By Marc Phillips
Back when I was still living in Colorado, I wrote a column for The Smoking Jacket concerning the influx of Cuban cigars into the US after the first steps were taken to normalize relations between the two countries. The article discussed a box of Cohiba Esplendidos being offered for an extremely reasonable price, something I attributed to a very active “grey market”, perhaps looking to get rid of excess inventory before the flood gates opened. We decided not to run it for a variety of reasons, but I am sooooooooo glad that we did not publish that article. Why? Well, if we had published it, we probably would have received at least a couple of letters to the editor that would have revealed that my Esplendidos were falsos and that I was a major dumbass.
I like to think that I can recognize a counterfeit Cuban cigar on most days—I know how to identify the factory seals, I can research the design of the bands and look for discrepancies such as smeared letters or asymmetrical design work, and if all else fails I can light one up and in one puff I’ll know. As I said, I like to think that. But I’m wrong.
I didn’t realize I was wrong about that box of Cohibas until very recently—just a few weeks ago, in fact, right before the holidays. I’ve been hanging out with a very knowledgeable group of cigar smokers in New York. Since we’re only about 40 miles from the Canadian border, it’s fairly easy for most of us to head up to Toronto or Montreal and grab a few sticks, and as of late 2016 it’s now perfectly legal to bring a few back as long as they are “for personal consumption.” I guess that means you shouldn’t try to cross the border with a few hundred boxes, although I probably wouldn’t have an issue with personally consuming them—over several years, of course. But I don’t think that’s the spirit of the new legislation.
Most of these seasoned smokers have reliable sources for real Cuban cigars. They work with people who are very serious about providing the genuine product, and they go to extreme lengths to prove authenticity. They scan the barcodes on the boxes to trace the supply chain, they cut cigars open to make sure they’re not filled ground up twigs and dirt (yes, that does happen with counterfeits) and they even have Skype auctions so that the buyers can watch the official Cuban seals being broken, the cigars being inspected and the purchased product being placed into shipping boxes and then resealed. With all these precautions, you’re guaranteed to get the real thing. And if you don’t, the seller will give you your money back. The last thing these guys want to do is accidentally sell a counterfeit. They’d be out of business.
But once in a while you get duped. But before I tell you about how I got duped, I do want to discuss going into Canada and getting real Cuban cigars. As I’ve said before, counterfeit Cuban cigars are everywhere—95% of the Cuban cigars sold in Mexico are counterfeit, 50% of the Cuban cigars sold in Canada are counterfeit and even Havana has a 33% counterfeit rate. But here’s a recent statistic that’s even scarier—as much as 95% of all Cuban cigars in the United States right now are probably counterfeit.
Cigar Chief was in a rundown building on the outskirts of town, right across the street from an old abandoned mill that was covered in graffiti. The grass in front of the building was brown and dead. You couldn’t see into the store from the outside. This is Canada? Did I make a wrong turn into Detroit? I almost turned around and drove back to New York.
I persevered and went inside and found myself in a truly beautiful and somewhat rustic cigar store. I was met by a very pleasant, quiet young man (which proved to me that I was in Canada after all), and he showed me around. There were several walk-in humidors, but one was set aside just for Cuban cigars. I stepped inside and was suddenly face to face with all the classic Cubans I’ve heard about over the last few years—Cohiba, Montecristo, Cuaba, Ramon Allones, Quai D’Orsay, Romeo y Julieta, Partagas, Hoyo de Monterrey, Saint Luis Rey and much more. They were all organized according to size and brand, with the original boxes and seals still on display. Every single stick was beautiful. The smells inside the walk-in were extraordinary, unlike any walk-in humidor I’ve visited. It would be arrogant for me to say that I “knew” these were all real, but there was no doubt in my mind at that moment that I was in the right place.
I wound up purchasing a Montecristo No. 2 and a little Cuaba figurado. Looking at the Cohiba section, which was filled with Esplendidos and Siglos and more, I asked the gentleman if he had any Behikes—a storied cigar that I really want to smoke at least once before I die. I didn’t find one in Australia last year, and I was on a quest to try what was supposed to be one of the most fantastic cigars ever rolled. He almost laughed in my face and then caught himself, saying something to the effect that NO ONE has those right now and you’ll be on a very long waiting list to get one. So I picked the Monte because I’ve always loved them, and I picked the little Cuaba because the last one I’d smoked—in Texas back in 2011—is probably my favorite cigar of all time.
Cigar Chief didn’t have a lounge, so I drove around until I found a nice little park to sit down and smoke. Both cigars were exquisite. I didn’t want to bring anything back into the US because I just wasn’t in the mood to get caught—a friend of mine is on the No-Fly List because he tried to bring some Cuban cigars into the US once—so I smoked them both and headed home. When I reached the border, I rolled the window down and the border patrol officer looked right at me and said, “Sir, did you bring any Cuban cigars back into the US?”
I laughed once I realized I probably stunk of cigars. “No,” I replied. “But I did smoke a couple while I was here.” He laughed and let me back into the US.
I told this story to a few of my New York cigar buddies. One of them, perhaps newer to cigars than most of us but still very enthusiastic, told me he was checking out a new source for Cuban cigars and asked me if I wanted to go in with him on a couple of boxes. I was reluctant for a number of reasons. First, I want to smoke before I buy because I know about the preponderance of counterfeits. Second, I don’t buy cigars in bulk because usually requires a substantial investment, and I also get bored with smoking the same stick over and over. I enjoy heading down to the local cigar store and buying just one or two at a time and never smoking the same stogie two times in a row unless it’s something really special.
I told my buddy, “If you buy a bunch, perhaps I’ll buy some off you.”
“What do you want me to get? I’ll check to see if I can get them.”
I thought about it. I told him that I really would like to smoke that Cohiba Behike. Just one. Considering they sell for as much as $100 per stick on the grey market, I wasn’t looking for a box. Then I told him I’d buy a Montecristo No. 2 from him because I had just smoked that one in Canada, so the taste and experience of a real one was still fresh in my mind and then I’d know if my buddy’s source was reliable or not. Finally, I told him that I would love to smoke a Montecristo A. The A is, along with the No. 2, a legendary Cuban cigar. It’s nearly 10 inches long, and it’s supposed to last up to three hours. I’ve always been attracted to the sheer audacity of such a cigar, and I’ve heard it’s a truly great smoke.
After a couple of weeks, I heard back from my friend. He couldn’t find Behikes, of course, but the No. 2s and the As were coming. When they arrived, one of my other cigar buddies brought in an expert to look at them. Unfortunately, they were deemed counterfeit.
But here’s the thing—without this expert I would have purchased them and smoked them and thought they were real. They looked beautiful. I matched them with photographs of the real thing and they were identical. I checked the bands and they looked perfect. One of the easiest ways to determine if a Montecristo is counterfeit is to take off the band and look at the back. On a real Monte, the letters on the band are raised. On a counterfeit, the paper is perfectly flat. As you can see in the photo, this was a real Montecristo band. I smoked one of the No. 2s and I swore that it was almost identical in flavor to the one I smoked back in Canada, which made me wonder if the Canadian one was a counterfeit, too. Then as I got to the last third of the cigar, the flavor grew harsh and bitter—something that would never occur with a real Montecristo No. 2. The Canadian stick was smooth to the end.
The counterfeit Montecristo A did not fare as well. It was a difficult draw and never seemed to really open up. The flavors were complex yet smooth like a good Cuban, but the stick burned unevenly. Here was the kicker—I smoked this monster in less than an hour. The real thing is supposed to last three. While the fake No. 2 was passable and might fool quite a few seasoned cigar smokers, the fake A was a total bust. The expert concluded that the counterfeiters did a decent job on the No. 2s and probably used real Cuban tobacco. It just wasn’t a real No. 2. And that’s why I bought a few for a very reasonable price—they were worth what I wound up paying.
I’m leaving out an important detail. It’s the detail that should have been obvious to me when I was asked to go in on the Montecristos in the first place, and when I bought that box of Cohibas more than a year ago. That detail, of course, was the cost.
That box of Cohiba Esplendidos cost me $300. I went online and found that a box of 25 usually sold for $1100 to $1300. I could buy a single stick online for about $71. I told myself, “Wow! I got a great deal! These cost me a little over $10 each!” So I went home, smoked them all and even wrote a column about them.
We checked with a couple of experts on those Montecristo As as well. They went to their sources and could not find them easily. Finally they located a box of 20 As for $1850. My buddy paid $300 for his box.
The question is, why would anyone sell a $1300 box of cigars for $300? The answer is that they are counterfeit, that’s why. No one sells a box of Cuban cigars at a discount. They don’t need to. The box will sell easily at its retail price. In fact, it is common to pay even more than that since real Cuban cigars are so rare that they usually prompt a bidding war.
If this experience taught me anything, it’s this: Cuban cigars are wonderful. It’s a rare occasion when I smoke a real Cuban cigar that is anything less than spectacular. In fact, I have a beautiful Cuaba aging in my humidor right now, and the day that I smoke it will be a great day. But are Cuban cigars worth all the crazy?
I don’t think they are. Again, I can get the same sublime experience from a Padron 1926 Anniversary or a Tatuaje 2009 Le Verite or a Litto Gomez Small Batch or at least twenty other sticks that are sourced from Nicaragua, Dominican Republic or somewhere else. I’ve already covered most of this in the very first installment of The Smoking Jacket, “Do You Really Need Cuban Cigars?” But I read that column now and wince slightly, knowing that the Cuban cigar market is far more complex than I originally thought. Chasing after Cuban cigars, wondering if they’re real, worrying about getting ripped off—it’s contrary to the whole idea of smoking cigars as a way to relax and enjoy yourself. So stop worrying about it.
As for me, I’m going to light up that Cuaba tonight and forget that any of this ever happened.