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BLOG: Simply put, not the same!

Cuban Cigars vs Non-Cuban Cigars (Premium Cigars)

This one might see me copping some flak or maybe not - this subject took a few months of reading & research and of course my own heavily biased 30+ years of smoking 99.9999% non-Cuban cigars...

This is my distillation of various resources and a good amount of my own opinion... treat it as you may...

Over the years, I've tried to simplify this as much as I can and I think I've done a fairly good job of it - however I will be the first to admit I cannot for the life of me fathom the absolute "Cuban fanboy status" and how its got even worse as China-Cuba Tobacco have tripled the prices of their cigars in recent years...  I guess that old adage of "if you can't get it, you WANT IT" comes into play.

If nothing else I am humbled by the absolute hellbent lust people have for Cuban cigars and how Habanos S.A. have achieved this with very little marketing, relatively small market share and overall subpar quality.

For a person who tries to sell cigars in a country where the laws are 100% hellbent against us doing so, this probably adds to my angst of the success of the China-Cuba Tobacco fanfare.

1. Cigars are an Artisanal, Natural Product

Let's start here - lets remember for a moment that cigars are nothing more than tubes of fermented and aged tobacco leaves created by pairs of hands and then carefully transported around the world for your enjoyment.

It is probably one of the last true artisan "global" products - given the reach cigars have and that they are largely produced in a small geographical location (Central America).

The passion, the love, the hardwork involved is second to none and yes, because they are (with the exception of machine-made cigars) made by hand (Hecho a Mano) you do sometimes have issues with a cigar; thankfully not too many issues.

This is the first major point of difference I believe between Cuban cigars and Premium cigars; the later have far higher control over quality from the caliber of rollers, blenders, bunchers, tobacco aging & fermenting.

It has long been a "thing" in the industry that Cuban churns out cigars for money, more than they do for the passion or love of the craft...  add their recent acquisition and well...

2. Tobaccos, Varieties, Fermenting & Aging

This has been a strong separator for myself for over 3 decades - the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica & the USA (and more) have developed a lot of new varieties, hybrids and even started grown once "you cannot grow that here" strains in countries previously never considered.

It is fair to say, thanks to Premium cigars, the world of tobacco has expanded considerably in a short space of time and thankfully the associated wealth that brings has helped many struggling Central American countries.

Add to this the vast hordes of tobacco fermenting and aging under careful control  of artisans then you have expanded to a whole new level that Cuba simply cannot even attempt to compete with.

In terms of Cuba and tobacco, it is fair to say they have limited range of flavour profiles because of the small size of the country and the very specific growing regions and the lack of investment in the farms and crops.

In a way, I liken people who will only smoke a Cuban cigar to people that only drink un-oaked Chardonnay, if you close yourself off to one specific thing, you miss out on a potential world of enjoyment.

The cold hard reality is, all Premium cigar makers draw from a wealth of tobacco that has been carefully fermented and aged; giving their cigars a depth and edge over Cuban cigars; which is why they have scored so highly and consistently over the past decade plus across the world.

Back in the day (circa 1997-1998) I used to use the La Flor Dominicana El Jocko as my "Cuban Buster" - hand that little perfecto to any Cuban lover and they were stopped dead in their tracks with the complex flavour profile from this brand new family in the Dominican Republic; it was at the peak of the Cigar Boom in the USA and world.

The ironic thing is - if you are a hardcore Cuban fan, then the majority of Premium cigars are made with Habano/Havana tobacco strains, which I still shake my head at daily that people will only buy a "Cuban" thanks to movies etc. when so many non-Cuban cigars are founded from the rock solid base tobacco of Habano/Havana tobaccos...  its just that Premium cigar blenders can add so much more life to them with other tobaccos that makes them much more complex and flavoursome...

3. The Master Blenders

This is a sad side affect of a Communist controlled country like Cuba; first Fidel took all the farms by force, then he controlled the factories by force - which lead to the (over time) a mass exodus of the worlds Master Blenders.

The majority of old cigar families have Cuban heritage (even new ones like HVC cigars); there's just no denying the fact.  In fact Ferdinand Peit (formerly the owner of Ministry of Cigars) wrote this amazing piece thanking Fidel Castro for the cigars we have today!

Don Pepin Garcia was the one of last true (old school) Master Blenders to depart Cuba, he left and founded My Father Cigars in 2003 - he is still to this day the highest rated Master Blender and roller in the world.

And again, every week, month and year non-Cuban cigar factories are creating new blends, new flavour profiles, new strength profiles - whereas what has Cuban released that is majorly different than anything they've been selling for the past 30 years?

4. Factories, Families & Quality Control

This leads on nicely from point 3, Master Blenders and my other ramblings - we now have hundreds of well established factories spread across Central America run by highly educated, passionate, well paid staff - the majority backed by families who have very deep roots in the cigar world and who lead the world by example in terms of innovation, production and quality control.

The (old) Davidoff video From Seed to Smoke really goes into detail about how (anal) Davidoff are on quality control; but it shows you the extent the majority of cigar factories in the new world operate on that level of quality.

The cigar industry is heavily publicised by bloggers and product reviewers; you have a slightly subpar cigar; the world spreads like wildfire before you've even finished your coffee & toast!

Now, some factories rely on their Draw Tester tool, which I often chuckle at as I've had some plugged cigars from those factories that swear by it - again, that just proves how artisanal a cigar is; even the very best can stuff up a hand made product, right.

One of the biggest lessons I learnt was in 2013 at IPCPR (International Cigar & Pipe Retailers expo) in Las Vegas (now called PCA) when sitting with Juan Martinez of Joya de Nicaragua and him explaining that no matter how much effort  and passion he and his team put into a cigar; it can 100% be destroyed by a distributor not having the same passion as they do by not storing the cigars correctly.

That is why I invested so much in our walk-in humidor and the state of the art humidification system from Cigar Oasis to ensure as close to perfect cigar storage as one can achieve and this would be 100% reflected by the very happy consumers we have.

One a side note - over the years we've had some entertaining humidor storage solutions, which a lot of my friends still have nightmares about having to move them...

Now in my opening I mentioned subpar quality for Cuban cigars, this isn't just a case of slinging mud; this is from my previous years selling Cuban cigars where they were 5% of my sales and 95% of my headaches in terms of pissed off consumers with plugged and cracked cigars.

It is also from the countless number of customers in New Zealand who can afford Cuban cigars that still to this day get very annoyed at getting at best half-a-box of Montecristo No.2's to smoke well and the rest being duds - which is also a widely complained about issue online on so many of the forums I have canvassed over the past few months (of course not just limited to Montecristo No.2's but we do have one customer who consumes them heavily and reports are still the same)...

Out of the thousands of Premium cigars we sold in 2023; we replaced less than 10 cigars due to shipping damage and quality issues.

5. Sales

As of 2023 the global cigar market is around USD$22.4b in revenue, however this includes machine-made cigars which do make up a large chunk of that revenue.

From that though, non-Cuban Cigars (Premium Cigars) equates to 62% of sales and 38% of Cuban Cigars - again, this includes machine-made cigars which both segments produce a great deal of.

This is big number of course for Cuba given it is a relatively small island in comparison with the rest of Central America.

6. China-Cuba Tobacco

It's probably a good place to end on this, China acquired Habanos S.A. and Cuba Tobacco in 2020 and have since this acquisition increased pricing significantly and in recent months (2024) have started to throttle/reduce supply to Europe in favour of its Asian markets.

Also worth noting, in 2021 China became the largest market for Cuban Cigar sales - once a long held title of Spain.

On a recent call with a European distributor he was telling me that "locals" will come in and clean out ALL of the Cuban cigars in a retail store; they are then apparently redistributed back to China.

Again, I take my hat off to them - they have created the ultimate fan-boy status amongst cigars.

...if you cannot get it, YOU WANT IT - which up until recently the USA proved quite well with soo many coveting Cuban cigars like bloody unicorns...

Summing Up

Okay, so this turned out a lot more like a hatchet job than I had intended, but after trolling so many forums and seeing the same quality issues again and again it is really hard to spin a positive line for the other team. 

Even just now (Thursday evening) while trying to find another graphic I found an Australian website bashing Cuban cigars to death in an article from 2020...

Call me a one-eyed biased prick if you wish, but it doesn't take very long to discover the cold hard facts out there on this prickly subject.

But in all honesty, I do take my hat off to Habanos S.A. for maintaining a healthy market share in relative proportion to the size of Cuba vs everyone else in Central America; as I do with the brilliant stigma of "if I'm going to smoke a cigar, it must be a Cuban".

Which I think up until recently movies and TV culture had a big hand in, but given Guy Ritchie's latest movie and TV series flaunt Arturo Fuente's Opus X, maybe that ship has also sailed...  even if the Opus X in the movie is about 50 something years factually incorrect.

The reality is, there are plenty of non-Cuban cigars that have the heritage of Cuban cigars; there are even ones from HVC that I'd say are the closest you will get to a modern version of what a Cuban could really be; given that the young Master Blender Reinier Lorenzo is probably one of the newest ex-Cuban's to establish his own cigar factory in Nicaragua and start producing what he considers to be the new-world of Cuban cigars.

If you've got a friend who is still hellbent stuck on only smoking Cuban's much like I have a friend who only drinks un-oaked Chardonnay, well; sadly there isn't much we can do about that other than to support their quirky nature.

Even poor Jonathan Drew of Drew Estate's father Gary has very close friends who to this day will not try a Drew Estate cigar; because they've always smoked what they smoke and will not ever try something new... again, this really hurts my brain, but I guess that is human nature right.


Anyway, now some 30 years after an absolutely appalling customer experience at the original Havana House on Quay Street at hands of the infamous Tony Hart, I honestly didn't stand a chance with Cuban's anyway.

Albeit Aaron at La Casa del Habano's fine attempts to persuade me to give Cuban's a good crack and the odd Cuban' back in that era at Cuba Bar in Parnell and Stamford Plaza on Albert Street - I was pretty well hooked on new-world non-Cuban cigars and have been now for 30 odd years... crap, maybe its me stuck in my ways?

Anyway, it was at that time I started importing Premium cigars, selling cigars to my friends and well, the rest is history I guess...

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