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Luxury

Cuban cigars coming to humidor near you — what you need to know

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Americans are now able to bring back $100 worth of Cuban cigars. (Reuters)

The news that the U.S. and Cuba agreed to seek to reestablish diplomatic relations stunned the world. Reactions varied depending on one’s political bent, but cigar smokers are ever hopeful.

Is this a big deal?  For the cigar lover?  For the cigar industries in other countries?  Over time, the answer is yes on all counts.  

The Cuban cigar has been largely off limits to Americans since the imposition of the U.S. economic embargo more than 50 years ago. The anticipated new regulations under the coming thaw include visitors to Cuba being able to buy up to $100 of cigars and bring them into the U.S.  

That amounts to between three and five cigars, if you estimate the general average price.  A worthwhile Cuban cigar, depending on the size, goes for between $20 to $30.   Cigar lovers visiting, say, Montreal, will have to enjoy the Cubans in Quebec as they’ll likely still be prohibited from bringing in the cigars from a third country.

Is this a big deal?  For the cigar lover?  For the cigar industries in other countries?  Over time, the answer is yes on all counts.  

Cigars were invented in Cuba.  The Cuban cigar is distinctive because of the soil on the island.  Today, however, cigars are blended using tobacco from different farms and different countries.  In Nicaragua, to which Cuban cigar industry folks travel frequently, there has been an exchange of expertise going on for years. Cuban seed has been planted and tobacco grown in Nicaraguan soil, which, the experts say, most closely resembles the terroir of Cuba.  One prominent Cuban cigar maker has even begun making cigars in Nicaragua.

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In this respect, the cigar smoker wins.  Opening up Cuba means there could be better cigars, more variety in flavors and strengths.  In return, the Cubans and other countries could gain knowledge.  Cuba could get capital investment from the rest of the cigar world and take back to the island a greater appreciation for the demands of the market and improve their own manufacture.  In the end, the Cuban puro, the pure Cuban cigar, could compete with an international hybrid that has Cuban tobacco blended with some from Nicaragua and Ecuador.  Hey, it could happen.  It kind of already has.

Too often, cigars grown and rolled in Cuba suffer from a lack of quality construction and form consistency.  This has been true for a long time, and it gets a little better and a little worse.  Non-Cuban cigars have been able to claim the prize for quality year in and year out.  Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic routinely outperform what was once thought to be Cuban supremacy.  Simply put, to enjoy the best cigar available these days, you don’t have to buy Cuban.

If, however, you’re intent on going Cuban, avoid cigars with wrappers that are veiny, not smooth.  Roll a cigar or two between your thumb and forefinger holding it near the end you put in your mouth to see if it’s too tightly wrapped.  Construction and consistency aside, it then just comes down to taste. In that regard, Cuban cigars are distinctive.  They are generally strong.  Among the best ones available are the iconic brands and vitolas, or shapes.  

Start with these:

The Montecristo No. 2, around $30, is a torpedo, meaning that the end you put in your mouth is tapered to a point.  This is perhaps the paradigm of the classic Cuban cigar.  Lush with leather and spice notes, this is a medium-strong cigar you can smoke now or hold for a few years in your humidor and experience a very pleasant evolution in flavor. 

A more recent entry into the Cuban pantheon of great cigars is the Cohiba Behike 54, a corona gorda.  The “54” refers to the ring gauge, or girth, of the cigar, which is also nearly six inches long.  (The Behike 52 is a robusto.) Taste this somewhat stronger cigar after you’ve enjoyed the Montecristo and you’ll find a clear presence of coffee and nuttiness.  You’ll have paid for it, thought.  The Behike 54 could run you close to $60.

Coffee gives way to chocolate and licorice when you light up the Bolivar Royal Corona (around $20) a robusto that has a 50-ring gauge and is a little less than five inches in length.  Bolivar cigars, named after Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar, are, if made correctly, generally complex in flavor and age very well.

Another icon of Cuban cigars is the Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona.  This is a bigger cigar, about eight inches in length with a 49-ring gauge.  The virtue of this cigar, when made well, is the variety of flavors the smoker can experience.  Sweet caramel gives way to leather, which gives way to creamy coffee.  One can sometimes find this cigar at a bargain of about $20. 

One cigar you really want to search for is the Partagas Serie D, No. 4, robusto.  If you find the right batch, the wrapper will be red in hue and silky smooth.  You’ll be rewarded with a powerful earthiness and some sweetness.  This is the cigar that will impress friends new to Cubans.  Can sometimes be found for around $15.