Alejandro Robaina, founder of one of Cuba’s most iconic cigar brands, smoked his first cigar at the tender age of 10 years. He said it made him feel ‘drunk’. Soon he was habitually smoking four or five cigars a day. Legend says he hand rolled each one himself. When he died in 2010, at 91 years of age, his personal legend was secure.
Known as the “godfather” of Cuban cigars, and considered one of the world’s greatest cigar makers, his legacy continues on the family plantation south-west of Pinar del Rio and in the Robaina brand. The plantation was founded in the 1840’s by Alejandro’s grandfather, and has been producing some of the finest tobacco leaves ever since.
The renowned Robaina brand was only founded in 1997, making it only the third international brand to come out of Cuba since the revolution. It might have been different if Alejandro hadn’t fought to prevent the Castro government from turning the family farm into a collective. He argued with Fidel Castro, saying that only family farms had the know-how to grow tobacco. Castro backed down.
We stopped at the Robaina plantation en route to the Finca La Gaubina, both are close to Pinar del Rio and both offer a glimpse into unique parts of Cuban culture. For a cigar as famous as the Robaina, the approach to the plantation is remarkably humble. A dirt track leads off the main road, passing tobacco fields and a few small houses before arriving at the farm gate.
It seemed very low-key, almost artisanal. We were greeted by a farm worker, who took us to a drying barn where a small group of people was waiting for a guided tour. Only when our guide – a farm worker who had taught himself to speak English and French, and was working on German – started to give us the numbers that the scope of the operation become clear.
Cuba produces around 100 million cigars a year. Robaina alone produces 5 million of those, but a disproportionate number of their cigars are of the very highest quality. During the peak season some 500 hundred men and women roll the leaves into cigars. A skilled roller can turn out around 120 cigars each day.
The tobacco crop was still in the fields and the barn was empty but for a few rows of leaves. In a corner though was one of the farm workers rolling cigars. He’d been rolling them for over thirty years – let’s just say he knew his way around a tobacco leaf. In just a couple of minutes he presented me with a cigar. I still have it in a plastic bag in my refrigerator, apparently the best place for it in a non-humid country.
Afterwards we walked through the farm to the family house, checking out photos of Alejandro Robaina meeting world leaders, pop stars, the great and the good of the cigar aficionado world. We then went to see the tobacco growing under cheesecloth. This is the cream of the crop, growing to over 2 metres in height. The leaves mature at different speeds and are removed at intervals from the bottom up.
They don’t sell cigars on the farm, but if you want to buy a world class cigar just walk down the lane to a house where a variety of cigars are on offer. It’s a bit hard sell but when in Cuba…we left with a Double Corona called Don Alejandro, named after the great man himself.