Cuban Cigars in the United States? Don’t hold your breath.

The Nic-Cuban hybrid…a dream or reality?

When President Obama announced he was opening talks with the Cuban government, cigar smokers across America rejoiced. After five decades of an embargo, there was finally hope that Cuban cigars would soon become available to consumers in the US. Would we finally be able to buy CCs without looking over our shoulders? Unfortunately, at this time, the terms of the negotiations indicate that legal Cuban cigars may be a long way off for Americans.

In order for full trade relations to happen, Cuba is demanding that:

  1. The US Naval base in Guantanamo Bay be returned to Cuba;
  2. The US stop broadcasting anti-Castro radio/TV into the island;
  3. The US pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for losses due to the embargo.

These demands illustrate that the Castro regime has no real interest in rapprochement with the US. Additionally, the Helms-Burton act of 1996 states the embargo can only be lifted by Congress. Under this act, Cuba must hold free elections, release political prisoners, guarantee worker’s rights, and allow freedom of the press. But the Castro brothers have as much revolutionary zeal as ever, and no interest in promoting democracy and privatization. Unless there is a regime change, the terms of Helms-Burton will never be met. And history has shown that only overt war can bring about such a change. No one wants that.

For negotiations to continue, Cuba needs to get serious. The demand for reparations is absurd, especially in light of assets stolen by Castro after the 1959 revolution. According to Fox News, an estimated $6 billion of property was seized from thousands of US citizens and businesses. It seems that Raul Castro has no real interest in doing business with the US.

What if?

To this cigar smoker, the end of the Cuban embargo seems distant indeed. But what if, through some bizarre circumstance, the embargo was to end in the near future? What impact would it have on the worldwide cigar market? Here are some scenarios to ponder…

Surge in US cigar sales

The novelty of being able to buy Cuban cigars in the US would be irresistible, not only for cigar smokers, but to the general public as well. Curious non-smokers will want to see what the fuss was all about. The public might flock to cigar stores to smoke their first cigar. This could make initial demand for CCs so great, that supplies will dwindle fast. This, in turn, would drive the prices up, making them less appealing to an experienced cigar smoker. We know the cigars we like, and what they should cost. Smoking a novelty simply doesn’t appeal to us. In this case, legal CCs won’t change the buying habits of those already passionate about their favorite cigar brands.

But how many first-time cigar buyers will actually become regular cigar smokers? My guess is that very few would actually enjoy the experience. Many will end up smoking fake CCs that taste awful, or are plugged. And even if they find a good Cohiba, paying $30+ for one cigar would probably make it a novelty purchase. Ultimately, once non-smokers have experienced their CC, they will tell everyone how great it was (even if they didn’t like it), and never smoke another. (Time and again I’ve heard non-smokers say they smoked a “Cuban”, and it was heavenly. The mystique of the “Cuban Cigar” is simply too powerful to resist.) So, I predict that, initially, cigar smoking in the US will jump once the embargo is lifted. Then after a few months, the numbers will fall back to what we’ve seen during the embargo years.

Supply and demand

Presently, the worldwide demand for Cuban cigars far outstrips the Island’s ability to produce consistent quality across all its brands. Add to that the world’s largest cigar-smoking nation, and an already thin system may get stretched to the breaking point. It’s been my experience that certain cigar vendors get better quality CCs than others. Also, the best vendors check their inventory for quality before sending out any boxes. This is one way they assure the consumer is getting quality Cuban cigars. But when local stores start selling Cuban cigars in the US, quality control will be difficult to maintain. Plus, the counterfeit cigar market will go wild. On a recent trip to Vancouver, I was amazed at how many cigar stores were there. From what I could tell, all but one was selling fake CCs. Only from experience was I able to tell the good from the bad. The fakes were everywhere. The US is fertile ground for this type of deception, particularly because we are unfamiliar with the product. It may take a while for things to settle, and for serious cigar smokers to find a source for good CCs. Until then, it could be a free-for-all.

Who will benefit the most?

Ultimately, the ones who will benefit the most from a lifted embargo are the non-Cuban cigar makers. With access to Cuban tobacco, they can add a new flavor element to their blends, one that had been forbidden for decades. Cuba has laws prohibiting export of its tobacco, but once that gets rescinded, the great cigar makers of Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and the US, will have access to some of the tastiest tobacco in the world. But the real boost in cigar flavor will come with the extra fermentation these great cigar makers will apply to their new tobacco. The best cigar makers never simply blend the tobaccos they buy. They ferment multiple times until they deem the tobacco ready for their brand. This is a stage missing from the Cuban cigar industry. With demand so high, the fermentation in Cuba gets short-thrift. It’s no wonder why CCs need to sit five years in storage to reach peak flavor potential. In the hands of caring cigar makers, Cuban tobacco can finally get its due. Blending perfectly fermented Cuban tobacco with the best tobaccos of other countries will yield cigars of unprecedented greatness.

The best CCs won’t be Cuban

Taking this one step further, I predict that the best CCs will not be made in Cuba. Once boutique cigar makers import Cuban tobacco, there will be cigar makers rolling sticks in the US (and elsewhere), made from 100% Cuban tobacco. And with the extra fermentation they will apply, these non-Cuban, Cuban cigars may surpass CCs in both flavor and construction.

There are many hurdles yet to overcome, and having diplomatic relations with Cuba is only the beginning. But in the end, we, the cigars smokers, will be the big winner when the embargo ends. How we will benefit is, at this point, only speculation. And at the current rate of negotiations, and the unwillingness of the Cuban government to bend, it’s hard to see when, or if, the embargo will truly ever end.

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13 Comments on “Cuban Cigars in the United States? Don’t hold your breath.”

  1. One of the best analyses of this Cuban tobacco situation that I’ve yet to read. Keep up the quality work!

  2. The one thing I get excited about, with regards to the embargo ending, is smoking well-fermented Cuban tobacco. That won’t happen in Cuba, but I know guys like Rafael Nodal, Nick Perdomo, AJ Fernandez, Alan Ruben, Pete Johnson, and other great cigar makers will do wonders with tobacco imported from the island.

  3. Tom Harrison says:

    A simple solution is for the President issue an executive order that U.S. Customs not enforce the ban of Cuban tobacco products. (Executive Orders are a lot cheaper than laws.)
    The market demand will determine the price of non-illegal Cuban cigar. I personally balance value and price with each cigars purchase. (Currently, Gurkha can deliver a better cigar for the price.)

  4. Excellent analysis. I have long been of the opinion that, if sale to the U.S. were opened up, the current government in Cuba would go full tilt to ship product up here to generate hard currency. We’d get cigars rolled with inadequately aged tobacco rolled by novice rollers in an attempt to satisfy demand, quality would go sharply downhill, and us ‘Muricans would go right back to our Dominicans and Nicaraguans.

  5. Echoing the other sentiments, I’d also suggest that the price will go through the roof. That $250 -$275 box of Monte #2 or $300 for an R&J Churchill will probably go up 25% AT LEAST.

  6. The quality of CC’s, worldwide, would probably go way down. I just hope the Castros, or whoever is in charge when the embaro ends, allows export of their raw tobacco. We need to get that great stuff out of the hands of the Cuban government. They stink at making cigars.

  7. Denis Flaherty says:

    I think the US should tell the Castros to kiss our asses and continue the embargo or tighten it even more. Plenty of good cigars out there without giving away the key to the front door.

  8. We should just temporarily drop the embargo and ignore Castro’s demands.

  9. I smoked a number of genuine CCs in my younger days, always from reputable London tobaconists, and can honestly say they are rarely worth the premium

  10. Bruce Mathiason says:

    So it could take upwards of 5 years or so after the lifting of the embargo before we would be getting “good” CCs. First,the cubans need to learn more about caring for their land, i.e.fertilizing and ph balancing.Then years to cure and age the tobacco leaf to a quality ready for rolling great cigars.So as
    I see it,lifting the embargo is just the first step towards GOOD Cuban Cigars.

  11. That “revolutionary zeal”has done nothing good for the Cuban cigar industry. I have continued to sample Cubans occasionally and have often been disappointed with the quality, even among the most-famous brands. The ‘ex-pats’ have, in many instances,.already surpassed the standards of the isle of the Castros. As one of the great cigar makers named in these comments said to me a couple years ago, “I couldn’t care less if the embargo ever gets lifted. (the people who stayed in Cuba) …are scratching in the dirt and I’m making better cigars now than they ever have… (under the Castro regime).”

  12. Beneluxor says:

    From Europe, am disappointed to see Yank anti-Cuba propaganda in the above article, which otherwise has many good points … To most of the world, the USA is the more bullying and offensive party in US-Cuban relations … Guantánamo … ’nuff said.

    Cuba is not perfect but it is moving toward a European-style mixed economy, and we Europeans take very pleasant vacations there, roaming freely all over the island, amid Cuban people who in fact seem generally happier than Yanks.

    There is a joke now … Yanks want to see Cuba before it becomes like the USA, and Cubans want to see the USA before it becomes as poor as Cuba.

    And let’s look at the USA alleged ‘Land of Freedom’ –

    1920-34 Yank Americans cannot drink alcohol, not even beer or wine, that most the rest of the world enjoy
    1933-75 Yank Americans cannot own gold coins or bullion that most of the rest of the world can own
    1962-now Yank Americans still cannot smoke Cuban cigars or drink Cuban rum that the rest of the world greatly enjoy.

    (And re ‘freedom’, for Yanks who never seem to know, we have our guns too in Europe, over 100 million privately-owned civilian handguns, shotguns and rifles in the EU.)

    Article above talks of pressuring Cuba on the topics of « free elections, release political prisoners, guarantee worker’s rights, and allow freedom of the press » …

    Free elections USA? With Yank voting machines, Yank media ‘disappearing’ alternative candidates, & Yank courts tossing independents off Yankee ballots … like that popular New York candidate, Jimmy McMillan of ‘The Rent is Too Damn High’ party … everybody loved him in the debates … but the machines say almost no one voted for him?! They even used some pretext to delete his YouTube video that had over 5 million views. As Joe Stalin said, ‘It’s not who votes & how, it’s who counts the votes & how!’

    How about US political prisoners like Amer-Indian Leonard Peltier, 70 years old in bad health, clearly railroaded into jail 4 decades ago, & Obama won’t sign to let that dying great man out? In a USA with 2.3 million prisoners – 25% of all the prisoners in the world! – the USA right now jailing 1 out of every 140 people, vs. 1 out of 1000 here in Western Europe. In fact, 1 out of every 40 working-age US males, is in jail TODAY!

    Freedom of the press? Propaganda managed & censored via CIA-Google, CIA-Wikipedia, & 6 companies owning nearly the entire USA ‘press’? And then there’s all those dead & ‘suicided’ USA journalists, like Gary Webb they said ‘shot himself in the head’ – TWICE. Whole bunch of USA journalists / bloggers dead recently too, ‘accidents’ & ‘suicides’ of course.

    Worker’s rights? Everyone in Cuba has medical care access, like here in Benelux … we have zero poverty among legal residents in Benelux, and no one in Cuba is homeless or hungry … but in the USA, however …

    Well, enough European perspective … time to enjoy a Havana Club and an H. Upmann … items that could get a Yank arrested by the US regime!

  13. The writer misses multiple factors here or is misleading or has been mislead .

    The embargo has been applied by the US to the US-domestic market to not trade goods from Cuba, not the way around. Cuba has not demanded anything to lift nor continue the embargo. Its the US who is limiting the trade by its self and its the US who is demanding “free elections”/”privatizations”/repatriations and millions of dollars for the confiscation during the revolution in order to lift the self applied embargo.
    Its the US government who should “Bend” and accept the island country with a different system of regime and lift the stupid embargo.

    The only institution that manages Habanos is Habanos SA (which is half owned by Altadis SA and now Imperial Tobacco ) and the exclusive franchise they sell is La Casa del Habanos. So no, no stores will have Cubans if they are not LCDH.

    The tobacco products are managed by Cuba Tabaco and they do export to a hand full of cigar manufacturers around the world but only short filler and low grade longs and those manufacturers have dealt with cuban tobacco for decades now and are never a competition to Habanos. So your guess that Cuba exporting tobacco to any anti-castro manufacturers to compete with one of the most important industry for the nation is just absurd.

    About the tobacco production capacity is also misleading. Its actually 30% of the capacity compared to the 50’s (when tobacco consumption were astronomical) and the land which used to grow tobacco are growing other products for the domestic market. They could anytime switch to tobacco when ever demand grows.

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