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Big Smoke Saturday Seminars: Counterfeit Cigars

Nov 17, 2010 | By Gregory Mottola
Big Smoke Saturday Seminars: Counterfeit Cigars
Sarina Finkelstein
A side-by-side comparison of authentic (left) and counterfeit (right) Cohiba packaging. Five-packs with windows never existed in the Habanos portfolio.

Remember that Cuban Cohiba you bought at the beach that time in Cancún? Or that great box of Cohiba Esplendidos your friend brought you back from Bermuda? You know, the one with that cool glass top?

Well, they were fake. All of them. It's not your fault. You had no way of knowing, which is why we decided to dedicate a Big Smoke seminar to counterfeit cigars. It was hosted by Cigar Aficionado's senior editor David Savona and executive editor Gordon Mott.

"If you're American, part of the problem is that you are unfamiliar with the product," said Savona. "You can't just go to your local shop and examine the packaging."

Mott added "Let's see a show of hands. How many people think that they have purchased a fake cigar before?" A few people in the crowd of 500 raised their hands.

And with those words, the seminar began with a slideshow depicting perfect examples of legitimate Cuban packaging, from full boxes to five-packs.

The images were a text book analysis of all the packaging details associated with Habanos products, from the Habanos D.O.P. seals to the new, updated Republica De Cuba export labels.

Once the genuine articles were examined, counterfeits were shown in great detail for side-by-side comparison.

Some counterfeits were quite egregious: packaging that never existed, the wrong vintage dates with the wrong brands, terribly printed bands and labels.

Others were a bit more subtle, requiring the viewer to look closely at embossments, color consistency and luster.

"The profit margin on counterfeiting cigars is huge," said Mott. "You can make a cigar for a few quarters and sell them for $20, $30 even $40 each."

As both Savona and Mott pointed out, some counterfeiters will actually dress fake cigars in legitimate packaging, making it important to recognize typical Cuban cigar construction versus sloppy, unskilled rolling. 

"People will always tell you stories." Savona warned. "Like having a friend or family member who works in the factory."

At one point, the editors called up the image of a Cohiba 40th Anniversary torpedo with a two-toned barber-pole style wrapper. Not only did the label on the cigar not exist, but Habanos has never created a barber-pole cigar. However, the novelty factor of such cigars can be irresistible to the uninformed cigar enthusiast eager to try the forbidden fruit.

A close-up detail of Cuba's new export seal. Note the holographic sticker.
A close-up detail of Cuba's new export seal. Note the holographic sticker.

After an academic presentation of close-ups, stills, positives and negatives, Mott reprised his initial question.

"Now," he asked, "how many people think they've purchased a fake cigar?"

About four times as many people raised their hands, but Mott offered very sound advice.

"Don't buy cigars on the street. Don't buy them on the beach. Know the details of your cigar, and definitely know the price. A box of Cohibas for $80 just isn't realistic."

Although disillusioned, the crowd was able to take consolation in a few things.

Firstly, they walked away from the seminar with new information. But secondly, and more immediately, they still had very real, authentic Nicaraguan and Dominican cigars that were handed out to them at the beginning of the morning. The cigar makers themselves were there to ensure authenticity.

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