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Old Havanas

The best aged cigars, from 30 to 60 years old, are refined, stylish powerhouses of flavor.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

(continued from page 3)

The main reason why Britain is the best market for mature stocks of cigars is that the tradition began there, although some cigar merchants in Switzerland have often tried to take credit for the practice. The British elite have been buying and storing large parcels of handrolled cigars for more than a century. "The understanding of vintage cigars is still very much an English, aristocratic, upper-class pursuit," says Chase. "They buy their cigars, they lay down their cigars and they understand that they should be left for a period of time."

Many blue-blooded families in the United States, especially on the East Coast, have a strong inclination to follow English avocations of pleasure, and cigars are no exception. The U.S. branches of Dunhill, among others, have a well-established tradition of laying down cigars. Some of the best pre-embargo cigars still in circulation in the United States are those selected and sold by Dunhill. They were nearly always sold in Dunhill-branded boxes with their state-side location names printed on the inside lid: San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and Beverly Hills, California. They had special numbers for each cigar style produced by the Havana factories: designations such as H. Upmann Selection Suprema No. 22 or Ramon Allones No. 66.

In London, James J. Fox and Robert Lewis is the merchant with the largest stock of reserves. About 320 customers have cigars in storage: it's conceivable that more than 10,000 cigars might be lying in the merchant's cellar. Many of them were bought in the '50s and '60s. "We hold more reserve cigars than anywhere else in the world," says Croley, whose family owned part of Robert Lewis until the December merger. "In my grandfather's time, we never used to sell a cigar less than eight years old. Unfortunately, this is not altogether possible today, but we encourage our customers to lay down stocks to be able to enjoy a fine, mature Havana cigar."

Croley, like most other serious cigar merchants, says that the cost has now shifted to the client to lay down reserves. Customers are usually charged a yearly storage fee, or they must buy a minimum number of boxes of cigars each year. Dunhill in the United States even maintains a cigar club, the Connoisseurs' Humidor Society, to attract customers with reserves. "It builds our relationship with our customer," says Graves "Smitty" Smith of Dunhill's branch in New York. "We want more people in the society. It builds camaraderie among them."

Smitty says that more and more customers in their 30s and 40s are now laying down cigars for the future. Assuring themselves a good supply of top-quality, aged cigars is one reason, as well as the satisfaction of knowing they have their cache in a Dunhill locker. "Besides, they wouldn't like it if their wives or girlfriends knew that they spent $3,000 or $4,000 a year on cigars. So it's good for them to keep their cigars with us," he says.

That's less the case with London cigar merchants. They sell Havana cigars almost exclusively, and they cost two to four times the price of those sold in the United States from other countries. It is a major investment for cigar lovers to start laying down cigars there. For example, a cigar lover in the United States may spend $750 to $1,250 for putting on reserve 10 boxes of 25 Dominican or Honduran robusto-sized cigars, but doing the same thing in London with Cuban robustos may cost $2,350 to $3,500.

Buying old cigars is even more expensive. A cigar with 20 or 30 years of age in good condition can be double or triple the retail price for a currently available one in a similar size or shape. Sautter says that five years ago he would have sold most of his pre-Castro cigars for half of today's price. He recently sold a box of 100 Montecristo No. 1 from the late '50s for about $4,650. It would have brought about $1,100 five years ago and $1,860 a little more than a year ago.

Because of the high cost of cigars in Britain, Sautter says that more people bought cigars for reserve about 20 or 30 years ago in London, which is why there are still relatively large stocks to be found. "A shipment of a particular cigar would come in and the customer would be notified," says Sautter. "Then we would say, 'take 10 boxes, sir, but don't smoke them yet. Give them a chance to improve.' Don't forget that in those days cigars would have cost about £2 to £3 a box. So, a guy would come and say, 'I will put down £100 worth of cigars.' "

Of course, it may mean more business for them, but most cigar merchants still think it makes good sense to put cigars on reserve. With most premium markets increasing cigar prices and taxes, one London merchant predicts that it's not going to get any cheaper to buy cigars.

If you decide to invest, larger cigars are always the best sizes to put on reserve. Generally speaking, the fatter and longer the cigar, the better. Cigars such as Churchills and double coronas are ideal, but robustos, although shorter, also store well. "You will lose some of the intensity of flavor when the cigar ages; so it's better to take fuller, richer styles of cigars," says Chase.

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