Invariably, whenever cigars are handed out – whether over cocktails at an SCI Convention or around a campfire after a hunt – someone will ask, “Are these Cuban?”
Sometimes it’s in jest, but often it’s out of curiosity. After all, ever since the February 7, 1962 embargo, which the Cubans refer to as el bloqueo (the blockade), Havana cigars have been illegal for U.S. citizens to purchase or possess. But because we want what we can’t have, the embargo has put Cuban cigars on everybody’s “most wanted” list. But then, Cuban cigars have been in vogue ever since Columbus sailed into the Bahia de Gibara and discovered this fabled leaf being smoked by Taino Indians.
Until Castro’s nationalization of Cuba’s cigar industry forced families to flee their homeland and reestablish cigar-making in other countries, practically every cigar – even inexpensive machine made stogies – was made with at least some Cuban tobacco. Of course, hand rolled premium cigars with wrappers, binders and fillers composed of 100% Cuban leaf represented society’s most sophisticated smoke. Names such as Punch, Partagás, and Montecristo were de rigueur in the humidors of connoisseurs.
The embargo changed all that practically overnight, and Cuban cigars still remaining on tobacconists’ shelves were quickly snatched up. Many non-Cuban cigar companies, caught off guard, began paying dramatically higher prices for what few bales of Cuban tobacco were still stored in American warehouses. As an example, before the embargo, Cuban tobacco sold for $150 a bale. After 1962, the price shot up to $1,000. Other companies, having suspected an embargo was imminent, had begun stockpiling Cuban tobacco and began judiciously rationing it for their non-Cuban brands. As an example, until the early 1970s, the post-embargo Honduran-made Hoyo de Monterrey (not to be confused with the older Cuban cigar of the same name) still advertised “real Cuban tobacco” in its filler blend. Of course, in time, all of this pre-embargo leaf was depleted.
The result has been that while the rest of the world can obtain Cuban cigars, American citizens cannot. Not legally, that is. Which is why one of the first things many cigar smokers seek out while away from their native soil is a Cuban cigar. It’s no secret that goose hunters returning to the U.S. from Canada will pay highly taxed prices just to obtain a Cohiba Esplendido, and hope they don’t get pinched at the border by the local gen’darms. Coming back from a dove hunt in Mexico, however, unless you buy your Cubans from a reputable source such as Cuba’s La Casa del Habano franchises, there’s a good chance your “Havanas” will be counterfeit, made with non-Cuban tobaccos.
All of this, spurred on by the embargo, has created a thriving black market in America for both real and not-so-real Cuban cigars. After all, while most of us can spot a reblued rifle, after more than fifty years of the embargo, there are now multiple generations of cigar smokers who have never tasted an authentic Cuban cigar, and consequently, don’t know how to spot a fake. As a result, the majority of “Cuban” cigars brought into the US are phonies.
So how do you tell? First, Cuban cigars are made of one hundred percent Cuban leaf with different tastes and strengths, ranging from the relatively mild Cuaba to the thundering Bolivar. Plus, there is usually an earthy sweetness to Cuban tobacco. And the texture of the leaf and the construction of the cigar should be flawless. But the fact is, not all Cuban cigars are created equal. Because Cuba is a Communist country and cigars represent 25% of that nation’s income, there is pressure to produce as many cigars as possible to satisfy worldwide demand. That means some cigars may be rolled too tightly, or composed of tobacco that hasn’t been properly aged. And should you possess such a cigar in America – unlike Dominican or Honduran products, for example – you can’t return or exchange it because Havanas are contraband. That means they will be confiscated by customs if spotted when you are reentering the U.S., and you could be flagged as a “smuggler.” Of course, many take the risk, noting that there are no Cuban tobacco-sniffing dogs employed by U.S. Customs.
You didn’t read this here, but the best places to buy Cuban cigars are London, Geneva, and Spain, which get the best selections. But be sure to buy from a reputable tobacconist, as it is even possible to find counterfeit Havanas in Cuba. Stay away from street vendors and it doesn’t hurt to be a little suspicious of the hotel doorman as well.
Even with these caveats, the lure of the Havana cigar is too strong for many to resist, for just as there are those who will only drink French wine, much of the world will only smoke Cuban cigars. Consequently, Havana has priced their exclusive product accordingly, with most brands selling for $20-$40 each. By contrast, premium non-Cuban cigars sell, on average, for $8-$15 apiece. Thus, if you want to smoke a Havana, you literally have to pay the price.
And yet, there is nothing quite like firing up a Cuban cigar to celebrate a successful hunt, a good scotch, or a winning game. For when they are good, Cuban cigars represent the epitome of the cigar roller’s art. But when poorly made, they are an abomination of a 500-year-old craft.
Twelve hours before he declared the Cuban embargo, President Kennedy sent his press secretary, Pierre Salinger out to round up one thousand H. Upmann Petite Coronas. Once the boxes were obtained, Kennedy signed his historic executive order. One wonders if today the President wouldn’t have had Salinger go out and buy some boxes of Nicaraguan cigars instead. That way, if any were defective, he could return them.– Richard Carleton Hacker