Cigar Aficionado

America’s Insatiable Taste for Cuban Cigars

We smoke a lot more Cuban cigars than you think we do. For years, I have been telling people – including CNN and other news organizations in interviews– that Americans illegally buy about 8 million to 10 million Cuban sticks a year. But I am way off.

Sources at Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing company for Cuban cigars, say that the official number they use internally is double my estimates. Yes—Habanos officially estimates that Americans account for 20 million of the total 150 million cigars the Cubans export each year.

But the shocker is that some of the top people in Habanos believe that the real figure these days could be as high as 50 million cigars. Or, to put it another way, one out of three Cuban cigars sold each year might be bought by Americans.

A heavy hitter in Habanos told me that they he spoke to top cigar shops in key cities in Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Great Britain and others around the world and most reported that between 20 and 50 percent of their sales went to Americans. They visited the shop, telephoned or faxed their order, or used the Internet to get their cigars.

This whole conversation started when I asked him “what market do you see the biggest growth potential in this gloomy economic situation?”

“The United States,” he said with a big smile on his face.

I almost fell out of my chair at lunch. We were each smoking a Montecristo Maravilla, which was part of the Colección Habanos series in 2006. The cigar was phenomenal. It showed wonderful aromas of cedar, nuts, and cappuccino that followed through to a fresh and rich palate that increased in intensity with each puff. It was so Montecristo with the cedar and creamy character. This was a great smoke that I scored 95 points, non blind.

In between puffs, my friend gave an example of how Americans can affect the sales of a market when things go wrong. He said that when the United States started the war in Iraq and France didn’t support it, duty free sales in France dropped from 4 million Cuban cigars to 2 million in on year as Americans stopped traveling to France.  “It was a big decrease for us,” he said.

It makes me wonder what will happen to the global market for Cuban cigars when the trade embargo is finally dropped. Inevitably, sales in all those cigar shops around the world from Mexico City to Montreal to London to Milan to Dubai to Hong Kong to Sydney will drop. Americans will be able to buy their Habanos at home, so why would they bother buying them anywhere else?

“We think that the first year we can sell up to 100 million cigars in the United States,” he said. “And then it will peak out at about 50 million cigars.”

What an amazing year that first year will be when Cuban cigars are finally legally smoked in the United States.  But we aren’t doing too badly at the moment--even if Cuban cigars are illegal.

"My bet is that once the embargo is lifted some of the shine will come off the Cubans -- it will be even more clear how good the Nicaraguan, etc. cigars really are. Competition may improve the quality of all. . . " —February 3, 2009 05:28 AM
"In California the legislature, and local bodies have nearly taxed cigar stores out of business. Cigar shops retail anything they can, as a sideline to keep their stock of cigars. Chess sets, games, glassware, and cigar accessories almost overwhelm the humidor. Non Cuban cigars can be purchased on the internet at one-half what the California store can sell for, and Cuban cigars on the internet are less than the non-Cubans in the store. My guess is that upon legalization of Cuban trade, that the legislature will continue this stupidity, so that Cuban cigars will still be purchased on the internet, rather than at an overtaxed price in the California cigar store.P.S. James, am still looking for them Casa Magnas. I bet they are much better than Cuban Ramon Allones Specially Selected." —February 2, 2009 22:39 PM
"Michael. Unfortunately, I cannot buy any Magnas in Havana; so I will have to "suffer" through the many robustos available here including the delicious RA Specially Selected. Oh well. Que vida!" —February 3, 2009 16:34 PM
"James,As the saying goes "if there is a will there is a way". Though I will not divulge whether I have consumed my Cuban purchases state side I will concur that many of my friends are able to get their hands on legitimate Cuban cigars without leaving the US (mainly reputable internet sites). With the relaxing of the embargo and eventual lifting I fear the exclusivity of a Cuban cigar may be lost and mass production will cause a drop in quality; I hope not. Anyways, thank you James for your updates and please enjoy a wonderful daquiri in honor of all your fans." —February 2, 2009 11:58 AM
"Simon. I guess I was a little disappointed. I think there are a lot of great Cuban smokes out there now. I think that the likes of Fuentes and Kelner could make some great cigars with Cuban tobacco, both puros and blends with other tobaccos of the world. Can't wait for the day." —February 3, 2009 16:30 PM
"James,Were you surprised at the amount (or lack) of Cuban cigars in the top 25 of the year? I am a great lover of the Cuban leaf, but still find myself a little disapointed with the Cuban construction from time to time, what I am eagerly awaiting from the eventual lifting of the emabargo, is the abillity for the great cigar makers like the Fuentes and the Kelner's(Davidoff) to take their magnificent construction and passion and apply it to the incredible tasting Cuban tobacco. What are your thoughts." —February 3, 2009 09:17 AM