I am not sure why over the last three weeks the international press has been full of stories about the decline of the Cuban cigar. The stories have not been about a drop in quality, but the downturn in the sales and production of the famous smokes.
The drop in sales is an old story that I wrote about earlier this year. I wrote that exports of Cuban cigars last year dropped to $360 million, down 7.7 percent from $390 million in 2008, and down considerably from the $402 million exported in 2007.
My sources in the Cuban cigar industry tell me that the value for exported cigars is slightly up the first six months this year, perhaps as much as London’s Financial Times noted in yesterday’s story of 4.3 percent. The story didn’t say that volume was also up a little, just under 1 percent, according to my contacts.
What's strange are the figures that are being thrown out for annual export volumes. A story in the June 22 issue of The Guardian was a complete joke. It stated “the number of cigars produced for export plunge from 217m in 2006 to 73m last year.” First, Cuba has never in the last half century exported 217 million cigars. Second, my estimate for exports last year was between 80 million and 90 million cigars.
A number of stories quoted figures from Guerrillero, the mouthpiece of the tobacco growers of Pinar del Río, the famous tobacco town and region of Cuba. Guerrillero states in the first paragraph of its June 23 online story that the conclusion of this year’s tobacco harvest was marked by plans to decrease the planting and processing of tobacco. It wrote that the tobacco yields were better than last year.
Nonetheless, I spent some time on the Guerrillero’s Web site and found out that the harvest was down in Pinar del Río in 2010 from about 22.4 million “cujes” to 26 million in 2009. The latter was slightly up from 2008.
“Cuje” is a confusing measurement for Cuba tobacco, but what I gather it denotes the number of leaves on a pole used in the tobacco curing barns. Each pole (or “cuje”) usually has 100 leaves, and are stacked in any large curing barn. Pinar del Río has just over 7,000 curing barns, according to a story in Guerrillero.
Cigar auctions are a cool thing. You sip Champagne, smoke a Cuban cigar and bid on rare and not-so-rare smokes. At least that’s what happened on Monday night at the C. Gars Ltd. Boisdale of Belgravia in London.
Owner Mitchell Orchant put together an impressive selection of more than 170 different lots of cigars from current production to century-old smokes, with plenty of Cuban Davidoffs, Cuban Dunhills, pre-embargo sticks and rare humidors in between. Almost all the cigars were Cuban. The sale totaled close to $318,000 including the 12.5 percent buyer’s and seller’s premium.
About 50 people sat on the small third floor open-air terrace of Boisdale restaurant. It was warm and fresh with the aromas of Cuban cigar smoke intermixing with flowers and the smell of a warm summer’s day in London. About 138 bidders registered for the sale. Most came from the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Australia and North America.
The Cuban Davidoff and Dunhill cigars were some of the most sought-after lots, with such boxes as Château Latour and Château Margaux selling for about $2,500 and $1,850 respectively. An almost empty box of six of the legendary Dunhill Cabinetta Robustos from the early 1980s (a cigar I scored 100 points many times for Connoisseur’s Corner) went for about $2,200. A range of Dunhilll Selección cigars from the 1960s were equally expensive with a cabinet of 50 Suprema No. 169 Hoyo de Monterreys 1966 selling for about $6,400.
Pre-Castro, or pre-embargo, smokes from the 1950s, and back were mixed in prices—some high and some low. I thought that prices were much higher 10 years ago, but may be I am wrong. For instance, a cabinet of pre-embargo torpedos from Romeo y Julieta called Piramidos No. 1 sold for more than $10,000 to someone in the room. That’s expensive. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see them for sale in the cigar lounge of the Lanesborough Hotel in London.) But a box of 25 Juan Lopez Coronas for about $1,000 and a seven pack of Romeo y Julieta Half-a-Corona Selección Superfinas at around $300 seemed like a steal.
I smoked a couple of Cohiba Behikes yesterday in London (actually, I smoked one this morning around 12:30 a.m.), and I was in cigar nirvana. If you don’t remember, Behikes are the new blockbuster, super-premium smoke from Cuba produced exclusively under its flagship brand. They are just coming out on the market now.
I went to what amounted to the world premiere of these three mind-blowing smokes. Hunters & Frankau, the importer and distributor for Cuban cigars in the United Kingdom, organized the event yesterday evening in the garden of the Goring Hotel. I hadn’t stepped foot in there since the beginning of my honeymoon to my now divorced second wife. But that is another story.
The big story was puffing away on the exclusive Cohibas. Hunters gave out a gift of each of the larger smokes and two of the smaller ones. Attendees had to shell out £150 ($220) to attend, which seemed a relative bargain considering all the Krug Champagne that was flowing and various other drinks, as well as the four cigars. Jemma Freeman, the head of Hunters, said that Krug was the perfect drink to pair with the Behike, and I wasn’t about to complain.
The three Behikes are the following sizes and names: BHK 52 (4 11/16 inches long by 52 ring gauge), BHK 54 (5 2/3 inches by 54 ring gauge) and BHK 56 (6 1/2 inches by 56 ring). They come in lacquered boxes of ten. Suggested U.K. retail per cigar is £28.70 ($42), £37.60 ($55) and £42.10 ($62) respectively.