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A Brief History of the Cigar Industry

War, revolution and regulation have failed to snuff out the continuing story of the cigar.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012

(continued from page 2)

Imports of premium, handmade cigars began to climb towards the end of 1992—soon after Cigar Aficionado magazine appeared in September of that year. The American cigar market was turned on its head, and would go through a period of unimaginable growth. Premium cigar imports rose by 3.7 percent in 1992, 9.7 percent in 1993, 12.4 percent in 1994, 33.1 percent in 1995 and soared 66.7 percent in 1996, to more than 293 million cigars. Between 1992 and 1996, the market for fine cigars nearly tripled.

“I went back to look at our financials dating back to 1992, and I will honestly tell you that, based on our sales increases beginning in 1993, I would have had no problem guessing the year [the magazine] started,” says John Oliva Sr., the head of Oliva Tobacco Co., one of the cigar world’s leading names in growing and brokering cigar tobacco. “It was, in my opinion, Cigar Aficionado that kick-started the boom.”

Once-sleepy smoke shops became jammed with customers. Incoming orders of cigars would sometimes be stacked in piles on the floor, never making it to the walk-in humidor. Kansas City retailer Curt Diebel, whose boom-time business doubled each month for a time, went as far as to install a secret spot in his humidor to hide his stock, in fear that new customers would walk in and buy everything he had. “I spent my time on the phone trying to convince the vendors to give me product,” says Diebel. “Then I had to allocate my product for my [regular] customers. We got tired of having strangers come in and saying ‘I’ll take all of them.’ ”

In Miami, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo’s La Gloria Cubana brand—heralded in the third issue of Cigar Aficionado with several 90-point scores for $2 cigars—suddenly had the hottest thing in the cigar world, and found himself completely submerged in new orders. His sales rocketed from 700,000 cigars in 1992 to 3.3 million in 1996, and then nearly doubled to 6.1 million the following year.

Antismoking regulations in the United States were still in their infancy during the cigar boom, and restaurateurs eagerly welcomed the cigar lovers. Cigar bars opened, cigar dinners flourished, and Cigar Aficionado’s Big Smokes brought cigar lovers out en masse.

Cigar shops expanded and new ones opened. As traditional cigar companies tried to expand their operations, newcomers flocked to the cigar industry, creating brand after brand after brand. People dug old cigars out of humidors (and basements) hoping to cash in at auction. The average price for a box of pre-embargo Cuban cigars sold at Christie’s soared from less than $500 in 1992 to nearly $2,500 in mid-1996.

Cigar lovers were not only buying more cigars, but they had radically changed their buying habits. Before 1992, said Robert Levin, retailer and owner of the Ashton brand, “people would be brand loyal, come in once a week for a box of cigars. Now they come in with the ratings, and they want to buy a bunch of different brands.” The sale of singles quickly replaced the box sale.

The most popular cigars of the early 1990s were often made of mild, Dominican filler, wrapped with mild leaves of Connecticut-shade. Cigarmakers, emboldened by the increased sales, made more flavorful blends. The late 1995 release of the Fuente Fuente OpusX helped spark a trend toward more powerful, spicy smokes. Cuban-seed tobaccos and Ecuadoran Sumatra wrappers became increasingly popular, and cigar smokers learned the term “ligero,” describing the strongest variety of filler tobacco. The 1994 release of the ultrarich Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series, made entirely with Cuban-seed tobaccos, ignited a trend toward box-pressed cigars, which had been almost entirely absent from the U.S. market.

As cigar sales grew, so did the girth (measured in ring gauge) of the most-popular smokes. One retailer said that in 1990, almost 80 percent of his sales came from the very slim lonsdales and coronas sizes. By 1996, most of his sales came from fat robustos and corona gordas. The first edition of Cigar Aficionado magazine rated 17 robustos, the fattest of which had a ring gauge of 52. The Diamond Crown brand, a line consisting entirely of 54-ring gauge cigars, made news in 1995 when it was launched—as 54s were considered quite thick in those days. Today, a ring gauge of 60 characterizes one of the most popular sizes in American smoke shops.

The effects of the cigar boom reached Cuba as well. Consumers flocked to Cuban cigar stores and bought every cigar they could find. On a trip to Havana in early 1996, the Cigar Aficionado editors visited nine cigar shops and couldn’t find a double corona, Montecristo No. 2 or Partagás Serie D No. 4. Cuba, which had produced fewer than 60 million export-quality cigars in 1993 and 1994, vastly increased its production. Cuban cigar exports reached 100 million units in 1997, and officials announced the long-term goal of increasing further to 200 million cigars by the year 2000.

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Comments   1 comment(s)

Doc Diaz December 4, 2012 1:51am ET

This was a very enlightening article. An excellent summary, however I am surprised you did not mention the first cigar "boom" in 1964, which was the first real resurgence of cigars since the Golden Age of cigars, which peaked in the early 1900s and started to decline around 1920.

The first boom, in 1964, was related to a number of factors (which I have written about elsewhere) and was helped along, ironically, by the Surgeon General's first-ever report on Smoking & Health. This report claimed that, “men smoking less than five cigars per day have death rates about the same as non-smokers.” This provided a scientific halo-effect for cigars that enhanced that short-lived yet significant cigar boom in the mid-1960s.

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