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.
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."
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.