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Stogie Commentary: Is the Cuban Cigar Hype Justified?

27 Aug 2008

Over 335 million premium cigars were imported to the United States in 2007, most from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Every time I see that figure—which is up about 8% from 2006—I wonder how many more entered American soil under the radar of Uncle Sam.

The amount of “black market” cigars in this country has to be astronomical given the U.S. government’s hypocritical trade embargo against Cuba. Just think of how many enthusiasts you know who have stashes of Cubans, or ponder all the websites that sell outlawed sticks to Americans, or consider how poorly U.S. Customs examines each bag coming in from a foreign country. Since these activities aren’t accurately documented—at least not publicly—coming up with a solid figure isn’t easy.

Let’s just say a lot of Cubans are imported annually, and let’s just assume you’ve smoked at least several. What I’d like to know is, generally speaking, how do Cuban cigars stack up to their Dominican, Honduran, and Nicaraguan counterparts?

Make no mistake about it, Castro’s oppressed island nation produces some fine stogies, from the Partagas Serie D No. 4 and the RyJ Short Churchill to the Cohiba Siglo VI and the Monte Petit Edmundo. We’ve published 15 full reviews of various Cubans here at since our founding in May 2006—and we’ve reviewed over 200 others from a myriad of other countries.

Our average rating on the Cubans we’ve examined is just over four stogies out of five, above the total overall average of about three and a half stogies. But take that with a grain of salt; we’ve never been big fans of bringing numbers into cigars.

I personally question whether all the Cuban cigar hype—and the excessive prices that come with black market goods—is justified. I think many of us give sub-par Cubans a pass simply because we’re not supposed to smoke them. The forbidden factor unquestionably makes them more attractive.

Also, don’t forget that we live in a golden age of cigars with countless non-Cubans that are nothing short of exceptional. Those of you who “only smoke Cubans” (I’ve seen this many times in correspondence with readers in Europe) are seriously missing out. Seriously.

After thinking on this broad, esoteric subject for many months, my conclusion is this: The world’s finest non-Cuban cigars can stand up to most of Cuba’s best, but the world’s standard stogies are no match for Cuba’s average. I’d love to hear your thoughts on my pseudo-hypothesis in the comments below.

Patrick A

photo credit: Flickr

26 Responses to “Stogie Commentary: Is the Cuban Cigar Hype Justified?”

  1. Cigar Inspector Tuesday, August 26, 2008 at 10:52 pm #

    I agree with your conclusion. The finest non-Cuban cigars that I had a chance to smoke (Opus X, Padron 1964…) can definitely stand up to a PD4 or RASS. However, most of the cigars that I ordered from the US are clearly worse than regular Cuban sticks. Of course, I also have to mention that the cost of Cuban cigars is on average 75% superior..

  2. Beringer Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 1:41 am #

    Sorry Patrick, but I have to disagree with your final conclusion that "the world’s standard stogies are no match for Cuba’s average". The mean (average) of a sample size is only relevant when one considers the range. You're taking your "average Cuban" from 15 samples. But how many Cuban cigars are out there? Your range of non-Cubans (over 200) is considerably larger. The Cuban cigar market is very much hit-or-miss, going from great to really bad. If you asked "What is the percentage of really good cigars found in Cuba versus outside Cuba?" – I don't think you can conclude that the "average" Cuban is better than the "average" non-Cuban.

    At no time in the history of cigar smoking has there been so dang many great cigars out there. When you can buy a Cuban rival like JL Salazar for under $4/stick, that's a great time to be alive. We're spoiled, even without Cuba.

    I'd like to hear your comments on the *whole* of the Cuban cigar market. Are you letting a few data points skew your perception of the average?

  3. DeadGuy Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 1:46 am #

    Pure HYPE! Cubans are definitely good cigars, but I've had many cigars that blow away any Cuban – Padron 1964 (as mentioned above) comes to mind and I'd smoke a Gurkha over a regular Cuban any day. My standard smoke is an Onyx and it is definitely better than any regular Cuban I've ever smoked.

    But, there is one particular Cuban I had that was twice as good as anything I've ever smoked. I got it from a high ranking Mexican military official, who got it directly from Fidel. I wasn't allowed to take it with me. I had to smoke it on the spot. This Mexican told me Castro took the best cigars for himself and had a collection of thousands. He handed them out sparingly and this Mexican was high enough up the food chain to get a full box. I was incredibly lucky to be in a position where he was socially required to give me one.

    It burned perfectly from foot to cap. It started out with a strong spice and chocolate flavor, then mellowed to a smooth nutty taste and ended with a touch of sweetness. There was an undertone of leather throughout.

    It was a three hour smoke. We watched beautiful young women perform traditonal Mexican dances to live Mariachi music while sipping his private taquila – they make tequila just like we have home breweries/wineries. I'm all for opening up trade with Cuba. I've got a theory that Fidel collects the cigars on the chance that one day he can get rich by selling them to Americans.

    It was one of the top 20 moments of my life. Yes, you can feel jealous now.

  4. B Casanova Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 3:13 am #

    Your hypothesis is perfectly written: "The world’s finest non-Cuban cigars can stand up to most of Cuba’s best, but the world’s standard stogies are no match for Cuba’s average."

    It's the average that is what is impressive. And I think that comes more from the flavor and mellow richness of Cuban grown and cured tobacco. It definitely isn't the rollers, the construction, or the presentation. Most of the Cubans I have are not that special to look at, with wrappers that are anything but perfect. It's the smoke that comes out of it is what makes them desirable to me. Personally, I think that the trend for non-cubans has been increasingly the stronger, the darker, the better. It is harder and harder to find a really good medium-bodied cigar. I like to relax when I smoke, not worry that I haven't eaten enough before I lite up a spicebomb!

  5. Rob Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 4:15 am #

    Hi. I am from Europe, regular cigar smoker, ISOM and NC. My take on the subject is that cuban cigars are not overhyped – well maybe just a tad, but they are SERIOUSLY overpriced. ISOMs taste different, just like every country has specific terroir and that reflects on a natural product. NC cigars in recent years have gained on ISOMs tremendeusly in quality and taste with blenders performing almost miracles. Average priced box of NC of say 80-100 US dollars is usually just as good if not better than an average ISOM, but with the difference being that you cannot get a box of legitimate cuban robustos, let alone larger size for such a price. Petit coronas yes, panatellas yes, maybe even some coronas, but anything larger – forget it. Cubans have successfully mystified and romanticized their cigars, this is the secret to their success. To Cubans, a cigar is a "PURO – a tradition and art, ", to others, cigar is a "product". Yes, Cubans have fantastic tobacco, but so have the Nicaraguans, Dominicans, etc. But they also have cash flow problems which prevents them from aging their tobacco, unlike their counterparts from the rest of the world, so this step is left to smokers. Sure, I buy a box and dont smoke all in one month. But I want a smokable, "ready" cigar, not a young one which was rushed to the market as soon as tobacco turned brown with advice to age it for 3 years to become "great smoke". Smokers who limit themselves by smoking only this or that are missing out tremendeously. And that comes from someone who has a genuine Cohiba Robusto around the corner.

  6. Connoisseur Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 4:21 am #

    The fact that it is forbidden creates mystique about this carefully handcrafted product. I have had the best that all nations have to offer. Padron, Gurka, Arturo, and Tatuje are all good cigars. But they are no better than a Cuban Machine Made cigar like Guantanamera or Jose Piedra. Why? The proof is in the character of the cigar. All hand made cuban cigars possess an earthy twang characteristic that only Nicaraguan cigars have come close. And each different marca from Habanos contains a consistent multi dimensional flavor profile that is unique. Flavor in a Habanos changes from the Foot, to the Body of the cigar on down to the Head. A Montecristo No.2 for example will possess a Creamy Coffee and Chocolate characteristic at the foot, then transisition to a Sandlewood/Honeysuckle character at the Body and then transisiton to a Floral/ Dark Chocolate character at the Head. In the other hand you have an Opus, first you are going to pay $30, then flavor of the cigar will be one dimensional throroughout, and I guarantee it will not be a life alterting event. With the last Opus I had it tasted of toasted tobacco and gingerbread, which are certainly not bad characteristics. But the Opus overall had a unbalanced sour flavor that is indicative of most non-Cuban cigars. Let's compare the subtle flavors in a Opus. Those gingerbread flavors were so pronounced that they do not integrate with the tabacco very well. It's almost as if they injected the cigar with that flavor instead of infusing the leaf with these aromas during fermentation. Granted the Opus was good and flavor was consistent throughout, but it was one trick poney and for the money you should be thanking god for the exerience. The same holds true for the best Padron's, Gurka's, and Tatujes and just like Cuban Machine Made cigars they are all good one dimensional cigars. That is what set Cuban's apart from all the rest. And consistency from the forbidden island is better than it has been in a decade. Since the last cigar boom in the 90's, so I fear what may happen if the embargo ends.

  7. furious Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 4:52 am #

    There is a certain hype and allure with habanos that is decidedly lacking with any non-cuban. Part of it has to do with the tenous political history and relationship between the U.S. and Cuba post-embargo, and some of this hype and allure has to do with the fact that cubans were legal in this country until 1962, and thus were much admired by many lovers of the leaf here for many years. Add in a heavy dose of JFK and Fidel and the allure grows. I particularly enjoy the old rumor that JFK originally attempted to exempt cubans from the embargo, but he received so much static from Tampa cigar merchants that he was forced to include his beloved cubans. Of course, we all know that Kennedy had no trouble procuring them anyway.

    Regarding whether all the hype is justified, I would offer that there is something inherent to the land of Cuba that imparts flavors to the leaf that other locations cannot duplicate. These flavors are felt by many to be very robust and earthy–something akin to terroir in wine speak. So many Cuban reviews cite this flavor note of rich, damp earth. I have experienced this earthy quality many times with Cubans, but never to the same level with other NC sticks. Of course, this is rather general and I am a lover of habanos, so please understand that I am heavily biased.

  8. cigarfan Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 6:27 am #

    Earlier this year researchers conducted a study that showed that there is a link between one's enjoyment of a product and knowledge of the price, or in the terms of the study, "Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness." In that case, it was wine. The same argument can be made for cigars, compounded in this case by the "forbidden fruit" factor for Americans. If it's rare, forbidden, and expensive, it must be delightful…

    Blind tastings by experienced and educated smokers have shown that it is extremely rare that an individual can correctly distinguish a Cuban from a non-Cuban even 50% of the time.

    I don't know if it's "hype" or not, but I think we have to keep human nature in mind when assigning superior status to anything that is judged so subjectively.

  9. Connoisseur Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 6:46 am #

    If an educated smoker could not distinguish the difference between the two I would question his experience. I have seen novices say they tell by just the unlit aroma. They are not rare when they produce over 100 million a year. They are not expensive when a Monte No. 2 is less than $8 out of a box. They may be forbidden but they are not unattainable.

  10. BubbaGene Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 6:50 am #

    Cigarfan, you are on to something there. The only way to tell is blind tastings. Beringer makes an important point as well in regard to statistics and samples size. Patrick, you have already tried many of the best known Cubans, but have you sampled noted stinkers for your data base?

    From my own experience, I've had some great Cubans and some clunkers, which of course goes for non-cubans too.

  11. Patrick A Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 7:15 am #

    This is a wonderful discussion with great information and some rich opinions. I thank all of those who have participated, as well as those who are planning to participate.

    Beringer and BubbaGene make a good point: My experience with Cubans has largely been limited to the major Habanos S.A. brands like Cohiba, RyJ, and Monte. I suppose by "Cuba's average" I meant brands like Hoyo, Upmann, Vegas Robaina, and Fonseca. Perhaps that isn't accurate.

    I've only tried one kind of machine-made Cuban–the Guantanamera Compay–and I wasn't a huge fan.

  12. Daniel Q Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 7:44 am #

    I have tried many cigars from various countries including Cuba. I have found each country to put out poor-to-excellent cigars. I have been absolutely delighted with a few Cubans; yet most have been ok. The same goes for any other region: Dominican, Nicaraguan, Honduran, etc. Great tobacco makes great cigars.

    Now personally; I don't buy Cubans for I don't like to pay the premium nor want to have my name on any Fed list. It just isn't worth it to me. I think the rest of the world is producing cigars that can satisfy my tastes.

    Perhaps one day in a "Free" world; I can walk to my B&M and pick up Siglo. If the price is right; I'll be there.

  13. Cigar Jack Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 10:46 am #

    Cuban cigars have lost that "forbidden fruit" mystique for me and honestly I've stopped going out of the way to get them. I've had too many burn issues and a couple that just didn't taste quite right. I've shelling out close to $200 for a box of cigars I expect to be able to enjoy 90% of the box. (Yes they were legit and aged).

    If I want something Mild-Medium I'm looking at something from the Dominican. Typically something Kelner or La Aurora produced. Kelner's blends have a very unique flavor to them that I'm just know learning to apperciate these mild but wonderful cigars.

    If I want something full mostly I'm reaching for something coming out of Nicaragua, but Honduras and Brazil are also near the top of the list.

    I think Padron, Plasencia, Perdomo and Pepin are turning Nicaragua into the best tobacco region in the world surpassing Cuba.

    Compared $ to $ you can get a better nonCuban than a Cuban.

    Another thing that surprised me recently is a review of something like 50 robustos by ECCJ. The Cubans for the most part did rather poorly, but I don't think larger ring cigars is Cuba's best. I think Coronas and smaller are where they excel.

  14. dmjones Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 12:01 pm #

    Mostly hype. I've had a couple of truly great Cuban stogies: a Partagas (specific size/number I don't remember) and a Montecristo (a pyramid, but again I don't remember the specific size). I've had one Cuban that kicked my butt good (Romeo y Julieta) and several that were very disappointing (including the Montecristo Edmundo). I have found that even the best are simply not worth the price, though; if you could get them for $8 to $10 per stick, it would be a great value, but when you pay 2 to 4 times that much, the value goes out the window.

    I think you're paying for the mystique of having something illegal at this point, and I am over it. I can get decent smokes in the $4 to 7 range; really good smokes in the $7 to 9 range; and awesome cigars for $9 to 12. Why would I waste the extra on a Cuban that might not even taste as good?

  15. big mike Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 12:35 pm #

    You must have followed me.I just returned home to Miami after a vacation in Nassau at Graycliff.I purchased graycliff purples for$18,graycliff blacks for$18,partagas D#4 $21,and a cohiba siglio $50.I bought the cubans at Havana Humidor on paradise island in atlantis casino to make sure I got the real deal so maybe I over paid a bit.I buy most of my cigars on calle ocho and the area surrounding it in MIami these include all of the don pepins $8-$12,all of the padrons $3-$16 el titan de bronzes $4-$6 and of course cuban crafters for change I found in my sofa.While I was smoking the cubans I kept telling myself great cigar but for the price of these 2 cigars I could have purchased 9 don pepin blues if they were the same price and legal I would put them in my rotation but with the same quality for a fraction of the price I'll stick with non-cubans.P.S. anybody who wants to try a good cigar look up casillas in sacramento,ca now thats a good smoke

  16. topapito Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 1:43 pm #

    It would do good to know how the cigar business works in Cuba. First, a little history, I am Cuban, and come from a cigar smoking family and that I know of, am the 5th generations cigar smoker.

    The Cuban government figured out it could ride the wave of fame it's cigars rightfully earned before castro. So no leaf is left to rot. The goal is to increase production and sales. You cannot have volume if you want to keep the quality. Hence, the Cuban government is in on the cigar scam. Low quality cigars are shipped out every day as high quality.

    Don't have much time to continue, I've checked the notification box. Will be back tomorrow, sorry.

  17. oceanelect Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 3:32 pm #

    lets have a no band throw down to see if a certain number of people can tell the difference.

  18. Javier Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 11:31 pm #

    I am a european guy. I live in Spain, the country in Europe with less taxes on tobacco. Here it is complicated to find no cuban cigars. I can only get some Padron and Opus in very few shops here in Barcelona. For me, smoke a non cuban cigarro is like you trying to smoke a cuban one. Also the price is the same or even less.

    But I have to say that the best cigars I have ever smoked are cuban: Magnum 46 from H.P. Upmann, a Churchill from Romeo y Julieta, a special Edition 2005 from Montecristo, a Partagas P2, a Cohiba Maduro, a Special Edition 2007 from Trinidad, a Cuaba Salomon, Epicure nº 2 from Hoyo de Monterrey. There are a lot of incredible cigars! I would say that every company has at least 1 or 2 super quality cigars.

    In my opinion, when Fidel died and the embargo finish, the prices will increase and the quality will be less to sell the most quantity of cigars.

  19. Erik Friday, August 29, 2008 at 2:52 am #

    I'm from Europe (Holland) and have been mostly smoking cuban cigars over the last ten years… but I have to say that the poor quality of the things often left me frustrated. A good cuban cigar is hard to beat , but when you buy a Padron or Camacho you just know you will get your money's worth. (at least you'll be fairly sure you can smoke the damn thing). Really , I prefer the Camacho Corojo to any Monecristo… Then again , the R y J Cazadores is still my favourite cigar…

  20. Larry Saturday, August 30, 2008 at 12:06 pm #

    Hey guys love the site.

    Well first lets examine your title. "Hype." I don't think it is "hype" at all. Thats like saying is French champagne up to the "hype" or is prime dry aged beef up to the "hype."

    The question begins with a faulty assumption.

  21. shawn Saturday, August 30, 2008 at 2:41 pm #

    Cuban zealots just fall back to the same old story- cubans are the best beause they're cubans.

  22. Alex D Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 6:33 am #

    Interesting discussion. This is a subject I often wondered about myself. My findings tend to agree with Patrick's conclusion: "the world’s standard stogies are no match for Cuba’s average".

    I'll explain why: When I started smoking cigars, I didn't know what I liked except the pleasure of smoking stogies and discovering the many different flavors. I was trying everything I could get my hands on and that included Cubans and NCs. I live in Canada so I have access to both but I have more trouble finding certain NCs than I have buying any Cuban available (except regional editions), just like Javier from spain noted earlier. It was a long "Try them all, find what you like" type discovery session since I had nobody to educate me (I picked up the habit alone, no smoking budies or aficionados that I knew of).

    Now, I'm far from having tried them all, or even anywhere close to it (there are so many!). Besides, the Canadian prices/taxes on tobacco products plus the ban on smoking in public places are factors which seriously reduce my cigar smoking sessions and my abilities to increase my (small) stash. There isn't a big difference between prices on Cubans and prices on premium NCs around here. I often found myself ordering NCs from US online retailers (hoping that Canadian customs won't charge me) while having friends and family pick up a box or two while vacationing in Cuba.

    Over the years, I developed a strong preference for the Cuban taste – aka twang or zip. I found that with very few exceptions (Guantanamera and several other machine mades), all Cuban sticks have it. It's that little something that makes the cigar so much more enjoyable and I've yet to find that characteristic in a non-cuban. And although I've found many NC to be good to very good, some 'ordinary' cubans like the JLP or even the cuban peso cigar ($1 for 25) give me more satisfaction.

    My conclusion: I like all cigars but my love goes to the cubans. Didn't you guys quote someone as saying "The best cigar is the cigar you like best"? I couldn't agree more…

  23. кyкyш Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 11:59 am #

    Где-то я уже нечто аналогичное читал, причём один в один… 🙂

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