Cuban Cigars: A Buyer’s Guide
Contrary to popular opinion, not all Havanas are stellar stogies. Here is how to make the most of the relaxed new rules.
It is often easy to spot American cigar smokers in Europe. They are the ones who overpay for a dried-out Cuban cigar and then proudly puff away at it as the wrapper cracks and unwinds. But that does not matter, for they are relishing a forbidden fruit, no matter how harsh and bitter the smoke may taste. Such is the siren song of Havana cigars, which undoubtedly would not have their unbridled allure had they not been banned in America.
In the 53 years since the embargo, Cuban cigars have acquired an enormous mystique in the United States. But the truth is, not all Cuban cigars are great—in fact, about half of the roughly 40 brands produced there are not worth considering, now that U.S. travelers can bring back $100 worth of Cuban smokes.
Late last year, President Barack Obama relaxed the rules imposed by the 1962 embargo. It is now permissible to bring $400 worth of Cuban goods into the United States, $100 of which can be cigars or alcohol. Because of the scarcity of Cuban cigars in this country—a few are smuggled in illegally, though many of the so-called Cubans here are counterfeit—most Americans are not familiar with the Havana brands. And being a hand-rolled product, there are variances in the quality.
“The big quality problem was about 15 years ago,” says Jemma Freeman, the managing director of Hunters & Frankau, the United Kingdom’s sole Havana cigar importer. “Even Habanos admit that things were not right in 1999 to 2000, and I believe the lesson of overproduction was learned in this period. Nevertheless, quality is always a priority for the tobacco industry in Cuba, and they have done a great deal to address it since those days.”
Hunters & Frankau inspects every box of Havanas sold in the U.K. and applies an EMS (English Market Selection) stamp to each box before it leaves the company’s warehouse. Because of this and other quality controls, such as controlled humidity during storage, the U.K. is among the best places—along with Spain and Switzerland—to buy Cuban cigars. But American citizens will have to smoke them on the spot: The new regulations allow for importing $100 worth of Cuban cigars only if those cigars are purchased in Cuba.
To make the most of that small allowance, remember that a steady supply of quality tobacco is scarce on this island nation, and there are only so many top (Grade 9) rollers, whose talents are reserved for the better brands, such as Cohiba, Montecristo, Partagás, Romeo y Julieta, and H. Upmann, to name five of the most popular Havanas. A Grade 9 pedigree is evident in the consistency of the shape, the smoothness of the wrapper, and the lack of any hard or soft spots along the body of the cigar itself. Some inferior cigars will be rolled too tightly, resulting in a difficult draw. Others will be too loosely constructed, allowing an overabundance of air to be taken in with the smoke, which often leads to hyperventilation—that light-headed feeling—while puffing.
Also keep in mind that counterfeits are rampant in Cuba, too, especially in Havana. Avoid buying from street vendors and hotel clerks, and choose reputable sources, including La Casa del Habano stores (which are partially owned by the Cuban government); direct sales at the factories; or the cigar shops of the better hotels, such as the Meliá Cohiba and the Iberostar Parque Central.
Finally, although La Casa del Habano offers fairly consistent prices and some of the best values, cigar costs can fluctuate elsewhere, so it is a good idea to shop around. Most Cuban cigars cost from $7 to $25, depending on brand, size, and where they are purchased. That means, under the newly relaxed rules, you can bring home approximately four to 14 authentic Havana cigars.
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