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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 PadrĂ³n 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

9 Responses to “Commentary: Are Old Cigar Lines Being Cheapened?”

  1. George E Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 9:26 am #

    Patrick – This is a major reason I've become more interested in limited editions. You can be pretty certain of what you're getting, even if you might not be able to get any more!

    • @stogieguys Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

      100% agree. While it can be frustrating to find a limited edition cigar you like, only to have it be sold out when you go back for more, there is a certain assurance you get knowing that only a limited number will be made and that they are all being made at the same time with the same tobacco.

  2. Anderson Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    Interesting take. Thank you.

    I’m wondering if you spoke with any industry contacts to confirm your hypothesis, or if this is based purely on assumption (not that industry contacts would readily admit they dilute their older blends).

    Also would be interested to hear if you get any feedback from blenders/retailers now that this is published.

    • @stogieguys Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

      I've spoken generally with industry folks about this in the past and while no one admits to doing it themselves, people do think that it happens.

      I'm not sure it's always completely deliberate. It may just be that people tend to focus their attention on the latest and greatest, while they let their older lines go on cruise control. Every cigar company owner I know has great attention to detail, but also limited time, which means tradeoffs inevitably have to be made, especially when you're responsible for a portfolio that may include a dozen or more cigar lines.

  3. Chris Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

    Agreed. I used to be a huge fan of the D.P.G. Black label, specifically the 1950 line. The cigar has dropped in quality considerably. Ironically, ever since they moved production to their new facility. I still have an old box of the original blend before their move, and the quality, consistancy and taste are DRASTICALLY different. The new ones are mushy, an flavours bland. Not impressed.

    • Dave Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

      I also used to love the DPG Black. I had one recently (with the new sleeve at the foot) and it was different — just so-so. Are you sure this is due to "cheapening" though? Like any agricultural product, tobacco changes from year to year. Also, I'm pretty sure DPG used to (but no longer does) use Aganorsa tobacco.

      • @stogieguys Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

        DPG is the most obvious example of a cigar maker losing access to the tobacco they built their brands on. (Whether the non-Aganorsa cigars are better, the same, or worse, people can decide for themselves, but obviously the tobacco is not the same.)

        Still, I suspect this happens more often than people care to admit. Unless a tobacco maker grows all the tobacco it uses itself, there is always a risk of losing access.

      • Chris Wednesday, April 3, 2013 at 11:11 am #

        I realize with a product like tobacco, the blend can change from year to year, but it doesn'r explain spongy under-filled sticks. Look to Perdomo for an example of consistant, expert rolled, quality smokes at a reasonable price. The excuse of blend changes from year to year from manufacturers is getting a little old IMHO.

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