Lighting up during the Annual Habanos Cuban Cigars Sommelier Competition at the La Casa del Habano, The Walk, in Dubai. Image Credit: Oliver Clarke/ Gulf News

Heavy blue smoke fills the room, a scent of Havana in the firm greying ash growing as the red burn advances into brown rolled tobacco. For Cuban afficionados, the moment is bliss, where a hand-rolled premium cigar is savoured with all of the passion a wine lover enjoys a vintage bouquet.

Every year, more than three million premium hand-rolled Cuban cigars are sold in the UAE, lifting the county into the top 10 in Havana sales worldwide. And when another three million of cigarellos plus other sales from non-Cuban cigar products, the UAE has kick butt figures.

Worldwide, sales of premium Cuban cigars improved 9 per cent last year, driven by surging demand from the nouveaux riche in China.

In the UAE, sales have always been strong, driven by a loyal local customer base and boosted by sales at Dubai and Abu Dhabi Airports. That's all positive news for the Baqer Mohebi group, sole licensees in the UAE for Habanos Cigars, the Cuban state-owned tobacco manufacturer, distributer and marketer.

"Last year was a banner year for us and we continue to grow by leaps and bounds," explains Hadi Sleiman, head of the tobacco division for the group as he relaxed over coffee and, what else, a gently burning robusto. "A good way to start the day."

Let's face it, there are good cigars and better cigars. But Cubans are the best.

"Absolutely, it must be Cuban to be a real cigar," he offers. "Anything else is just a poor imitation.

"There's something about the soil, the humidity, the growing conditions, the drying process, the care that goes into curing each cigar and hand-rolling it into a perfect smoke that is uniquely and distinctively Cuban.

"Each brand and each size is like a perfect bottle of wine — you can tell almost the field where the tobacco is grown by the individual taste — almost in the same way that you can tell the vintage and origin of a good bottle of French wine. For cigar affictionados, that is the true pleasure in smoking. There's a uniqueness in flavour and taste that means each cigar must be savoured."

While Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica produce cigars in an industrial scale, they lack the refinement, tradition and simple body of a true Habanos.

When Castro came to power in Cuba 1961 and seized privately-owned land — including sugar cane and tobacco plantations — many traditional tobacco-growing companies fled across the Florida Straits to the United States.

"They brought seeds with them from the tobacco plants and planted them in the traditional tobacco-growing states of Virginia and the Carolinas," Sleiman explains.

"In the United States, because of its economic embargo on Cuba, it's illegal under federal law to trade, buy or possess real Habanos cigars. The tobacco growers who fled still market themselves as Montecristos or Romeo and Julietta, but the cigars are sub-standard as they are called ‘Cuban seed' cigars — grown from plants which come from seeds taken from Cuban when they fled Castro. Those Cuban-seed cigars are what's sold in the United States, but they lack flavour and are a much poorer-quality cigar than a true Habanos."

For Habanos buyers, the Dubai Duty Free outlets provide a really good selection of premium brands and the airport facility is Sleiman's largest customer by far. He won't reveal how much they buy, but a very significant proportion of the three million premium cuban cigars are shifted through Duty Free.

"But there are lot of people in the UAE who are serious cigar smokers and have extensive collections of Habanos," Sleiman says. "Two of the major houses in Havana have produced limited runs of handmade premium cigars exclusively for the UAE market," he explains. Each comes in numbered boxes are are collectors items as they are one-off sizes and blends particularly crafted for smokers here.

But isn't smoking tobacco — any tobacco product — dangerous.

"Yes," Sleiman admits. "But remember, with a Cuban cigar, you don't inhale the smoke as you would with cigarettes or sheesha, so it's not going into your lungs. It's all about the flavour and process of lighting and enjoying the flavour, not inhaling the smoke. That's a very basic mistake any new smoker tries, inhaling a lung-full of Cuban cigar smoke — and they'll never repeat the mistake again."

And unlike other tobacco products, cigar leaves are not processed with chemicals added to enhance taste — it's simply tobacco leaves dried and rolled.
"There are a lot of mistakes people who don't regularly smoke cigars make in buying of keeping cigars," Sleiman explains.

"Every brand is different and the tastes range from mild to spicy and very full," he says. "Take a Montecristo, for example. People might be familiar with the name, but the actual taste of the smoke tends to be spicy or peppery, hot on the mouth and the tongue. A Punch cigar is a better brand for people who are not used to smoking Habanos cigars or are novices. Punch is a very mild and pleasant smoke with a tempered flavour that won't overwhelm your palette."

He suggested then that smokers try a Romeo Y Julietta for a medium flavour, or advance to a Cohiba with strong, robust and full flavours.

But be warned — there is no other way to buy to buy a genuine Cuban cigar than from La Casa de Habanos or the Duty Free outlets in the UAE.

"You hear of people who are offered Cuban cigars, than they have a friend of a friend who can get them cheap, and they get a bundle," Sleiman says. "There is a growing counterfeit market in Cuban cigars in the UAE and it's something the authorities need to crack down on."

He says Cuban cigars only come in boxes which are sealed by Habanos in Cuba."They do not come in bundles and they always have seals and labels," he says. "Anything else is a fake. It could be banana leaves which will damage your health. Only buy cigars from reputable outlets — anything else and you're wasting your money."