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
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.
A few days ago, while admiring the cigars along the Famous Smoke Shop retail store shelves, a colleague of mine said, “There are just too many cigars.” As I continued to browse, I thought about all the cigars I’ve smoked over the years, yet there were still a decent number of them I hadn’t smoked, and I wondered if I ever would. Then came this email from a customer with the subject line, “cigar bucket list,” which inspired me to write this post:
I have a list of eight cigars I’m looking for and wondered if you carried them…
- Liga Privada No. 9 by Drew Estate Parejo Oscuro
- Ashton Cabinet Vintage #10
- Padron 1926 40th Anniversary Torpedo
- Davidoff Millennium Blend Lonsdale
- Benji Menendez Partagas Master Series Majestuoso
- Montecristo No. 2 Torpedo
- Fuente Fuente Opus X Reserva D’Chateau
- Padrón 1964 45th Anniversary Series “A” Double Corona
Now there’s a nice, tasty list if I ever saw one, and there are several cigars on it that I still haven’t gotten around to. Experienced cigar smokers will not only recognize the brands in the list, they’ll also recognize them as being pretty pricey, too. Well, why not? After all, it IS a cigar bucket list.
So, I went back into the store and began poking around, this time paying a little more attention, and realized that I had smoked about 95% of the cigars, by brand mostly, at least once. (I even felt a little sense of accomplishment.) So, I looked at the much bigger list of the cigars on our website, combined that with some web surfing, and finally came up with my own cigar bucket list. Since everyone seems to like Top-10 lists, here’s mine, in alphabetical order.
- Arturo Fuente Añejo Reserva No.77 Shark
- Ashton Estate Grown Vintage 20 Year Salute
- Cohiba Behike BHK 52 (Havana)
- Davidoff Special C Culebras
- Diamond Crown Maximus #2
- Fuente Fuente OpusX BBMF Maduro
- Hemingway Classic Sun Grown
- Padron Family Reserve 45th Anniversary
- Padron Family Reserve 46th Anniversary
- Partagas Serie P No.2 (Havana)
Since I don’t plan on dying anytime soon, the list will continue to grow. Along the way, I’m sure I’ll get to savor most of them and knock them off the list.. In fact, there’s one cigar I was going to put on the list – the Room 101 #305 – but thanks to a recent visit to our offices by Christina Eiroa (of Camacho Cigars),
he just happened to have a box of 101s with him. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky and one or two more will fall into my hands by the good graces of another manufacturer, but I won’t hold my breath.
So, now I turn the list over to you. What cigars would you put on your cigar bucket list? Please be my guest by putting your own cigar bucket list in the comments box.
There used to be a “guideline” of sorts when it came to defining what types of cigars were produced in their respective countries of origin. For example, Dominican and Mexican-made cigars were generally considered milder in flavor, whereas Honduran and Nicaraguan cigars were considered stronger in flavor. No doubt, tobaccos grown in the latter countries, especially Nicaragua, tend to have a naturally fuller flavor, and that is one of the reasons Nicaraguan tobacco is often added to a blend to give a little more power.
Today, with manufacturers in all of the cigar-producing nations using a variety of tobaccos in many of their blends, the country of origin is not as important to cigar smokers as it once was. Ironically, Fuente Fuente Opus X cigars, which are made with an all-Dominican-grown leaf blend, are among the fullest-bodied cigars. So, it’s not necessarily the country of origin that defines a cigar’s strength, but the leaves and how they’re cured.
With regard to the “style” of a cigar, country of origin does play a role. For example, Cuban “style” cigars are made with all Cuban-grown tobacco, which has its own distinctive flavor. Therefore, the all-Dominican-leaf Opus X cited above could be considered “Cuban style.” The term used for cigars made with leaves all from one country is puro, pronounced “poo-ROW?.” And as you would expect, there are Dominican, Honduran, and Nicaraguan puros.
Generally speaking though, these days cigar smokers tend to be less concerned with a cigar’s style or country of origin, and more concerned with quality and flavor. This is one of the reasons most cigar manufacturers use tobaccos from a variety of countries in their cigars. These countries are not limited to The DR, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Indonesia (Sumatra) and the U.S. (Connecticut Shade & Broadleaf) either; manufacturers often use tobaccos grown in Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and in the case of CAO’s “Italia” selection, Italy, as well. Or, take the Drew Estate “Natural” selection, which also uses tobaccos from Italy, Spain and Turkey.
Moreover, there are cigars made in Honduras with only Nicaraguan-grown leaf. Would that be a Nicaraguan puro even though it was made in Honduras? Technically speaking, yes, but that example, plus the others cited above, says that country of origin is insignificant, or at least, secondary.
In a business where Cuban puros were once the rage (and in many corners still are),
it’s refreshing to know that with manufacturers using a variety of tobaccos in their cigars, cigar smokers have a virtually endless supply of taste experiences available to them.
If I had a nickel for every time somebody asked me (or freely shared his opinion) about Cuban cigars, I’d probably retire to a private island. Seriously.
“Are Cuban cigars really better?”
“Do you sell Cuban cigars?”
“I only smoke Cuban cigars, they’re the best.”
“It’s good, but it’s no Cuban!”
I was walking out of a prime rib restaurant, Opus X in hand, when a passerby accosted me. “That a Cuban?” he asked, big dumb grin on his face. In that moment I realized that many non-cigar smokers simply don’t know what else to say.
“Yup,” I replied deadpan, unwilling to waste my time explaining how tobacco disease and manufacturing inefficiencies that have led to a plummet in quality control, or how their current legal status means you pay a ridiculous premium, and even then, there’s no guarantee you’re even getting the real McCoy.
Look, I have enjoyed my share of Cuban cigars. Are they good? In a word, yes. When they’re good, they’re damn good…there is no denying it. And they DO offer something that you won’t find anywhere else; such is the nature of terroir.
If you’ve got the money, inclination, daring, and time to find a good source of illegal cigars, then good for you. But there is so much more to cigars than that Island South of Miami, as brands like Tatuaje, Rocky Patel, Oliva, Perdomo and so many others continue to prove.