Despite the uncertainty in Cuba following Fidel Castro’s death, there was a brief period in October when President Obama announced a furthering normalcy with the island after he enacted an Executive action and lifted the embargo which had banned unlimited personal consumption of Cuban cigars and rum – even if said items had been purchased in third-party countries.
While online purchases for the long-storied Cuban stogies are still not allowed, the expectation that Cuban/American relations will only continue to improve – as well as the availability of cigars for purchase in other tropical vacation locales in both Central and South America – suggests that there has never been a better time in the last half-century to purchase the Cuban export.
For those considering purchasing Cuban cigars, here is a starter kit about why so much fuss has been made in the past.
They’re no longer the “best”
Although names like the Cohiba Esplendido, Montecristo No. 2 and Partagás Serie D evoke a serious amount of romanticism in the cigar world, many would be surprised to learn that Cuban cigars are no longer viewed as the best in the world.
According to Cigar Aficionado, the best cigar in all of 2015 was the My Father Le Bijou 1922 which is produced in Nicaragua.
While the Ramon Allones Specially Selected from Cuba earned second place, the rest of the top five was rounded out by offerings from Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic who have had a steady ascent in the smoking world due to the lack of interferences to grow their businesses as is the case with Cuban cigars.
As Executive Editor of Cigar Aficionado, David Savona, told The Washington Post, “Just because a cigar is Cuban doesn’t mean it will be a high-quality cigar. There are good cigars and bad cigars from Cuba, as with other cigar-producing countries.”
How to spot a fake cigar
Much in the same way that unsavory sneaker entrepreneurs attempt to earn money by selling fake merchandise, Cuban cigars are often produced with fraudulent intentions and involve instances where people acquire goods from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua or Honduras for $20 USD, band them with facsimiles of Cuban cigar bands, put them in a copy of a Cuban cigar box, and sell them for over a 300 percent markup.
Other counterfeit scenarios include purchasing a cigar made of real Cuban tobacco, but one that was rolled and produced at a non-Cuban factory which severely undermines what makes a true Cuban a highly sought-after product.
The first thing a person should look at is the packaging. Real Cuban cigars come packed in boxes that are marked with the distinctive Habanos seal in the upper right-hand corner on top of the box, and a Cuban warranty seal (the made in Cuba stamp) on the left.
The updated Habanos S.A. (the worldwide exporter of Cuban cigars) stamp features a hologram on the far right side and a bar code on the far left, and at the bottom of the box are the words “Habanos S.A.,” “Hecho En Cuba,” and if the cigar is handmade, “Totalmente a Mano.” Below that will be a code for the factory in which the cigars were made, and a date stamp showing when the cigars were put in the box.
If you believe you have a real Cuban cigar, all the proof can be gathered from the color of the ash. Counterfeits will burn grey, while Cubans will burn almost pure white.
Cohiba’s place in history
Cohiba is always a major focus for both collectors and casual enthusiasts – whose additionally fermented and matured tobacco grows in just five Vegas Finas de Primera – the best plantations in the Vuelta Abajo, Cuba’s legendary tobacco-growing region.
Once the personal blend of Fidel Castro – and made exclusively for El Commandante until 1968 – the brand is what most people think of when they think of “Cuban cigars.”
In a 1994 cover story for Cigar Aficionado, Castro recalled the origins of his affinity, and how the company started in 1966, saying, “I’ll tell you something about the Cohiba. The Cohiba did not exist as a brand in Cuba. But one man who used to work for me as a bodyguard, I used to see the man smoking a very aromatic, very nice cigar, and I asked him what brand he was smoking. He told me that it was no special brand, but that it came from a friend who makes cigars and he gave them to him. I said, ‘let’s find this man.’ I tried the cigar, and I found it so good that we got in touch with him and asked him how he made it. Then, we set up the house [the El Laguito Factory], and he explained the blend of tobacco he used. He told which leaves he used from which tobacco plantations. He also told us about the wrappers he used and other things. We found a group of cigar makers. We gave them the material, and that was how the factory was founded. Now Cohiba is known all over the world. That was over 30 years ago.”
The original Cohiba, a long, thin cigar called the Lancero, became the diplomatic gift of choice to send to statesmen abroad who Castro admired like Luis Echeverria of Mexico, Omar Torrijos of Panama, Josip Tito of Yugoslavia and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.
The most popular Cuban cigar
The Partagás Serie D No. 4 is the most popular cigar made in Cuba and retails for about 174 Cuban Convertible Pesos per box of 25, or about $7 USD per cigar.
Defined by full-bodied traits of spice, coffee, chocolate and wood smoke, this cigar is a must-have in every connoisseur’s humidor.
But buyer beware. The Partagás name is used in dual instances; in Cuba for Habanos SA, the Cuban state-owned tobacco company; the other, containing no Cuban tobacco, is produced in the Dominican Republic for General Cigar Company.
Cigars are measured in two ways – by their length in inches – and by their “ring gauge,” which defines a cigar’s diameter. Despite a multitude of sizes, the so-called strength of the cigar will come from the type of tobacco that has been rolled rather than the sheer size of the vessel.
The largest standard cigar size is called an “A,” which is also known as a Gran Corona and is 9 1/4 inches long by 47 ring gauge.
Other size denominations include the Petite Corona, Churchill, Robusto, Corona Gorda, Double Corona, Panetela and Lonsdale – all of which are classified under the “Parejos” banner which indicate that they are straight-sided cigars and need to be cut before smoking.
Cuban cigar prices
If you want the real thing, you’re going to have to pay for it. At an auction in London in 2014, a lot of 50 Cuban cigars from 1992 went for $41,463 USD.
While it remains to be seen if the lift on the embargo causes Cuban cigars to lose their price tag and cache due to increased ease of purchase, others believe prices might soar due to an increased demand which could overwhelm the handmade supply and drive the cost of a smoke even higher. The belief is that Cuba has a manufacturing capacity of about 150 million cigars a year, which is about 1% of the world market.
Typical prices for a cigar from a Havana tobacco shop now can run from $6 USD – for a Partagás Serie D, No. 5 – to $31 USD for a Cohiba Behike BHK 56.
Much in the same way that fine wines can grow better in taste and higher in value with age, so too do cigars embody a similar virtue when placed in a humidor for even as short a period of time as one month.
The general rule is that the flavor of the cigars will continue to age with grace for up to 10 years. After that amount of time, cigars will no longer show any significant amount of improvement.
Full-bodied cigars that are blended with more high-priming tobaccos like the aforementioned Partagás Serie D No. 4 will supposedly benefit the most from aging under specific and ideal conditions, which dictate an environment that is humid and cool like under 65 percent humidity and 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Conversely, time does not heal all. A “bad” tasting cigar will not improve no matter how long you age it.
- Featured/Main Image: Getty