HAVANA -- Pungent smoke filled the room, obscuring the lights and leaving clothing and skin reeking. There were applause, shouts and laughter, and above all plenty of H. Upmann Sir Winstons - formidable 7-inch Cuban cigars.
More than 450 stogie aficionados took part in an unusual contest Thursday at Havana's annual marquee Cigar Festival: competing to see who could create the longest unbroken ash.
"I love it," Argentine sommelier Flavio Lanfredi said good-naturedly 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."
In a cavernous room in Havana's Palace of Conventions, contestants exhaled clouds of smoke and handled their cigars gingerly to keep the gray ash intact as long as possible. They lolled on luxurious leather chairs set amid tables holding dozens of ashtrays, lighters, chocolate-flavored hard candy and snifters of aged Cuban rum.
Many, like Lanfredi, lost their ashes before smoking even halfway through. Others managed to keep going until their cigars were little more than tiny stubs.
"It was a little bit stressful, and I'm somewhat dizzy," said Cuban restaurateur Andres Espinosa, one of the better finishers with a 6.2-inch ash.
Just over a half-hour in, only a handful of finalists remained. Judges milled about the room handing out rulers to measure the results.
The winner was to be announced Friday.
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 6.6 inches before it crumbled.
The Sir Winston is a chubby cigar with a rich brown color and a hint of toasted gold. It's hand-rolled with a selection of tobacco leaves from the western province of Pinar del Rio, the cradle of Cuba's tobacco country.
The event was both a light-hearted competition and also an exhibition calculated to show off Cuba's premium tobacco, which is among the most coveted in the world. Some 1,500 smokers from 80 countries are attending 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 for Habanos SA, a Cuban-British joint company that produces and distributes Cuban cigars exclusively. "Only products of magnificent quality can make the ash take on a permanent consistency for a long time."