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Smoke: Requiem for a Reputation

Nick Passmore

I knew as soon as i lit the cigar that it was worthless, but it breaks my heart to throw away a $15 smoke. So I persevered for a while before consigning it to the fireplace. The trouble is, Cuban cigars aren’t what they used to be. Although they enjoy star status in the United States, it is a perception based on the appeal of the forbidden and on the memory of former greatness.

For most of the 20th century—well into the 1990s—Cuban cigars were universally regarded as the best. They offered a deep, rich, and complex flavor that was leagues ahead of the best competitors. However, today’s Cuban cigars do not deserve to ride the coattails of their ancestors.
Many long-term Havana smokers complain that today’s cigars do not have the flavor that their predecessors had just 10 years ago. An acquaintance in London who inherited a cache of 1970s Cubans from his father is the first to admit that the older cigars have a richer, fuller, more nuanced flavor.

The problems started after the industry was nationalized, and many old cigar families fled, taking generations of knowledge about how to make fine cigars. Forty years of a command economy, state ownership, and a monopoly on production exacted their toll. The cigar boom of the late 1990s merely made a bad situation worse. With no incentive to produce the best-tasting cigar, there is no competition for customers. Why should cigar makers discard inferior leaf when they are rewarded for meeting mandated production numbers?

One result has been shoddy construction, particularly plugged cigars, which are so tightly rolled that they’re impossible to smoke. Many tobacconists confirm that as many as one cigar in three is so flawed. When you pay for and expect a premium cigar, those odds are unacceptable. The reason so many cigars are plugged leads to the second problem.

Contrast the unmotivated, poorly paid, and inadequately supervised workers in a Cuban factory with the productive, businesslike rollers and rigorous quality control at an operation such as General Cigar’s factory in the Dominican Republic. Instead of asking why there is a decline in quality, you wonder why it has taken us so long to notice.

The problems accelerated only recently when Cuba, desperate for hard currency, attempted to meet the skyrocketing demand for cigars by radically increasing production. From 1996 to 1999, Cuba doubled the number of cigars it exported, but instead of growing proven seed, many farmers began using new strains that supposedly were more resistant to disease and produced higher yields. Cigars are not widgets, and soon cigars made from inadequately cured leaf were released just to get them to market sooner.

Demand has eased, but quality has not rebounded—just relocated to other parts of the Caribbean, notably the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua. One look at the smooth, even texture and slightly oily sheen of a Davidoff or a Perdomo, a Fuente or a Padron and you know that you are smoking an expertly rolled cigar. Appearance does not always equal great taste, of course, but premium smokes are made only by the top rollers using the best leaf. These cigars are an extremely satisfying alternative while we wait to see whether Cuba regains its tobacco supremacy—or even despite a Cuban renaissance—because they are that good.

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