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Commentary: Are Old Cigar Lines Being Cheapened?

2 Apr 2013

I subscribe to a newsletter about American whiskey called the Bourbon County Reader. (If you’re serious about bourbon, I recommend subscribing.) In the issue that just arrived in my mailbox, editor Chuck Cowdery observes the long-term trend of cheapening older product lines, especially those with more value-oriented prices.

buttHe notes that over the years a number of bourbons have eliminated their age statement (which designates the minimum length of time that the contained spirit aged in new charred barrels), freeing the distillers to combine any combination of straight whiskey and giving distillers increased flexibility to ramp up production more quickly without the cost of longer aging.

Other bourbons have been watered down, often from bond strength (100-proof) to 80-proof, which is the lowest a bourbon can be without being labeled “diluted whiskey” (most notably, Jack Daniels was cut from 86-proof to 80-proof). The savings here are twofold: (1) adding more water means a barrel of whiskey produces more bottled spirit; and (2) since taxes are based on alcohol content, it reduces the per-bottle tax.

This got me thinking about cigars. Are older “legacy” brands being similarly cheapened? The answer is yes, almost certainly some are. The scarier part is that unlike bourbon, there’s no easy way to know which ones are.

Whereas bourbon labels have strict standards about what claims can be made, there is no similar standard for cigars. Of course most of the time there is no need to lie, because most cigar boxes and labels say very little about how the cigars are made or what is in them.

(I feel obligated to point out here that I certainly don’t want the government to increase regulation on cigars. Though I’ll admit the prospect of FDA regulation would be far less objectionable if I were convinced the goal was simply more information for consumers, and not actually government control over which cigars are available with the underlying goal of limiting the choices that adult consumers have.)

Considering that cigar makers have to produce the “same cigar” year after year, often in increasing quantities, some variation is to be expected. If it’s just the result of attempting to make the same cigar with the next year’s crop of tobacco, then I have no objection. (Though I’d still like a box or production date.)

The problem is when they attempt to make a similar cigar using lesser/cheaper materials, and pass it off as the same product. I suspect this accounts for at least some of the cigars that decline not long after being introduced. Perhaps they figure they can make a great cigar when introducing it to wholesale buyers, the public, and critics, then cut corners later and maximize profits. But the result is cheating their most loyal fans.

So what can a discerning cigar smoker do?

Take note of which companies keep quality and consistency high. In my experience, cigar companies that aren’t constantly releasing new lines (Arturo Fuente and Padrón certainly come to mind) do a better job. Also, the largest cigar companies seem to do well. Altadis, General Cigar, and Davidoff certainly have the capital to keep their products consistent and have invested millions into building their brands, which makes them less likely to risk long-term brand loyalty for short-term profit margins.

But there are always exceptions, for good or bad. Mostly it comes down to buyer beware, or at least be aware of the possibility that brands may have been diluted over the years.

-Patrick S

photo credit: Flickr

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