In February 1962, on the eve of proclaiming a ban on Cuban imports, John F. Kennedy purportedly ordered his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to obtain 40 boxes of Petit Upmann cigars. Few at the time—even politicians in the know—could have predicted the enduring impact of the Cuban embargo (or, it would seem, the shrewdness of the last-second purchase). More than 40 years after the historic proclamation, Cuban products are still prohibido in the United States. Cigars that were imported prior to the ban, however, are legal—and increasingly prized by modern-day collectors, who yearn for the taste of a simpler (if not more innocent) era.
Nostalgia for preembargo cigars and other vintage leisure items has been the driving force behind Arizona-based Fumar Cigars. The firm’s trademarked slogan is “Experience the Moment”—a sentiment that speaks clearly to the sensibilities of founder David Haddad. A former restaurateur and self-described “antiques freak,” Haddad had amassed an extensive collection of preembargo Cubans when the cigar boom of the mid-1990s spurred him to transform his hobby into a business. At first, his fledgling company (whose name is the Spanish word for smoke) was more a dalliance than a career; Haddad provided cigars and humidors to local golf courses in exchange for free games. But he soon recognized that these rarities constituted the ultimate indulgence for the golf clubs’ members, particularly for the celebration of special events. “It’s not about the money for my clients,” says Haddad. “Like great art and great wine, it’s about sharing moments.”
Even as the once-red-hot cigar trend cooled, Haddad’s business grew. Today, Fumar provides rare cigars and spirits to more than 250 resorts from Phoenix to Miami Beach, and the company’s collection encompasses boxes of Cuban cigars manufactured in every year from 1907 through 1962. The smokes themselves—acquired primarily from antique shops and estate auctions—range from mild and straightforward to rich, assertive, and full-bodied; yet the stories surrounding the cigars often prove more sumptuous than their singular tastes.
Among Fumar’s prizes is a box of cigars from a factory that employed a young George Herman Ruth. Another is a collection of 400 boxes from a Long Island woman who discovered the cigars in her basement when she was moving out of her longtime house and into a nursing home. (Fumar purchases 10 boxes a year from her estate to help pay for her nursing home costs.) The Arizona Biltmore, Fumar’s first client, celebrated its 70th anniversary with a rare box of Lillian Russell cigars. Russell, an opera star in the late 1800s, was one of the first celebrities to have a cigar named after her. And her name is still in the Arizona Biltmore register from the time she stayed there in 1929, the year the resort opened.
Fumar has commemorated anniversaries in similar fashion at several other historic resorts, including the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, Fla., and the Phoenician in Scottsdale. The 75th anniversary of the Biltmore in Coral Gables went a step beyond cigars—and prompted Haddad to expand his burgeoning business.
For four years in the 1920s, in the heart of Prohibition, Al Capone took over an entire floor of the Biltmore as a winter vacation haven from his hometown Chicago. Although Capone was known for smuggling Canadian whiskey across the border, he himself preferred a finer dram. At the time, the only legally produced whiskey in the States came disguised as a tonic for various ailments: The National Salesman’s Kit from the American Medicinal Spirits Co. contained 24 bottles of aged, 100-proof Kentucky whiskey. “The government established the right for the major distil-leries to make 500 barrels of their finest whiskey for ‘medicinal’ purposes and put them in bond,” explains Haddad. “Some of the bottles cured gout, one cured the sniffles, and so on. Of course, none of them really had any medicinal properties. It was just an excuse the government used so it didn’t put the distilleries out of business with Prohibition.”
At an estate auction in 1999, Haddad outbid the Smithsonian to acquire one of these rarities. The kit box, which bears the stamp of the U.S. Treasury, is itself quite valuable, but the spirit inside is the true treasure. “It is the best of the best,” exclaims Haddad. “It is what Capone would have drunk. The flavor is soft and mellow, with woody, smoky flavor that practically evaporates on your tongue.” It is also the only known collection of legal, consumable whiskey from that period. And with only 22 of the kit’s 24 one-pint bottles surviving, a shot of one of the historical spirits cost $1,000 at the Coral Gables celebration. Fumar now offers the whiskey as part of its Al Capone Collection, which includes Cuban cigars from the Prohibition era.
Fumar’s expansion into rare spirits has led Haddad back to pre-Castro Cuba. He recently acquired 20 sealed bottles of Bacardi rum made at the original facility in Santiago de Cuba from 1936 through 1938. (The Bacardi family moved production to Puerto Rico in the 1950s.) Still, for many of Haddad’s clients, a rare cigar is the preferred mark of a special occasion. The forbidden-fruit appeal of a preembargo cigar adds allure and excitement to an already unforgettable moment. “Picture the quintessential board of directors who just sold their company for say, $150 million,” suggests Haddad. “They’re going to buy an expensive wine, have a 10-course meal, maybe at one of our resorts. It may happen only once a year, but when it happens, they call me. When everything has been tried and experienced, it’s a bonding experience for people who have come further than they ever thought they could.”
Fumar Cigars, 480.419.6866