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Cuba's Icon: Montecristo Cigars

The country's top-selling brand isn't always its best
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

"What's the best cigar of Cuba in your opinion?" I asked one of the tobacco experts at the La Corona factory in Havana about four years ago.

"Montecristo," he said.

"No, no, no...what's the best-quality cigar of Cuba?" I asked again in my bad Spanish, expecting him to say Cohiba or maybe even Trinidad, but definitely something other than Montecristo.

"Montecristo," he repeated.

"Why Montecristo?" I asked, feeling slightly irritated.

"It's the biggest-selling cigar brand from Cuba, so it has to be the best," he said, looking rather annoyed that I kept asking the same question.

His notion about the best-quality Cuban cigars was different from mine. Cubans often believe that the biggest is the best, but there's no way in a month of Sundays that Montecristo is Cuba's best quality cigar. Montecristo cigars have significantly improved in quality over the last two years, but so has the quality of all other Habanos.

One sign of Montecristo's improvement has been the introduction of a new size, the Edmundo, which measures 52 ring gauge by 5 3/8 inches. I have smoked some great examples of Edmundo (and some less than outstanding ones) in the last six months, both in Europe and in Cuba. The cigar should prove to be a huge success and create some buzz for the largely lackluster brand.

There's one fairly simple explanation for the brand's rather mundane reputation. The biggest-selling size in the brand lineup is the ubiquitous Montecristo No. 4, a petit corona measuring 42 ring gauge by 5 1/8 inches. This is to fine cigars what the Big Mac is to haute cuisine. Not only is the No. 4 the largest-produced size in the brand, it is the largest-production cigar on the island. Although no one from Habanos S.A., the global distribution company for Cuban cigars, would ever confirm production totals, probably between 20 million and 25 million Monte No. 4s are produced annually. It is also the biggest-selling cigar in Spain—the biggest Habanos market in the world, accounting for a substantial share of the 30-million-cigars-a-year market. When a Spaniard asks for a puro, he gets a Monte 4. It's almost like when an Irishman asks for a pint of beer and he automatically gets a Guinness.

Monte 4's commercial success is its downfall. The cigar's quality is almost always questionable because it is made in dozens of factories, not just one. Even the largest factories in Havana, such as Partagas or La Corona, can make only 8 million to 10 million cigars a year. So it is impossible for the Monte 4 to be made under one roof. This begs the question of how the Cubans can maintain Montecristo's house blend of tobacco as well as consistency in its cigar construction with production spread across the island.

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