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Icons & Innovations: Davidoff: Quality Control

Richard Carleton Hhacker

Davidoff’s master blender, Hendrik “Henke” Kelner, once complained that the company was so demanding that sometimes it seemed as though it rejected more cigars than it accepted. Such high standards, according to the late Zino Davidoff, forced his namesake brand, which has been owned by Swiss importer Oettinger since 1970, to sever the relationship through which Davidoff originally had gained renown.

The son of a Geneva tobacconist who had emigrated from the Ukraine at around the turn of the last century, Zino Davidoff, at the age of 20 and at the urging of his father, left home and spent nearly six years, from 1924 through 1929, visiting tobacco farms in South America and Cuba. He studied the plant’s cultivation and cigar making and learned what distinguished the finest cigars from the rest. Upon his return to Switzerland, he persuaded his father to start carrying Cuban cigars and called on his contacts to obtain the best Havanas. Using his considerable charm, Davidoff built a clientele for the retail business he would eventually take over that included dignitaries and celebrities from throughout the world.

Davidoff retained close ties to the Cubans during World War II, when his shop was one of the few venues in Europe that continued to sell Havanas, and shortly after the war, he and Cuba’s Hoyo de Monterrey—and maybe, depending on whose version of the story is true, another Swiss retailer—established what remains perhaps the most prestigious line of Cuban cigars ever produced. An aficionado of Bordeaux wines, Davidoff, according to his account, named the cigar shapes after France’s first-growth châteaux. “We [Davidoff and representatives from Cuba’s Hoyo de Monterrey] were in a French restaurant and the idea struck me as I was looking at the wine list,” Davidoff, who died in 1994 at the age of 88, once said. “France had its Grand Crus. Why shouldn’t Havana?” The Cuban version of the story contradicts Davidoff’s, claiming that the idea to market the cigars and to name them after the châteaux originated with the Zurich-based cigar merchant Dürr. Other accounts say the cigar line represented a collaborative effort between Davidoff, Dürr, and Hoyo de Monterrey. It is certain, however, that exquisite Cuban cigars bearing the names Château Haut-Brion, Château Margaux, Château Lafite, and Château Latour were introduced in 1946. A story goes that Davidoff had neglected to obtain permission from the winery owners to use their names, but he won them over by sending a gift of cigars to each vintner.

In 1969, with cigar sales suffering after the revolution, Cuba offered Davidoff his own brand, under which he at one time sold close to 3 million cigars annually. But the amicable relationship between Davidoff and Cuba began to dissolve in the 1980s, when Davidoff grew increasingly concerned with the quality of cigars he was receiving from Cuba. In 1987, Davidoff criticized the Cubans and their product on French television and then later burned 130,000 of his Cuban cigars in a huge bonfire, claiming they were not worthy of the Davidoff name. Finally, after a dispute over ownership of the cigar brand, Davidoff and Cubatabaco, the country’s distribution agency, terminated their relationship and ceased production of Cuban Davidoffs. Shortly thereafter, Davidoff established a factory in the Dominican Republic and launched a new line of Dominican-made Davidoff cigars, which continue to embody the quality that, Zino determined, their Cuban predecessors had begun to lose.

Photo by Jim Fets
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