Though heads of state have sought out and smoked Cuban cigars throughout the centuries, the island’s revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, is perhaps most closely linked with the coveted smoke. After taking power in 1959 until he gave up cigars 26 years later, Castro was rarely photographed without a cigar.
The story that links Castro most closely to the legacy of the Cuban cigar tells us that the celebrated Cohiba brand began as a cigar rolled and produced specifically for the country's leader.
Today, Cohiba is the flagship brand of Cuban cigar manufacturer and distributor Habanos S.A., and it is a top choice among smokers worldwide. But its founding, according to legend, began by chance.
Castro told the story to a Cigar Aficionado editor in 1994:
“(O)ne man who used to work for me as a bodyguard, I used to see the man smoking a very aromatic, very nice cigar, and I asked him what brand he was smoking. He told me that it was no special brand, but that it came from a friend who makes cigars and he gave them to him. I said, let's find this man. I tried the cigar, and I found it so good that we got in touch with him and asked him how he made it. Then, we set up the house [the El Laguito Factory], and he explained the blend of tobacco he used. He told which leaves he used from which tobacco plantations. He also told us about the wrappers he used and other things. We found a group of cigar makers. We gave them the material, and that was how the factory was founded.”
Habanos S.A. says the El Laguito Factory was top secret when it was established to produce the Cohiba brand in 1966. Secrecy was a concern because of CIA efforts to assassinate the Communist leader via poisoned or exploding cigars.
Some versions of the story point to the Churchill-size Cohiba Esplendido (7 inches, 47 ring) as the cigar made for Castro. But he told Cigar Aficionado that it was in fact the smaller panetela, the Coronas Especiales (6 inches, 38 ring).
“When I was a student before the Revolution, I used to smoke different brands,” Castro said. “Sometimes I used to smoke Romeo y Julieta Churchill, H. Upmann, Bauza, Partagas, but ever since I found Cohiba … it was so soft — and it was not an overly compact cigar. It was easy to smoke.”
Fidel's Favorite: Laguito No. 2
Indeed, the Coronas Especiales – Laguito No. 2 – consistently gets high marks for its elegance and richness; complex, delicious flavor; and “balanced notes of sweet cedar, coffee bean and a touch of pepper.”
At first, the only people outside of Cuba to have access to Cohibas were visiting diplomats who received them as gifts. They weren't sold internationally until 1982.
“Cohiba” is an ancient Taino Indian word for the bunches of tobacco leaves that Christopher Columbus first saw being smoked by the original inhabitants of Cuba – the earliest known form of cigars, Habanos S.A. says.
Tobacco leaves used to make Cohibas are considered the best leaf from the five finest plantations of the San Juan y Martínez and San Luis districts of the Vuelta Abajo growing zone.
In some tellings of the founding of Cohibas, Che Guevara, Castro's partner in the Revolution and Cuba’s first Minister of Industry afterward, is said to have created the brand at Castro’s request. But Che left Cuba in 1965 to foment revolution in Bolivia, where he was hunted down and killed in November 1967.
Eduardo Rivera Irrizari is generally believed to have been the friend of Castro’s bodyguard who made the cigar that tantalized the President. Avelino Lara, another well-respected cigar roller, or torcedor, is also credited with creating the Cohiba brand.
However, Rivera claimed in a 1995 interview with Cigar Aficionado, that, "I was both director and a roller at the El Laguito factory, from its beginning in 1963 to 1970."
He said the cigars he made for his friend were shaped like today's Cohiba Lancero. "From that time on," Rivera said, "Fidel smoked nothing else, and I made cigars for him."
Lara, who succeeded Rivera as director of El Laguito, later worked for the Graycliff Cigar Company in Nassau, the Bahamas.
Castro, who will be 90 in August, quit smoking cigars in August 1985, when Cuba launched a general campaign against smoking. He was 59 years old, and had been smoking them since he was 15. Once before, during the Revolution, he gave up cigars in solidarity with an uprising among workers on tobacco plantations.
El Laguito Cigar Factory, which was originally a school in the Havana suburb of Miramar, remains an active Cohiba factory. Six Cohibas bear the Laguito vitola de galera today, including the Behike line and, of course, the Coronas Especiales.