After a decades-old tiff, the United States and Cuba appear to be in the diplomatic equivalent of couple’s therapy, each giving a little ground for the sake of rebuilding the relationship.
On Wednesday, it appeared the warring parties made progress, with the United States announcing that, among other things, it would ease trade restrictions imposed by a Cold War-era embargo. Among them: the ban on importing Cuban cigars. After Wednesday’s diplomatic deal, Americans visiting Cuba will be able to leave with up to $100 worth of cigars.
Sure: Some top-shelf cigars sell for more than $30, guaranteeing American tobacco enthusiasts only three cigars (and a stub) per visit. And buyers will have to go to Cuba to get the cigars — U.S. retailers won’t be allowed to import and sell them.
But cigar fans are pretty excited. The glory of the Cuban cigar is older than even the Castro regime. Columbus introduced Europe to cigars after he landed in Cuba in 1492. They were a hit — a must-have accessory for dapper gentleman, fiction’s greatest writers, famous generals and philandering presidents.
Why? What makes Cuban cigars so special? And aren’t they, well, just as gross as other cigars?
Perhaps. But those who deem Fidel’s favorite accoutrements foul will find their foulness is specifically Cuban.
Cuba had an early monopoly on cigar-making. Rolling stogies was an art form passed down through generations. And the flavor was unmatched. Like wine, the flavor of a cigar depends on the soil the tobacco plant is grown in. Only a Cuban cigar tastes like a Cuban cigar.
Then came Sept. 15, 1960 — “doomsday” for the Cuban cigar industry. It was the day Fidel Castro’s soldiers “plucked the greatest gems from Cuba’s cigar crown” in the name of the communist revolution, David Savona wrote for Cigar Aficionado. Cuba’s expert growers fled, some taking their talents to Cuba’s modern day industry rivals: Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.
In 1962, the United States imposed a trade embargo on Cuba, taking two-thirds of its export business. Beforehand, President John F. Kennedy asked his secretary to buy as many H. Upmann Cuban cigars as she could find. She returned with 1,200. Being hard to get has no doubt added to Cuban cigars’ cultural cachet in the years since.
After the turmoil of nationalization, the Cuban cigar industry regained its footing with the help of Soviet money. Government supervision enhanced quality control. But at the same time, Cuba’s Latin American neighbors were honing their craft.
The early 1990s produced the “glory vintages” for Cuban cigars, according to Cigar Aficionado. Back then, Soviet subsidies were still in place and some of the original tobacco plant hybrids were still in use.
But then a few things happened: fuel and fertilizer shortages, bad weather, experimental new tobacco hybrids and an ill-fated attempt to ramp up production. Cuban cigar makers starting planting tobacco in areas not suited for it, and fast-forwarded the curing, fermentation and aging processes that contribute to a cigar’s flavor. They put poorly trained new workers on the production line. Cuban cigars fell in the rankings between 1998 and 2005, with 2002 being the worst, according to Cigar Aficionado. Smokers complained of harsh taste and poor draw, a problem attributed to the cigars being too tightly packed by less experienced workers.
Since then, Cuban cigar makers have returned to traditional curing and fermenting methods. They stopped using experimental tobaccos that weren’t grown in good Cuban soil. Now all major factories have draw test machines.
By 2006, the Cubans were back on top, earning Cigar Aficionado’s cigar of the year award. It was described as a “sophisticated flavor bomb of a smoke with an array of rich character, including touches of chocolate, coffee and leather.” Then the magazine dubbed 2010 the “year of the Cuban cigar” giving the top award to the Cohiba Behike BHK 52, a “shortish, fat smoke, made with an artful pigtail” with “creamy coffee flavors and some earthiness.”
Then again, sometimes a Cuban cigar is just a Cuban cigar.
A 2003 paper from the Quarterly Journal of Economics and Finance found that being Cuban was the single most important factor in the price and rating of a cigar. The researchers from University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business Administration reviewed Cigar Aficionado’s blind taste test ratings and price data for 689 cigars and found that on average Cuban cigars were rated about four points higher on a 100-point scale. Other qualities such as whether the cigar was well-built or had certain flavor profiles had less impact on the rating.
“The ability of the judges to identify the Cuba characteristic in a blind taste test suggests the presence of a unique Cuban flavor (or potentially another identifying characteristic like color or shape),” the researchers concluded.
But for the average cigar smoker who can’t detect the unique flavors imparted by Cuban soil, the Cuban name alone may be the biggest draw.
“It’s the forbidden fruit factor,” wine and cigar critic James Suckling told the Economic Times in 2008. “It’s like the Holy Grail of cigars.”