There is perhaps no cigar smoker as iconic as Fidel Castro. Castro rose to power in the 1959 revolution, and he remained a divisive figure until his death in 2016. A cigar smoker throughout much of his life, he was often photographed enjoying a panetela, and he was instrumental in the establishing of the Cohiba marca, now the flagship brand of Cuban cigar manufacturer and distributor Habanos S.A.
Castro relayed 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.”
When The El Laguito Factory was established in 1966 to produce the Cohiba brand, it was a top secret facility. This need for secrecy arose due to the various assassination plots directed towards Castro, including the infamous CIA led Operation Mongoose, which considered the use of poisoned or explosive cigars.
Castro’s preferred size was the the Coronas Especiales (6 inches, 38 ring), a small panetela. In his interview with Cigar Aficionado he stated:
“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.”
Although many people are credited with the creation of the Cohiba brand, including Che Guevara, famed torcedor Avelino Lara, and Castro’s personal roller Eduardo Rivera Irrizari were likely responsible. 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.”
“From that time on,” Rivera said, “Fidel smoked nothing else, and I made cigars for him.”
The Cohiba brand was formally launched in 1968, and the branding was a nod to the Taino, the indigenous people of Cuba. The word “Cohiba” is derived from the Taino word for tobacco, in particular, the crude bunches of tobacco leaves that were smoked as the earliest known form of cigars.
During the first few years of production only a few thousand boxes were produced annually, reserved for the use of high government officials and frequently given away as diplomatic gifts. Cohiba cigars were not available internationally until 1982. At the time of its first public launch, the Cohiba marca consisted of just three formats: the Panetela, the Lancero, and Castro’s Corona Especial. In 1989 three more vitolas were added: the Robusto, the Exquisito, and the Espléndido. These first six are now collectively known as the company’s Línea Clásica.
In 1992 Habanos SA launched the Línea 1492, commemorating Christopher Columbus and his voyage to the Americas, with each size named for a century since Columbus’ discovery. The initial launch included the Siglo I, Siglo II, Siglo III, Siglo IV, and Siglo V, with a Siglo VI added in 2002. The Behikes and Maduro 5 series followed.
Cohibas are constructed using the best leaves from the five finest plantations of the San Juan y Martínez and San Luis districts of the Vuelta Abajo growing zone. El Laguito Cigar Factory, which was originally a school in the Havana neighbourhood of Siboney, remains an active Cohiba factory. Daily tours are available to visitors.