Cigar Industry

25 Years of Change

The evolution of the premium cigar over the past quarter century
| By David Clough | From Michael Jordan, November/December 2017
25 Years of Change
Courtesy of Casa Fernandez/Aganorsa
Workers inside a curing barn string together Nicaraguan tobacco.

The American appetite for premium cigars has changed. Over the last 25 years, consumers in the United States have grown to prefer increasingly richer, fuller-bodied cigars. Lightly hued shade wrappers cultivated in the loamy soils of the Connecticut River Valley, once the most popular leaf on the planet, have fallen out of favor and the American aesthetic that “bigger is better” has influenced the acceptable length and width of today’s premium smokes. At the same time, cigar prices have gone up, brand loyalty has gone down, and customers today are constantly on the hunt for new cigars to try, with an eye for different sizes, shapes and blends.

But a quarter of a century ago, U.S. cigar smokers had different tastes. There were fewer premium cigars to choose from in 1992, and retail customers weren’t looking for surprises. Men walked into their local tobacconists and knew exactly what they wanted. They reached for brands they believed in—mostly Dominican and Honduran-made smokes in classic sizes—and sought out their preferred cigars exclusively. They exhibited a degree of brand loyalty uncommon in today’s option-driven marketplace.

“Consumers had a lot more loyalty, not only store loyalty but brand loyalty,” recalls Chuck Levi, owner of Chicago’s Iwan Ries & Co., the second-oldest cigar shop in America. “They smoked cigars they were familiar with. We didn’t have new brands coming out every day like we do today. A guy smoked a Macanudo or a Montecristo and that was it.”

Then, in the fall of 1992, curious readers turned the first glossy pages of a men’s lifestyle magazine called Cigar Aficionado. It featured a blind tasting of cigars, created to help consumers navigate the cigar market and make purchasing decisions. The first tasting, like the many tastings that followed in 25 years, is a mirror into the past: a reflection of the current trends and popular smokes of the time. 

That first blind tasting had only 23 cigars, much smaller than the taste tests we publish today, which typically have 75 to 80 cigars per issue. That inaugural tasting was indicative of the smaller market of the day—for the decade before 1992, premium cigar imports were stagnant, with around 105 million to 107 million handmade cigars imported annually. Nine of the cigars we rated were from the Dominican Republic, six were from Cuba, four from Honduras, two from the United States and one cigar each from Nicaragua and Mexico. Of the 17 non-Cuban cigars, nine of them—53 percent—wore Connecticut-shade wrappers. 

“Connecticut shade was popular back then,” says Curt Diebel, the owner of Diebel’s Sportsmens Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri. Diebel started working at his family’s tobacco and gift shop in 1975, after graduating college, and remembers that Connecticut shade once had a much stronger market presence that endured for many years. “It continued to be popular throughout the ’90s,” he says.

Connecticut shade tobacco leaf, grown under mesh tents in the state of Connecticut, has long been celebrated for its golden-yellow color and easygoing smoking characteristics. Throughout the ’90s it enjoyed a special degree of charisma, as the cigar boom of the era brought in a large influx of new cigar smokers who wanted to ease their way into the cigar lifestyle by smoking something on the milder side.

“A lot of people, when they start smoking cigars, start with Connecticut shade,” Diebel says. “They feel like they don’t want to be overpowered.”

Consumer tastes have evolved toward fatter, darker, stronger smokes over the years.
Consumer tastes have evolved toward fatter, darker, stronger smokes over the years.

Connecticut shade wrapper maintained its popularity in the first few years after the debut of Cigar Aficionado, which coincided with the 1990s cigar boom that saw premium cigar imports soar from around 100 million cigars a year to more than 400 million by 1997. In 1996, just around the height of the cigar boom, 245 of the 770 cigars we rated were rolled with Connecticut shade wrappers. That’s 31.8 percent—nearly a third of all the cigars tasted for the year. If the tastings are a snapshot of the market, then Connecticut shade was everywhere.

But as smokers of the ’90s grew into their passion, demand for Connecticut shade took a dip. “Once we had initiated smokers—the post-boom smokers around the millennium—you still had significant demand, but consumers were seeking out fuller-bodied cigars,” says Diebel. In 1997, as the boom was starting to wane, fewer cigars with Connecticut shade wrappers were appearing in our pages. That year, only 21.4 percent of the cigars we rated were rolled with Connecticut shade wrapper. By 1998, the number had dropped to 16.7 percent. The results were clear: cigarmakers were moving to other wrappers.

“Starting in probably 1998 to around 2000, you see a stronger leaning towards fuller-bodied cigars,” says David Berkebile of Georgetown Tobacco in Washington, D.C. Berkebile started his business in 1964, and has seen cigar trends come and go over the years. 

Connecticut tobacco farmer Brandon Settje understands this reality. “Demand for shade tobacco is low,” Settje said in August last year. He stood at the edge of a tobacco field in Somers, Connecticut, watching a pickup truck make its way down a long dirt road across the field. The wheels of the truck sent tumbling spirals of dust into the air, which hung lazily for a moment before settling back down to the dry earth. Settje pointed out across the tobacco plants. “We grow what there’s demand for. This year, it’s all broadleaf.”

Settje was referring to Connecticut broadleaf, a short and bushy tobacco varietal grown in the open sunlight of the Connecticut River Valley. Its wide leaves turn very dark after curing, and are often used for maduro wrappers—which typically offer a range of hearty, rugged flavors. In 2017, Settje is only growing broadleaf again. He says his farming company, B.A.S.S. Tobacco LLC, has no plans to grow shade tobacco anytime soon. “Broadleaf is big right now. For the next three years, I’m only growing broadleaf. The shade market has shifted over to Ecuador,” Settje explains. 

The South American country of Ecuador has farms where tobacco thrives, and when Connecticut seed is planted there it grows in a fashion quite similar to that in Connecticut, although with cheaper labor and no need for netting, as the cloud cover is persistent during the growing season. Leaf from Ecuador is one reason for Connecticut shade’s decline. 

A barn full of cured Connecticut shade wrapper.
Photo/Sarina Finkelstein
A barn full of cured Connecticut shade wrapper.

A second reason is the growing demand for fuller-flavored cigars. Increasingly flavorful blends from the cigarmaking world, especially Nicaragua, have taken away marketshare once dominated by milder cigar blends. Nicaraguan cigars are a perfect example. The launch of Padrón’s 1964 Anniversary Series in 1994 catapulted the company to new heights, and did much to raise awareness of Nicaragua’s ability to create rich, fuller-bodied cigar blends. (Padrón has won Cigar of the Year an unprecedented three times.) The Anniversary Series was also neatly molded into a rectangular shape, which sparked the box-pressed trend that endures to this day.     

Though ubiquitous in smoke shops today, Nicaraguan-made premium cigars were much less common in the U.S. during the ’90s. The reasons are political, with events that began to unfold in 1979, when Nicaraguan president Anastasio Somoza Debayle was overthrown by the Sandinista National Liberation Front. In an effort to undermine the Sandinista government, the U.S. placed an embargo against Nicaragua in 1985, which forbade Nicaraguan products from entering the United States. The embargo lasted until 1990, but Nicaragua’s revolution-torn premium cigar sector took years to recover. 

In 1992, fewer than 1 million premium Nicaraguan cigars were imported into the United States, compared to 46 million Dominican smokes, 38 million cigars from Honduras, 6.7 million from Jamaica and nearly 6 million from Mexico. The Dominican Republic has maintained its prominence for the entire history of Cigar Aficionado, but the other producers have changed considerably. 

'We didn’t have new brands coming out every day like we do today.' —Chuck Levi, Iwan Ries & Co.

In 1993—the first full year of Cigar Aficionado as a publication—we rated 190 cigars. Only two were from Nicaragua. Last year, we tasted 774 cigars, and 272 were from Nicaragua. 

Today, Nicaragua is considered a heavyweight, the second largest exporter of premium cigars to the United States behind the Dominican Republic. Honduras ranks a distant third, while once-prominent cigar countries like Jamaica and the Canary Islands have been essentially wiped off the cigar-making map. The United States still makes a few premium cigars, which pop up occasionally in our pages.

The Dominican Republic has had a massive influence on cigar trends over the past 25 years. Iconic brands such as the Fuente Fuente OpusX, commercially released in 1995, and La Flor Dominicana Ligero Series, launched in 2001, were instrumental in garnering critical acclaim for the country’s premium cigar industry—and igniting a consumer obsession for bold, full-bodied blends that has never been extinguished.

The launch of the Fuente Fuente OpusX brand in November 1995 not only sparked a trend for full-flavored smokes, it set a new bar for consumer demand in a premium cigar. “We had never seen anything like that,” said Gary Pesh, owner of Old Virginia Tobacco Co., in a 2015 Cigar Aficionado article. “All year long we would get phone calls from all across the country two to three times a day at each of our seven shops, ‘Have you got any OpusX?’ ”

Consumers were limited to two or so per purchase—when they could be found—and the cigars received high ratings in Cigar Aficionado. The Double Corona size was named Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar of the Year in 2005, the first Dominican cigar to take that honor. Other strong smokes followed on the heels of OpusX, including the Ashton VSG (also made by Fuente) and then a series of cigars from Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana.

Cigar consumers eagerly sampling the wide array of cigars at a Cigar Aficionado Big Smoke in 2000.
Photo/Matthew Sharlot
Cigar consumers eagerly sampling the wide array of cigars at a Cigar Aficionado Big Smoke in 2000.

 “I remember when Litto [Gomez] came out with the Ligero Series, and I remember thinking—now this is a full-flavored, full-bodied cigar,” says Matt Krimm, co-owner of Washington, D.C.–based W. Curtis Draper Tobacconist. Krimm started as a store clerk at Draper in 1995 and eventually rose to become co-owner of the store with business partner John Anderson. He says that many cigars today push the boundaries of the full-bodied expression—offering more power and intensity than smokes that were considered full-bodied in the past. “But the Ligero Series, by today’s standards, would probably be considered more medium-bodied, but still full-flavored,” he says. “Then Litto came out with the Double Ligero, and that was even more full-bodied.”

La Flor Dominicana Double Ligero launched in 2003 to appease cigar fans who craved even bolder smokes. Ten years later, in an interview with Cigar Aficionado, brand owner Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana said the Double Ligero was his company’s biggest seller—and one of the most popular sizes was The Digger, a massive cigar at 8 1/2 inches by 60 ring gauge.

Sizes like The Digger, or at least cigars measuring 6 inches by 60 ring gauge, are commonplace in most commercial humidors today. Such large cigars were once considered curious oddities or novelty smokes, but over the past 25 years American consumers have grown to embrace oversized cigars as mainstream purchases.

In 2012, a year after The Digger hit the U.S. market as a regular-production size, fellow Dominican cigarmaker Ernesto Perez-Carrillo launched Inch by E.P. Carrillo. Every cigar in the line boasted a ring gauge of 58 or higher. But Inch drew inspiration from another of Perez-Carrillo’s inventions: La Gloria Cubana Serie R, a cigar brand that, by many accounts, kick-started the big ring gauge trend in the late ’90s.

“La Gloria Cubana Serie R was the trailblazer,” Krimm recalls, reflecting on the origin of the fat cigar trend. “It was popular. Years later, [Perez-Carrillo] was able to recapture that magic with the Inch.”

La Gloria Cubana Serie R originally came in two sizes—a 52 and 54 ring gauge—but later expanded to include a 6-by-60 and 7-by-58. Throughout the ’90s, a cigar with a ring gauge of 54 was considered quite large. Brands that edged into this territory inevitably planted the seeds of acceptance for larger and larger cigars. In 1995, Ybor City–based cigar company J.C. Newman launched Diamond Crown, a brand with each size at 54 ring gauge. Bahia, a Costa Rican brand that debuted in the early ’90s, featured a variety of 54 ring gauge cigars. And in 1994, Frank Llaneza of Villazon & Co (a company later sold to General Cigar Co.) created Punch Gran Cru. The Gran Cru No. 2 vitola, a torpedo that shipped in bundles of 10, also had a ring gauge of 54. 

“In the late ’90s, The Punch Gran Cru torpedo was the biggest ring gauge we carried at the time. It was popular—we were placing orders of 10 naturals and 10 maduros constantly,” says Krimm. “There was also, sometime in the mid to late ’90s—Bahia and Bahia Maduro—they came in a red band and a red box, 52 ring gauge, 54 ring gauge. There was a big Churchill. Big ring gauge cigars. I remember they were big sellers. We sold a ton of those.”

Cigar Aficionado looked at the market in 2012 and decided that, for better or worse, big cigars were here to stay. It created the “Grandes” category for the tasting. Cigar purists may find the chunky sizes unbecoming. Others may see them as emblems of an American ideal—one that strives for bigger houses, bigger boats, bigger car engines—why not bigger cigars? In the first year that the category was available, Cigar Aficionado tasted 12 grandes. In 2016, it rated 31. This year, it seems that every cigar company has at least one 6 by 60 in its portfolio. The trend isn’t disappearing anytime soon.

Cigars have not only become larger over the years, but they have become considerably more expensive. Looking back at the original issue of the magazine, some of the prices are laughable. In the very first tasting in Cigar Aficionado, the average price of all cigars sold in the U.S. was $2.93. Seven of the cigars had suggested retail prices of less than $2, including some cigars that are still sold today, the Arturo Fuente Chateau Rothschild ($1.60) and the La Gloria Cubana Wavell ($1.50). 

Pesh, of Virginia-based tobacconist Old Virginia Tobacco Co. remembers what a big deal it was for a cigar to sell for $5, then a princely sum. “The Zino Mouton Cadet was around $5. It was unheard of for the time,” he says. “But it moved, people bought it.”

Cigar prices, like so many other prices, have risen steadily since 1992. In 1996, the average price of a non-Cuban cigar rated in Cigar Aficionado was $5.30. Last year, that average had climbed to $9.90. 

But rising prices are nothing new to cigar enthusiasts, and there are still bargains to be found. (Last year Cigar Aficionado tasted 75 cigars that cost $6 or less.) In today’s market there are cigars for deal hunters and there are cigars for affluent smokers who don’t mind spending a few extra dollars at the cash register. Today, as in the ’90s, there’s a price point for every customer.

Though the quality of cigars suffered during the cigar boom as manufacturers rushed to meet soaring demand, the new and varied products that became available enticed a wider demographic of enthusiasts to enter and enjoy the cigar lifestyle—and the growing audience inspired cigarmakers to craft more interesting tobacco blends, intriguing cigar sizes and attractive product packaging. This cyclical relationship between the cigarmaker and the consumer persists to this day.

Variety is what contemporary cigar customers have come to expect, and what they have come to crave. Cigar smokers are accustomed to seeing new cigars every few months on commercial humidor shelves, and the hype and excitement for new releases builds consumer demand for cigarmakers’ products. If new regulations from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration stifle creativity in the industry, one has to wonder how consumers will react to fewer and fewer products coming out each year.

The landscape of the U.S. cigar market may change, but consumers will inevitably drive the majority of that change. Tastes transform as people get older. Cigar smokers seek out new things as their palates develop. Cigar trends—like all trends—come and go, warp and fade as time marches on. What trends lie beyond the horizon? The next 25 years are in the hands of American consumers. 

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