One of the subjects I’m often asked about is, how to spot fake Cuban cigars. That’s a good question, too, because despite the fact that Cuban cigars are still illegal for American cigar smokers to purchase, some choose to do it anyway. Is it because they’re still considered “forbidden fruit,” or is it that most cigar smokers believe Cuban cigars are still the world’s best? It’s more like a combination of the two; cigars made in Cuba are so great you just have to get your hands on some, even if it means risking losing them to U.S. Customs. And they’re not cheap, either. That is unless you’ve been bamboozled by a hustler who will sell you a box of so-called “Havana’s” at a great price while you’re vacationing somewhere in the Caribbean. Chances are, they’re fakes. What’s that old saying? “A fool and his money…” More on that later.
Yes, at one time Cuban cigars actually were the best and had virtually no competition. Zino Davidoff realized this in the early part of the 20th century, and was one the first European retailers to introduce Cuban cigars to the world. Later, when he began producing cigars under his own name, they were made in Cuba. Additionally, when you see someone smoking a cigar in old movies from the 1920’s to the 1960’s (and very likely even after the 1962 embargo), you can bet they were smoking Cuban-made cigars.
Don’t Do The Hustle
What gets me is that, even though Nicaragua has been producing most of the world’s best cigars of late, cigar smokers still jump at the chance to buy Cubans. Don’t get me wrong. There are still some awesome cigars being made in Havana, but even there you’ll find almost as many counterfeit Cuban cigars as the legit brands. The streets are filled with hustlers looking for a mark to whom they can sell a box of genuine Cubans for a lot less than you’d pay in the store. The line these hustlers use to close the sale is usually something like, “My brother works in the Cohiba factory, yadda-yadda-yadda.” The sucker, who thinks he is getting Cohibas or Montecristos is more likely getting cigars rolled with cheap tobacco that didn’t even come from the genuine factory.
Since you’re more likely to purchase fake Cuban cigars in places such as the Caribbean, the hustle goes something like this: The perp buys a bundle of cheapo, un-banded, no-name brand cigars made in the DR or elsewhere in Central America, sticks phony Cuban cigar bands on them, places them in a genuine Cuban box, and sells them to a sucker for as much as he can bleed him, often up to hundreds of dollars.
In both of the aforementioned cases, the mark doesn’t realize he’s been ripped-off until he lights-up one of his prized purchases. And if the mark is an experienced cigar smoker, he’ll be even more livid that he allowed himself to be suckered. But enough about the hustle; let’s get to the heart of how to spot fake Cuban cigars.
Check the packaging
If the packaging looks suspicious, the contents probably are, too. Get to know how Cuban cigars are packaged, and you greatly reduce the chances of being ripped-off. For example, the popular Cuban brands like Cohiba, Partagas, Punch, Hoyo de Monterrey, Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo, et al., all feature the “Habanos S.A.” seal on the top right-hand corner of the box. You also want to make sure the box has the Cuban warranty seal on the left side of the box. This is the familiar seal you see on all boxes of handmade cigars from Central America. They look a little like paper money and are printed in different colors. Of course, just about anything printed on paper can be reproduced, and with today’s technology, it takes a really well-trained eye to tell the difference. To help prevent this, in 2010 Habanos S.A. designed a new seal using watermarks, a super-strong adhesive, a hologram on the right side of the seal, and a bar code on the left.
If the hustlers are going through the trouble of counterfeiting the seals, you can bet the bands have also been faked. Just last year a customer sent me a box of counterfeit Arturo Fuente cigars (Dominicans!), and it was obvious the bands had been cheaply printed, most likely on a laser printer. Even the box was wrong, which I’ll get to shortly. Though many fake Cuban cigar bands may look authentic – and in some rare cases are – it’s not unusual to find bands with spelling errors, poor alignment, the wrong color and/or typeface, missing embossing, and in the case of Cohiba cigars, the wrong size or number of white squares on the band. The band is often the first place your eyes will go, so the more familiar you are with the genuine bands and their specific attributes, the sooner you’ll know how to spot fake Cuban cigars.
Now, about that box of fake Fuentes. It had a glass top that slid in and out of the box. Fake Cohibas are often presented this way, too. The fact is, the Cuban cigar industry doesn’t make any cigar boxes with glass or even clear plastic tops. If someone tries to sell you a box of Cubans with a glass top, that alone should tell you to walk away.
One of the most important areas of the box to check is its bottom. A genuine box of Cuban cigars should have all of the following attributes:
- The words “Habanos S.A., Hecho En Cuba”
- If they’re made by hand it will also say, “Totalmente a Mano” (“made totally by hand”) rather than the more familiar “Hecho a Mano” as found on premium cigars handmade outside of Cuba.
- A code for the factory where the cigars were made.
- A date stamp that shows when the cigars were packaged.
Not unlike counterfeit cigar bands, the bottom of the box may be missing some of the above information, include typos, and may even be printed with different fonts.
Know your prices
Pricing can also be a tip-off to spotting fake Cuban cigars. If the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So get to know the relative prices on the top Cuban brands, especially the ones that are most often counterfeited like Cohiba Edición Limitadas, Montecristo No.2’s, Partagas Serie D No.4’s, etc. If someone tries to sell you a $350 box of Cubans for $50 or even $100, chances are they’re not the genuine article.
Know your Cubans
Unless you’ve smoked a good number of genuine Cuban cigars it’s easy to be fooled, especially if the counterfeiter got everything right except the cigars. This may present quite a dilemma since it’s harder and more expensive – not to mention illegal – to get the real deal. So what can you do? There are certain attributes about Cuban cigars that differentiate them from non-Cubans. First, the feel and look of the cigar. Cuban wrappers tend to be naturally oily, have a smooth, buttery appearance, a uniform shade of brown that’s unique to Cuban Corojo wrapper leaf, and except for figurados like Pyramids and Torpedoes, the caps are not as round on top. Cuban cigars also consistently produce grey ashes. A lot of cigars made outside of Cuba have similar attributes, but if the wrapper doesn’t have that soft oily brown patina, the head is round, and the ash burns white, the tobacco is not of Cuban origin.
Suffice it to say: Caveat emptor mi amigos.
If you want to learn more about fake Cuban cigars, you can check out this post of mine with 2 personal stories from folks who got swindled in their quest for the elusive Cuban cigars.