Up in smoke: Long-ash contest at Cuba cigar fest

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Up in smoke: Long-ash contest at Cuba cigar fest
HAVANA, CUBA - FEBRUARY 27: April Angeloni of California of the United States smokes a Cuban H. Upmann cigar while participating in a cigar smoker's competition for the longest ash during the 16th Habanos tobacco festival on February 27, 2014 in Havana, Cuba. The annual festival culminates in a gala dinner with an auction of humidors on February 28. Cuban cigars are widely considered to be the best in the world but cannot be sold in the U.S. due to embargo restrictions. (Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - FEBRUARY 27: Deepak Elangovan of India smokes a Cuban H. Upmann cigar while participating in a cigar smoker's competition for the longest ash during the 16th Habanos tobacco festival on February 27, 2014 in Havana, Cuba. The annual festival culminates in a gala dinner with an auction of humidors on February 28. Cuban cigars are widely considered to be the best in the world but cannot be sold in the U.S. due to embargo restrictions. (Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - FEBRUARY 27: Olivia Terry of Cuba smokes a Cuban H. Upmann cigar as participating in a cigar smokers competition for the longest ash, leaving only 9mm of the original 178 mm long cigar, during the 16th Habanos tobacco festival on February 27, 2014 in Havana, Cuba. The annual festival culminates in a gala dinner with an auction of humidors on February 28. Cuban cigars are widely considered to be the best in the world but cannot be sold in the U.S. due to embargo restrictions. (Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - FEBRUARY 27: Deepak Elangovan of India smokes a Cuban H. Upmann cigar while participating in a cigar smoker's competition for the longest ash during the 16th Habanos tobacco festival on February 27, 2014 in Havana, Cuba. The annual festival culminates in a gala dinner with an auction of humidors on February 28. Cuban cigars are widely considered to be the best in the world but cannot be sold in the U.S. due to embargo restrictions. (Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - FEBRUARY 27: Olivia Terry of Cuba smokes a Cuban H. Upmann cigar while participating in a cigar smokers competition for the longest ash, leaving only 9mm of the original 178 mm long cigar, during the 16th Habanos tobacco festival on February 27, 2014 in Havana, Cuba. The annual festival culminates in a gala dinner with an auction of humidors on February 28. Cuban cigars are widely considered to be the best in the world but cannot be sold in the U.S. due to embargo restrictions. (Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images)
A man looks at his cigar during the contest for the longest ash, during the XVI Havana Cigar Festival, in the Cuban capital on February 27, 2014. The production of Cuban cigars experienced an 8% growth in 2013 adding 447 million dollars to the Cuban economy. The XVI Havana Cigar Festival is running in Cuba with the presentation of the best Cuban cigars. AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
A man smokes a cigar during the contest for the longest ash, during the XVI Havana Cigar Festival, in the Cuban capital on February 27, 2014. The production of Cuban cigars experienced an 8% growth in 2013 adding 447 million dollars to the Cuban economy. The XVI Havana Cigar Festival is running in Cuba with the presentation of the best Cuban cigars. AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman smokes a cigar during the contest for the longest ash, during the XVI Havana Cigar Festival, in the Cuban capital on February 27, 2014. The production of Cuban cigars experienced an 8% growth in 2013 adding 447 million dollars to the Cuban economy. The XVI Havana Cigar Festival is running in Cuba with the presentation of the best Cuban cigars. AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman smokes a cigar during the contest for the longest ash, during the XVI Havana Cigar Festival, in the Cuban capital on February 27, 2014. The production of Cuban cigars experienced an 8% growth in 2013 adding 447 million dollars to the Cuban economy. The XVI Havana Cigar Festival is running in Cuba with the presentation of the best Cuban cigars. AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman smokes a cigar during the contest for the longest ash, during the XVI Havana Cigar Festival, in the Cuban capital on February 27, 2014. The production of Cuban cigars experienced an 8% growth in 2013 adding 447 million dollars to the Cuban economy. The XVI Havana Cigar Festival is running in Cuba with the presentation of the best Cuban cigars. AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - FEBRUARY 27: April Angeloni of California of the United States smokes a Cuban H. Upmann cigar while participating in a cigar smoker's competition for the longest ash during the 16th Habanos tobacco festival on February 27, 2014 in Havana, Cuba. The annual festival culminates in a gala dinner with an auction of humidors on February 28. Cuban cigars are widely considered to be the best in the world but cannot be sold in the U.S. due to embargo restrictions. (Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images)
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HAVANA (AP) - 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 (17.8-centimeter) 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 (15.8-cm) 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 (16.7 cm) 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."

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