What is a Vintage Habano?


29/06/2011
Por: Salvatore Parisi*

In my personal experience, I must say that for years I thought it was best to smoke a Habano called fresh, but not that harsh and bitter, produced today with not enough aged leaves, but a young snuff, made from properly aged and rich leaves in flavor, aroma and strength; what I call "a real Habano."

But back to the Vintage Habano, I can say I've recently discovered that, less than ten years ago when I started smoking Habanos produced before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, that is, before 1959. The supply of this type of Habanos promoted by Christie's and other auction houses have generated a true vintage Habano bag, something totally new, because no one had any interest in aged Habanos a few years ago.

I myself had given a friend, in the early nineties, some boxes of Dunhill Great because he feared having too many and that the Habanos could lose their flavor over time.

He just didn’t know that big Habanos can only benefit from the lengthy aging, become better and even gain greater market value. Now we also know that a Habano with a half-century of life can give us a bouquet of aromas and flavors.

Nowadays, it is widespread the opinion among experts that the phases of aging and maturation of a Habano can be divided into four stages, which sometimes overlap, as described by Min Ron Nee in his book An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Post-Revolution Havana Habanos.

The first period, that of 'the disease', is set when the Habano, just made, still has a strong smell of ammonia, which, unlike the bitter and harsh taste of the tannins, is particularly distasteful to all smokers. In most of the Habanos it disappears from 95 to 99 percent within the first year and then disappears altogether at the end of the second year.

The duration of the first and most sensitive period is closely related to two factors: the aging time of leaves in "bales" and the shelf life of the blend, before making the Habano.

In other words, a Habano just rolled, but with long aging leaves (at least three years), needs to be smoked at most following a brief rest period (1 week at 65 percent of relative humidity) or can be smoked just out of the hands of the roller, but only under the condition that this has been made the Habano without putting it into the mold, that is, hand-rolled with little wet leaves.

So, in my opinion, a person should consider the Habano as "fresh" only during the first six months of life, because then it is advisable to let it rest for at least two or three years and he will be even smoking a Habano girl, since only from the third year onward the fascinating process of aging and maturation actually kicks off.

The first maturation is the result of fermentation of the Habano, little after being rolled. It is the period in which the cigar is fruitier, but still has a little harsh and bitter taste of tannin, but at a level of concentration is not annoying to the smoker.

The aging is different for each Habano and is also determined by personal taste and tolerance to the taste of tannin. For light Habanos, the time for maturity is 2 to 5 years, while for the medium it ranges from 5 to 8 years, and for the "strong Habanos" it might take from 7 to 15 years, although some Habanos can become tremendously powerful even after longer period.

The second maturation is the result of the interaction between the end product of the degradation of tannin and the aroma produced by the fermentation. Like a great wine, a great Habano needs a long period to sweeten the harsh tannin flavor. This period lasts between 15 and 25 years and only has to do with strong Habano tannin rather than with all the features necessary for this maturation.

The third and final maturation is the end result of the synthesis generated by the mysterious chemical reactions of all the elements that make up a Habano.

This level of maturity begins to appear after 20 years.

In fact, it seems clear that a high-quality Cuban Habano is predestined, if well preserved, to live for many decades, although I repeat no one is in a position, not even today, to define how many years it could last, for the simple reason that no one has experience in this regard.

I remember three years ago while I was traveling across Londonwith Frank Nisemboim, that an English businessman gave me two Habanos that had been rolled in 1896. I tried one and didn’t impress me positively. It was tasteless and with very little flavor, although it was in bad storage conditions. It was indeed hard dried and wrinkled.

I have kept the other Habano for three years in top conditions and I assure you it looks much better: it is soft and the wrapper is slightly elastic and I think it has recovered somewhat.

Three years ago, I was struck by smoking three H. Upmann Lonsdale hailing from the 1960s. Perfect smoke, perfect burning, the long aging has led the way to aromas and tuning of progressive complexity of great harmony was also there. Aging leads to power sweetening, but this is offset by greater balance.

Absolute perfection, a Vintage Habano is now a scarce commodity, an oddity, yet it is also the fullest expression of that tradition of Cuban Habano that has its origins many centuries ago. At least for three hundred years it has been considered an ideal complement to elegant and fancy lifestyle, a pleasure, an honor and the kind of courage needed for life.

AGING TOBACCO LEAVES

There are many preservation, fermentation and aging processes that all leaves have to endure on their way to a finished, top-quality Habano.

Once completed, the tobacco leaves are fully prepared to be transformed into Habanos. In any case, as the most valued of spirits as the best Cognacs, Whiskies of Malt or rums that are aged for many years in oak barrels, improving tobacco for Habanos can also benefit from an extra period of aging: the released tannins provides a more rounded flavor, sweet and aromatic tobacco leaves.

Since 1999, thirds and bales of all the different types of leaves, selected for their ability to be aged, have been reserved after each harvest and stored in special warehouses in Havana. As a result, there are stocks of aged tobacco leaves to roll special Habanos, produced in small quantities and intended to attract most of the experienced fans.

Most of these tobacco leaves are used in special productions of Habanos which are launched periodically. In some cases, all tobacco leaves used for rolling Habanos are specially aged. In other cases, the additional aging is related only to the wrapper leaves.

* Salvatore Parisi

He was born in Naples in 1955, but has been living in Rome for many years, where he works as a psychologist at the clinic of the Roman School of Rorschach. Aristocrat by birth, he has devoted most of his life to the. For over twenty years, he has created an extensive library, a collection of paintings and objects related to the Cuban Habano and a monumental collection of Habanos that consists of more than sixty thousand Cuban Habanos of different ages, sizes and brands, including many Habano vitolas that are considered rarities.

There are two ways through which the Habanos can benefit through the years. One of them is before the Habanos are rolled, when the leaves are left to snuff aged for an additional period. The other is after these Habanos have been manufactured and put intoboxes.