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Menos Es Mas

Less is more. Are the Cubans finally beginning to understand that is a good rule to follow in cigar making?
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

The recent release of various imitada, or limited-edition, cigars and special humidors suggests some changes happening at Habanos S.A., the global distribution organization for Cuban cigars. It seems someone has convinced the island's cigar oligarchy that aficionados around the world want more than just millions and millions of the same, often mediocre cigars.

For the record, here is what Habanos is selling at the moment: a collector's box with 10 perfecto-shaped Cuaba Solomones; a luxurious humidor filled with 135 Cohibas, including 20 extremely rare torpedos and 20 gran coronas, and a hand-carved wooden case of 50 Trinidads -- 25 Fundadores and 25 Robustos. All are limited-production cigars.

In addition, the Cubans are continuing to produce the Edicion Limitada series, an assortment of new sizes and shapes in some top branded cigars. Last year, they released three sizes: a Montecristo robusto, a Partagas torpedo and a Hoyo de Monterrey gran corona. The quality was variable; the Hoyos, for instance, were generally so bad that most major retailers in Germany and England returned them. However, a few boxes were of very good quality.

This year the Cubans say that three new sizes will be available: a Montecristo Double Corona, a Romeo y Julieta torpedo and a Partagas Serie D No. 3, a corona gorda. In the beginning, these Edicion Limitada were going to be all dark wrapper or maduros; however, Habanos told me last year that this was no longer the case. Instead, they are simply limited-edition cigars with finite production.

There's also word that Habanos may produce in small numbers such rare smokes as the Por Larañaga Magnum and the Bolivar Gold Medal. The British, who are dying to get some special cigars for their market, started the initiative. There's even a British wish list of brands and sizes they hope the Cubans will make. The concept is partly designed to give the British retailers something special to offset the high cigar prices in the United Kingdom, but they also hope to get some high-quality cigars out of the deal.

Whatever finally develops, it should be good news for Cuban cigar lovers. For years, I have been telling the Cubans that "bigger is not necessarily better." The reason being is that when a manufacturer, whether making fine clothes, high-quality automobiles, great wines or handcrafted cigars, gets too big, it becomes harder and harder to maintain quality. Cuba's cigar industry has suffered from this over-production mania since the mid-1990s.

As long as I can remember, the top people in the Cuban cigar business have said that their best cigars were those that sold the most. "Our best cigars are Montecristo (about 26 million exported in 2000) because they are our biggest sellers," they said. Or they might have mentioned Cohiba, which now accounts for about 7 million sales a year, because the brand is the most expensive. They might have also mentioned Romeo y Julieta, about 14 million; Partagas, close to 12 million; and Quintero, just over 8 million.

When I would say something like, "No, no…what is your best-quality cigar, not your biggest-selling one?" a distasteful look would appear on their faces, and they would say something like, "I told you that our best-selling cigar is Montecristo; so that has to be our best quality."

Obviously, cultural differences come into play here. Cubans are always dealing with less in their lives, whether it means shortages of food or a lack of electricity and fuel. Just getting to work is a pain for them. So, less is always worse than more for them. But what in the world is wrong with making fewer cigars? Does Cuba really need to make 150 million cigars or more a year?

Obviously, cigars generate huge foreign revenues for the country, about $150 million in 2000, according to press reports. That is a vital contribution to its economy, and God knows how much Cuba needs the money. But the Cubans must stop looking at cigars as simply a revenue source. Making high-quality cigars is too important for Cuba's global prestige. No amount of money will be able to restore that reputation, which took decades to achieve, if the cigars don't meet quality standards.

We have been told over the years that Cuba can produce close to 150 million premium cigars. At one time, Habanos predicted a production level of 200 million, even 300 million. Today, Cuban cigar agents and shops are constantly told that they are going to have to sell more -- and at higher prices. But let's face it, Cuba has never made more than 50 million top-quality, hand-rolled cigars a year in its history. What makes it think that it can do it now?

I can't see the point of trying to pump up production, other than blind greed or ignorance. We are firmly in a global recession. Now is not the time to raise prices or pursue unrealistic sales targets. Moreover, the cigar boom is over. It's going to be difficult for anyone to sell more cigars this year than in previous years, especially if the quality is down.

It all seems crazy. Cubans receive, on average, about $1.30 per cigar exported from the island. This is simplified arithmetic, dividing the gross annual turnover by the number of cigars shipped. Obviously, they make even more money because they own or partially own most of their key importers and retailers, so they reap some profits there. But why don't they just increase their prices from Cuba, and make the importers work with smaller margins?

I would be more than happy to pay double the Cuban price, even triple, if the Cubans would promise to cut back production and focus on creating the highest-quality cigars possible. I am sure that thousands of cigar smokers around the world share my view.

I was just in Havana last August, and I couldn't help but see the problems of trying to keep up with an unrealistic pace of production. From inferior filler and wrapper to sloppy craftsmanship, it was there for everyone to see. The situation could have changed in recent months. I'll be visiting Cuba in the next few months to see if things have improved. I hope so.

Cubans in charge say that the percentages of rejected cigars coming from factories have actually decreased. They have even introduced new machines that check the draw of cigars in some factories, and they say that these machines never make a mistake in detecting plugged cigars. Moreover, they say that quality control in factories has increased. However, did they ever think that maybe the percentages of rejected cigars are down because more rubbish is being shipped out of the factory than ever before?

Despite all the bad news, every now and then you still come across a new cigar that is a joy to smoke. I recently smoked a Vegas Robania Famosos that was as rich, spicy and decadent as the old tobacco grower himself.

So, Cubans, please make fewer but better cigars. Continue to make interesting, limited-production smokes that even the most discerning cigar aficionado can get excited about. And accept a new phrase for making your fine cigars -- menos es mas.

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