Cigar Aficionado

A Trip To The Past With A Montecristo

You can imagine that Cuban cigar retailers have little trouble selling Montecristo brand cigars. Even before the Montecristo No. 2 was named Cigar of the Year by our magazine in January (with a stellar score of 96 points) Montes were among the best-selling cigars in the world. The yellow box with the brand name in red, the sextet of fancy swords intertwined in a triangular pattern around a proud fleur-de-lis—Montecristos are as iconic as can be.

But there was a time, many years ago, when some cigar smokers weren't familiar with the brand, and building new markets required salesmen who showed off the cigars in hopes of finding a sale.

Several weeks ago, over lunch in Havana, I was shown an amazing piece of history, a box of Montecristos from 1949. What made this extra special was the fact that this was no typical box, but a sampler box built for five sizes of the Montecristo line, a salesman's tool to show off the entire brand to customers at a time when Montecristo was not as famous as it is today. And inside? One remaining cigar, a wrinkled, rumpled and somewhat banged up Montecristo No. 2.

"Back in the day, different people repped different brands. There was competition," explained Rob Fox, of James Fox cigars in Dublin, Ireland, the owner of the precious box of Montes. "Reps from Hunters [and Frankau] came to Ireland and could have called on tobacco shops, and back then there were a lot more shops."

As old as this box is, James Fox Cigars is far older, having been in business for more than 125 years. Rob Fox and his colleague David McGrane (who himself has been selling cigars at Fox for more than 40 years) explained the nuances of the old Montes as we dined at El Litoral, a new paladar astride the Malecón in Cuba.

Old Montecristo cigar box.

First, the age. Box codes weren't the same decades ago, so Fox determined the age of this sampler thanks to a note inside, which is dated 1949. The note has prices (more on that later) as well as a description of a 7.5 percent charge that Fox and McGrane are uncertain about. Fox believes it is an importers margin for handling the transaction, but McGrane thinks it could be a tax of some sort. Via the note, the prices, and internal house records, the age of the box has been determined to be 65 years, dating back to 1949.

The Montecristo brand was created in Cuba in 1935 by Alonso Menendez. (You have read about his son Benjamin, who spent 60 years working for some of the biggest names in the U.S. cigar business before retiring last year.) The smoke became the best-known of all the cigars rolled at Menendez, Garcia y Cia., the biggest cigar company in pre-Castro Cuba.

But in 1949 there were at least some markets that needed pushing to buy Montes, so a salesman found his way to Dublin bearing the box you see in the photos, which has five segments, one for each of the original sizes of the brand, Nos. 1 through 5.

The note, intriguingly enough, refers to the Montecristo No. 2 not as a figurado, but as a "corona pointed."

Old Montecristo box inside.

Fox thinks the cigar could be the oldest verifiable Montecristo No. 2 in the world.

And the prices? Today a box of Monte 2s would run you $300 or much more, depending on where you were making your purchase. The note has $300 written down for the Monte 2-but that price is a wholesale one, and is for 1,000 cigars. Figuring a 100 percent markup, and a very modest tax back in the day, that translates to roughly 60 cents a cigar. Ah, the good old days.

Sadly, the Monte 2 in the Fox box has been rendered unsmokable by time. The Monte 2 in the box didn't look like Cigar of the Year material. Sixty-five years can be hard on cigars, and with this one it looked like the mileage, more than the age, that had beaten it down. Unlike the cigars we smoke in Connoisseur's Corner, this one had spent a good amount of time outside of a humidor, and the dry air, movement and other forces had extracted a price. The cigar isn't for smoking. But it's a wonderful piece of history that paints a picture of the cigar business from many, many years ago.

"Hello David, My husband and I just returned from our second trip (this year) to Cuba last week. I have filed DS-160 forms for a friend of ours in Pinar del Rio, Cuba to come and visit us this summer. He was granted permission! This will be his first visit to USA ! We are trying to make arrangements for him to be in Vegas for teh Tobacco show in July. He will be our house guest for his stay. We also been to the Cigar Festival many times in Cuba. What a party! I was introduced and have a photo with Fidelito Castro from the last event I was to attend. The guest list is incrediable. Please return to me by email so I can tell you who is coming~ I believe you will have great interest in talking to him. I have found no other way to connect to you. He is extremely important in the Tobbacco industry in Cuba. I look forward to hearing from you." —May 13, 2014 15:19 PM
"David, Enjoyed the bit of history you shared with us. I love the blogs you and your colleagues write...especially those that have to do with all things Cuba. As a Canadian I am fortunate enough to have been there, but not during the significant cigar events that you detail with such vivid description. Ps. The English teacher in me can't help but point out that the phrase is 'exacted a price' not 'extracted a price'. That said, great feature on a rare find. " —April 16, 2014 20:28 PM
"Rick, Thomas, Ryan, thank you for the kind comments. I had to share this wonderful experience of seeing a piece of cigar history . " —April 15, 2014 12:48 PM
"Great story David. I love learning about the history of Cuban cigars, and like Rick wrote, especially the way you write it." —April 15, 2014 10:33 AM
"Great story David! This is the kind of history and people that make the cigar industry come alive. Inspiring all of us that love the cigars and the people in the industry today to keep on making history and friendships today." —April 15, 2014 10:20 AM
"Great read David. I can't explain to you how it feels to hear the history of cigars and especially the way you write it. I don't know if you've been to James Fox Cigar & Whiskey Store in Dublin, but David (McGrane) can knock your socks off with the items he can show you downstairs in the cellar and in his office. It would certainly be worth a trip and make for another wonderful article. After David was made God broke the mold for he is surely one of a kind and one of the best story tellers I've ever heard." —April 15, 2014 00:27 AM