In 2016, cigar smokers throughout the United States breathed a sigh of relief—some may even have given an exuberant shout of joy—when the Obama administration announced that U.S. citizens could now legally bring Cuban cigars into the country as long as it was for their personal use and not for resale. That was, and still is, the deciding caveat. After all, coming through customs packing 20 boxes of Bolivar Belicosos Finos might look a little suspicious. But two or three boxes? No problem. (Although you will have to pay duty on anything over 100 cigars—approximately four boxes—or if those stogies represent more than $800 in retail value, so insist on getting receipts for anything you buy.) But that means we no longer have to conceal that three-pack of Montecristo No. 2s in our laundry bag, trying not to sweat profusely as our luggage tumbles off the baggage carousel.
But do you really want to pay the generally higher prices for Havana cigars? Plus, to obtain them involves travel—tobacconists cannot legally sell Cuban cigars in the United States. That means you have to purchase them on your next trip abroad. Of course, you can cross over into Canada, where Cuban cigars are abundant, but you’ll be paying an exorbitant government tobacco tax. And each province has its own rules. In Ontario, for example, cigars are taxed at 56.6 percent of their retail price. Meanwhile, in British Columbia, the tax on tobacco jumps to 90.5 percent, with a cap of $7 per stick over their retail price.
Venturing south of the border into Mexico creates a heightened risk of being stuck with counterfeits, unless you buy from accredited tobacconists such as La Casa del Habano. However, it should be noted that counterfeit cigars are everywhere—even in Cuba, where American turistas provide eager targets for the entrepreneur on the street who is selling “authentically” banded and boxed Havanas (many using actual boxes and bands stolen from the cigar factories) made of inferior tobaccos that may or may not have come from Cuba. Remember, not all Cuban tobaccos are of premium cigar quality.
“I get offered counterfeit cigars by every single tourist who comes back from Cuba, showing me this box they bought on the beach from a stranger,” says Mitchell Orchant, managing director of London’s C.Gars Ltd., the UK’s leading Havana cigar specialist and premier Havana cigar auctioneer. “That’s when I give them a reality check, telling them they haven’t only paid for their holiday, they’ve also wasted a hundred pesos on something that’s a fake. I also see a lot of counterfeits all over the Caribbean—glass-topped boxes of Cohibas and the like.” (It’s worth noting that authentic Cuban Cohibas do not come in glass- or Plexiglas-topped boxes.)
But even if the Cuban cigars you buy are authentic, the reality is that unfortunately there is a widespread lack of quality control in Cuba. After all, that country’s cigar factories are a government-controlled monopoly, with a dictum to turn out as many cigars as possible to generate the greatest revenue. That means some legitimate cigars may be too tightly rolled or could feature other imperfections, such as not being aged sufficiently. And, unfortunately, once you bring them into the United States, you can’t return them.
But why subject yourself to all these vagaries when there are plenty of non-Cuban premium smokes from countries such as the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras that are readily available at retail shops and via mail order in the United States? And some of them come very close to duplicating the strength of Cuban cigars, although it should be noted that nothing tastes like a Cuban cigar other than a Cuban cigar, just as nothing tastes like a Dominican or Nicaraguan cigar except a Dominican or Nicaraguan cigar. However, a few “new world” cigars come close, at least in strength, if not in flavor.
According to well-respected London cigar impresarios Edward Sahakian and his son, Eddie, owners of Davidoff London on New Bond Street and consultants for the Edward Sahakian Cigar Shop and Sampling Lounge at the Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge, cigars such as the Fuente OpusX, the Davidoff Nicaragua, and El Septimo—a Costa Rican puro constructed with vintage tobaccos—are just a few that offer viable alternatives for many Cuban cigars.
And there are others, both classics and recently introduced. So here are some of the best, arranged in order of strength, in the event that you can’t—or don’t wish to—go the Havana route.
If you like the Cuban Fonseca, Quai d’Orsay, or Saint Luis Rey, you will probably like:
Christian Luis Eiroa was known for creating the full-bodied Camacho cigar, but when he sold the brand to Davidoff, and after a brief hiatus, in 2012 his new company—incorporating Eiroa’s initials—surprised everyone by producing this refreshingly mild Honduran, with its graham cracker aroma and smooth, citrusy taste.
Nat Sherman Host
This is another cigar that proves not all Honduran tobaccos have to be strong. The Honduran binder and filler are soothed over by an elegant Connecticut wrapper, which lends a touch of sweetness to the smoke.
Named after the grandfather of José Padrón, the family-owned company’s late patriarch, the Padrón Dámaso departs dramatically from the brand’s well-known Nicaraguan puros. With its Ecuadorian Connecticut wrapper, it is both smooth and subtle.
Although Macanudo was originally a mild Jamaican cigar made by Cubans, it is now an extremely popular Dominican smoke. It has recently been rebranded with new packaging and exists in many different varieties, but it is the slightly tweaked Macanudo Mao—named after a fertile farming region in the Dominican Republic—that preserves the cigar’s creamy Connecticut shade wrapper’s smoothness while adding a touch of Nicaraguan and Columbian spice to the filler.
Hamlet 25th Year
For more than 20 years, master Cuban cigar roller Hamlet Paredes crafted some of Havana’s most well-known brands. Eventually, his skills became so advanced that he could roll these cigars freehand, without using molds. Impressed, Habanos—Cuba’s marketing arm for the cigar industry—sent Paredes on international tours. Then in 2015, when some Cuban immigration restrictions were lifted, he and his family relocated to the United States, where he was immediately hired by Rocky Patel. Although Hamlet (he usually just goes by his first name) was known for typically rolling strong cigars, to show his versatility and to celebrate his 25th anniversary as a cigar maker, he created the Hamlet 25th Year “mild-plus” blend, full of sage-like spice with a custard sweetness. In 2018, reflecting his Cuban heritage, he introduced a 7 5/8 x 58 salomon figurado to the line.
If you like the Cuban H. Upmann, Romeo y Julieta, or Punch, you will probably like:
Macanudo Inspirado Black
Slightly akin to a medium-rare pepper steak, the Connecticut-shade-grown broadleaf wrapper has been allowed to remain on the stalk longer, thus gathering more nutrients and sunlight to create a fuller, yet more floral, flavor. Combined with an Ecuadorian Sumatra binder and a Nicaraguan filler blend, the Macanudo Inspirado Black (which we have already opined about in Robb Report’s Best of the Best for 2017) is geared to the late afternoon and early evening hours.
Plasencia Alma del Campo
Introduced in 2017, Plasencia Alma del Campo is a medium-plus cigar that’s second in what will eventually become a five-cigar series by this celebrated Nicaraguan tobacco-growing, cigar-making family. With a name that translates into “the soul of the soil,” its all-Nicaraguan construction personifies the similarities of Cuban and Nicaraguan terroir, with notes of cedar and milk chocolate.
Ironically, this Dominican cigar is slightly stronger than its Cuban counterpart, thanks to three years of aging and a slight restructuring of the same Dominican tobacco binder and filler recipes used in the past. In addition, the Fonseca Classic’s flawless Connecticut wrapper is now highlighted by a red-and-gold foot band, and the cigars are encased in a cedar box with a fire-engine-red lid and simplified logo.
Flor de Silva Colección Aniversario No. 20
Released in Europe in 2015 as a lancero to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the brand, the cigar finally made it to the U.S. in 2017 and quickly gained a loyal following. Now, as a reblended Honduran puro, and with four new shapes all under the Aniversario banner, this is a smooth-tasting, cedar-and-leather smoke, thanks in no small part to its Cuban seed Jamastrán wrapper.
A London-born collaboration between cigar maven Akhil Kapacee and Havana cigar impresario Mitchell Orchant of C.Gars Ltd., these very limited-production Nicaraguan puros are made by the Nester Plasencia family. The cigars initially premiered in London, where they directly competed with Cuban cigars. After achieving a following with some of London’s top tobacconists, including J.J. Fox and Sautter’s, they came to America. New to Regius this year is the Regius Sungrown, with wrappers taken from the higher priming for a fuller flavor, giving them a rich, underlying hint of sweet spice.
Winston Churchill–The Late Hour
The famed “British Bulldog” smoked Romeo y Julieta Cubans and drank gin martinis during the day, but we think he might have preferred one of these newest offerings from Davidoff—a Winston Churchill–The Late Hour—to accompany his after-hour whiskies. Not surprisingly, this is one of the Cuban alternatives recommended by the Sahakians. Along with the dark, Habano Ecuadorian Oscuro wrapper, the Dominican Visus filler has been slightly revved up by the addition of Nicaraguan Condega Visus leaves that have been aged for six months in Speyside single-malt whisky barrels, thus giving a diplomatically correct Scottish accent to Sir Winston’s namesake cigar. Robb Report gave this cigar its stamp of approval in the fall of 2017.
Fans of Downton Abbey will recognize the name of the 5,000-acre estate that literally set the stage for this award-winning TV drama series. And fittingly, Lord Carnarvon, the current 8th Earl of Carnarvon and owner of Highclere Castle, is one of the backers of Highclere Castle Cigar. However, it is actually the product of respected cigar blender Nick Melillo of Estelí, Nicaragua, who combined Criollo and Corojo tobaccos with a flawless Connecticut shade wrapper and a dark, Brazilian Mata Fina binder to create a leathery, chocolaty taste.
Flor de Las Antillas
This cigar is aptly named; its Spanish sobriquet translates into “Flower of the Antilles,” as Cuba has been referred to in the past. Made in the Nicaraguan My Father Cigars factory of José “Pepín” Garcia and constructed under the supervision of Garcia’s son, master blender Jaime Garcia, it represents the culmination of skills the elder Garcia learned in Cuba and has now passed on to the next generation. A box-pressed Nicaraguan puro using a sun-grown wrapper, a unique double binder, and Cuban seed filler results in a Cubanesque wet-earth aroma and a sweet cocoa and cedar-soaked taste.
If you like the Cuban Cohiba, Partagás, or Vegas Robaina, you will probably like:
Padrón 1926 Serie
Available in both natural and maduro versions, this box-pressed cigar is composed of tobaccos that have been aged from five to 10 years. A Nicaraguan puro—in which all of the tobaccos come from one country—this is an earthy yet velvety personification of the link between Cuban and Nicaraguan soil.
La Aurora ADN Dominicano
ADN translates from Spanish to English as DNA, which refers to the andullo leaf that gives this cigar its underlying muscle. The unique tobacco in La Aurora ADN Dominicano is fermented by being tightly wrapped and squeezed dry multiple times with palm frond husks. Combined with a Dominican wrapper, Cameroon binder, and Dominican, Nicaraguan, and Pennsylvanian filler, one leaf of andullo contributes to a hefty smoke indeed—and pairs well with single-malt scotch.
Nat Sherman 1930
Named after the year this iconic New York cigar store was founded, and which has now also become a celebrated brand, this Dominican cigar features a Dominican wrapper, a Honduran binder, and a Dominican and Nicaraguan filler, which adds a pinch of spice to the finish.
Ashton VSG Cabinet Selection
Made for Ashton by Arturo Fuente, VSG stands for Virgin Sun Grown, although the dark, oily sun-grown Ecuadorian wrappers come from a country that boasts almost perpetual cloud cover, which gives the tobacco a natural shade-grown depth. The Ashton VSG Cabinet Selection’s thick, meaty flavors are also due to five-year-old Dominican filler tobaccos harvested from the famous Chateau de la Fuente farm. After six months of cedar aging, the cigars are box-pressed and then aged for an additional two months in an artificially cooled environment, the same technique that was used in Great Britain to age Havanas before World War II. The result is a rich, thick, creamy taste with every puff.
Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Edición de Aniversario–His Personal Reserve
This vintage dated version of the already limited-edition Don Carlos cigar cranks the muscle factor up a couple of notches, for this is a duplication of the personal blend that the late Don Carlos Fuente Sr. smoked. Two of his specially selected rollers would add a few more leaves of his favorite tobaccos to provide a bit more strength and depth. Using the same aged Sun Grown Habano wrapper as on the Opus X, this special Dominican puro was not made available to the public until 2017.
The redesigned modernistic black box and the striking silver, red, and black cigar band give more than a hint that this is not the Punch cigar of yesteryear—and the first puff confirms it. It is, in fact, the fullest-bodied Punch made to date and has been unofficially called “The dark side of Punch.” To be sure, there had been a previous Punch Diablo, but it has no relationship to this muscular version, the creation of legendary cigar maker A.J. Fernandez, who gave this 19th-century brand a new identity with a four-year-old Ecuadorian Sumatra Oscuro wrapper, a six-year-old Connecticut broadleaf binder, and a four-year-old Nicaraguan and Honduran Ligero Habano filler blend. This marks the first time that a non-Cuban Punch cigar has been made outside of Honduras, where the brand has been manufactured since the 1960s.
Although the Dominican Partagas is known for being a medium-bodied cigar, this new version departs from that tradition in more ways than one. First, the old yellow box with its 1970s look has given way to a minimalist white box accented by a newly stylized black logo. The cigars inside are equally as dramatic and pay homage to the brand’s Cuban heritage—specifically to founder Don Jaime Partagás; to Ramon Cienfuentes Sr., who owned the Partagás brand in Cuba prior to it being nationalized by the Castro regime; and finally to the late Ramon Cienfuentes Jr., who fled Cuba and brought the brand to the Dominican Republic. With its dark Connecticut broadleaf wrapper, Honduran Olancho San Agustín binder, and leathery notes from the deeply aged Dominican Piloto Cubano filler leaves, the box-pressed Partagas Legend is worthy of a snifter of Havana Club Tributo 2016 from Cuba or a Bacardi Gran Reserva Limitada, a limited-edition barrel-aged rum.