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The Hazy Future for Cuban Cigars

The Hazy Future for Cuban Cigars
Karl Vick @karl_vick June 13, 2015

When long-forbidden Cuban cigars become more available to Americans,
will they maintain their aroma of glamour?

If the opening to Cuba proceeds to its logical conclusion, it’ll be
cigars all around. The island’s iconic product, forbidden as imports to
the U.S. since 1962 by the economic embargo, long ago moved from sorely
missed to the realm of nearly fetishistic obsession. After half a
century, the hand-rolled House of Habano puros now appear to contain all
that was just out of reach to Americans, as well as the flavor distinct
to the soil of Pinar del Río, the southwestern province where the
world’s most famous tobacco leaves are grown. The 100 million Cuban
cigars sold worldwide count as one of the nation’s leading exports, up
there with nickel and cane sugar, a crucial source of hard currency for
a government that never figured out the economy.

It’s not just the distinctive taste. A great deal of both history and
mystique gets wrapped up in the leaves assembled on the wooden tables
where the tabaqueros famously sit in rows, facing the elevated platform
where a lector reads a newspaper aloud, to occupy the mind while the
fingers fly. A tour of the Partagás factory remains one of the tourist
mainstays of Havana—state property since its building, farms and brands
were appropriated, along with every other private concern, by a
revolutionary government that over time actually managed to enhance the
brand. Fidel Castro’s cigar was as much a part of his image as his
fatigues, and far less egalitarian. The cigar was a Cohiba, a brand
created specially for the upper echelons of the Communist elite (Che
Guevara loved them too) before being marketed as a global label in 1982,
three years before Fidel quit smoking.

The contradiction—elite taste vs. leveling ideology—never seemed to
bother anyone; such was the power of a tradition that goes to the heart
of Cuba’s appeal as a culture. The modern hotel where U.S. diplomats
first openly met Cuban officials to discuss renewing relations was
pleasant enough, but you only knew you were in Cuba within the dark
wooden walls of its tobacco shop. Beside the door sits an elegantly
groomed older man in a guayabera, Arnaldo Alfonso Ibáñez, rolling them
fresh in Cohiba wrappers. He may have to pick up the pace. Under the new
regulations published by the Obama administration, U.S. citizens can
bring back up to $100 of tobacco (or alcohol) products. Should Congress
vote to lift the embargo outright, Habanos, a 50-50 partnership of the
Cuban state and a British firm, estimates that its sales would jump 70%.

And what would be lost? A certain cachet. Some memories. I learned to
smoke on Cubans, two boxes I carried back to Washington from a visit to
Havana in the late 1990s. It was good to start small—the Romeo y Julieta
“Cedros”—and in the open air, to build up tolerance before moving on to
the second box, Cohiba “Lanceros” so obviously counterfeit that the
customs agent at the Dallas airport (“we just had a class on cigars”)
handed them back to me, shaking his head. By the time I moved abroad,
Havanas were about all you could buy in the duty-free humidors of the
airports a foreign correspondent knows better than his own bed. I once
expensed a box of Bolivar Gigantes after handing them out to help battle
the stench on a Ugandan hilltop that produced not one but two mass
graves; the accounting department put it through.

They also made great gifts, though it was a mistake not to tell a friend
about the handful I’d tucked into his knapsack before driving him to the
airport for his flight back to Los Angeles. A customs agent found them
first and “cut them up there in front of me,” he reported later, not
happy. He was a freelancer who wrote profiles for Cigar Aficionado,
usually celebrities, some of whom would stay in touch after publication,
calling him up when they got their hands on some Cubans. “The people who
want ’em are getting them,” says Bill Sherman, grandson of the New York
tobacconist who took in the owner of Partagás after he was driven out of
Cuba. Nat Sherman’s Townhouse sells its own brand, but a cabinet of 400
pre-embargo Partagás has pride of place in the members’ vault on 42nd
Street in Manhattan, perhaps the largest stock in the U.S. of
pre-Revolutionary cigars, a level of exclusivity that approaches either
the effervescent or the ridiculous, depending. But there’s a reason for
its following.

“What makes a Bordeaux from Bordeaux special?” Sherman asks. “You can’t
take a Bordeaux seed and plant it in Napa Valley and get the same wine.
It’s the soil, the sun, the climate.” Still, over the years, California
has managed some superior varietals of its own, as drinkers grew more
sophisticated and learned to trust their own tastes. Something like that
may happen if Cubans hit the States.

“I gotta tell you, as a retailer, I’m ecstatic. We’ll be selling them,”
Sherman says. But without the mystique of the forbidden, Cubans will
have to earn their place in the pantheon. “You go to Spain,” he notes,
“and Cuban cigars are less expensive than Domincans.”

Source: The Hazy Future for Cuban Cigars | TIME –

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