Last week, the Monte Carlo Whisky Society held a Master Class on the terrace of Restaurant Oliban at Place d’Armes.
The theme of the members-only tasting event was cigars, an education led by Cuban-born Magali de la Cruz Rio, Operational Manager of Sautter Cigars of Mayfair. Ms de la Cruz Rio had arranged with her family in Cuba, who own a tobacco farm, to hand roll a special vitola for the Monte Carlo Whisky Society, aptly named “La Flor de Monaco”.
“We have not put a label on the cigar yet,” Ms de la Cruz Rio told Monaco Life, “as I am waiting to get feedback from the Society as to whether I should refine the flavour. Once we have the definite blend, then each hand-rolled cigar will have La Flor de Monaco label.”
Ms de la Cruz Rio was born into a tobacco farming family in Cuba. “Cigars are my identity. To see my father alive, my mother, who’s 81 and still rolling cigars, and smoking a cigar with my grandfather when I was eight.”
Eight? “My father caught me and had my mother roll two tiny cigars, one for me and one for my ten-year-old sister. We had to smoke them. We were green, dizzy, sick to our stomachs. My sister never smoked again. I can’t say the same!”
At the age of 14, Ms de la Cruz Rio attended drama school in Havana, and through the works she was studying, developed an inquisitive attitude towards Castro’s Cuba. She wrote “Requiem to the Dictator” and it wasn’t long before there was a knock on her door in the middle of the night.
“I thought the police were taking me in for routine questioning.” She disappeared for a week in 1994.
“I remember the cold and darkness,” she described as she showed scars after an incident produced by broken glass.
Though a contact with the cultural attaché at the British Embassy in Havana, Ms de la Cruz Rio was released and slept a few nights at the Embassy before being put on a plane, with only a few personal items, to London with the attaché. Although she believed the ordeal was behind her, an army General boarded the plane to try and force her off. Luckily she had diplomatic immunity. “I was not allowed to return to Cuba for eleven years.”
Ms de la Cruz Rio spoke little English but was determined to make her life in London, where her sister lived. She worked as a drama teacher at a children’s school before returning to what she knew best. She became a tobacco buyer in 1996 for the UK DutyFree and then, under the guidance of her brother-in-law who had worked for the Cuban government Tobacco Department in the UK, started to learn as much as she could about the commercial side of the industry. This included travels to whisky distilleries in Scotland, and visits to Spain, France and Italy.
Far from the days of a window dresser in Harrods – “I didn’t know the names of the different materials in English, so that didn’t work out” – Ms de la Cruz Rio’s career has included working at Alfred Dunhill’s St James’ shop and La Casa Del Habano London when, in 2009, Ajat Patel invited her to work there.
From 1900 to 1905, after his first trip to Cuba, Winston Churchill lived above Sautter’s Mount Street store and his first order of Cuban cigars was delivered here. His preferred brand was Romeo y Julieta.
She has sold cigars to Harrison Ford, Andy Garcia and Bill Clinton, who in 2001 appeared at Heathrow Duty Free wearing a linen suit and Panama hat, en route to South Africa. “What can be better than meeting Nelson Mandela than smoking a Bolivar cigar?” the former American President expressed to Ms de la Cruz Rio at the time. What indeed.
Since her exile from her home country, Ms de la Cruz Rio has developed a passion for photography and is working on a book about the history of women and cigars.
Her visits to her homeland are few and far between. The first time back, she was refused entry and sent back to London. On another visit her computer, which contained only photos, was hacked. When her mother came to London to visit, the family farm was confiscated. It would be 18 months later and a large sum of money paid to the government before they could reclaim their land. She considers herself Cuban but London (where she learned that Stalin did not win the Second World War) – is her home.
Commenting on Fidel Castro’s death November 25, 2016, Ms de la Cruz Rio said, “I would never celebrate the death of anyone. I owe him my education, and what he did for women in our country.”
Sautter Cigars is a partner of the Monte Carlo Whisky Society, who will soon have available for purchase Monaco’s only hand-rolled specially blended cigar bearing its name, La Flor de Monaco.
Article first published December 23, 2016.