Cuba produces the world’s best cigars (habanos, tabacos, or puros) at perhaps one-half the price of similar cigars in London.
Since 1985, handmade Cuban cigars have carried the Cubatabaco stamp plus a factory mark and, since 1989, the legend “Hecho en Cuba. Totalmente a Mano” (Made in Cuba. Completely by Hand). If it reads “Hecho a Mano,” the cigars are most likely hand finished (i.e., the wrapper was put on by hand) rather than hand made. If it states only “Hecho en Cuba,” they are assuredly machine made. As of 2005, all boxes feature a holographic seal (any other boxes are subject to seizure by Cuban customs).
There are about 40 brands, each in various sizes and even shapes; sizes are given specific names, such as Corona (142mm) and Julieta (178mm). Fatter cigars—the choice of connoisseurs—are more fully flavored and smoke more smoothly and slowly than those with smaller ring gauges. As a rule, darker cigars are also more full-bodied and sweeter.
All cigar factories produce various brands. Some factories specialize in particular flavors, others in particular sizes. Several factories might be producing any one brand simultaneously, so quality can vary markedly even though the label is the same. Experts consider cigars produced in Havana’s El Laguito factory to be the best. As with fine wines, the quality of cigars varies from year to year. The source and year of production are marked in code on the underside of the box. The code tells you a lot about the cigars inside. Even novices can determine the provenance and date of cigars if they know the codes. However, the code system keeps changing to throw buyers off, so that cigars of different ages have different codes. The first three letters usually refer to the factory where the cigars were made, followed by four letters that give the date of manufacture.
The expertise and care expressed in the factory determine how well a cigar burns and tastes. Cigars, when properly stored, continue to ferment and mature in their boxes—an aging process similar to that of good wines. Rules on when to smoke a cigar don’t exist, but many experts claim that the prime cigars are those aged for 6–8 years. Everyone agrees that a cigar should be smoked either within three months of manufacture or not for at least a year; the interim is known as a “period of sickness.”
Cigars should be slightly soft when gently squeezed; have a fresh, robust smell (a stale smell may indicate a fake, low-quality, or poorly stored cigar); be tightly rolled, smooth and silky in texture, and free of any protuberances or air pockets. The cigars should be of near identical color and shape.
You may leave Cuba with up to CUC2,000 worth of cigars with purchase receipts, which you also need for any more than 23 loose or unwrapped cigars. You can buy additional cigars in the airport duty-free lounge after passing through customs controls.
Cigars can be bought at virtually every tourist hotel and store, or at dedicated Casas del Habano or Casas del Tabaco nationwide. Most shop clerks know little about cigars. Prices can vary up to 20 percent from store to store. If one store doesn’t have what you desire, another surely will. Inspect your cigars before committing to a purchase.
In cities, jineteros (street hustlers) will offer you cigars at what seems the deal of the century. Forget it! The vast majority are low-quality, machine-made cigars sold falsely as top-line cigars to unsuspecting travelers. The hustlers use empty boxes and seals stolen by colleagues who work in the cigar factories, so the unknowing buyer is easily convinced that this is the real McCoy.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition