Cigar Diary: Mexico's Cigar King
Max Gutmann is one of the world's great collectors of Cuban cigars as well as Mexico's official Cuban cigar agent.
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CA: The problem in Mexico with fakes appears pretty bad. I was in Tijuana the other day on the main high street, and except for the Casa del Habano and another store, all the cigars for sale were fake. What are you doing about it?
Gutmann: We have been making investigations and arrests with the police department. They might go to a store and confiscate cigars and everybody is scared. But then a week later they are all back in the stores. It is the same with all luxury products in the States or Europe...Louis Vuitton, Gucci and others. Just outside of the official stores, there are people selling copies of the real thing. The police come and they go away, but the next morning they are back again.
It is something you have to fight and fight and fight. The whole idea is that people must realize that to smoke great cigars they need to smoke less but smoke the real thing. Everybody knows that you can't buy a real Rolex for $100. So you can't buy a real Cohiba for $5.
CA: But in Tijuana, I saw a lot of fake cigars being sold at the same price as real ones.
Gutmann: This is the problem. And then people who don't know that much about cigars smoke them and say, "You know, Cuban cigars are not very good quality." They are not good because they are smoking fakes.
CA: Are a lot of the fakes sold to American tourists?
Gutmann: Yes. In all the border cities and tourist destinations. Even in Mexico City, there are a lot of counterfeits. The only thing we can do is to try to educate people about what a real cigar is.
CA: What percent of your sales go to Americans?
Gutmann: I can't really tell you. But we have American customers all over Mexico, especially at beaches like Acapulco, Cancn and others. It's perfectly legal to sell Cuban cigars to them in Mexico. I am sure Americans enjoy smoking a cigar here when they can't do the same in their own country. I don't know how much they take back with them.
CA: I guess that it's up to them what they do with their leftovers from holidays?
Gutmann: We tell them that they can't take them back to the States. It's not legal. But it's up to them. In Mexico, they can do what they wish. [Editor's note: Under the Trading With The Enemy Act, U.S. citizens are prohibited from buying Cuban products anywhere in the world.]
CA: There doesn't appear to be much Internet business out of Mexico?
Gutmann: I don't think so. Besides, I would never buy cigars over the Internet. I like to look at the cigars that I am going to buy. Wherever I am in the world, I like to go to a cigar shop and see the cigars I buy. Some people like dark wrappers, others medium wrappers and others light wrappers. I like to make the choice. That's why La Casa del Habano is so good. You have the service. Plus, the cigars are stored properly at the right temperature and humidity.
CA: You were, in effect, the creator of La Casa del Habano after building the first Casa in Cancn in the mid-1990s. Tell me about that.
Gutmann: It was 18 years ago. You couldn't really buy Cuban cigars in Mexico then. The only Cuban cigars you could buy were at the airport. And even then you could only buy Montecristo No. 1 Especial.
Then I had a friend who was going to Cuba all the time on business. He later became my partner in the cigar business. Anyway, I said, "You know what? When you go to Cuba, bring me back two or three boxes of different types of cigars." So he would bring me some boxes and then he would go again and bring me some different ones. I was always so excited when he would come back with those cigars.
Then one time I said, "Bring me back 20 boxes." And he brought me a whole export carton full of boxes of cigars. He also brought me a catalog with all the brands and sizes of cigars the Cubans exported.
CA: I remember that. It was the one that was laminated. I have a copy.
Gutmann: I looked at that catalog and I decided to have a collection and build a small room in my house to keep my cigars. My friend then brought me a suitcase full of cigars! Back then it was no problem. There was no duty. It was no big deal, especially with cigars. Then I had this idea: "Let's try to set up a cigar shop and only specialize in Cuban cigars." I told him I would put up the money. So we did it.
CA: So this was before you were the official agent for Cuban cigars?
Gutmann: Yes. Before we were the agent. So we got an architect and he made a design for a small shop called La Casa del Habano. We went to Cuba and presented it to them. It took them two years to agree.
CA: Was that in the early 1990s?
Gutmann: Yes. They were afraid. They had had bad experiences with Davidoff. So they were worried. Finally they agreed after seeing the model of the store. But they insisted that it should be in Cancn and not Mexico City. I guess because Cancn is closer to Cuba, so they could more easily check on it.
CA: I remember it. It was in a shopping mall. So you owned the name as well?
Gutmann: Yes. But one day I got a call from the head of Cubatabaco [the former name of Habanos S.A.] and he said, "Max, I want you to go to the lawyers and endorse the name La Casa del Habano to us."
I said to myself, "If I tell them that they need to pay me for the use, what can they do? They didn't have money at the time. They couldn't even afford to grow the tobacco crop at the time. And if I say no, they won't sell me cigars." So I gave them half of my business and I said to them, "Don't forget that I was the first one!" It's like never forgetting your first love. That's all I cared about at the time.
CA: So when did you become the agent for Cuban cigars?
Gutmann: It was two years later. The agent for Cuban cigars was involved with liquor. They were the people from Domecq brandy. We spoke to them and they were not interested in Cuban cigars anyway. For them, it was a relief to get rid of it...so we took it over from them.
CA: When was that exactly?
Gutmann: 1994. They must have been sorry in the end that they gave up the distribution because the cigar boom started after that.
CA: Do you remember the first time you smoked a cigar?
Gutmann: I remember very well. I had a French-Moroccan brother-in-law and he smoked Cuban cigars all the time. I used to smoke cigarettes. He said, "Max, why do you smoke cigarettes? They are so bad for you. Why don't you smoke cigars?" And he pushed and pushed and pushed, and finally I smoked a cigar. I didn't like it at first. But then a couple of days later I tried another one. It was after a great dinner with really good food and wine, and it was a lot better. And from then on, I loved smoking cigars.
CA: What was it?
Gutmann: It was a Partagas Lusitania. I thought I should start with a smaller cigar, but he insisted that I smoke the double corona.
CA: When did you start collecting cigars?
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