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Big-Wrapper Crisis

The Lack of Large-Sized Wrapper Leaves is Creating a Shortage of Big Cigars
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95

Last summer, cigar merchants in London were celebrating the imminent arrival of a shipment of large cigars from Cuba, including the Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona and the Punch Double Corona. Customers had been badgering the retailers for months for boxes of these big, robust cigars, even though British merchants hadn't had any since the beginning of 1994. Day after day, it was the same story--an angry telephone call or a tongue-lashing from a visiting customer. No one would believe them when they said they didn't have any to sell.

The merchants' revelry, however, was short lived. When the Cuban cigar shipment finally arrived in August, it included a mere 280 boxes of the double coronas, which were distributed among the best cigar shops in London. Most of the double coronas never even reached the shelves, because prized customers were automatically allocated a box or two. The rest sold out in a few hours. "We got about 1,000 cigars," says Robert Emery, who oversees the London cigar shops of James J. Fox, Robert Lewis and Harrods. "We sold out right away. We are still taking orders all the time for double coronas. We have pages of people who want them. They are like gold dust."

Adds Simon Chase, marketing director for Hunters & Frankau, the leading agent in the United Kingdom for Cuban cigars, "we could have easily sold more than 3,000 boxes of Hoyo Double Coronas last year if we had had them. We are in a silly situation. If everyone had Hoyo Double Coronas, it might be different, but I could pick up the phone today and sell 40,000 of them with very little trouble at all. And that might be to just one person." The situation in London is no different than any other place in the world where connoisseurs harbor a penchant for big, premium handmade cigars.

Regardless of their origin, many large-format cigars--especially double corona and Churchill sizes--are in extremely limited supply, primarily due to a shortage in large wrapper tobacco. The outer leaf surrounding a cigar is more significant than some believe; not only can a poor wrapper ruin the appearance of a cigar, it can also throw off the balance of its tobacco blend, making it smoke harshly or unevenly. With less top-quality wrapper leaf available to serious cigar manufacturers, many are finding it harder and harder to produce larger-sized cigars--which usually are their flagship sizes.

In view of the dwindling selection of large cigars in fine shops around the world, shrewd cigar lovers, especially Havana aficionados, have already begun stocking up on large cigars to assure a steady supply over the next year or two. If your favorite cigar is a Churchill or a double corona, you would be wise to buy several boxes--a few dozen might be better--and put them away to survive the shortage. This is especially true if your favorite cigars are Cuban or made with a Cameroon wrapper. Leading cigar merchants in London say customers' personal stocks are already increasing each month. And for the tasting of double coronas in this issue, we were simply unable to find many brands in the marketplace.

Most key cigar producers do not expect the shortage to end for a year or two. Cigar production simply can't keep up with demand, especially in the larger sizes. Look at the growth in cigar sales from the Dominican Republic. Annual exports of cigars are now close to 74 million; just a few years ago the number was in the mid-50s. Most of the stellar growth comes from the United States, where cigar makers report customers doubling or even quadrupling their orders last year. Many key cigar makers have back orders for millions of cigars.

"We could sell at least 50 percent more large cigars, if we had them," says Carlos Fuente Jr., the president of Arturo Fuente cigars in Santiago, Dominican Republic, which produces cigars under his family name as well as for Ashton, Cuesta-Rey and others. "I think that we have panic ordering. I have never seen anything like it." Adds Richard Meerapfel of Brussels-based Meerapfel & Söhne, a major player in the Cameroonian tobacco business: "The problem is that if the demand outpaces tobacco plantings, there is nothing we can do. We only have one crop a year. I was just in the States, and I couldn't believe it. I was in a hotel, and I saw five or six people in the bar smoking cigars that could have been mistaken for small baseball bats. The demand is crazy."

The soaring demand for large cigars--anything from a lonsdale 6 1/2 inches by 42 ring gauge to a gran corona 9 1/4 inches by 47 ring gauge--only adds to the frustration of many cigar makers. "Everybody has been caught with their pants down," says Fuente. "We weren't prepared for it. I think it will take two to three years to get production up to the levels of demand."

Francisco Padron, until recently the president of Havana-based Habanos SA (formerly Cubatabaco), the worldwide distribution company for Cuban cigars, had hoped that the shortage of export cigars from Cuba might be solved sooner, especially with this year's harvest, which is expected to be bountiful. "Although we will slightly increase the production from this year's levels, we will continue to have a supply problem," he says, adding that Cuba's total exports in 1994 were expected to hit between 50 million and 55 million cigars, a significant decrease from about 75 million just nine years ago. "We might have 500,000 more large cigars. But our current production [of large cigars] is only about 2.5 million. If we had the raw material, we could produce about 6 million big cigars."

The current predicament with Cuba's hottest cigar, Hoyo de Monterrey's Double Corona, illustrates why some large cigars are so hard to get. The cigar, which measures 7 5/8 inches long by 49 ring gauge, has a cult following among Havana cigar lovers. It's a rich and succulent cigar, delivering distinctive aromas and flavors. Many believe it is one of Cuba's greatest cigars. In the Winter 1992/93 Cigar Aficionado, we rated it 99 points out of 100, our highest score ever given to a cigar. In this issue we give it 96.

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