It’s a little past noon on a warm, cloudy February day in Orlando, Florida. On Sand Lake Road—about a 12-minute drive from the mouse madness at Walt Disney World—is the original outpost of Corona Cigar Co., a cigar megastore. Instead of hiding in a back room, all its inventory is out on display, in aisle after aisle of cigar paradise. From Fuentes to Padróns, Olivas to Montecristos, cigars of all shapes, sizes colors and price points are basking in the humidified air, waiting to be cut and lit.
A Rolls Royce is parked out front, eye candy for the customers who sit at the outdoor tables puffing away in peace. Each table seats a smoker—or several smokers—and there’s a good crowd inside as well. A group of friends (including one U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan) are laughing it up while they smoke and have a few beers. A businessman is walking the aisles, a few favorites in his hand even as he considers buying something new. The cash registers are ringing.
It’s a common story in the cigar industry as shops are enjoying big numbers and cigar imports are hitting records. Shipments of handmade, premium cigars to the United States were a heady 456 million units in 2021, numbers that rival the 1990s cigar boom. This was the 10th year in a row that cigar imports exceeded 300 million units, and the first year since 1997 when imports were more than 400 million units.
Shipments in 2021 were up 25.2 percent over 2020, a strong year on its own, but imports only tell a portion of the story. Cigarmakers and retailers alike say that cigars are also selling in record numbers. And this time around a booming cigar market doesn’t appear to be threatening quality.
It was “the best I’ve ever seen,” says Jeff Borysiewicz, owner of Corona Cigar Co., which comprises three stores of its own in Orlando (including this one on Sand Lake) as well as a Tampa-area store run in partnership with Davidoff. He’s been selling cigars for 26 years.
“It was an absolutely phenomenal year, double-digit growth from the year previous—and 2020 was pretty good,” says Gary Pesh, who has been selling cigars since 1980. Pesh, of Old Virginia Tobacco Co., owns seven cigar stores. “It really was one of the better years we’ve had.”
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm in the marketplace, there’s a lot of new smokers,” says Litto Gomez, the maker of La Flor Dominicana cigars.
“The industry now is growing in a way we haven’t seen since the boom,” says Sathya Levin of Ashton Distributors. “We want to keep that momentum going as long as possible.”
Nearly all of the handmade cigars that are smoked in the United States are rolled offshore, making imports a solid barometer of industry trends. (A few producers make cigars by hand in the United States, but their numbers are small compared with what’s made elsewhere.) Three countries account for most of the production: Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Honduras. All of those producers posted gains in 2022, all of them significant. Nicaragua, the market leader by far, shipped 240.9 million cigars in 2021, an increase of 29.4 percent over 2020 numbers. (Nicaragua accounts for more than half of handmade cigar shipments to the United States, 52.8 percent.) The Dominican Republic posted a gain of 22.5 percent, shipping 129.5 million cigars. Honduras had an increase of 18.3 percent, to 84.2 million handmade cigars.
The strong 2021 followed a fairly strong 2020, when 361.3 million handmade cigars were shipped to the United States, a 7 percent increase over 2019 numbers. That growth came despite shutdowns in cigar factories—particularly in the Dominican Republic and Honduras—in the first half of 2020. The gains were particularly strong in late 2020, with a stunning 71 percent increase in December 2020 when compared with December 2019.
By comparison, December 2021 was not as good. It was almost inevitable to disappoint, given the showing in December 2020, but December cigar shipments were down 23.8 percent compared with December 2020.
And no matter how good 2021 was, some say it could have been even better. “We ended up with 1.5 million cigars on back order. We didn’t have that in 2019,” says Gomez, who noted that he had a great 2021, but he sold even more cigars in 2019. He was limited in 2021 by a shortage of cigar rollers, a problem he said was felt across the Dominican Republic in general.
Before the 1990s, handmade cigar sales in the United States were small. Imports were at or below 100 million units. Between 1977 and 1992, annual premium cigar imports ranged between 73 million and 103 million cigars, according to the Cigar Association of America. Cigar sales in America exploded in the mid 1990s, climbing to 136 million cigars in 1995, 243 million in 1996 and 418 million in 1997—years that were the most robust that anyone could remember. The era became known as the cigar boom.
Cigar shipments cooled after 1997. The next year, imports dipped to 334,600 units and the numbers stayed below 300,00 for more than a decade. But in 2012 they started climbing back, and have been above the 300 million mark ever since. The rise to 456 million brings us back to boom time.
Several veterans point out the differences between the late 1990s and now. Pesh says, “What we’re seeing now—these are cigar lovers. These people want to know, they want to share, they’re interested in the product and how it’s made. I see people come into the humidor with buddies of theirs. There’s an interest. This feels like it will stick. That is the biggest difference I see from the ’90s.”
Pesh also observes the higher quality on the market today, as opposed to the 1990s. “These guys [the cigarmakers] could have all produced as many cigars as they wanted to—but they didn’t. They waited ’till the product was ready. They didn’t want to make the mistake of the ’90s, because they remember the ’90s. This feels much more sustainable.” “In 1996 there were a lot of bad cigars. That’s the difference,” says Gomez. “We’re not going to disappoint anybody now.”