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.