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The Cuban Cigar – Fiction or Fact

It never fails: Wherever men gather to smoke a cigar, or a discussion about cigars flares up at a party, somebody asks or boasts about smoking a “Cuban” vs. one of the many legal cigars that are readily available. So why, exactly, do so many cigar smokers seem so juiced about the Cuban? Admittedly, possessing one does carry with it some degree of prestige and respect – granted Cuba historically has, and still does, produce some very good cigars. However, I argue that the prestige is significantly driven by the fact that in order to own a Cuban, you have to be somewhat “connected” – either flush with cash, or a world traveler/smuggler – as the coveted cigars are hard to get in the States. They tend to be expensive, given their contraband classification and the good old-fashioned rules of supply and demand. I recall yearning to smoke my first Cuban because of the aura around it; back then, I guess I bought into the “Cuban” mystique, which at one time was certainly deserved.

The question today: Is the age old reputation of the Cuban cigar, that of being the finest in the world, bar none, still valid? This is an interesting debate in cigar circles today and I will not pretend to have the definitive answer. However, I do want to weigh in with my opinion, one developed empirically through smoking and complemented by research. In sum, I am not convinced that today’s Cuban cigars are as richly differentiated from many of the excellent premium cigars coming from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, etc.

Over the years, like any good cigar smoking U.S. citizen, I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity to smoke a few on the rare occasions they were available. I must confess, I’ve had mostly good ones, but I have also experienced some that were forgettable. However, I can say the same thing, with the same amount of conviction, about Honduran cigars – I almost always like them! So, a little while back, I decided to research answers to the nagging question, “What is so special about a Cuban cigar - Is it fact or fiction?” As a primer, I refer you to my introductory on Bullz-Eye, where I outline my philosophy and base beliefs about cigars in general. These same tenets apply to Cubans as they do to any other cigar.

Let’s review the facts as I see them:

  • Cuba has the ideal climate and soil for growing cigar tobacco and an excellent heritage. Cuba is to cigars as Germany is to beer – Score: 1 to Cuba.
  • In the 1960’s, Fidel Castro’s Communist regime seized the land and assets of cigar companies and drove out many of the most prolific cigar families, who had perfected the craft of cigar leaf growing, fermenting and rolling. The families smuggled tobacco seeds – and their craft – to nearby regions (Nicaragua, Dominican Republic), which have enough environmental similarities (climate, soil) to Cuba – Score: 1 to other regions.
  • Cuba’s government-controlled cigar industry deteriorated due to lack of key talent, investment, incentive to maintain quality, etc. – Score: 1 to other regions.
  • Cuban goods are banned from being sold in the U.S. to this day, driving supply very low and prices of Cuban cigars very high. – Score: 1 to other regions.
  • The U.S. cigar consumer initially had little choice if he wanted a good smoke, but in the 40+ years since Castro’s rise, cigar families and companies from other areas have perfected their crafts and invested in cross-region growing and blending (i.e. Innovation), giving rise to newer varieties of cigars – with often better quality construction than Cubans. Score: 1 to other regions.
  • Non-Cuban cigar supplies are relatively high and demand is moderate, so other region’s cigars tend to be less expensive on average, and a great relative value. Score: 1 to other regions.
  • As already established, a Cuban cigar is extremely expensive compared to cigars from other regions. The high price of Cuban cigars drives a large counterfeit market. Why pay extremely high prices for a non-Cuban cigar (as counterfeits are typically from the other regions) that you can buy here in the States for a fraction of the price? – Score: 1 to other regions.

The score is 6 to 1 in favor of the non-Cuban cigar. I am not concluding that non-Cubans are generally better than Cubans; instead, I am merely stating that parity is closer than you might think between Cuban and non-Cuban cigars, and the old mystique of the Cuban is derived mostly from historical and legendary factors. The majority of cigar smokers could stay on the straight, narrow, and law-abiding path; odds are, most smokers, in a blind taste test, would not be able to discern between the two. The seasoned aficionado would likely be able to differentiate, but most would agree that there is high-quality “stuff” coming out of other regions today.

Now, if I ever become “connected” and flush with cash, I reserve the right to change my opinion. 

Another supporting data point: The February 2007 issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine lists its picks for the top 25 cigars of 2006. A Cuban takes first place, but in total, the country has only 6 in the top 25. Both the Dominican Republic and Honduras have at least 7 or more.

At Bullz-Eye, we welcome and encourage our readers’ views and comments.

So…Let’s get smokin’!

The Cigar:

El Rey del Mundo

In the spirit of the above discussion, I review the El Rey del Mundo, a non-Cuban, excellently blended cigar with an extremely reasonable price. El Rey Del Mundo cigars are rich premiums, manufactured by the same makers as Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey. They are handmade with a blend of tobaccos from multiple countries, primarily Honduras and the Dominican Republic. It is a prime example of excellence found outside of Cuba.

Size: 6.0 X 52 Robusto Larga

$4.00 range 

Tobacco blend:

  • Wrapper: Ecuadorian-grown Connecticut wrapper
  • Binder: Honduran
  • Filler: Honduran, Dominican

The English translation of this brand’s name means “The King of the World” – a bold, yet dubious name applied to an inexpensive cigar. However, as I like to point out, there is sometimes a very loose correlation between quality and price, and the El Rey is a prime example. This cigar came individually wrapped in white tissue with the band on the outside. I had it my humidor for about 6 weeks, and exhibited rare restraint by not unwrapping it to inspect the cigar during this time. I finally packed the cigar in my luggage as I prepared to depart on a recent business trip to Dallas, a city to be commended for its general “friendliness” towards cigar smokers. 

The venue was an after-dinner smoke at Sambuca, a jazz club and restaurant in Addison, a north Dallas suburb. After dinner, my business colleagues headed for the door, but my business was not quite complete; I retired to the bar, alone with my tissue-wrapped “present,” feeling a little like a kid on Christmas morning.

Look and feel:

After stripping off the tissue, I was finally able to check out this beauty. The maduro (dark brown) wrapper was veiny and flawlessly applied. The construction was of high quality and stayed that way throughout the smoke. The bartender, per my request, delivered a Woodford Reserve Bourbon on the rocks, water, a twin-blade cigar cutter, and matches. I chose the bourbon, as the El Rey is advertised to be a flavorful, spicy cigar, and I tend to avoid the very spicy/peppery cigars unless I have access to a good, bold-flavored bourbon to complement the taste. Of course, other whiskeys and cognacs can be used for the same effect; go with your personal preference. The twin-blade cutter did an excellent job – I’ve recently bought one for home use.

Aroma and Taste:

After toasting the foot of the cigar, I lit her up. The flavor had a burst of leather on the first couple puffs and settled into a smooth, yet flavorful, equilibrium. By the second third, some wood flavors emerged, with the spiciness really not dominating until the final third.

Throughout the cigar, the burn was as good as it gets, requiring no maintenance whatsoever. I elected to let the ash stay on the cigar until it naturally fell, and wound up with about 2” of white/grey ash. The ability to maintain a firm and long ash is typically evidence of a well constructed, long filler tobacco premium cigar. The other benefit of a longer ash: it dampens the direct air hitting the head, helping to prevent overheating.

Other items of note:

  • The burn: Excellent and even – never needed a re-light.
  • The strength (nicotine): More moderate than I expected. The dinner and drink probably helped mute the effect.
  • The aroma: Hard to judge, given other cigarette and cigar smoke in the air.

A great value and fine cigar, independent of price. I would recommend this as an after-dinner/evening cigar.

RATING: 9.2 (on a scale of 1 to 10)

Thought for the day: “Nothing beats a greatcigar and a great drink...except maybe another great cigar and great drink.” - Unknown.  

DISCLAIMER:  At the risk of sounding too much like a TV commercial, I do want to sincerely state:  This feature is NOT intended to advocate the smoking of cigars any more or any less than you already do, nor do I intend to influence the non-smoker to begin smoking cigars.  Make no mistake about it; CIGAR SMOKING MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH.

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