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Partagas Especialidas 1996 - Salomones II
The full story behind a famous cigar
When my Italian friend Massimo de Giovanni called and asked me if I would like to write down the full story of the Partagas Especialidades 1996 I agreed within a minute. Not a bad idea to preserve a cigar story from the wild days in Cuba.
It was early 1996 when the idea came up. As a total newbie to the cigar world I enjoyed smoking Cuban cigars in Havana, felt in love with the people, the music and the country itself. Just to remind you about the recent historic frame let me express that in those days the Soviet Union just collapsed, Fidel Castro was very present and kept telling the Cubans all will be better soon and Bill Clinton was US President, doing the same in his country.
New to the world of Cuban tobacco I did of course not know the rules of the international cigar trade. If I would have known only the bare minimum of the complicated world of this business I would never have started the mission of having my own Havana cigar. Anyhow, my naive way of starting this project was the big advantage I had on my side.
Some of the involved personalities are still in charge and thus I prefer NOT to mention their real names here as it would maybe cause irritations. Lets say I will call the involved people who are still in charge Senor Jaime, Senor Miguel and Senora Amalia - it will protect the real persons from allegations. What happened in those days was unique, never happened again and, as far as I can tell from todays point of view, it will not happen again.
Here we go: Smoking in the backroom of the old Partagas Casa del Habano shop was my hangout during many of my first trips to Havana. Senora Maira, those days head of quality control at Partagas, picked me up at the shop and showed me around and I dare saying that I have seen EVERY little corner of the factory during these days. Jorge Luna, 2nd in command at the factory and his boss, factory head Don Jaime were kind enough permitting me to freely walk around the factory, which of course I did for many hours.
I was seriously fascinated by Cuban cigars and this persists until today. My new and small cigar shop back home in Germany called more and more attention by collectors and cigars lovers and so it was only natural I wanted a special cigar for them. While discussing about the old times and cigars from the past with another personality from the Partagas factory, Crisanto, we ran into Faustino Ramos, Master roller of the highest category (7th in those days).
Back to the backroom of the cigar shop I asked Don Jaime and Jorge Luna if they might find any old press forms (moldes) and get Master roller Faustino (who happened to be the most talented cigar maker of his time) to make some for me. The next day Jorge Luna showed me a strange press form he found in the factory. It was a form for cigars made in the 1950 called Salomones. Straight away I TOLD them to make me some of these. Funny I did that as I had no right to do so, - just did I not know about that. Don Jaime, who was a managing director of the Partagas factory, might have felt a bit uncomfortable with my order but never told me about that.
In 1996 resources of good tobacco were near zero and wrapper leafs the size we needed them were practically impossible to find. Master Ramos made me some sticks which I carried back home to Germany to test smoke, - that is what a cigar merchant calls it when he smokes a cigar.
Within the next two weeks in early 1996 I created the project. I absolutely wanted 100 boxes of the best Cuban cigars and I wanted it in old shape in order to preserve the knowledge of how to make classic vitolas. Not kidding when I say that the entire idea was fairly altruistic and I still had no idea of what I started there.
Prototype of the Partagas Especialidad 1996 Salomones II Humidor - today at LCDH Hamburg cigar memorabilia museum
When I came back to Havana three weeks later I found the box we needed and I managed to find somebody able to make 100 hand made humidor boxes with the exact dimensions. But, what about the cigars? Don Jaime told me he needed some production order from above, talked about a plan, problems and what do I know - in retrospect I think it was good I did not understand enough Spanish those days. All I understood was, he needed some back up from some offical up there and I happened to know one of them.
Phone lines were crappy in Havana and so I hopped in taxi to meet the offical, my friend Miguel (who happens to have disappeared since some time) Miguel pulled some strings in the back and by secret ways Don Jaime received his production order from the Cuban cigar industry. Here I was - a young cigar lover starting his career as cigar merchant placing his personal orders in the factories. Thinking about that today it makes me smile big time - how much trouble I have caused without even knowing about it.
When Don Jaime and Jorge Luna gave order to Faustino Ramos to finally make 5000 of these Salomones the official production was about to start. Three days of discussing (and smoking) various blends followed until I agreed with what Faustino Ramos made. The final day I was sitting in the now overcrowded El Patio near the cathedral smoking three different blends in a row. Three Salomones! I had to rinse my palate with endless Mojitos until I made up my mind on a specific blend - the final one. Happily I walked back to the Partagas factory to confirm the blend. We agreed the production should start right away, - what else would have been acceptable to a German not knowing anything about the Havana cigar industry. When I came back home days after the production started I received a call from my friend Miguel telling me they faced some problems. During the official approval process by the board of Habanos S.A. Senora Amalia, member of the board (since those days and still in charge!) and responsible for Habanos marketing back then, had serious doubts about this Salomones cigar project. She was not only against it but stopped the entire story.
Hours later I sat in a plane to Havana to turn things around. Speaking, having lunch and dinner with the involved persons I managed to keep the project alive and Faustino Ramos rolling. Just the color of the wrapper leafs was not to my liking and so I simply asked Don Jaime to get that straight by unwrapping 500 sticks and putting on the dark and oily wrappers. That is what you may call chutzpe.
Senora Amalia was not too happy about me going on and started her next attack against the Salomones, of which 1500 were ready by then. I started talking this as a personal matter and found myself in a battle - PROs against the NONs - and little Christopher in the middle.
The battle between my supporters and the opponents came to the peak when Senora Amalia announced any cigar like the Salomones could not be commercially released as it would interfere with a brand coming out in some time (what she meant was the CUABA brand).
No cigar like mine possible ? 1500 sticks ready. It was time for more Mojitos with Jaime, Jorge Luna and Crisanto, the production head of Partagas. Telling my supporters about the problem Habanos S.A. had with the vitola Crisanto had the idea to solve it. We should cut a bit off the foot, call them Salomones II and everybody would be happy. So Crisanto created the new vitola, the name and Faustino Ramons only had to cut off a bit from the 1500 sticks he had finished by then.
In these days I decided to spread some gossip about the new cigar coming to the market and invited some cigar smokers to a tasting. I did not know too many people but the folks smoking besides me in the backroom of Partagas seemed to be the right audience for my tasting. Aat least they did seem to know where to light a cigar. All I needed was some response from Joe Average, the smoker that had to buy my cigar. There were these two guys I met during a flight with an old Russian Antonov II, a young chap with a German Leica M6, a US guy with a strong NewYork-accent and a guy wearing a straw hat all the time. We gathered the next morning and smoked the hell out of the tasting room. The tasting panel was very surprised and paid tribute to these new smokes. They loved it. They were amazed! Thanking them for attending my little tasting I found out my new friends names. It was Massimo de Giovanni with his friend La Barba, James Suckling, cigar and wine journalist (those days working for Cigar Aficionado) taking pictures all over the places, George Brightman, Sales Director of Cigar Aficionado and US-actor Peter Weller (RoboCop).
I flew back home knowing I had started a very complex issue as I now needed to sell the stick. Now, what a man starts he has to finish. Speaking to the sole importer of Cuban cigars to Germany about the soon incoming cigars ordered by me they had to (!) arrange shipping, import and calculation. The price of one of my commissioned cigars (officially imported and distributed to me) was fixed at 100.- Deutsche Mark (today 50 Euro/65 USD) and thus they turned out being the most expensive Cuban smokes on the market in 1996.
Now it was me who had a problem. 5000 sticks at 50 Euro each meant there was a shipment coming in worth 250.000 Euro (approx..340.000 USD)and that was a hell of money for a cigar merchant still in the early days of his business. It was time to start marketing and promoting a cigar NOBODY had ever heard of so far. That was the most challenging part for me. Internet did not exist as it does today and so my ways of selling these new, good but unknown sticks had been very limited.
The first 20 boxes arrived at my cigar shop in November 1996 and during the launch party I managed to call some attention but not enough to sell 100 boxes at 2500 Euro each. But, one attending wine journalist recommended the cigar to a collector from Hong Kong and so, two days later I received a call from this Chinese gentleman as he happened to be in London.
He wanted to see me with the cigars the next day in London. Grabbing two of the humidors I hopped on the next flight to London and showed my cigars. The collector from Far East opened a box, smelled the cigars and asked how many boxes I would have for sale. We agreed on 70 boxes he wanted to buy and as he was person with outstanding reputation in the collectors world I handed him over my two sample boxes (incl. box No.1) on the spot. These 70 boxes (incl. the two handed over) were my first major sale and while rushing back to Heathrow I worked out I had sold cigars for about $235.000. I dare saying that in the plane I have asked the stewardess for a small bottle of champagne.
Don Miguel has been forced to leave the cigar industry. But that had nothing to do with this story
Don Jaime is still in the cigar industry and he happens to be my close friend ever since. I enjoy smoking Havana cigars with him as often as I can and we look back to the good old times.
Jorge Luna is now retired. I have seen him last during the Festival Gala dinner but lost contact.
Crisanto, I never knew his family name. I found him years later as cigar roller in a shop, his hair as grey as mine - collateral damage of this story. He is one of the finest Cuban guys I have met. We recently had a drink and laughed about our story.
Senora Amalia is still working for Habanos S.A. After many years we became friends; today she pays respect to my work. She is one of the most respected personalities in today cigar trade and we work closely together since almost two decades.
Besides his famous wine page James Suckling still writes about Cuban smokes and we have dinner every year during the festival. We had countless cigars in the last 16 years and are friends since we first met in the good old Partagas factory.
George Brightman meanwhile runs his own business. We had many cocktails when I paid him a visit in 2006. We remain friends since the initial tasting.
Massimo de Giovanni, a good friend since we met and today President of the Italian cigar smokers society. A true gentleman and the Maitre of the Partagas festivals
Maira, the lady that showed me around in my first days is still in the industry but about to retire. We had some rum and coffee this spring chatting about the good old times.
The Hong Kong Collector stopped smoking years ago and sold his 70 boxes to collectors all over the Far East. I have seen Partagas Salomones II box No.1 recently and smoked a cigar gifted to me from box No.6 some month ago - a true gemstone and a great pleasure.
These are the people directly involved in the project. The ones who pulled strings in the back shall remain unkown. I will keep their assistance, goodwill and friendship in my memories forever.
Now, if you feel like a Salomones II grab one from your humidor - some are supposed to be in it.