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Too Precious to Smoke

As prices for rare Cubans rise, it is getting harder to put a match to the most collectible cigars...

<< Back to Robb Report, Robb Report Collection December 2014

Cigar collecting is all about having money to burn. A collector seeks out the rarest smokes, keeps them judiciously humidified, perhaps for years, and then—most likely on a whim—lights up that prized panatela or cherished Churchill and savors every puff as it is gradually reduced to ashes.

Indeed, there are few other hobbies in which collectors destroy their prized possessions for the sheer pleasure of it. But lately that perspective has been shifting toward that of the wine aficionados who curate their cellars based not only on the pleasure principle but also on their ever-increasing values. A growing interest in cigars as collectibles has helped drive pre-embargo Cubans to staggering prices that held through the Great Recession. And some of the more coveted current releases, Cuban and otherwise, are being quickly snapped up and stored by the purchasers, who wait for enough demand to warrant selling to eager private parties or at auction. Small wonder, then, that counterfeiting has assumed epidemic proportions and that cigars, once a symbol of luxuriant relaxation, are now perceived by many as an investment.

“Interest and prices in good-quality pre-embargo Havana cigars are now at an all-time high,” says Mitchell Orchant of C.Gars Ltd., a prominent U.K. cigar merchant and cigar auction house. “This is where we predicted the market would go, five years ago. Early buyers have seen substantial increases in values.”

Cigar collecting has existed for more than a century, as evidenced at James J. Fox cigar merchants in London, where families have stored boxes of Havanas for generations. But only since the late 1990s have auction houses such as Butterfield & Butterfield (now Bonhams) in the United States and Christie’s and C.Gars in London sold cigars, often at the end of a wine and spirits auction. Cuba began holding charity auctions of limited-edition Havanas in the 1990s, most notably during the Festival del Habano each February. Collectors, particularly those in the United States, are more likely to seek a tobacconist that specializes in ultra-premium cigars, since many have direct contact with the distributors and the factories.

Havanas are the most universally collectible cigars today, with current offerings like the Cohiba Behike 56 bringing $53 each and past releases like the no-longer-produced Cuban Davidoff Dom Pérignon fetching $550 apiece or more. The rarest category of collectible Cuban cigars was produced before February 3, 1962, the date President John F. Kennedy signed Proclamation 3447, which banned all U.S. trade with Cuba. Pre-embargo Havanas are the only Cuban cigars that Americans can legally possess, provided there is documentation—such as a tax stamp or a sales receipt—proving that the cigars were purchased before the embargo. These cigars command premium prices if they have been stored correctly, not only because they can be legally bought and sold in the United States but also because many of them have mellowed and matured, like a fine vintage port. A pre-embargo Montecristo No. 2 is worth $350 or more today; by comparison, a newly released Cuban Montecristo is about $17.50 in Europe. The prices at cigar lounges and restaurants can be even more staggering. At the Wellesley in London, a 40th Anniversary Cohiba Behike from 2005 is about $7,200. The French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley recently added a rare-cigar list that includes a 1961 Romeo y Julieta 5 × 40 Belvedere Corona for $350.

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In many ways, the embargo was the best thing to happen for cigar collecting, because it resulted in Cuban cigar makers and tobacco growers migrating to the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua, which are now the three most prolific cigar-producing countries outside of Cuba. Consequently, not all collectible cigars come from Havana anymore. This shift started in the early 1980s, when Macanudo—which was manufacturing in Jamaica as well as the Dominican Republic—began releasing a series of vintage-dated cigars. Then in 1986, Dunhill began producing a Dominican Republic–made vintage-dated tubed cigar. In 1995, General Cigar Co. brought out a Partagas 150 Signature Series made in the Dominican Republic with an 18-year-old Cameroon wrapper. That same year, the Fuente Fuente OpusX was introduced. This was the first commercially successful Dominican Republic puro, a cigar in which the wrapper, binder, and filler all come from the same country. Due to a continued combination of limited availability, extra-long aging, and word-of-mouth reputation, the OpusX has become one of the most collectible cigars in the world.

“Pre-embargo handmade cigars from Cuba remain important to most collectors,” says Alex Svenson, chief merchant at Cigar.com. This online source of collectible cigars includes what are probably the oldest cigars for sale anywhere: a box of West End 5 × 40 Cheroot perfectos made with Cuban tobacco by D.G. Weaver in Springfield, Ohio, in 1868, and listed at $450 each. “But there are also some exciting products out there with real history that were made after the embargo,” says Svenson. “Last year we brought in a box of Partagas that were rolled in Jamaica. Most people don’t realize that when Ramón Cifuentes left Cuba with the U.S. rights to Partagas, he first made the brand in Jamaica before shifting production to the Dominican Republic.” Other interesting post-embargo lots at Cigar.com may soon include Joya de Nicaraguas from 1969, one of the first years of production for Nicaragua’s oldest cigar brand and older Macanudo Vintages, which Svenson says are heating up in value. “I haven’t seen a box of Vintage 1979 in almost five years, and certain clients have offered $30,000 for a box of 10 if I could track one down in good condition.”

Edward Sahakian and his son Eddie, owners of Davidoff of London and a cigar lounge at the Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge, see increased collector interest in Dunhill and Davidoff cigars made in Cuba before the two companies transferred their factories to the Dominican Republic. Edward also offers guidelines for collectors: “A collectible cigar from today’s perspective, with potential to become significantly more valuable in the future, would ideally have the following qualities: It will be a top-quality and desirable brand; it will be in a size that is in demand—for example, a robusto is better than a Lonsdale; it will originally be a limited edition; and it will have excellent provenance.”

By provenance, Sahakian means the cigar will have been stored professionally and sourced from a reliable vendor. A merchant should be willing to discuss how its cigars are stored and aged, and where the stock was sourced. Cigars need proper storage, at an average temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit with 70 percent humidity, although vintage examples should be stored colder and drier. Improperly stored cigars can dry out, although they might be rehumidified if oils remain in the leaves. But if a wrapper cracks, the cigar has lost value and may be unsmokable, depending on the severity and location of the flaw. That is one reason it is important to examine a box of rare cigars before purchasing it.

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In very exceptional instances, a buyer may be allowed to smoke a well-aged cigar to judge its quality before purchasing the rest of the box, but this preferential treatment is reserved only for top customers and only with a broken (not full) box, as removing one cigar from a full box would diminish the total box value. Like wine, cigars have a series of peaks in which their flavors ebb and flow, and there is no real way to tell if a cigar has aged well without sampling it. That means collectors should expect some “luck of the draw” when purchasing extremely old cigars, even if they have been well humidified and have a fine bouquet. Some Cuban cigars can be aged 40 years or more, mellowing as time passes depending on brand, blend, and storage conditions, but there is a point of no return when the cigar may become totally bland. On average, all cigars—whether Cuban or not—are best smoked at 10 to 20 years of age.

As high-end cigars become more valuable, so does provenance. That point was illustrated a little too clearly when a well-known actor invited a friend into their club’s walk-in humidor and proudly showed off his latest acquisition: a glass-topped box of Cohiba Espléndidos, one of the most coveted Cuban cigars. He had purchased this treasure at a bargain price, which added to his exultation. But one expert look at the multihued cigars, visible through the lid, and it was clear: They were fakes.

They were of varying hues, but Cuba, and practically every other premium cigar maker, meticulously color-sorts its hand-rolled cigars to ensure that those in each box have matched wrappers in the same shade of brown. Moreover, Cubatabaco, Cuba’s governmental tobacco monopoly, has never produced a glass-topped Cohiba box.

Knockoffs are most common among popular Cuban brands such as Cohiba, Montecristo, and the Cuban Davidoff, which ceased being made in 1991, but counterfeiters do not limit themselves to fake Cubans. The Nicaraguan Padrón and the Fuente Fuente OpusX from the Dominican Republic are also frequent targets, which in 2001 led Padrón to start numbering its cigar bands serially to thwart forgeries.

“A close look should help you determine whether the product is genuine or counterfeit,” says Dennis Kelly, head sommelier at the French Laundry. “Significant variations in color and size can be an obvious sign of counterfeits. Soft spots, uneven construction, and mold can be red flags. The cellophane wrappers on older cigars should have a soft, oily brown patina.”

Although technology has made finding collectible cigars more convenient, it also makes their authentication more challenging, since it is now easier to fake bands and boxes. Even Cuba’s new holographic stamp, which was designed to prevent counterfeiting, has been reproduced. In many cases, authentic bands are stolen from the factories to use on knockoff cigars. “The collector should not lose touch with common sense,” Eddie Sahakian says. “If a deal is too good to be true, then it probably is not true.”

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Five Hot Tips

In spite of some enduring prejudices in favor of Havana cigars, a number of today’s most collectible smokes are not made in Cuba. Here are our five top choices for investment-quality cigars that match the Cuban cachet, in terms both of investment potential and more immediate pleasures.

Fuente Fuente OpusX

The most collectible cigar made outside Cuba, the OpusX rivals Havanas in flavor and strength and is a multiple Robb Report Best of the Best winner. All of the tobacco for this Dominican puro comes from the Chateau de la Fuente farm, and only a small coterie of experienced rollers are selected to make it. There are numerous shapes and sizes, all desirable, but the most coveted are the figurados, the custom-made shapes for charity auctions, and the individually boxed 9¼ × 47 Perfecxion A. In any shape, the OpusX gains value on the secondary market; for example, the Wynn casino in Las Vegas is selling the OpusX Double Corona, a $13 cigar on release, for $78. $9.25–$47, arturofuente.com

Macanudo Estate Reserve 2014

Macanudo was a Jamaican cigar until production moved to the Dominican Republic in the late 1980s and, as a result, Jamaican tobacco was eventually taken out of the blend. But to celebrate the brand’s legacy, a special one-time run of 1,800 boxes of three sizes—a 5 × 50 robusto, a 6 × 57 belicoso, and a 7 × 50 Churchill—is being made with 10-year-old Connecticut shade wrapper, Mexican binder and, for the first time in more than a decade, Jamaican filler. Each master box of 10 individually boxed cigars is signed and dated by Jhonys Diaz, General Cigar Dominicana’s vice president of operations. $160–$180 per box, cigarworld.com

Partagas “Don Ramón” 150 Signature Series

This impressive cigar was created in 1995 to honor the late Don Ramón Cifuentes, who brought Partagas out of Cuba and eventually to the Dominican Republic. Each book-shaped case contained 10 individually boxed 7 × 52 Partagas cigars with a spectacular 18-year-old Cameroon wrapper from the 1977 harvest. The offering quickly sold out. But recently 160 of the original 10-count boxed sets were discovered in General Cigar’s warehouse, where they had continued to age. After being reconditioned by the factory, 150 sets were released to selected tobacco shops and 10 sets were held back for charity auctions, where they will undoubtedly bring far more than their suggested retail price. $1,500 per box, cigarworld.com

Padrón 50th Anniversary Humidor

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, in December Padrón will release a limited-edition, box-pressed 6½ × 52 (the company’s longest length in this ring gauge) hand-rolled with tobaccos aged for 10 years, a distinction that was previously exclusive to its Family Reserve series. Yet the 50th Anniversary cigar is blended differently, with tobaccos from the higher primings of the plant, resulting in deeper, more complex flavors. The cigars are available in natural or maduro, with the first release of 1,000 housed in numbered, white-lacquered humidors. Each cigar band is numbered consecutively by humidor. Do not confuse them with a second Padrón anniversary cigar, a box-pressed 5 × 54 robusto that will not be a limited edition. $6,000 per box of 50, padron.com

Foundry Worm Hole 2064 Blend

You have to take notice of cigars that claim to be “Made with Martian Tobacco”; that alone makes them collectible. But that is just one element that drew us to this one-time offering from Foundry Tobacco Co., an offshoot of General Cigar. Like the Red Planet, the tobaccos in these two cigars are a mystery, although some components are as old as 25 years and have never been blended together before. The mild 5½ × 50 Hal-ion is named after the HAL 9000 computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The name of the spicier 6 × 52 Hell-i-en is an abbreviation for “hell alien,” because that is what Michael Giannini, Foundry’s creative genius, thinks we will find in the outer limits. $7.95–$8.45, foundrytobaccocompany.com

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