Why are Cuban cigars illegal? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve fielded this question, I’d quit my day job and spend the rest of my years smoking Padron and drinking Louis XIII. Unfortunately for me, no one is passing out singles for answers to the question “Why are Cuban cigars illegal?”, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth answering.
The short answer is the United States’ embargo against Cuba forbids the import of any Cuban-made products into the United States. Furthermore, U.S. law forbids American citizens from buying, selling, trading, or otherwise engaging in transactions involving illegally-imported Cuban cigars. These prohibitions apply to all goods of Cuban origin, and scofflaws face fines of up to $55,000 per violation not to mention criminal prosecution, which can result in higher fines and even imprisonment. Continue reading
Sorry this is coming a few days after the fact – but I’m still getting my feet back under me after Cigarnival 2012. My original thought was to write something that was a grand recap of everything that happened here at Leaf this past weekend, but “when someone sings his own praises, he always gets the tune too high.” 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.
Padron cigars – what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you see (or hear) those two words? Speaking for myself, it’s not a word; first I get a flash of an image of the cigar, specifically the band, but what really comes to mind is their unique flavor. I don’t know the science of how the brain does this, but I actually taste that earthy, mocha-laced flavor that makes Padron cigars so distinctive. I’m sure the same thing happens when you think about one of your Mom’s special recipes, or a favorite dessert, wine, beer etc. It seems as though things we ingest that we either really love or hate, we can actually taste in absentia, and when it comes to cigars, even though I have a lot of favorites, for some reason Padron cigars just seem to stand out in that particular way.
Practically every cigar smoker I’ve met seems to have a special place in their heart for Padron cigars. It’s like they have this mystique about them, not unlike that attributed to Cuban cigars. The difference is, the Cuban cigar mystique has to do mainly with their pedigree, but even more so, the fact that they’re illegal. The Padron mystique seems to have more to do with that incredibly unique flavor they have. I’d even go so far as to say that the only cigars as inimitable as the finest Cubans are Padron cigars. If you’re an avid cigar smoker, regardless of any other cigars you smoke, even Cubans for that matter, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Perhaps this excerpt from a 2006 New York Times article on Jose Orlando Padrón sheds some light on their ability to produce such highly coveted cigars:
After the revolution in Cuba, most of the country’s big producers shifted operations to the Dominican Republic, but Mr. Padrón swears by Central America, where he says the conditions are most similar to Cuba’s.
- “A Career Seasoned With Cigar Smoke and Revolution” (The New York Times)
Whether it’s their main line, or their Padron Anniversary editions, the consistency and fullness of flavor is beyond reproach. Perhaps Ernesto Perez-Carrillo said it best when we visited him in the DR this past February; we were talking about boutique cigars. Although I’m paraphrasing, essentially he said that “Padron is committed to making only so many cigars per year, and that’s it.” This gives them much tighter control over their production, therefore there’s very little, if any, margin for error.” “And he doesn’t care,” added Carrillo. (Again, I’m paraphrasing.) He didn’t mean that in the apathetic sense. What he meant was, they probably could produce more cigars and make more money, but that’s not what they’re about. They’re only concern is making great cigars, which is also Señor Carrillo’s philosophy. Both the Padrons and the Carrillos have enjoyed vast success and revenues for generations. Why change simply for profit’s sake? As Don Jose Orlando says:
A businessman has to be thinking all the time, dealing with problems. I do it best when I’m smoking.
And he’s smoking some pretty darn good cigars, too.