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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Gutmann is also one of the world's great cigar collectors, with a trove of more than 1,500 boxes in a large room just below a terrace at his villa in Mexico City. Last year, he began selling a special regional cigar in Mexico—Edmundo Dantes Conde 109. The 50 ring gauge by 7 inch cigar has been acclaimed as one of the best yet in the series.
I sat down with Gutmann recently in his cigar room in Mexico City, smoked a 109 and spoke with him about his business and his passion for cigars.
CA: Why the Edmundo Dantes Conde 109?
Gutmann: For 18 years I have been smoking Partagas Lusitania double coronas in cabinets of 50. They always have been my favorite. The problem is that they have gone a little out of fashion. People don't have time to smoke them anymore. So I thought if we were going to come out with a new brand and a new cigar, let's go back to a big cigar, something special like the 109. It was last made in 1995 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Partagas.
CA: The 109 came in a special humidor.
Gutmann: Yes. It came with 50 robustos, 50 corona gordas and 50 109s. They have a beautiful band in red, with gold saying "150th Anniversary." It was sold for the first time at the Meliá Cohiba hotel in Havana in 1995. You were there.
CA: How could I forget?
Gutmann: The name "109" is the name that the rollers call it in the factory and it is conical at the end, instead of flat or rounded like a normal cigar. It is a cigar that is very hard to make. Only highest-classified rollers in Cuba can make it—those with ratings of eight or nine.
CA: Where were they made?
Gutmann: All the cigars were made in the new H. Upmann, which is now one of the most modern on the island.
CA: The original 109 was made in the Partagas factory and by one roller.
CA: You had 600 boxes of 25 cigars made? And it's only sold in Mexico?
Gutmann: Yes. It is absolutely only sold in Mexico. And we have the option for the cigar for two years.
CA: What has the response been so far?
Gutmann: It has been very good. We are almost sold out. People always want something new, something different. Even if they may not like it, they want to try it. Cuba is not making many new cigars at the moment, so the regional editions are interesting.
CA: I heard that this year there is going to be more than a dozen regional editions. That's a lot.
Gutmann: It makes sense. Every country now wants to have its own regional cigar. I think it is a good idea because everybody wants something new. That's in everything. You want to try a new wine. You want to try a new brand of clothing. You want to try a new brand of shoes.
CA: Maybe you will do another regional cigar, another size in the Edmundo Dantes brand?
Gutmann: Maybe we will do a different cigar or a different brand in the future. Maybe a robusto. Maybe a torpedo.
CA: Are you happy with the blend?
Gutmann: It's very, very nice. It's a delicate cigar. It is not a very strong cigar. It is a very comfortable cigar. It is very well balanced with a good draw. It gives you a good aftertaste. As you smoke it from the beginning to the end, it is the same. It doesn't get bitter at the end, like many cigars.
CA: How many Cuban cigars overall are sold now per year in Mexico?
Gutmann: In 2007, we expected to import about 3.5 million cigars.
CA: It's been like that for a while.
Gutmann: It may have been a little higher a few years ago. We have changed sales from a lot of machine-made cigars to hand-rolled ones, high-end cigars. So that is better.
CA: So what is the best-selling brand?
Gutmann: Cohiba. Then Montecristo, Romeo & Julieta and then Partagas.
CA: Does that mean you have a very high average price per Cuban cigar sold in Mexico?
Gutmann: Yes. And it's been difficult for the machine-made cigars because the government has increased taxes on them from 20.9 percent to 140 percent. No one knew about this raise, and it killed the low-end market for cigars in Mexico. The tax is higher than the price of tobacco.
CA: I guess your biggest problem, however, is with fake cigars?
Gutmann: That problem, unfortunately, still exists. It exists everywhere in the world. Our problem in Mexico is both counterfeit cigars and contraband cigars.
CA: When you say contraband cigars, do you mean parallel market cigars? They are cigars that come from other markets at lower prices than yours?
Gutmann: Yes. These are cigars that come from markets with low taxes to high tax markets, like ours. Some people [who buy cigars in Cuba] do not pay the taxes on the cigars when they enter Mexico. So it's easy for them to sell these cigars [here] because they are a lot cheaper than the official ones [which are subject to the high taxes]. The problem is that some of the cigars are also counterfeit.
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?