My “So-Called” Cuban Cigars

Gary KorbHas this ever happened to you? You’re on vacation or traveling for business outside the United States. You see a cigar store and you decide to walk in. Sometimes, the store will even have a sign outside or in the window advertising Cuban cigars with an oversized Cuban COHIBA cigar band. You browse around and see that they have a decent supply of Cuban cigars: COHIBAS, Romeo y Julietas, Partagas’s, etc. The prices aren’t too bad, or maybe you haggled a little with the shopkeeper and he agreed to sell them to you at the negotiated price. You light one up and it tastes pretty good. You fly home, get through U.S. Customs without a hassle, and you can’t wait to tell your cigar-smoking friends that you got your hands on some genuine Havanas. But did you?

My reason for touching on this subject is that within the last several months, I’ve heard from two readers who were certain they had lucked into some wonderful Cuban cigars, only to learn from Yours Truly that they were not the real deal.

The first victim, Bob, wrote: “My daughter just returned from the Dominican Republic and brought me a box of Romeo & Julietas Churchills. The box was cello sealed, the 2 seals from Dominican Republic were on underneath the cello. I opened the box to find a very strange R & J label which says HABANA on them all. (Pictures attached.) What is this, Cuban cigars being exported illegally? Or just knock offs? I have smoked one and it is great, no complaints there. Just curious.”

I wrote back: They may be swapping out the boxes and filling them with Habanos, as you suggest. However, the bands on your cigars do not match the band in my Cyclopedia of Havana Cigars. Those have a thinner brown band with the two black rule lines above and below, but the Cuban version says “ROMEO Y JULIETA” (all caps) in a small font, and the word “CHURCHILL” below in a bold, all-caps font, with the word “HABANA” to the right in small type in all caps. So, there is a chance they could be knock-offs. If they were Dominicans, they wouldn’t go through the trouble of printing Habana on the label. If they smoke well, taste great and you got them as a gift, then perhaps it doesn’t matter whether or not they’re real Cuban cigars.

Fake Cuban CigarsHowever, the detective in me had to be sure. So I wrote to my source at Altadis U.S.A., the company that produces both Dominican and Cuban Romeo y Julieta cigars. I included Bob’s message and pix, and here’s what she wrote back:

“They are probably knock-offs. I can’t imagine why anyone would put real Cuban cigars in a Dominican marked box. The packaging nor the cigars appear to be from our Dominican Factory, TDG, which is the manufacturer for all RyJ cigars legal in the US.”

My assumption was, the clerk told her she was buying the Cuban version, and they put them in a Dominican-made box to get the Cuban cigars through US Customs. Since his daughter believed she was buying the genuine article, no harm no foul, but she probably overpaid for them. The good thing was that at least Bob liked the way they tasted, and he took it all in good spirit.

Then, just last month, I got an email from Cliff, who wrote that he had run across “a full box of Cuban Cohibas,” and even went so far as to send me two of them. One was an Espléndido and the other was an Ediciôn Limitada 2010. I figured I’d save the latter and lit up the Espléndido. It tasted fine to me; very smooth, mild, earthy, and I thought “Pretty good.” However, my colleague Hayward, scrutinized the bands and wasn’t satisfied that the cigars were authentic. So, I went to our “Master Tobacconist,” Jeff Brown (now manager of Leaf Cigar Bar & Restaurant), since in a former job he had spent a lot of time in Argentina and Cuba. After that Jeff traveled extensively between The Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua sampling and buying cigars for Famous Smoke Shop. I handed him the cigar and let him have a few puffs.

Fake Cuban Romeos“They’re Dominicans,” said Jeff.
“You’re sure?”
“Oh yeah.”
I hated to do it, but I just had to write back to Cliff. “Please don’t shoot the messenger, but I (actually We),
believe that these Cohibas are counterfeits. The bands are wrong. I’m smoking the Churchill now and it tastes very good, but according to our master tobacconist, it’s not a Cuban, but more likely a Dominican. Now I am glad you sent these, but I just hope you didn’t overpay for them.”
Like Bob, Cliff took the message in stride, and now all’s well in Mudville.

If you’re ever in a store that sells “genuine” Cuban cigars, it’s in your best interest to have the clerk open the box before completing the sale, especially when buying cigars in the Caribbean and Mexico. You’ll have much better luck in Canada, and European countries like Germany, Switzerland, and the U.K. Though you may pay more, it’s more prudent to buy Cuban cigars from a genuine tobacconist or the duty-free shops at the airport.
In the long run, it’s safer to stay with websites and stores like Famous Smoke Shop that sell “legal” cigars at discount prices than to risk your money on what could possibly be something phony. Plus, I’m pretty confident that the embargo will be lifted in the not-too-distant future.
Finally, here are some useful links Hayward found that will help you identify authentic Cohibas and other Havana-made cigars.

Author:

Gary Korb has been writing and editing content for CigarAdvisor.com since its debut in 2008. An avid cigar smoker for over 30 years, during the past 12 years he has worked on the marketing side of the premium cigar business as a Sr. Copywriter, blogger, and cigar reviewer. A graduate of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, prior to his career in the cigar business, Gary worked in the music and video industry as a marketer and a publicist.

Comments

  1. TimD says:

    I had a discussion with a Canadian friend recently whom I consider to be very knowledgeable on Cuban cigars. I’ve always heard to “look at the band” when trying to tell a real Cuban from a counterfeit however he informed me this wasn’t a very reliable way to tell. He cautioned that quality control in Cuba is not what it is in other parts of the world. On several occasions he has purchased cigars directly from the Partagas factory and upon examining the bands has found color variations, off-center printing, splotches, blank spots, etc. I’ve even seen it personally in a few boxes of PSD4′s I’ve had.

    I agree whole-hardheartedly about shopping at reputable sources, I’ve heard many times that there are more counterfeits available than the genuine article. Beware the glass-top Cohibas.

    One more note, you’re friend’s 2010 EL Cohiba would be very easily identified as a fake… there wasn’t an EL Cohiba made in 2010. :-)

  2. RickB says:

    I plan to go to Grand Cayman next year, and noted that they have a La Casa Del Habano on the island. From what I have read, LCDH is the official cigar lounge/shop authorized by Habanos, SA. In your opinion, wouldn’t this be the safest place while oversees of getting authentic Cubans? I believe at last count, there are over 90 of these shops worldwide. My point is, if you can get to an LCDH while traveling, why risk a regular shop in some country that you would have to worry about authenticity?

  3. Gary Korb says:

    Hey Rick. Good point. If what you say is true, then LCDH would be one of the more reliable places to shop for Cuban cigars when out of the U.S.

  4. Chris says:

    I’m going to be staying at the Excellence All Inclusive Resort next week in the Dominican Republic. They say they have a cigar shop with Cubans and all other brands. Do you think I wold be safe with their cigars or should i still be worried about getting fakes.

  5. Gary Korb says:

    Hey Chris: If it’s a luxury class hotel, I would presume any Havanas they’re selling are legit. As I noted above, you may want to have the clerk open the box. If they have singles for sale, try one of those first and let your gut be your guide. ;-)

  6. Andy says:

    “If it’s a luxury class hotel, I would presume any Havanas they’re selling are legit.”

    Well…

    I stayed at a five-star luxury resort in Mexico last summer. I brought my own smokes and picked up some CCs at the duty free upon arrival. While at the hotel, some guy had a table set-up every night in the lobby selling really bad counterfeit Cubans. I would say LCDH and Duty-Free shops are your only safe bet.

  7. Gary Korb says:

    Hey Andy. I guess anything’s possible. I was speaking specifically about the hotel store, where you’d probably pay as much for them as you would in the duty-free anyway. My parents once took a trip to Mexico and my Dad told me about a cigar roller in the lobby of their hotel every night. He was going to buy me one, too. Must be local guys whom they allow to make a few extra bucks. I suppose Duty-Free is the way to go for travelers.

  8. chris says:

    Well I’m here at my resort in excellence Punta Cana. Well…the guy let me try one first and it was good. He was trying to sell me a Montecristo Edmondo for $18.00. It tasted really good but I was skeptic. Then I looked at the wrappers, the logo was almost off the wrapper. Then I went to the Cohibas. The Wrappers were different colors, there were not enough rows of white dots, and the box’s were all scratched up. I think I’m going to hold off and smoke My Father’s that I brought with me.

  9. Gary Korb says:

    Hey Chris: Well blow me down! I guess you can’t trust anyone these days. Looks like your best bet outside of Havana are the Davidoff stores in Europe, the better British tobacconists, and Canada. And so it goes… ;-)) Besides, those My Father’s blow the doors off of the Cubans you spied.

  10. chris wood says:

    Thanks for all the amazing cigar information!!!

  11. ron says:

    Gary: I did some research and it seems you can purchase some authentic Cuban cigars in Canada. Do you know of anyone that has purchased from [there] and are their Cuban cigars “real”?

    They will ship to the states but will have to take the “bands off” I have smoked some Cubans from Mexico that were authentic and a good Cuban will give you a “buzz.”

    Any comments would be much appreciated!

  12. Gary Korb says:

    Yes, a friend of mine travels to Canada often. He is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada). He and I have smoked several Cubans together and they are definitely the genuine article, but again, you have to be careful. He only buys singles anyway.

    Re “good Cuban cigars” giving you a buzz. Well, I think you could say that about practically any full-bodied cigar, especially many from Nicaragua, but country really isn’t the issue; it’s the blend.

  13. Humidors says:

    Hi all, I think that not only casas del habanos but also certified “specialists in habanos” are trustworthy too. In Germany, I know that these Habanos Specialists need to prove perfect storage conditions and are only allowed to buy their cigars from the official distributor. So I trust these kind of dealers.

  14. Senthil says:

    Thank you Kayleigh, I hope you can find something else on the site that peaks your interest as well!

  15. Tom,"Papigordo" says:

    I have lived and worked in The Dom. Rep. for over fifteen years. I am 65 years old, and have been smoking cigars since I was 12.(I KNOW!)

    Not only are the “Cubanos” you buy here fake, many of the high-end Dominican brands are as well. Every month or so, there is another story about “Fake Cigars” being confiscated by the Dominican government and burned. These cigars are destined to be sold on the international markets,predominately the USA and Canada.

    The ONLY way to know for sure that you are smoking the genuine article, Cubano,or Dominicano, is to go to the factory and smoke there! Sad, but true.
    Don’t tell anybody here in the DR, but I much prefer to smoke cigars from “Central America!”

    “Papigordo”

  16. John Cochrane says:

    Had genuines in Barcelona over the summer (Fonseca, Romeo, Montecristo and Partagas…nothing like their American market counterparts). Got me thinking and I have 2 questions. One regards the embargo. The purpose is to deny support to Cuba but there has to be some kind of international trade agreement to use those names, right? Also – a friend (not close) gave me two ‘Cuban Cohibas’ he got on vacation. Upon inspection and sampling I am convinced they are counterfeit. He did a nice thing but do I tell him he got ripped off?

  17. Gary Korb says:

    1) Yes. Altadis USA and General Cigar have licenses to market the Dominican, Honduran, etc., versions of many Cuban labels. If the embargo ends, they will most likely distribute the Cuban cigars.

    2) Nah. Especially if you’re not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. Next time you see him, if he asks you about them, just say they were fine. But I would let him know that the next time he buys so-called “Cubans” to make sure they’re genuine, due to all the fakes out there. If he says, “Why, were the one’s I gave you fake?” just tell him you don’t know. You just felt it was in his best interest to be aware of such things.

  18. Tom, says:

    “What’s In A “NAME”? A rich friend of mine bought me five different $30. cigars at a reputable cigar store in New Hampshire,”Big Names” all. We each enjoyed a “smoke” in the store lounge before we left for home. I smoked a Padron, which was great! But at $30 I can’t/won’t smoke them. I order a lot of Samplers on line. I usually pay between $2 and $3 each. The cigars,if bought as “singles,” retail at 4 to 8 dollars each. Most are really good smoking cigars. A few, I order again when they go on sale. Once in a while there is a “Turkey” that goes on my “NEVER BUY” list. I, like all of us, am influenced by “Name” and “Price” paid for a cigar. The bigger the “name”, the higher the price, the “BETTER” the cigar,”Right”?
    I don’t think so.
    Blind Tasting” is the only way to rate a cigar. I like a dry Port with a cigar once in a while,usually from Portugal. I don’t know which brands were considered the “Best.” That gave me an advantage when I went searching for a Port I enjoy. Turns out,just like with cigars,the most expensive,is not always the one you enjoy the most! Again,just like with cigars, sampling is always the best part of the search. I smoke several cigars a day. I enjoy each and everyone of them, especially when I encounter a great cigar for two dollars a stick!
    - “Papigordo”

  19. RickB says:

    Hey all:

    I wrote in this thread back in October of 2011 about my future trip to Grand Cayman. I just got back the other day. Went straight to the LCDH when I got there. It was incredible. All authentic (I checked the codes on the boxes, and used the web to compare bands and holograms, etc.) Smoked Cohiba Behike 52, Cohiba Robusto, Partagas Serie D, No 4, Trinidad Robusto T, Bolivar Belicosos Finos. What a treat! Trinidad was my favorite, although they are eliminating the Robusto T in 2012. Try LCDH. No issues.

  20. DanO says:

    If you need to know if it is an authentic Cuban Habanos its really simple. Based on a sealed box.
    All quality Cubans come from the factory with a green “Republica De Cuba” seal on the bottom left side of the cigar box and has a hologram at the top of the seal which is hard to counterfeit, plus a serial number at the bottom of the seal at the bar code. At the top right hand corner of the cigar box is another seal which is written these words “Habanos – denomination de origen protegida”
    If you go to the Habanos website you can authenticate your box of cigars by entering the serial number into their system which will tell you where in Cuba your cigars originate from and authenticity. If your box does not have these seals and if the box is open its a case of “buyer beware”. There is no mistaking an authentic “Totalmente a mano” Cuban cigar and anyone who trys to tell you Cuban cigars are overrated is not a cigar aficionado but merely a smoker of tobacco. I do smoke Cubans and have been to Cuban cigar factories not to mention my humidor is stocked with these babies at all times. My favorite cigars are from Nicaragua and feel they do not get the notoriety that they should. Seriously though, if Americans had free access to Cuban cigars, Miami cigar manufacturers would be in for a severe ass kicking.

  21. Guy Buscema says:

    Dear Everyone,
    How funny it is to read how you Americans view the Cuban Cigar. If I was Caribbean, I would maybe do the same. In Europe it’s safe to buy from a B&M. All of the cigars are “safe,” in that, the Cubans are real, not like in the Islands. But that will not stop you from thinking otherwise. You all have a knack for being what you are.
    Amicalement,
    Guy Buscema in Calvisson, FRANCE

  22. Andre says:

    Hello all, I’m new to smoking cigars and I to just came back from Grand Cayman and Jamaica. I visited the LCDH and was a great experience, also at Grand Cayman I went to what they said was a Cuban cigar shop and I cannot remember the name of the place, but it was all Cuban cigars and the lady was super friendly. As in purchasing more, I’ve been trying to find international places to buy from, but what I’m afraid of are the counterfeits. Any suggestions?

  23. Gary Korb says:

    Hi Andre,
    Either way, you take your chances. There are some online sites that do sell legit Havanas, but I’ve never used them. You might want to try one of the better forums and post your question there. I’m sure there are at least a few guys who’ve purchased from some of these vendors. Good luck.

  24. Andre says:

    Thank you for responding Gary, I appreciate it! Great original Article here by the way!