“Got any Cubans?”

Got any Cubans

Did you hear that? It was the collective sigh of thousands of tobacconists across the United States.  Almost every day, we hear some form of the question, “Do you have any Cubans?”  The beauty of this moment is it is an opportunity for us to educate the customer, and introduce them to the quality, consistency and taste of cigars produced outside of Cuba.

The question itself implies one or more of the following:

  • The customer is from another country, and not familiar with the fact the U.S. has maintained a trade embargo against Cuba since 1962.
  • The customer is new to cigar smoking, and has grown up hearing that Cuban cigars are “the best.”
  • The customer is an occasional smoker, understandably confused by U.S. policy changes since 2015, when the Obama administration instituted a partial lift of the ban allowing $100 worth of Cuban cigars to be brought into the country for consumption, but not trade. This policy was reversed during the Trump administration and remains unchanged.
  • The customer has shopped in stores that defy U.S. laws, risking their business and their license by selling Cuban cigars “under the table” or perhaps even worse, passing off counterfeit “Cuban cigars” as the real thing.
  • The customer is mislead by names familiar to them as Cuban brands: Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, Cohiba, etc. not realizing the versions found in the U.S. are manufactured outside of Cuba.

Given our location in Washington, D.C., the majority of people asking the question in Georgetown Tobacco are international travelers. In the last year, we’ve seen an influx of customers frustrated by the lack of availability of the Cuban cigars they’ve been smoking their whole lives.  Reports of poorly stocked shelves are echoed weekly by visitors from the Middle East, Europe and Asia.

Additionally, Habanos S.A., the distributor of Cuban cigars worldwide, introduced price increases of 2 to 3 times the wholesale price last year and raised them again just last month on the Cohiba Behike.  When the cigar you once loved at $40 is now $120 (or $300 for that Behike), you may be very interested in alternatives.

That’s when our job gets fun.  One of the greatest satisfactions our staff can feel is when we introduce someone to a cigar they have never smoked before and they enjoy it so much they return.  It’s how we build trust and new relationships, through our shared love of cigars. In the case of international customers, we’re introducing them to a whole new world of cigars they may have never tried before.

Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the nationalization of privately owned tobacco farms in 1960, a mass exodus of Cuban cigar makers took place as families fled or were forced into exile (source: The Tobacconist Handbook).  We now have decades of tradition, knowledge and exceptional tobacco being nurtured in countries like the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras and Ecuador. Made primarily for the U.S. market, brands that are second nature to us are found infrequently in other countries.

So how do we make recommendations for international customers?  It’s really no different than recommending a cigar for a local: it’s all about the conversation we have. We listen to what’s most important to you, and align recommendations based on the characteristics of cigars you enjoy.

In The Gourmet Guide To Cigars, Paul Garmirian highlights key components in determining the quality of cigars:

  1. Taste and Flavor
  2. Aromatic Fragrances and Bouquet
  3. Construction of the Cigar
  4. Blending
  5. Quality and Condition of the Wrappers
  6. Burning Qualities
  7. Consistency of all the Above

Without repeated experience with the taste and flavor of a particular blend, it’s admittedly a bit more challenging to make a comparison from Cigar X to Cigar Y. That said, taste and flavor are subjective. What I perceive in one blend may be very different from what you perceive, and that’s okay!

What is exciting for us when introducing “New World” cigars to international customers is the confidence we have in the other components of quality Paul outlines, consistency in particular.  One of the things we hear from so many customers today about Cuban cigars is their lack of consistency.  While many cigars in a box of 25 are fantastic, it is not uncommon to find some duds in every box.  How is that acceptable? Especially at such high prices?

Just this past weekend, I felt this disappointment personally.  Like many Americans, I’ve searched for the best tobacconists in every country I’ve visited to buy Cuban cigars.  Two years ago in Buenos Aires, I spent a wonderful afternoon in a beautiful store and was very confident in my purchase: Montecristo #2s rolled in 2017.  I held onto these like the prize I thought they were, aging them further in my humidor. Joined by my friend, Mechelle Merkerson, I pulled two of them for us to smoke… To say they left something to be desired is an understatement. They were rolled fairly well, and it was a decent cigar— but it did not taste like a Montecristo #2.  Was it poor nutrients, or non-Cuban tobacco? Regardless, my disappointment was compounded by embarrassment.  I wanted my friend and I to share a great memory.  My humidor is filled with amazing cigars I have bought from Georgetown Tobacco. Lesson learned.

That’s why introducing Cuban cigar smokers to our cigars is so enjoyable. We can have complete confidence in the experience they’re going to have.  The taste may be different, as tobaccos of different plant types, primings and regions will differ— but the quality will not disappoint. That is the power of what the great manufacturers outside of Cuba have created— they just don’t cut corners or make any compromises.

Do we have any Cubans? No, but let’s talk about some options you may enjoy…