Cohiba: The birth of a myth

On a beautiful February morning in Havana while smoking a good cigar, I happened to meet a friend from Italy. After a while, he asked me whether I wanted to personally meet Eduardo Rivera Irizarri, a man who is inextricably connected with the Cuban cigar. Of course I wanted to! This is how, a few days later, we met in front of Rivera Irizarri’s house on the outskirts of Havana. Between 1966 to 1970, Eduardo Rivera Irizarri was the manager of what is now probably the most well-known cigar factory in the world, the Cohiba factory El Laguito. Fidel Castro personally appointed him factory manager – but I am getting ahead of myself, for this is the crowning glory of his story. Let us start from the beginning. Irizarri’s story began in Palma Soriano, a city in eastern Cuba, where, at the early age of 11, he started working as a torcedor. In the mid-1950s, he moved to Havana, where he found a job in a factory called El Faraon. The owner was none other than Pérez Salazar, who during the years of the revolution was nicknamed “Chicho” and became Fidel’s chief bodyguard. Later Eduardo worked in the cigar factory Por Larrañaga in Calle Carlos III, which back then was considered “la universidad de las fabricas” (the university among cigar factories). We listened to his tales, spellbound, but at some point, we could no longer curb our curiosity and asked him about the history of the Laguito No.1 – which Fidel Castro had loved so much. The cigars were originally created from the need to take as many cigars as possible out of the factory. For, back then, torcedores were allowed to take as many cigars out of the factory as they could carry in the pockets of the guayabera. The thinner the cigar, the more could be carried in the breast pocket. Rivera Irizarri told us that one day Chicho had offered Fidel one of his cigars; he was so enthusiastic about it that he had these cigars exclusively produced for himself.

The Cohiba Lanceros have existed since the 1980s. The boxes, intended for dignitaries and diplomats, were visually different to the ones that were sold

At the beginning of the 1960s, Irizarri then entered the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (revolutionary armed forces) and was sent to a training camp in Pinar del Río. Consequently, Chicho dispatched him to Havana, where he first worked in the Por Larrañaga factory and later at La Corona, during which, however, he never stopped secretly making the cigars in his apartment that today we know as Laguito No.1. Fidel demanded an ever-increasing number of cigars, as he had now also begun to offer them to his closest confidants at diplomatic meetings. In order to keep up with the growing demand, it was also necessary to make the production more professional. In 1963 for this purpose, Rivera Irizarri was asked to attend a meeting at which Fidel, his personal secretary, Celia Sánchez, and Chicho were present. When asked what he needed to begin a small production reserved for the commander, he answered with the request for the appropriate facilities, the necessary appliances, his own trustworthy torcedores, whom he wanted to teach, as well as the best tobacco varieties. Celia Sánchez asked him whether it was men or women who rolled the better cigars. To which Eduardo replied that women worked more cautiously and more precisely. In an instant, he received everything he needed. The first workers were personally selected by Celia from the daughters and relatives of the revolutionaries. This first group consisted of around 20 women; later, more were added. During those months, Eduardo worked secretly on the new production, and together with Heriberto Martin “Camaguey”, an experienced torcedor and friend, trained the new workers. In 1964, regular production began. One format was exclusively manufactured: 192 x 12.3 | 7 1/2 x 38. It was first taken up into the vitolario with the name Laguito No.1 in 1964, because in that year the company moved to the current factory, which is in the area of El Laguito. In the same year, in collaboration with Camaguey, the Corona Especial and the Panetelas were developed, which later were renamed Laguito No.2 and Laguito No.3, respectively. Production grew from month to month, although at the same time an increasing number of cigars were collected and consumed because “Fidel was a very generous man,” says Eduardo. In 1966, the stock amounted to half a million cigars! In addition to the cigars, the boxes needed for transport had to be produced, which were primarily intended for diplomats working abroad. So a woodworking machine was purchased from Italy, and by working together with Cuban craftspeople, various boxes and humidors for 25, 50 or 100 cigars each were produced.

The Cohiba Diplomatico Bohio from the late-1960s. These humidors were reserved for personalities who visited Comandante Fidel Castro

In addition, personalized cigar rings were produced bearing the names of the respective diplomats or dignitaries. The cigars were also adorned with another band with the Cuban coat of arms. In 1966, when the factory moved, production had reached remarkable dimensions, especially for a factory that did not produce for regular trade. Eduardo was well aware of this and, together with Celia Sánchez, Chicho and Fidel, thus decided to sell the considerable inventory. To do this, a good-sounding name was of course needed, one that would be worthy of representing Cuba, and also a suitable cigar band. The first name suggested was Palmas – in reference to the Cuban Palma Real Autoctona, as the slender cigar shape is quite similar to the tendril palm trunks – but it did not meet with much approval. A few days later, Celia, who was familiar with the early history of Cuba, had the brilliant idea of christening the cigar “Cohiba” (the Taínos’ name for the tobacco plant). The comandante entrusted Celia with the task of checking whether the name was already registered. It was found that many years earlier someone had registered the name but had never used it. So there was nothing to prevent the use of the name Cohiba. However, it was not officially registered until 1969. I am extremely grateful for having been able to meet Eduardo Rivera Irizarri personally. It is to this extraordinary man that we owe the Laguito No.1, a cigar that has probably contributed like no other to making Cohiba the most prestigious brand of Habanos S.A.

Nicola Di Nunzio has been both a great lover and a passionate collector of Cuban cigars and memorabilia since the Noughties. He writes for Cigar Journal as well as the Italian magazine SIGARI!. Nicola is a member of the Puromotivo Torino Cigar Club, active as both secretary and treasurer. In addition, since 2011, he has been board secretary for the Cigar Club Association (CCA) in Italy. He is the main person responsible on the CCA panel, coordinates the editorial team of SIGARI!, and is, furthermore, panelist for Cigar Sense. Currently, Nicola works for Cigar Must Lugano and the magazine LiveIn.


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