We all do it. When buying cigars, we leaf through the catalog or dissect the website looking for a deal. Open emails that scream about savings of 50, 60, 70% or more on great cigars, then pore over the coupons to find out which deal saves the most cash while bringing home the most cigars. Inside all of us is a hardcore cigar value hunter – which, I assume, is why you’re here as well. But even the most budget-conscious among us is willing to drop a little extra coin now and again for a “good” cigar. But are we really just burning up money that could be better – or more smartly – spent?
In a word, “yes.” Continue reading
Has 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.
However, 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.
“They’re Dominicans,” said Jeff.
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.
An educated consumer is our best customer.” That’s the motto for SYMS, the nationwide clothing store chain. Fortunately, the internet allows consumers to price check at warp speed, making that motto even more relevant for just about everything we buy, and that includes premium cigars.
So how do you find the best buys in premium cigars? Surely there’s no lack of online discount cigar websites. And although the most popular online cigar stores have a pretty loyal following, the majority of cigar smokers seem to go wherever they can find the lowest price for their favorite cigars. (“Sorry I cheated on you baby, but I still love you more than anyone else.”)
With regard to the big guns like Famous Smoke Shop, et. al., the difference in price can be as little as $1. I actually had a customer who would buy Partagas at a competitor’s site because they were a buck cheaper. However, on my suggestion he would try new cigars, sometimes more expensive, but more often less expensive than his beloved Partagas. So trust, though primarily a loyalty factor, also plays a role when it comes to good buys; that is, as long as the person making the suggestion is trying to save you some cash.
Trust ties into one of the most important factors when shopping for cigars online or off – customer service – which begs the question: Would you rather buy from an unknown entity just to save a couple of bucks, or buy from a company who’s going to help you out of a jam when you really need it?
Unless they phone-in their cigar orders, most online customers don’t usually have to deal with customer service until there’s a problem. So, Rule #1 is: Try to find an online cigar store that not only has fair prices, but also provides excellent customer service.
Now let’s take a look at some of the ways you can actually find good quality cigars online and keep your budget in the black.
Look for less expensive alternatives to your current favorites. Experimentation is part of the fun of smoking premium cigars. By trying something comparable to cigars you already enjoy, you may discover some cigars you like just as much or even more. Famous Smoke Shop has a Value Priced Alternatives page on the site featuring exclusive cigar brands. The upside is most of them are made by the premier manufacturers, too. Alternatives don’t have to be “house brands,” but beware of online cigar stores that compare apples-to-apples.
Start with a 5-Pack. This is especially important when trying new or alternative cigars. There’s no point in shooting your load on an entire box (or bundle) of an unknown entity. This is especially important when buying house brands.
Another good reason for buying 5-packs is, when you want to have some pricier cigars in your collection, but the box price is cost-prohibitive. Even if the pack equates to $10 a cigar, it’s better than spending roughly $200 for 20.
Read the copy. The better online cigar stores have descriptions for the cigars they stock. Read it carefully so you know what you’re getting. Do the cigars have the right strength, wrappers, flavor properties, etc. you’re looking for? Does the item come with free shipping or other offers? Missing details can be the difference between a return customer and one who will flame a store on the boards for not being on the up-and-up.
Look for deals & offers. As noted above, you can get a lot of bang for your buck if you find cigars that come with free shipping, free cigars, accessories, or deeply-discounted promotions. Even if the box is being sold at full weight, a free 5-pack or sampler goes a long way. Famous also has two pages on the site specifically dedicated to such offers: A page on which all the brands come with free shipping on box orders, and a page on which all of the brands include “Free Stuff.”
Name brand hits and collections. If you’re a strict name brand buyer, Famous has a Best Of page offering samplers from practically every major cigar brand in the industry at reasonable prices. It’s a great way to discover the line extensions most brands have to offer, again, without committing to a box.
So, what if you’ve already found some great new cigars in a particular size, but you’re curious about how the other sizes taste? There is a difference, and a solution! It’s called a “Test Flight” – a sampler of one specific brand containing all (or mostly all) of the sizes & shapes in that edition, usually at a nice price point.
Experienced cigar smokers have figured out all kinds of ways to get good deals. It just comes with the territory over time; sort of like how a hitter trains himself to discern between a curve ball and a slider. Unless you have unlimited cash supplies and price is no object, hopefully some of the above will help you keep a little more money in your wallet.