Some time ago a cigarmaker handed me some cigars he was working on. It’s not the first time it happened, but these were different. The tagline was a glimpse into the future and it wasn’t because of a new shape, rolling technique or new tobacco, it especially wasn’t because it wasn’t new tobacco. These were cigars that combined Cuban tobacco with some of the Dominican and Nicaraguan leaves that we see everyday on the American market; perhaps a glimpse into the future.
This is not me commenting on the embargo. This is neither a discussion of politics nor economics. There are significantly larger issues at play when it comes to the embargo, Cuba’s government and the way of life for its people. This is an article written from a narrow-minded perspective—the American-based Cuban cigar smoker. The only concerns this article addresses are those for the American consumer, nothing more. It is a selfish viewpoint and comes to a conclusion that is not exactly mine when it comes to the larger Cuban question. As with all issues regarding the embargo and its lifting, it’s a series of educated hypotheticals.
If you smoke cigars long enough, you can’t avoid a simple question, “what happens when the embargo ends?” Sure, the question gets framed differently, but everyone’s been there in one way or another.
For me, the answer has been the same for a while—a necessity for human rights, bad things for a Cuban cigar consumer.
Look, buying Cuban cigars as an American is illegal. Bringing them back to the country is illegal. But the internet is a funny place and anyone in America with a computer and a credit card can have one of a hundred or so vendors ship them Cuban cigars from all over the world. Quite simply, actually purchasing of Cuban cigars online is just as easy as purchasing non-Cuban cigars, it just happens to be illegal, albeit, rarely enforced.
As such, it should come to no surprise that America is consistently regarded as one of Cuba’s three largest consumers, despite an embargo and no official distribution channel. It is this status quo—the one where American consumers can get Cuban cigars with extreme ease—that has long led me to believe changing won’t make things better for the American Habanos consumer.
First, Cuba is already making too many cigars. The embargo being lifted? Boom II. A flood of non-regular smokers would rush to try the forbidden fruit, and there already isn’t enough supply for the regular smokers. I imagine the supply/demand complex would get so out of hand we would create another basic term to describe Cuban cigar time periods: pre-embargo, embargo, post-embargo. The quality of the tobacco, the cigars, everything would be at historic lows while demand would never be higher. And that’s just the start of it.
Second, prices would skyrocket. The aforementioned supply and demand issues wouldn’t just be an American issue. Vendors all over the world would see their own supply decrease while the stock for the new legal American market simply wouldn’t be enough. Embargo stock would be a prized commodity, instantly raising prices, and the post-embargo shipments wouldn’t be exempt from price increases.
Finally, there’s the lawsuits. Altadis—whose parent, Imperial Tobacco, is also partial owner in Habanos S.A.—owns roughly half of the U.S. trademarks for the current active 30-some Habanos brands. The rest? They are owned by chief rival STG Group/General, including the marks of Cohiba, Hoyo de Monterrey, La Gloria Cubana and Partagas. It should be noted the Quesadas have the rights to Fonseca and the Padróns to Jose L. Piedra. The solution? Who knows. Perhaps there’s a large buyout, or perhaps it’s like Cohiba—decades of lawsuits.
The Altadis factor raises some questions as to how distribution would work. It’s a legitimate question, but one that seems somewhat moot if there isn’t much product for the U.S. market.
From the cigar smoker perspective, there is one thing that has always seemed like a major advancement that would come from the lifting of the embargo, using Cuban tobacco in non-puros. So here’s where we are.
I was given three different hybrids. The blends were roughly the same, Cuban wrapper over some combination of Dominican and Nicaraguan fillers. Two different Coronas and a Robusto—50 RG would be pushing it. Great shapes for yours truly. They were rolled satisfactorily, but they wouldn’t have made it out as a premium domestic cigar, the wrapper just isn’t there. Today is a Cervantes, the longest of the three and the one that most intrigued me.
The cold draw is a bit tight, but that doesn’t stop the sugar-filled twang to fill my mouth over touches off coffee and nuts. It’s pedestrian in terms of complexity, but the three notes have tons of depth and richness that make complaining seem more sour grapes than anything.
It starts with a great dose of saltiness and deepens with nuts, orange peel, lemon leather and some Dominican pepper on the finish. An inch in, and some burn corrections are necessary, but it starts fine. But then I make a mistake, a puff too soon and a harsh sourness takes over.
The first third is about the nuttiness, the second third creaminess and the final third cedar. Each part accompanied by a consistent pepper and notes of coffee. But there are some interesting notes: citrus in the first third, mint in the second, and leather in the final. Oddly, it’s more a building of flavors, as opposed to unique transitions, leaving a plethora of flavors at the final third.
A good cigar? Yes. This cigarmaker’s best? No.
There are a lot of other issues with the embargo being lifted. Chief among them is the fact that while the downfall of communism in Cuba would likely lead to the embargo being lifted, the issue is not reverse causal, so there’s no reason to believe that simply lifting the embargo will overthrow the government.
As far as the American cigar smoker is concerned, I am honestly not convinced that in this selfish vacuum it’s actually worth it. The issues that will come with the embargo being lifted and resolving the aftermath are beyond the three major contentions presented here. It’s a complex issue many have discussed, but few have likely predicted.
What’s certain is it will be a mess for the short term and perhaps longer. The Cuban brands loved today will never be the same for a lot of reasons.
There is a lot of good that will likely come from the embargo being lifted, a lot more than cigars and a lot more than I will ever be qualified to write about. But if all you care about is your status as an American cigar consumer, I am not sure there’s a clear answer on the embargo.
For me, there are larger issues for cigars, but that’s not always the case.