Cuban Cigars and Other No-Longer-Forbidden Fruit

Say goodbye to a stupid embargo.


Cuban cigars
Carlos Gonzalez/ZUMA Press/Newscom

I have good news for the winners and the losers of the election, whoever they may be. The winners may enjoy the pleasure of celebrating victory with genuine Cuban cigars. The losers can drown their sorrows in Cuban rum straight from the island.

That's because President Barack Obama has made such indulgences easier. Until recently, any American traveler could bring back no more than $100 worth of these items. Under the new policy, you're free to bring as much as you can carry.

True, you may bring supplies only for your personal use; selling them is forbidden. Ha. Enterprising travelers will either ignore or find ways to evade these rules. I imagine Americans who really want Cuban rum or cigars will be able to satisfy their desire without flying to Havana.

How good are they? Before he imposed an embargo on Fidel Castro's communist state in 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered an aide to lay in 1,000 of his favorite Cuban cigars. In the ensuing decades, they have been prized by aficionados. Havana Club's cachet has been sufficient to make it the best-selling rum on the planet.

Even some smokers who despised Castro were known to indulge when they got the chance. Anti-communists caught puffing Cuban cigars would say they weren't subsidizing the dictatorship; they were burning the enemy's crops.

Frustrated connoisseurs who finally get their lips on these prizes should savor the pleasure while they can. It's not that these legendary items will suddenly become unavailable. But the thrill will soon dissipate, for a variety of reasons.

One is that forbidden fruit is always sweeter. Products that can be obtained only with great effort or subterfuge somehow deliver more enjoyment. A half-century ago, those visiting Colorado would often drive home in cars laden with Coors beer, which was sold only in Western states and thus achieved cult status elsewhere.

Those with the brew could sell it for triple the price they paid. The New York Times reported in 1975, "Secret Service agents were forbidden to bring extra crates aboard federal planes after one agent was discovered to have loaded 38 cases onto a recent flight from the West Coast." Only after it became available everywhere did people realize that Coors is just another bland mass-market beer, interchangeable with just about anything else on sale at your grocery or liquor store.

There's a similar story involving Krispy Kreme, whose doughnut shops used to be found only in the Southeast. When the first outlets opened in New York and Chicago, frenzied locals thronged to them. Today these places are just part of the landscape, not a shimmering destination people go out of their way to reach. Shares of the company's stock peaked at $50 in 2003 before sliding to $1.01 six years later.

Cuban cigars and rum, in the same manner, will eventually lose their special aura and have to compete on their tangible merits. Those may be less than commonly assumed.

In a recent interview with NPR, David Savona, executive editor of Cigar Aficionado, said that in the magazine's taste tests, the Cubans "don't always win. So the cigars from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras—In many cases, they're just as good." Seriously? Honduras?

Blind tasting doesn't lie. The Washington Post recently conducted a test of six rums, four light and two dark, with each group including a Havana Club. But the Cuban brand came in second in the dark category and tied for first in the light. "Much of our obsession with Cuban rum 'is really myth over substance,' says Archipelago co-owner Ben Wiley," reported the Post.

That's the nature of human beings. We always want what we can't have and often undervalue what's right at hand. We're also fickle, tiring of the familiar and ever-alert to new enticements.

And our minds have a way of playing tricks on our taste buds. "Studies have shown that people prefer inexpensive wines in blind taste tests," The New Yorker's James Surowiecki wrote in 2013, "but that they actually get more pleasure from drinking wine they are told is expensive."

The 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson noted, "Were it not for imagination, sir, a man would be as happy in the arms of a chambermaid as of a duchess." Those first tastes of Cuban cigars and rum will be fired by imagination. After that, it's all downhill.

© Copyright 2016 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. The tobacco coming out of places like the Dominican Republic is just Cuban tobacco replanted there to get around the embargo. A lot of the best talent also went over to those other countries. So a Cuban cigar today isn’t going to be as good as in JFK’s day because the best cigarmakers aren’t there any more.

    I’ll be curious to see how the conflicting trademarks situation plays out once commercial sales of Cuban goods are allowed in the US.

    1. I strongly suspect than a lot of the companies that hold the American versions of the great Names do so in part to give them a leg up on claiming the right to import the Cubans of the same Mark. Certainly, the vast majority of the American versions are second-rate, and few people will actually miss them.

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    2. Cuban tobacco is no longer considered a great smoke anywhere outside of the U.S. The quality has basically gone to shit under communism.

      Dominican Republic and Ecuador cigars are overall better.

      The mystique lasted longer in the U.S. simply because the product was banned and exciting.

      1. “Cuban tobacco is no longer considered a great smoke anywhere outside of the U.S. The quality has basically gone to shit under communism.”

        I was curious about that. There is nothing communism doesn’t fuck up, so I figured there was no reason cigars would be exempt.

        1. There are still a few Cuban cigar makers that are excellent, though their supply is not sufficient for open borders. So, the value of those few will stay very high for awhile.

          But there is nothing super special about Cuban cigars anymore. You can get an equal or better product elsewhere.

          The biggest issue with them is that they have severe quality control issues, so you take a big risk by buying Cuban cigars. You may get a really bad set of cigars.

          1. So, the value of those few will stay very high for awhile.

            You were talking quality, not value.

            1. market value? Price I suppose.

              1. I was just pointing out that you started off talking about a good cigar, not an expensive one.

      2. “The quality has basically gone to shit under communism.”

        This is an unexpected development.

        Someone gave me a half dozen as a gift. They were awful.

      3. Che disagreed. Until his hands were chopped off.

    3. The Cuban cigars I’ve had have definitely been good (and the rum was excellent). But I’m not a big cigar guy, so I can’t make much of a comparison to the best from anywhere else.

  2. “One is that forbidden fruit is always sweeter”

    I’m glad I went to Cuba before the embargo was ended. The thrill of giving these right-wing Cuban mafia types the finger was pretty sweet too. It’s a lovely place–though plagued by the same problems as seen in other developing countries. I hope the influx of American tourists on Carnival Cruise Lines doesn’t fuck it up.

    1. Yeah, nothing worse than having a native population escape a failed communist dictatorship. It can just ruin a vacation.

        1. “I tol’ um I was in sannitation.”

    2. It isnt a lovely place AmSoc. It is a miserable shithole filled with decaying everything, grinding poverty and hopelessness. There is a good chance that the American tourists will fuck that up and it cant happen fast enough.

      To everyone else who isnt evil and insane:

      I just bottled some muscadine wine made from this summer’s crop yesterday and it is as good as any white I have ever tasted. Not too sweet, not too dry…just right. I am making a mushroom voloute with it today to go over some nice lean chops.

      1. “It is a miserable shithole filled with decaying everything, grinding poverty and hopelessness.” = “A socialist paradise. Can’t you smell the equality in the air?”

      2. Do you run it through malo? And what did you ferment it in?

        American varieties are interesting. I have a bunch of Niagara and Seyval in my cellar.

        1. Check out my handle.

          Traditional country muscadine wine. I mix it up in a 5 gallon bucket, strain it through cheese cloth into another five gallon bucket then ferment it in empty plastic jugs with a balloon on the top in the hall closet. After 9 weeks fermentation it goes into either mason jars or empty gallon glass bottles. I broke tradition and bought wine bottles and corks this year.

          It hasn’t gone through malo yet but it will long before I use even a quarter of it (I don’t drink the stuff, just cook with it) so I am sure it will be much dryer later on. Also, it seems to have more of a kick than usual. Not sure of the alcohol content but that is probably the yeast batch I used.

          Sounds crude, and it is, but this shit is delicious.

          1. Well, if it’s got a kick, clearly you drank SOME of it.

            Yeah, yeast is a major factor in the conversion percentage. Prise de Mousse would be a good choice for you- fast and furious, perfect for country whites (that’s what we use for our Seyval).

            Do you measure brix before fermentation?

            1. It is conventional wisdom that one should not cook with a wine one is not willing to drink.

    3. It is plagued even more by the Socialist Communist idiocy that runs through the Third World like Dengue Fever.

      Before you complain of American tourists and Carnival Cruise Lines ‘fucking it up’, consider; the place has been a tourist destination for the rest of the world for a long time.

      1. Fat old Germans don’t have the same effect though.

        1. Trudat. Adolescent Hispanic boys are so hot.

          1. Um… Jugendliche hispanische Jungen sind so anregend.

    4. “It’s a lovely place–though plagued by the same problems as seen in other developing countries.”
      Plagued by asswipes like you who have made Cubans worse off than they were in 1960

      “I hope the influx of American tourists on Carnival Cruise Lines doesn’t fuck it up.”
      You already did.

    5. I hope the influx of American tourists on Carnival Cruise Lines doesn’t fuck it up.

      It would be a real shame if a sudden influx of wealth were to ruin all that chronic poverty your people worked so hard to inflict on that country.

      1. But it’s a picturesque chronic poverty! I so wanted to get my holiday snaps of the ragtag street urchins begging for coins outside the dilapidated old churches! Such cute little monkeys!

        1. Poverty is so romantic….

          1. The cars are so cool there. Plus cheap coke.

          2. If you aren’t mired in poverty…

      2. Jamaica still seems to be doing fine on that front.

        1. Pot legalization. FTW, or at least FTUN.

      3. There is something aesthetically appealing about a place like Cuba where everything is old and decaying. I can understand the sentiment.

        But it’s a country full of actual people, not a zoo or museum for rich Americans to visit, and anyone who wants to keep those people in that sad state for the sake of their enjoyment is a piece of shit.

      4. The wealth will go to the dictators to secure power, just like it always has. I won’t be contributing.

  3. I used to enjoy a good cigar and do a lot of international business travel. Occasionally I’d purchase one or more Cuban cigars from the humidor at the duty-free tobacconist. In my experience and to my taste, Cuban cigars can be good, but only if you’re willing to pay serious money for them. They also make some pretty crappy cigars. If you want a good Cuban cigar, prepare to 50%-100% more than you normally pay for a good DR cigar.

  4. The very best Cigar I have ever smoked was a Cuban. So were several of the worst. The great one was a Montecristo #2, rich and complex. The bad ones were a variety that well meaning relatives traveling to Canada bought on the cheap from the official Cubatobaaco stores. They tasted like I had set fire to a roll of carpet. Well used carpet. With rubber backing.

    When the embargo comes down completely, I frankly expect the quality of Cuban cigars to hit rock bottom, and stay there for at least five and probably ten years. The Cubans are already selling all the cigars they can make, and having serious quality control issues (top down command economies often have problems with quality control, and do not do well with products that require craft).

    1. Furthermore, it takes three years for tobacco to go from seedling to cured and minimally aged leaf. The Cuban government has been neglecting the cigar industry’s infrastructure for decades (governments love NEW projects but hate to pay for maintenance). If they try to expand into the American market without investing some serious money, all they will do is exacerbate their quality issues. And even if they have foreign money waiting it will take the repair and construction time , PLUS three years before the results will be felt. Furthermore, the company best placed to exploit a return of Cuban cigars to the American market is General Cigars. Sadly, GC products tend to be of poor quality. They are to cigars what The Olive Garden is to Italian food; not the worst, but hardly inspired and a tad overpriced for the quality.

      If you want to experience a classic Cuban flavor, I can recommend Tatuaje cigars, especially the Cojonu 2003.

      1. do you even vape bro?

        1. No. I’ve smoked pipes and cigars, and tried Hookahs (which I didn’t like much). The Vape I’ve smelled strikes me as much closer to Shish (Hookah tobacco, heavily flavored and sweet) than what I like about cigars.

    2. Don’t care. They’re all good.

  5. Freely available Cuban cigars? Meh.

    Those are no match for these amazingly hard-to-get cigars from North Korea! The tobacco is intensely flavored by the atomic weapons tests that go on not far from the fields. And the wrappers have this really weird feel…almost skin-like or something like that. I have no idea how they do it, but it’s amazing!

    Anyway, it feels good to support the brave socialist Norks whenever I can.

    /Derpy Hipster with a mind full of derp

  6. I love the point being made, finally: That it’s all in our head and personal taste should be our guide. I like gin, but my fave sells for $13 a bottle.
    Remember that everyone is trying to sell you something.

  7. I’m utterly shocked that Chapman didn’t somehow try to blame Troomp for the decline in Cuban cigar quality, or accuse him of trying to licence his name so he can hawk Troomp Cigars along with Troomp Steaks and Spaceballs – The Toilet Paper Troomp Toilet Paper…

    1. I’d pay good money for a Troompballs The Doll doll.

  8. “Those first tastes of Cuban cigars and rum will be fired by imagination. After that, it’s all downhill.”

    Steve, Steve, Steve. The perfect opportunity to use “Dunhill” and you messed up.

  9. That’s because President Barack Obama has made such indulgences easier.

    Shorter Chapman: All praise Chocolate Jesus!

  10. “I have good news for the winners and the losers of the election, whoever they may be. The winners may enjoy the pleasure of celebrating victory with genuine Cuban cigars. The losers can drown their sorrows in Cuban rum straight from the island.”

    This must be stopped, for the children!

  11. I like a cigar every now and then.

    My complaint is = where do you smoke it where people won’t bitch about it?

    The last time i lit one up in central park someone walked halfway across the great lawn to give me their opinion of it. The same thing happened on the beach. I had one at an outdoor cafe (*purposely when there was no one else at the outside tables), and someone walking by actually had the nerve to complain that they “had to walk through it”.

    1. People bitching about it is one of the best things about smoking cigars.

    2. I’ve yet to be hassled over smoking. Might be a perk of living in a more *cough* urban hood.

      1. Your neighborhood should get that cough looked at.

      2. No one has ever said a thing about cigarettes or weed or bidis or… what else is smokable? Vaping? The bartender @ teddy’s used to blow vape on the customers faces and no one complained.

        Its just cigars. For whatever reason, they are the smell of Toxic Masculinity or something.

        I also think it depends strongly on your neighborhood. The places i mention include the Upper East, Central Park, SoHo, etc. you’re not as likely to get Busybody-Social-Scolded in, say, Bay Ridge or Gowanas or whatever.

        1. Interesting. I figured cigarettes would get more harassing than cigars. Maybe they’re just jealous of how awesome you look.

          I also tend to stick to cigarillos, so maybe the busybodies put me into the ‘cigarette’ category.

          1. I also tend to stick to cigarillos,

            Me too. Macanudo Minis are my jam. and I should add, almost nobody complains about *them*. because they burn relatively quickly, and don’t produce the sort of dense, stinky atmosphere. I think because they look “cigarette sized”, people are also loathe to complain because they’re not 100% sure its a ‘cigar’ or just a fancy-man’s cigarette.

            What i’m talking about is really like a Robusto or bigger. Something with diameter, which outputs big, thick smoke. Its like wearing a sign that says, “Please tell me that i’m obnoxious and offensive and its giving your dog allergies”

            Maybe they’re just jealous of how awesome you look.

            nope. i clean up nice, but i roll shabby.

            1. nobody complains about *them*

              Really? I find them unbelievably foul – worse than cigars.

        2. I got more hassles for smoking cigarettes in SF 20 years ago than I ever have in NYC to this day.

    3. The last time i lit one up in central park someone walked halfway across the great lawn to give me their opinion of it.

      Please tell me you put it out in their eye.

      1. nope. But i had a pretty great line that i actually remember distinctly.

        They walked up, and did the whole, “excuse me? Do you mind if ask you something…?” which is really just foreplay for the statement they’re about to make about how inconsiderate you are and how unhealthy your behavior is and how really they’re just looking out for the kids and stuff and also it makes dogs eyes burn and…

        so she has her little thing, and i nod, encouraging her along, just sitting there quietly and looking very interested in what she has to say. I don’t respond at all and she keeps going until she runs out of gas and just looks at me, waiting for me to apologize or say i’ll move or put it out or… something. And when she’s done, i go, “huh.”

        Before she asks me what “huh” means, I go, “you know what?…” She goes “what?” And i say – “When i was a kid?…. like, in the 1980s….”

        (takes a drag on cigar and waves around at the park)

        “…. you could get murdered just walking through the park. No reason, not robbery, just killed. Like that.”

        and i just left that hanging. she waited for a second as though there was going to be more, and i just smiled. She walked away very creeped out. I feel like i came away the winner in that particular engagement.

        1. Awesome. When people go out of their way to spark a confrontation, they often pretend to be engaging in a polite inquisition, but what they’re after is the opportunity to engage in a righteous battle in furtherance of whatever their holy war happens to be. Acting completely indifferent/aloof will often spark more anger than meeting the confrontation head on.

          Bonus points for the creepy part.

          1. Of course, its illegal now to smoke in any NYC parks so I guess she won the war.

    4. I’ve always been puzzled that people complain more about cigars than cigarettes. I always have enjoyed the smell, even before I smoked. And even though I smoke cigarettes, I can quite understand why people don’t like the smell of them.

      I guess it’s a strong smell and some people aren’t going to like it.

    5. I once had somebody in the park at the center of Dupont Circle (which is a traffic circle) in Washington DC complain about the effect my smoke was having on his sensitive system. I asked him if he understood the words “Fuck off”?

  12. So now we can get Cuban cigars and rum? Thanks, Obama! You know, for the cancer and the cirrhosis.

  13. I agree that we should be free to enrich brutal kleptocrats if we so choose.

    Because that’s what buying Cuban cigars and rum will do.

    I wonder how many people who boycott “blood diamonds” will also boycott Cuban goods. The rationale seems the same for both.

    1. But…But…. Cuban medical care for ALL, RC! That atones for all sins. Besides, The Castro Bros. mean well. It’s not like Cuba is in another hemisphere or something.

      1. “Cuban medical care for all!”

        A friend recently told me of a quirk of Cuban culture. They consider it very rude to sneeze or blow your nose in the presence of others. Where people here find it a bit distasteful but understandable, people there do not tolerate it. If you do it everyone in sight runs from you.

        Three guesses why this is. Anyone care to take a stab at it?

    2. I was going to comment on how this is pretty much just going into the accounts of the Castros and the Communist Party if no one else had by the time I reached the bottom of the comments.

      1. Without Soviet cash and I am sure the cash they have been getting from elsewhere dwindling, I would bet they agreed to do this as a means of replenishing their money supply. Communism, after all, is nothing more than organized crime.

        Yeah, the money will all go into the pockets of the C brothers and their apparatchiks.

  14. I have a few all-time favorite cigars that are Cuban but there are world class smokes from the Dominican, Honduras (believe it) and Nicaragua. It’s all subjective of course. Jamaica used to produce some good smokes — Temple Hall, one of my favorites, is now made in the Dominican I think. Even Mexico produces a quality stick (Te Amo) and one of the finest wrappers in the world is grown here in the USA. And yes the quality of Cubans has declined over the years because of the amount of cigars being produced for the international market (aka douchebags) and also the transition from hand rolling to machines.

    I’ll be interested to see how over time this affects the price as right now some of the ‘best’ Cubans are prohibitively expensive ($25-40US per stick) when I can buy some of the world’s finest (imo) and most consistent (Padron from Nicaragua) or Punch Punch from Honduras for less than $10 each.

    The one thing about Cuban smokes (seeded, grown and rolled in Cuba) is that they are distinctive in power and flavor. They may not always draw the best, burn evenly or be the most consistent but in my experience they are totally unique to that island. Partagas Series D #4, Cohiba Robusto, Monte #2, Ram?n Allones, anything Cuban Punch. Hard to beat them bad boys.

  15. Enjoy consuming your communist-made goods, I hope you sleep well at night. Why don’t you smoke and drink by the light of some nice Nazi lampshades.

    1. Don’t mind if I do!

    2. Because I hear they don’t even use human skin anymore.

    3. …and why shouldn’t I enjoy some nice Nazi lampshades?
      After all, Comrade Stalin signed a peace accord with Herr Hitler.
      If its all right with Uncle Joe, then its all right with me.

  16. That is nice except that the cigar geeks I know all tell me that Cuban cigars are no longer any good. The communists have fucked that up just like they fucked everything else up. They took the tobacco strains used in Cuban cigars out of Cuba after the revolution. So Domican cigars, I think it is, have the same tobacco grown in the same climate as Cubans except they are unlike the Cubans still made to a proper standard.

  17. As someone that has smoked a couple of cigars a day for at least twenty years, most Cuban cigars are highly over rated. I gave up on them years ago due to quality control issues. Hands down best cigars in the world are coming out of Nicaragua.

  18. RE: Cuban Cigars and Other No-Longer-Forbidden Fruit
    Say goodbye to a stupid embargo.

    Oh no!
    Not that.
    Please do not allow capitalism to come to Cuba, otherwise the little people there will engage in the nefarious free trade and socialism will die a slow, painful death on that island gulag.

  19. This article lacks a reference to Smokey and the Bandit.

  20. Socialism destroys everything that it touches, Cuban cigars are no exception.

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