News stories have abounded about Cuban cigars ever since President Barack Obama announced it was time to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba on December 17. Stories have begun to circulate about the dawn of "legal" Cuban cigars in the U.S., and the item that caught great attention among cigar aficionados is the new regulation that will allow travelers to Cuba to return to the U.S. with up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars. Current law prohibits any Cuban goods from coming in at all.
While the news is exciting to many, the reality is far more limited than some have made it appear. The changes—which have yet to go into effect, but are expected to occur sometime soon—will come with severe restrictions. First, the $100 worth of Cuban smokes only applies to those traveling on approved trips to Cuba from the U.S. It won't apply for third-party countries (so you won't be able to take a trip to, say, London or Paris and return legally to the U.S. with Cuban cigars) and it won't apply to buying cigars via mail order. The provision only will apply to trips between Cuba and the U.S.
Havana is filled with amazing cigar shops, each of which Cigar Aficionado has visited, and although they boast some of the world's lowest prices on Cuban cigars, $100 still doesn't buy you very much. All cigars in Cuba are priced in Cuban Convertible Pesos (known as CUCs). The CUC is pegged to the price of the U.S. dollar, but there's a 10 percent charge taken by the Cuban government when changing U.S. dollars into Cuban currency.
The standard size box of Cuban cigars contains 25 sticks, and most retail for more than 100 CUCs, including just about every robusto, Churchill and double corona made on the island. Partagás Serie D No. 4s, the most popular cigar made in Cuba, sell for about 174 CUC per box of 25, or about $7 per cigar. With the $100 limit, one could import 14 of them. Cabinets of 50 Partagás Lusitanias sell for nearly 600 CUC ($12 each), so only eight of those could come back.
Cohibas are more expensive than the average Cuban cigar, and even the diminutive Cohiba Siglo I (4 inches long by 40 ring gauge) sells for more than 100 CUC per box of 25. Big Siglo VI cigars sell for about $20 each, and Esplendidos are about $25 apiece. And Cohiba Behike BHK 56 cigars, one of the most expensive cigars in Cuba, are more than $30 apiece, leaving the buyer only able to bring back three. (We have always been more fond of the smaller, somewhat cheaper Behike 52, a former Cigar of the Year, which can be had for about $22 each.)
With the advent of smaller boxes, there are options for those seeking a full box that makes the $100 limit. The new Montecristo Double Edmundo (92 points, Cigar Aficionado's No. 15 cigar of 2014) can be had for just under 100 CUC for a box of 10. The Bolivar Libertadores runs about 110 CUC per box of 10, so you can bring back a box—as long as you smoke one of them first.
Any traveler to Cuba who is buying cigars should always be wary of buying outside of the proper channels. Fake cigars abound in Cuba, and a tourist walking around the city while smoking a cigar will likely be approached several times by people offering deep discounts on cigars, particularly Cohibas and Montecristos. Avoid the temptation, as what they have on offer is likely a counterfeit product, and virtually guaranteed to disappoint—no matter what the cost.