It’s a vice that I am not giving up. I do not care what doctors, anti-smoking activists or my wife says; to me, a fine Cuban cigar, preferably a Monte Cristo number 2, is one of life’s most indulgent luxuries and I’m not the only one who has this obsession with Cuban coronas, Churchills and torpedoes.
The finest cigars in the world are highly sought after by aficionados, and even rookie smokers, to the point that each year their production falls far short of the worldwide demand. This has created a serious problem for the reputation of the Cuban cigar market. I have heard it often from the authentic Cuban cigar supplier – “There are more counterfeit cigars sold in Havana than the genuine article.”
Trade in fakes
One local customs officer recently told me that nearly everyone who arrives in Cayman on the Havana flight is carrying a box of Cuban smokes, mainly Cohiba Esplendidos.
Most returning vacationers are proud of their wheeling and dealing in the back alleys of Havana to acquire these famous cigars at US$75 to US$100 a box. Well, my friends, I’ve got news for you: More than likely you have been ripped off.
A true, genuine, official box of Cohiba Esplendidos can cost anywhere between US$600 and US$800, and a pack of just three cigars will cost around $90, even in Cuba.
So how do you spot the fakes? Number one rule: If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is not true. Buyer beware.
A box of Cohiba Esplendidos for US$100 is too good to be true. The streets of Havana are rife with unscrupulous hustlers who prey on tourists looking for a deal. A deal is a good thing, but deception means you have lined some crook’s pocket with your hard-earned money for a box of second-rate smokes.
I say “second-rate” because it is possible that even a fake Cuban can be a good Cuban, to a novice. Probably the biggest factor working in the counterfeiter’s favor is consumer ignorance. Most folks do not know enough about Cuban cigars to be able to tell the difference between a real one and a fake one.
Spotting the frauds
I’ll confess, I’ve been bamboozled by a few of Havana’s cigar hustlers. Here’s the line to look out for: “My sister works in the Cohiba factory, my brother is a big boss at the Partagás warehouse,” … yada-yada-yada. This is your first indication you are about to get duped.
Next, pay attention to detail. Look at the box. If it looks cheaply made or smudgy with no government stamp or “Habanos S.A.” seal on the right top-hand corner or a warranty seal on the left side, you are about to be conned. Hustlers will go to the trouble of using laser printers to replicate the official seals and cigar ringers.
Another sure sign of a suspicious cigar is an erratic “wrapper.” The wrapper is the cigar’s outermost layer and the most expensive component of a good cigar. The wrapper determines much of the cigar’s character and flavor, and it should be smooth, like a piece of typing paper.
If the wrapper is uneven or bumpy, something’s not right.
If the colors of a cigar do not evenly match all the other cigars in the box, something’s wrong.
If one cigar seems shorter than another, there’s a swindle in the making. In Havana’s legitimate cigar factories, the cigar rollers or “Torcedores” are highly skilled professionals who take pride in their work and are respected in their community. A professional Torcedor would never allow a flawed cigar to leave the factory, nor would the inspectors who inspect the Torcedores’ work.
There are some cigar sharks who sell the genuine smokes. More than likely, however, these cigars have been pilfered from the factory warehouse or have managed to slip by the armed guard at the end of a work shift. If that is the case, someone has pinched those cigars from the Cuban government, which controls all cigar production in the country. From what I’ve heard, such foolishness could award you with a free 25-year stay at the Combinado del Este – one of Cuba’s notorious prisons.
The final test to confirm that you have an authentic Cuban cigar is the smell. In my adroit opinion, not all cigars smell bad. Cheap, fake, bogus cigars stink like a politician’s promise and give off a black ash. A classic Cuban is akin to an old barnyard with aromas of hay, grass and earth mixed with saddle leather.
I follow the advice of Mark Twain: I never smoke to excess – that is, I smoke in moderation, only one cigar at a time.