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Small Cigars, Big Business

Aficionados are eager for a 10-minute smoke, and the industry has heeded the call
Mark Weissenberger
From the Print Edition:
Bill Murray, Nov/Dec 2004

There's a trend emerging in the premium cigar industry, that of the smaller variety.

Small cigars, many of them inconspicuously packed in unassuming tins or stiff cardboard, have emerged virtually undetected onto the market led by releases from popular, well-known brands. But have no fear, big-cigar smokers. Tiny cigars will not usurp the cigar aficionado's desire for a full-sized, higher-ring-gauged cigar; they simply provide the time-constrained smoker with the option for a quickie.

"I don't mind them if I do not have time to smoke a Churchill," cigaraficionado.com user Hberry wrote on one of the Web site's forums. "[Tins are] also good for non-cigar-smoking friends who want to have a cigar, [so] you don't have to give them a seven-dollar cigar." Forum member voodoo child wrote, "I smoke them mostly when I'm someplace where I'm not allowed to smoke, but I need a fix."

When it comes to cigars, it seems that the all-American trend of rushing through every daily activity has proven beneficial only for the smallest of smokes. Brevity is the allure of small cigars. Add a draconian antismoking law to your area and you've got the proper recipe that'll keep consumers craving a 10-minute smoke. Cigar manufacturers have not overlooked this growing fancy, and many have begun to introduce a variety of small, premium handmade cigars, generally with ring gauges of 36 or less and lengths of 5 inches or less. "Due to new smoking restrictions, people are looking for a quick smoke during work and leisure breaks," says Jim Colucci, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Altadis U.S.A. Inc., maker of more than a dozen tiny cigars and no stranger to the small-cigar market.

While the demand for small premium cigars is increasing, the vast majority of small cigars sold in the United States continue to be machine-made brands. Unlike handmade cigars, which are made entirely by hand by a skilled roller using a few simple tools and delicate high-quality wrapper leaves and long filler, machine-made smokes are made entirely by machine, with lower-grade wrappers and binders and, frequently, short (cut) filler in place of long filler.

Of the 7 billion cigars sold in America last year—most of which are machine-made—2.5 billion, or 35.4 percent, were small cigars, says Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America. That represents an increase from 2.2 billion in 2001 and 2.3 billion in 2002.

Cuba's cigar industry also makes a variety of small cigars, including Clubs, which measure 3 3/4 inches long and are as thin as a pencil, and Minis, which are half an inch shorter and considerably thinner. They come in cardboard boxes and are available in some of the island's greatest brand names, including Cohiba and Montecristo.

But what exactly is a "small" cigar? According to the U.S. government, "small," or "little," cigars, as they are known in the American cigar industry, are defined on the basis of weight. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau defines small cigars as cigars that weigh three pounds or less per 1,000 units; anything bigger is considered a "large" cigar.

So-called cigarillos, the huge majority of which, like small cigars, are low-priced and machine-made, make up the lighter end of the large-cigar market. Over the last three years, U.S. cigarillo sales as a percentage of large-cigar sales have jumped from 45.9 percent in 2001 to 49.2 percent in 2002 to 49.4 percent in 2003, according to the Cigar Association. Together, small cigars and cigarillos accounted for 67.7 percent of U.S. cigar sales in 2003.

Not surprisingly, according to a recent poll conducted by cigaraficionado.com, a clear majority of the respondents who have smoked a small cigar—65 percent—said they favored handmade cigars over machine-made ones. Furthermore, 39 percent said they rarely smoked small, tinned cigars, 29 percent said they do so on occasion, and only 1 percent said they smoked small cigars all the time—further proof that you needn't cast away those unruly robustos and indolent double coronas just yet.

Nevertheless, premium cigarmakers say demand continues to grow for the miniature sizes, so companies are creating smaller cigars and attaching big brand names to attract those seasoned aficionados who favor larger cigars. And the marketing strategy has worked. Inés Lorenzo-Gómez, co-owner of La Flor Dominicana, said that the company's little cigars—La Flor Dominicana 2000 Series Mojito and La Flor Dominicana Daiquiri—are fine sellers, but they used to be better sellers before all the tins began flooding onto the market.

Here's the skinny on some of the recent little additions to the cigar world:

Davidoff has been touting its spaghetti strand—thin Exquisito as the world's smallest hand-rolled long-filler cigar, measuring just 3 5/8 inches by 22 ring. Samuel Russell, senior marketing manager for Davidoff of Geneva, said the cigar is aimed at smokers who want a Davidoff cigar but do not have an hour to smoke. The Exquisito, packaged in tins of 10 and retailing for $19, comes pre-cut, ready to smoke.

Joining the Davidoff family of small cigars this summer is the Zino Platinum Scepter Series XS. This small handmade cigar measures 4 inches by 30 ring (or about double the size as its full name printed on this page). The XS is made in the Dominican Republic and has a blend of Dominican and Peruvian filler tobacco, a Connecticut-shade binder and an Ecuadoran wrapper—the same blend as the other Scepter Series cigars. Slated to reach stores in August, the XS comes in flat, rectangular tins of 10, a geometrical disparity from the rest of the line's sizes, which come packed in cylindrical tin cans.

Indian Tabac Cigar Co. introduced Ten Little Indians to cigar smokers in October 2003, and remaining congruous to its name, each tin holds 10 little cigars measuring 4 1/4 inches by 30 ring. According to the company, the response to these small cigars has been stronger than expected, partly because of the strength of the cigars. Handmade and wrapped in either a corojo leaf or a Costa Rican maduro leaf, these cigars feature the same blend as the company's Super Fuerte line. The name is apt as fuerte is Spanish for fire, and the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican ligero filler found in each Ten Little Indian demonstrates that small cigars do not necessarily mean weak cigars.

Ashton Distributors has a trio of machine-made cigars called Ashton Cigarillos, Mini Cigarillos and Señoritas. The company also distributes machine-made cigars from Holland- based Agio Cigars, maker of such lines as Panter and Agio Mehari. This summer, Ashton is adding a handmade tinned smoke to the popular and cost-friendly Honduran line, La Aroma de Cuba. The 4 1/4 by 34 ring cigar is called La Aroma de Cuba Interlude. It is being packaged in tins of eight and features the same blend as the original line, but the Interlude will be made in the Dominican Republic, not in Honduras.

A year ago, SAG Imports introduced a tinned version of its popular and powerful Cubita Spanish Market Selection, a line of full-bodied smokes that were released in 2002. The 3 3/4 inch by 26 ring Mini Delicias, which come in packs of 10, are reasonably priced at $10 per package. This summer, the company is unveiling a new packaging scheme for the Fonseca Mini, a 4 1/8 by 30 handmade cigar with a Connecticut-shade wrapper, a Mexican binder and a Dominican filler. SAG is focusing more on the product's image and freshness. The new Minis will feature gold-and-black striped bands, and every cigar will be cellophane-wrapped. According to the company, Fonseca Minis used to dry out quickly, lose their flavor and become harsh. The cellophane should help retain the moisture and flavor of these mild cigars.

General Cigar Co.'s new additions to La Gloria Cubana—a brand known primarily for its big cigars—won't bulge unduly from your breast pocket. Glorias Petit, released in 2002, and Glorias Petit Maduro, released in 2003, both come packed in tins of 10, have identical measurements (4 5/16 inches by 32 ring) and retail for $10.50 a tin. The natural wrapper on the Glorias Petit is grown in Ecuador, while the Glorias Petit Maduro has a Connecticut-broadleaf wrapper. According to the company, both tiny frontmarks retain the same strong flavors as their bigger brothers.

Edgar Cullman Jr., General Cigar's chief executive officer, explained that small premium cigars today are made with the same long filler as what's in the larger premium varieties. "Therefore, there is a lot of the same satisfaction to be had for the smoker of larger [well-known cigar brands]," he says. This summer, General Cigar Co. is adding a small-ring cigar to its Punch line to complement the addition of a fat, new 5 by 54 Punch Robusto called Magnum. The small cigars are named Punch Bolos and measure 4 3/16 by 36. They are available in tins of six for $8.95.

Cigar giant Altadis U.S.A. has acknowledged that the smaller-ring-gauged premium cigar packs have been hot, specifically the Don Diego Babies and Onyx Reserve Impulse tins. Last year, the company added a skinny, handmade cigar to the refurbished Saint Luis Rey Reserva Especial line. The Saint Luis Rey Lusitias are packaged in 10-packs, retailing for $12. These ultra-lean cigars measure just 4 7/8 by 24.

This summer, Altadis is issuing a new line of flavored cigarillos called AyC Wise Guys, which are machine-made in the Dominican Republic. These cigarillos measure just 3 5/8 by 24 and are packaged in two-packs (99 cents) or tins of 10 ($4.60).

La Aurora, the Dominican Republic's oldest cigar company, also makes its own line of machine-made cigarillos (along with flavored cigarillos for C.A.O., Savinelli and Tatiana). At the end of 2003, Aurora released two tins of flavored cigarillos called León Jimenes Café Macchiato and Café Coretto. Both tins hold 10 cigarillos, each of which measures 4 inches by 30 ring. At press time, the company was scheduled to unveil a new addition, La Aurora Café Dominicana, which has the same 4 by 30 measurements and features the taste of Dominican coffee.

Jose Blanco, director of sales for La Aurora, explained that the company's foray into flavored cigarillos has in no way hurt its sales of premium cigars. Instead, it's offered another option to a new smoking demographic. "Who smokes flavored cigarillos?" he asked. "Ex-cigarette smokers, primarily women. And these cigarillos provide a non-offensive smoke to those around them. Scents of vanilla, cherry, Cognac—these will get fewer complaints [from nonsmokers]."

C.A.O. International recognized the diversity that flavored cigars provide to the small-cigar smoker by releasing Flavours by C.A.O. in a cigarillo size several years ago. Flavours by C.A.O. was joined by a sixth variety at the RTDA show this summer called KarmaSutraSplash, which has a mix of mango nectar and mint flavors. The new cigarillo has the same measurements as the other Flavours by C.A.O. cigarillos, 4 by 30. "Everybody can spare eight to 10 minutes for a small cigar," says Jon Huber, chief marketing officer for C.A.O. "Everybody." So the next time you're at your local tobacconist, shopping for a toothy toro or a claro-colored Churchill, don't pass up the tins.

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