Business Today
The Cuban connection

While it's debatable if Cuban cigars are actually good for you, it is certainly so for India's burgeoning luxury industry.

Ameeta Seth, the director of Cingari

Ameeta Seth, the director of Cingari (Photograph by M Zhazo)

The Villa Clara province of the largest island in the Caribbean plays host to an unusual mystery. Most of its residents live well past 100, and even at that age, they lead a healthy rural lifestyle characterised by back-breaking manual labour.

Cuba, with a population of 11.2 million, has about 3,000 people who have lived for over a century. Ask any of these centenarians the secret of their super-longevity, and pat comes the reply: Coffee, sex and cigars. Indeed, while few Cubans drink alcohol, coffee and cigars are consumed in large quantities. However, Jeanne Calment of France, who lived a record 122 years, loved port wine and chocolate. She started smoking at 21 and continued until she was 117, quitting only because poor eyesight made lighting her tobacco difficult.

So, does the Cuban cigar actually enhance longevity? It's up for debate.

Legend has it that a true Cuban should be rolled on the thigh of a beautiful, young virgin. Another popular story goes that John F Kennedy once asked his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to stock up on his favourite H Upmann Petit Coronas before signing the embargo on Cuba. Let's try and deconstruct the reason for the Habano's allure.

Naming it after the capital city demonstrates that for a Cuban, this is more than just another cigar; it's a world of rich textures that can only be born in the unique blend of sun and soil belonging to the Pinar del Rio region and the skill of the people who roll them. A Habano consists of a filler, a binder and the wrapper. The filler is the tobacco that makes up the heart of the cigar, giving it its bulk as well as rich flavours and aromas. The three leaves that constitute the filler come from the Criollo plant, taken from different levels. Ligero, from the top-most part of the plant, provides the cigar its strength. While Seco, taken from the middle part of the plant, is the source of its aroma, Volado from the bottom effects combustibility. Binder, a tobacco leaf matured for 12 months, holds the filler in place and defines its shape as well as smoke quality. The wrapper is a exquisitely thin leaf that forms the outer surface of the cigar.

Naming the Habano after the Cuban capital demonstrates that for a resident, this is not just another cigar; itâ??s a world of rich textures crafted in the sun and soil of Pinar del Rio.

As it happens, Habanos S.A. is the only organisation certified by the Cuban government for the production and distribution of Cuban cigars. There are only 29 authorised distributors for Habanos S.A. in the world. Cuban cigars could not even be imported into India until the Ameeta Seth-headed Cingari was appointed the official distributor 1998. "We initially started our distribution through high-end restaurants and bars in all the five-star hotels as well as upscale standalone restaurants. Later, we opened our first flagship store, Cingari, at The Oberoi in New Delhi," she says. Later, they opened cigar lounges at the Lalit in Mumbai as well as The Lodi, Delhi, and the Gurgaon Oberoi.

Importing 23 brands of Habano brands in 200 different varieties was quite a trick. The cigars have to be stored in a bonded warehouse and monitored 24/7 by engineers tasked with the job of maintaining the cigars at an optimum temperature of 16 -18 degree centigrade & 65-70% relative humidity, mimicking conditions near the Tropic of Cancer. Cingari currently keeps a stock of just over 250,000 cigars in 20 custom bonded warehouses across the country. These include most coveted brands like Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, Partagás, Hoyo de Monterrey, JLPiedra and H Upmann.

Cingari takes credit for introducing the cigar culture in India. They organise interactive sessions on cigar selection and liquor pairing; associate with polo tournaments; and even come up with events to depict how a cigar complements the high life. Each event allows the new smoker to learn how to select, cut and light the cigar, and smoke it with panache.

True, we're still a long way from solving the medical mysteries behind the cigar, but a Cuban lodged between two fingers is exactly what our luxury industry needs to land that date with success.

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