Are Cuban Cigars Really Better?
By Jonathan Detore
The debate over the Cuban cigars of today rages: are these legendary cigars still exhibiting the same qualities? Or are they not quite like the pre-embargo smokes that made their names so famous? Many argue that the current blends from the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua are actually more similar in taste to pre-embargo Cubans – or better.
The North American socio-economic world was flipped on its head in December 2014 when President Barack Obama signed an executive order to initiate what is being dubbed, “the Cuban Thaw.” In simple terms, the policies set in place against Cuba during the Cold War by the United States are slowly being withdrawn in order to warm relations between our nations. While this is perhaps the greatest achievement in World legislative word play history, it also happens to be a historic moment in normalizing trade relations – with (hopefully) increased economic and social benefits for both the United States and Cuba. We in the cigar industry however, must put the future of U.S.-Cuban trade relations under the microscope for a closer look to help answer two important questions these policies will pose when Cuban cigars are legalized in the United States. Simply asked, are Cuban cigars really better? Or, are they at least up to snuff in terms of quality to consider importing them? And if so, what will be the impact upon the rest of the industry as a whole if we do import them?
Quality: Is It There?
The last time Cuban cigars were legally accessible, the brands and factories were independently owned by cigar gurus using Cuban tobacco; their works were regarded as the best cigars the world will ever know. This old reputation is no doubt one of the factors as to why we perceive Cubans to be so great today. But these masters have since left Cuba after the Revolution and ensuing Embargo; they continued their life’s work using new tobacco types, along with mastering multi-nation blending, while Cuba was left to rebuild their empire. This left U.S. smokers to experience the evolution of the non-Cuban cigar industry, which continues to prove to be astounding – while remaining somewhat in the dark about what Cuba presently has to offer. This is especially true considering an estimated 98% of all Cubans on the U.S. black market are fakes.
Luckily, we have it on good authority that present day Cuba is turning out some legit product after the relatively dark period of losing their top blenders in the 1960s. For legal reasons, we can’t mention the name of one devilishly handsome, literary superstar and cigar insider – regardless of the fact that he looks strikingly like me – but having smoked a good deal of legitimate Cubans in London, he can attest to the fact that Cuba is certainly a powerhouse once again. The only caveat is that he smoked these cigars in London, the only recipient of English Market Selection tobacco in the world. In other words, the UK gets the best tobaccos made by the best rollers in Cuba while the rest of the world markets get whatever remains, whether it be of the same quality or lower. So at the end of the day, we’re immersed in the non-Cuban side of an industry that produces a majority of the best cigars in the world, all while we’re facing a Cuban industry that may not export their best quality cigars to the States.
This English Market Selection dilemma will undoubtedly reach epidemic status once Cubans are legalized in the States. The U.S. is the largest consumer of cigars in the world, and with Cubans projected to take over 25% or more of the U.S. market once the embargo is lifted, demand for Cuban cigars will practically double literally overnight. With a production model that only uses Cuban tobacco and limited real estate to grow said tobacco, this model of rolling Cuban puros is doomed to stretch resources extremely thin to the point where they will likely sacrifice quality across the board, including EMS cigars, to meet demand. Queen and country won’t be too happy about this, but lifting the embargo to create this mess is just another way America can be a thorn in the side of the English.
However, two other scenarios can play out to save the reputation of Cuban cigars without sacrificing a drop in quality: First, Cuba can limit the number of the cigars they roll. It’s a risky move because they would miss out on fistfuls of money coming their way, but it would preserve the reputation of all of their brands. However, to combat a loss of sales, Cuba would likely jack up the price per box, making Cuban cigars insanely expensive due to the high worldwide demand. The other route they can take is to work with non-Cuban brands to produce multi-nation blends to expand their portfolio. By doing this, Cuba can focus on rolling their most popular Cuban puros using the highest quality tobacco they can harvest, while using the rest to create new and enticing blends.
There are plenty of Cuban and non-Cuban brands that share the same name which will no doubt cause massive legal trouble in the near future. The best example is that of the two Cohibas. First rolled for Fidel Castro in 1962, Cohiba is the crème de la crème in terms of Cuban cigars. In the 1980s, Cohiba Red Dot was released, well past the enactment of the embargo in 1961. For decades now, Cuba has all but rented a room out in U.S. courts to strip the Dominican Republic factory’s owners from using the Cohiba name. Since the U.S. does not recognize Cuban brands or their trademarks because of the Embargo, Dominican Cohibas have been given status under U.S. law. But with the loosening of policies, and yet another appeal from the Cuban state’s tobacco monopoly going to U.S. Federal Courts, Dominican Cohibas may lose their trademark and be forced to produce under a new name if the courts side with Cuba. The loss of brand recognition and loyalty to Cohiba Red Dot may be lost, marking a possible end to this line.
But Cohiba won’t be the only brand that may be forced to change their name if the embargo is lifted. Many other brands originating in Cuba may be forced to drop their names and rebrand themselves if Cuba wins their trademark cases. Cuba does have the right to fight for these names and marques, but they may have trouble claiming brands that were relocated by their rightful owners during the exodus. As another point of interest, the Cuban government has previously partnered with non-Cuban manufacturers to produce non-Cuban versions of their historic brands to help protect their rights to a small number of these brands. Romeo y Julieta and Montecristo are just two examples of cigars that will likely keep Cuban and non-Cuban lines intact once the embargo is lifted.
Are Cuban cigars really better? It’s hard to say – and the answer depends on a number of factors, most of which we won’t know until we can get our hands on them. Will Cuban manufacturers be able to maintain a level of decent quality with increased demand? Will they raise prices if they can’t satisfy the desire? Will they even be able to produce the brands we want to try due to legalities? These are all queries that make even a question like, “are they worth it” just as near-impossible to answer. But if you ask this cigar lover, I say go for it. The opportunity to try legitimate Cuban cigars is what we’ve been waiting for since the early ‘60s. But what I’m most excited for is the future of cigars and the implementation of multi-nation blends using Cuban tobacco. This is an opportunity for Cuba to work with the cigar masterminds they either exiled or chased away, in order to create unbelievable new cigar blends. It’s safe to say just that opportunity alone should make our collective mouths water with anticipation.