One of the iconic images of Cuba is that of former leader Fidel Castro – all green fatigues and thick, greying beard – puffing on his favorite cigar, a Cohiba Corona Especial.
The Cuban Cohiba – along with Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo No. 2 and host of others – are the forbidden fruit for American cigar enthusiasts, a taboo product admired by international smokers for its perfect blend of tobacco and the extreme care that's put into rolling one. For U.S. citizens, of course, purchasing Cuban-made cigars has been illegal ever since the Cuban embargo was put into place.
To put that into perspective, the ban on Cuban cigars is like the U.S. banning imports of wine from France or whiskey from Scotland.
After President Obama announced on Wednesday, however, that the U.S. and Cuba are restoring diplomatic relations and easing some of the barriers on travel and trade, many cigar smokers see a spark of hope that they will one day soon be able to stock up on Cuban stogies.
Under the new regulations, authorized American visitors – virtually anyone who can come up with a good excuse – to the island nation can bring back up to $100-worth of alcohol and tobacco products as part of a general goods allowance of $400.
"The cigar business was born in Cuba, and cigars made in Havana have a worldwide reputation for excellence," wrote Marvin Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine, after the news broke. "We yearn for the day when our readers can have the opportunity to legally buy and enjoy cigars from every country."
He added, "Today marks the biggest change in U.S.-Cuba relations since 1961. This does not mean the end of the embargo, but it’s the dawn of a new day that brings the United States and Cuba a big step closer to normal relations."
There are some snags, however, that could trip up how many Cohibas one can bring back from Havana.
First, the price. One top-shelf stogie can run up to $30, meaning that American smokers could only bring back three cigars – and a stub – on their flight home.
Another is that buyers will have to go to Cuba to get the cigars — U.S. retailers won’t be allowed to import and sell them.
Finally, there is worry that over the years – due to fuel and fertilizer shortages, bad weather, poorly trained workers, experimental new tobacco hybrids and an ill-fated attempt to ramp up production – the Cuban cigar has fallen in stature. Between 1998 and 2005, Cuban cigars fell in Cigar Aficionado's global rankings – with 2002 being the all-time low. During that period, smokers complained about a harsh taste and poor draw and blamed this on inexperienced rollers.
Cuba has since done away with experimental tobaccos not native to the island and returned to traditional curing and fermenting methods – and it has been justly awarded for the effort. In 2006, the Bolivar Royal Corona was named Cigar Aficianado’s smoke of the year thanks to its "sophisticated flavor bomb of a smoke with an array of rich character, including touches of chocolate, coffee and leather," and four years later the magazine declared 2010 the "Year of the Cuban Cigar."
Whether or not the Cuban cigar is better than ever is debatable, but one thing that isn’t is that many American smokers are extremely excited to get their hands on one, or one hundred.
As Shanken noted, "For cigar smokers, there is the promise of something bigger to come."