Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Cubans and Countefeits

     A few years ago I was given a sampler of good cigars.  I enjoyed the occasional cigar but I had no idea how to keep them fresh.  In fact, I knew very little about cigars.  I was quick to learn that cigar snobs are very prone to writing articles, so I did my research.  Several years later, I have my own humidor and a separately vented smoking room.  It’s the perfect place to meet with friends, talk about how awesome we are and burn some good smoke sticks.
      The lore of the infamous Cuban cigar is the next thing a cigar fan wonders about.  Are they really that good?  Why are they illegal?  It was on a beach in Manzanillo, Mexico where I learned the hard truth about the “Cubans” I’d bought.  They were fake.  I was disappointed, but it also explained why they tasted like lawn mower scrapings and cost so little.  I thought everything was cheaper in Mexico and maybe I hadn’t yet developed a taste for the good stuff.
     I went back to the “dot com machine” to figure out what’s going on with Cuba.  The reason they are illegal is that the U.S. has a trade embargo against Cuba.  Apparently we still have the red-ass over the missile crisis and it is illegal for a U.S. citizen to drop any bucks in Cuba.  They’re sold all over the world, especially in Europe and Canada.    Some countries, such as Switzerland, sell them online.  It’s still unlawful for us to purchase them even through another country.  After more study, I was saddened to learn that the vast majority of Cuban cigars in Mexico are fake.  Some are very good fakes where they use premium Dominican cigars.  The best explanation I’ve read is that it’s all a matter of economics.
     Cuban cigars are produced in state-run factories and sold through state stores.  This makes for a tightly controlled market where the price doesn’t vary due to competition.  This fixes the bottom-line price worldwide.  This means that if a Cohiba Siglio VI is being sold for $6, it’s fake.  The real thing is at least three times that much, so it’s impossible that a distributor bought it from a Cuban state store, shipped it to Mexico and put it in the Puerto Vallarta shop for one-third the market price.  It’s more likely he bought a mule-load of San Andreas rolled corn silk wrapped in a band that just came out of his laser printer. 
     Making matters worse, there are fake Cubans from Cuba.  Remember the state stores?  Sometimes people manage to grow tobacco outside of the state farms and somehow get them to market with fake bands.  They’re still from Cuba, but the brand is misrepresented.  I’ve heard that they’re not as good.  I do understand that the seed and processes used in producing the big brands are all closely guarded secrets.  I doubt small counterfeiters could produce equivalent products.
     Cigars are an interesting study in economics.  After the embargo, many growers fled to the U.S. with their seeds and secrets.  That’s why there are legal, high-quality cigars on our shelves that bear the same names as the Cuban bands.  There were some trademark infringement claims, but our government decided that our laws didn’t apply because of the trade embargo.  It sounds a little like twisting the knife.  This led to a competition driven market that produces great cigars at modest price.  Products of Nicaragua, The Dominican Republic, Brazil, and similar countries rival Cuba in craftsmanship and flavor.  Unlike a state cigar mill, these companies have competitiors and strive for a better product than the other guy. 
     To make matters worse, Cuban cigars are very easy to fake.  They're not remarkable in appearance.  While they're well-made, they don't stand out from their premium legal versions.  If the buyer is uninformed, as I was, a good box and band will pass.  One clever trick I picked up was to ask the store if you can keep the box if you buy the remaining cigars inside.  Reputable cigar shops sell sealed boxes and individual cigars from an open box.  They're happy to give you the box so they don't have to throw it away or store it.  If they're selling fakes, the boxes may be real and they won't part with them.  Learning the labels is fairly easy, and it's pretty easy to spot a printer job.  Now I have fun going to fake shops asking for boxes.  So far, 100% are not willing to part with their boxes.  Some simple checking would have saved me the trouble.  They'll often try to pass the same cigar off with different bands in the same store.  They'll all be the same size and color.  Mexican stores, airports and seemingly high-end shops offer gift package tubos and other products that Cuban makers have never produced.  Also, the display boxes are often odd-sized compared to the cigars. 
     Now for the big question: Do the Cuban labels live up to the hype?  For me, the cheaper, less-known names were the more impressive than the big brands with the exception of Montecristo.  There is a distinct natural flavor in all of them.  It's similar to how a Pecos cantaloupe compares to the others.  Reviews are best left to another article by someone with more knowledge than me.  Remember, they're illegal to purchase, not to smoke.  Enjoy one if you get a legal chance. 
     So what’s a cigar fan to do?  My best advice would be to enjoy in moderation the good, legal cigars that a free market economy has produced.  Go to your local cigar pub and light one off.  Pub prices are double the internet box price, but it’s a chance to sample before taking the plunge.  Beware any “Cuban” someone picked up on a cruise ship stop.  It may be good, it may even be Cuban, but the chances that it’s a real Cuban are dismal.