Pungent smoke filled the room, obscuring the lights and leaving clothing and skin reeking. There was applause, shouts and laughter, and above all plenty of H Upmann Sir Winstons – formidable seven-inch-long Cuban cigars.
Here in Havana, the cigar capital of the world, more than 450 “stogie” aficionados gathered to take part in an unusual contest at the city’s annual marquee Cigar Festival. They were here to see who could create the longest unbroken ash.
“I love it,” Argentine sommelier Flavio Lanfredi said. She was in good spirits as she spoke, despite falling out of contention early on. “For me this is like going to Mecca, or a kid entering a toy store and they tell you to grab whatever you want, it’s yours. It’s really exciting.”
The setting is a world away from contemporary British experience, where bans on smoking in public have cleared the air in pubs, clubs and social spaces across the United Kingdom, to promote public health.
But here in a cavernous room in Havana’s Palace of Conventions last week, contestants exhaled clouds of smoke and handled their cigars preciously to keep the grey ash intact as long as possible.
They lolled on luxurious leather chairs set amid tables holding dozens of ashtrays, lighters, chocolates and measures of classic Cuban rum.
Many, like Ms Lanfredi, lost their ashes before smoking even halfway through. Others managed to keep going until their cigars were little more than stubs.
“It was a little bit stressful, and I’m somewhat dizzy,” said Cuban restaurateur Andres Espinosa, one of the better finishers with just over six inches of ash.
Little more than 30 minutes in, only a handful of finalists remained. Judges milled around handing out rulers to measure the results. It would be hard to top Olivia Terri, also from Cuba, who smoked her Sir Winston down to a stub with an ash that grew to six-and-a-half inches before it crumbled.
The Sir Winston is a chubby cigar with a rich brown colour and a hint of toasted gold. It is hand-rolled with a selection of tobacco leaves from the western province of Pinar del Rio, the cradle of Cuba’s tobacco industry.
The event was both a light-hearted competition and also an exhibition calculated to show off Cuba’s premium tobacco.
Some 1,500 smokers from 80 countries attended the weeklong festival. “This [contest] in particular is aimed at people being able to appreciate the quality of our product,” said Ana Lopez, marketing director of Habanos SA, a Cuban-British firm that produces and distributes Cuban cigars.
“Only products of magnificent quality can make the ash take on a permanent consistency for a long time.”