as a global luxury brand is to see the way in which its band and its boxes have progressed along the way.
The original black, white and gold band and box featuring a fan-shaped device made up of tobacco leaves and a cartoon-style type for the name was clearly a product of the 1960s. It failed to survive the decade and by 1970 the solid bold type combined with black and white check had emerged.
During the ‘70s, a new orange-yellow colour and the Taino Indian head were added to the livery, which have since become defining elements of the design. Meanwhile, a labelled box was made incor- porating every feature.
Back then, no matter how good the cigars were, it was hard to see Cohiba competing in the international luxury goods market.
Nevertheless, as one century came to its close and another dawned, all the dispa- rate design features steadily came together. It is important to understand that this process was masterminded entirely in Cuba first by Cubatabaco’s marketing people and then by Habanos S.A.’s.
Some assistance was provided by a Spanish advertising agency called Creactual S.A., but it is to the credit of a great many Cuban designers and executives that the look of Cohiba and its global status have been achieved.
Today, Cohiba ranks first or second in Habanos S.A.’s list of most successful brands, depending on whether you count its contribution in value or volume. Its progression from the original three sizes (Laguito Nos. 1, 2, and 3) to the most recent additions, the spectacular, heavy- gauge BHK 52, 54 and 56 (Laguito Nos. 4, 5 and 6) has been breathtaking.
The veil of secrecy that surrounded its birth has long since been lifted and it has reached a pinnacle that could only have existed in the dreams of its revolutionary founders 50 years ago.