Max Gutmann, 60, is the owner of Importadora y Exportadora de Puros y Tabacos, the Cuban cigar agent in Mexico. In the mid-1990s, he also started La Casa del Habano in Mexico, which today is the worldwide franchise of cigar shops under the auspices of Habanos S.A., the Havana-based global marketing and distribution organization for Cuban cigars. About 120 Casas operate around the world, selling only Cuban cigars.
Gutmann is also one of the world's great cigar collectors, with a trove of more than 1,500 boxes in a large room just below a terrace at his villa in Mexico City. Last year, he began selling a special regional cigar in Mexico—Edmundo Dantes Conde 109. The 50 ring gauge by 7 inch cigar has been acclaimed as one of the best yet in the series.
I sat down with Gutmann recently in his cigar room in Mexico City, smoked a 109 and spoke with him about his business and his passion for cigars.
CA: Why the Edmundo Dantes Conde 109?
Gutmann: For 18 years I have been smoking Partagas Lusitania double coronas in cabinets of 50. They always have been my favorite. The problem is that they have gone a little out of fashion. People don't have time to smoke them anymore. So I thought if we were going to come out with a new brand and a new cigar, let's go back to a big cigar, something special like the 109. It was last made in 1995 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Partagas.
CA: The 109 came in a special humidor.
Gutmann: Yes. It came with 50 robustos, 50 corona gordas and 50 109s. They have a beautiful band in red, with gold saying "150th Anniversary." It was sold for the first time at the Meliá Cohiba hotel in Havana in 1995. You were there.
CA: How could I forget?
Gutmann: The name "109" is the name that the rollers call it in the factory and it is conical at the end, instead of flat or rounded like a normal cigar. It is a cigar that is very hard to make. Only highest-classified rollers in Cuba can make it—those with ratings of eight or nine.
CA: Where were they made?
Gutmann: All the cigars were made in the new H. Upmann, which is now one of the most modern on the island.
CA: The original 109 was made in the Partagas factory and by one roller.
CA: You had 600 boxes of 25 cigars made? And it's only sold in Mexico?
Gutmann: Yes. It is absolutely only sold in Mexico. And we have the option for the cigar for two years.
CA: What has the response been so far?
Gutmann: It has been very good. We are almost sold out. People always want something new, something different. Even if they may not like it, they want to try it. Cuba is not making many new cigars at the moment, so the regional editions are interesting.
CA: I heard that this year there is going to be more than a dozen regional editions. That's a lot.
Gutmann: It makes sense. Every country now wants to have its own regional cigar. I think it is a good idea because everybody wants something new. That's in everything. You want to try a new wine. You want to try a new brand of clothing. You want to try a new brand of shoes.
CA: Maybe you will do another regional cigar, another size in the Edmundo Dantes brand?
Gutmann: Maybe we will do a different cigar or a different brand in the future. Maybe a robusto. Maybe a torpedo.
CA: Are you happy with the blend?
Gutmann: It's very, very nice. It's a delicate cigar. It is not a very strong cigar. It is a very comfortable cigar. It is very well balanced with a good draw. It gives you a good aftertaste. As you smoke it from the beginning to the end, it is the same. It doesn't get bitter at the end, like many cigars.
CA: How many Cuban cigars overall are sold now per year in Mexico?
Gutmann: In 2007, we expected to import about 3.5 million cigars.
CA: It's been like that for a while.
Gutmann: It may have been a little higher a few years ago. We have changed sales from a lot of machine-made cigars to hand-rolled ones, high-end cigars. So that is better.
CA: So what is the best-selling brand?
Gutmann: Cohiba. Then Montecristo, Romeo & Julieta and then Partagas.
CA: Does that mean you have a very high average price per Cuban cigar sold in Mexico?
Gutmann: Yes. And it's been difficult for the machine-made cigars because the government has increased taxes on them from 20.9 percent to 140 percent. No one knew about this raise, and it killed the low-end market for cigars in Mexico. The tax is higher than the price of tobacco.
CA: I guess your biggest problem, however, is with fake cigars?
Gutmann: That problem, unfortunately, still exists. It exists everywhere in the world. Our problem in Mexico is both counterfeit cigars and contraband cigars.
CA: When you say contraband cigars, do you mean parallel market cigars? They are cigars that come from other markets at lower prices than yours?
Gutmann: Yes. These are cigars that come from markets with low taxes to high tax markets, like ours. Some people [who buy cigars in Cuba] do not pay the taxes on the cigars when they enter Mexico. So it's easy for them to sell these cigars [here] because they are a lot cheaper than the official ones [which are subject to the high taxes]. The problem is that some of the cigars are also counterfeit.
CA: The problem in Mexico with fakes appears pretty bad. I was in Tijuana the other day on the main high street, and except for the Casa del Habano and another store, all the cigars for sale were fake. What are you doing about it?
Gutmann: We have been making investigations and arrests with the police department. They might go to a store and confiscate cigars and everybody is scared. But then a week later they are all back in the stores. It is the same with all luxury products in the States or Europe...Louis Vuitton, Gucci and others. Just outside of the official stores, there are people selling copies of the real thing. The police come and they go away, but the next morning they are back again.
It is something you have to fight and fight and fight. The whole idea is that people must realize that to smoke great cigars they need to smoke less but smoke the real thing. Everybody knows that you can't buy a real Rolex for $100. So you can't buy a real Cohiba for $5.
CA: But in Tijuana, I saw a lot of fake cigars being sold at the same price as real ones.
Gutmann: This is the problem. And then people who don't know that much about cigars smoke them and say, "You know, Cuban cigars are not very good quality." They are not good because they are smoking fakes.
CA: Are a lot of the fakes sold to American tourists?
Gutmann: Yes. In all the border cities and tourist destinations. Even in Mexico City, there are a lot of counterfeits. The only thing we can do is to try to educate people about what a real cigar is.
CA: What percent of your sales go to Americans?
Gutmann: I can't really tell you. But we have American customers all over Mexico, especially at beaches like Acapulco, Cancn and others. It's perfectly legal to sell Cuban cigars to them in Mexico. I am sure Americans enjoy smoking a cigar here when they can't do the same in their own country. I don't know how much they take back with them.
CA: I guess that it's up to them what they do with their leftovers from holidays?
Gutmann: We tell them that they can't take them back to the States. It's not legal. But it's up to them. In Mexico, they can do what they wish. [Editor's note: Under the Trading With The Enemy Act, U.S. citizens are prohibited from buying Cuban products anywhere in the world.]
CA: There doesn't appear to be much Internet business out of Mexico?
Gutmann: I don't think so. Besides, I would never buy cigars over the Internet. I like to look at the cigars that I am going to buy. Wherever I am in the world, I like to go to a cigar shop and see the cigars I buy. Some people like dark wrappers, others medium wrappers and others light wrappers. I like to make the choice. That's why La Casa del Habano is so good. You have the service. Plus, the cigars are stored properly at the right temperature and humidity.
CA: You were, in effect, the creator of La Casa del Habano after building the first Casa in Cancn in the mid-1990s. Tell me about that.
Gutmann: It was 18 years ago. You couldn't really buy Cuban cigars in Mexico then. The only Cuban cigars you could buy were at the airport. And even then you could only buy Montecristo No. 1 Especial.
Then I had a friend who was going to Cuba all the time on business. He later became my partner in the cigar business. Anyway, I said, "You know what? When you go to Cuba, bring me back two or three boxes of different types of cigars." So he would bring me some boxes and then he would go again and bring me some different ones. I was always so excited when he would come back with those cigars.
Then one time I said, "Bring me back 20 boxes." And he brought me a whole export carton full of boxes of cigars. He also brought me a catalog with all the brands and sizes of cigars the Cubans exported.
CA: I remember that. It was the one that was laminated. I have a copy.
Gutmann: I looked at that catalog and I decided to have a collection and build a small room in my house to keep my cigars. My friend then brought me a suitcase full of cigars! Back then it was no problem. There was no duty. It was no big deal, especially with cigars. Then I had this idea: "Let's try to set up a cigar shop and only specialize in Cuban cigars." I told him I would put up the money. So we did it.
CA: So this was before you were the official agent for Cuban cigars?
Gutmann: Yes. Before we were the agent. So we got an architect and he made a design for a small shop called La Casa del Habano. We went to Cuba and presented it to them. It took them two years to agree.
CA: Was that in the early 1990s?
Gutmann: Yes. They were afraid. They had had bad experiences with Davidoff. So they were worried. Finally they agreed after seeing the model of the store. But they insisted that it should be in Cancn and not Mexico City. I guess because Cancn is closer to Cuba, so they could more easily check on it.
CA: I remember it. It was in a shopping mall. So you owned the name as well?
Gutmann: Yes. But one day I got a call from the head of Cubatabaco [the former name of Habanos S.A.] and he said, "Max, I want you to go to the lawyers and endorse the name La Casa del Habano to us."
I said to myself, "If I tell them that they need to pay me for the use, what can they do? They didn't have money at the time. They couldn't even afford to grow the tobacco crop at the time. And if I say no, they won't sell me cigars." So I gave them half of my business and I said to them, "Don't forget that I was the first one!" It's like never forgetting your first love. That's all I cared about at the time.
CA: So when did you become the agent for Cuban cigars?
Gutmann: It was two years later. The agent for Cuban cigars was involved with liquor. They were the people from Domecq brandy. We spoke to them and they were not interested in Cuban cigars anyway. For them, it was a relief to get rid of it...so we took it over from them.
CA: When was that exactly?
Gutmann: 1994. They must have been sorry in the end that they gave up the distribution because the cigar boom started after that.
CA: Do you remember the first time you smoked a cigar?
Gutmann: I remember very well. I had a French-Moroccan brother-in-law and he smoked Cuban cigars all the time. I used to smoke cigarettes. He said, "Max, why do you smoke cigarettes? They are so bad for you. Why don't you smoke cigars?" And he pushed and pushed and pushed, and finally I smoked a cigar. I didn't like it at first. But then a couple of days later I tried another one. It was after a great dinner with really good food and wine, and it was a lot better. And from then on, I loved smoking cigars.
CA: What was it?
Gutmann: It was a Partagas Lusitania. I thought I should start with a smaller cigar, but he insisted that I smoke the double corona.
CA: When did you start collecting cigars?
Gutmann: I guess it was about the same time. I started buying a couple of boxes here and there and I started a small collection. I realized that cigars were like wines; they got better with age. And now I have cigars in my collection that are over 50 years old, pre-Castro cigars. It's fun to have them and smoke them from time to time. They are not cigars that you are going to smoke every day.
CA: How many cigars do you have in your collection? It seems like a lot.
Gutmann: No, no, I only have about 1,500 boxes or so. I take very good care of my cigars and now it is easy to know how old they are because every box has a date on it when the cigars were put in the box. No one really cared about that until about 10 years ago. It was when you broke the story on the special code on the back of the box that told where the cigars were produced and when they were put in their box.
CA: Some people argue that cigars do not improve with age. What do you think?
Gutmann: Of course they do. But they have a certain lifetime. It is like wine. They can improve, but there is a point, if you don't smoke them, that they don't get any better. They lose some of the quality. But easily up to 15 or 16 years.
CA: What period is your favorite time to smoke a Cuban? Five or six years?
Gutmann: I have a lot of my cigars from eight to 10 years of age. I don't mind smoking younger cigars, but I like them with age.
CA: When do you think the 109 will be right to smoke?
Gutmann: I smoked the 109 the other day, from the Partagas anniversary humidor of 1995, and when I took the cigar from out of the box I thought it smelled perfect. It was unbelievable and I think that my 109 will have the same thing. In five years, it is going to be incredible. I hope we don't smoke them all!
CA: What do you think is a good strategy for someone who wants to start a cigar collection?
Gutmann: Of course, it all depends on your budget. You can just start with one box. And you don't smoke all the cigars and you see how they develop with age. And then buy another box once in a while and keep them. Increase your pleasure little by little. You need to know what year they were boxed and then you go from there. It is like collecting wine. There are good years and bad years. It is less of a problem now with Cuban cigars, but in the past there have been years when hurricanes have affected the crop, or blue mold. But it hasn't been like that for a while.
CA: Is storage important for collecting?
Gutmann: Yes. They have to be in the proper humidification. You can have the best cigar in the world, but if it is dry, it is going to taste horrible.
CA: What is the humidity you recommend?
Gutmann: I keep them at 74 percent humidity. But Mexico City is at a very high altitude. Otherwise, I would keep them at 70 percent. I keep the temperature at 57 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
CA: That is really cold.
Gutmann: Yes. But you will never have any problems with bugs. The bugs appear when it gets too hot. You have one beetle and it can ruin all of your cigars. So I keep it cold. I have to wear a sweater when I go into my humidor.
CA: You also collect a lot of accessories ...cutters, bands, boxes, furniture...everything.
Gutmann: Yes. I have been collecting things like that for many, many years. When I am in Europe, like London or Paris, I always go to the antique markets to look for things. Unfortunately, the prices for these things have really gone up. Years ago they didn't cost anything. These pieces became expensive after the cigar boom and everybody wanted them. Some of the prices are really ridiculous now. Most of [the pieces] are from the 1800s.
It's interesting how all the cutters and the humidors from that period are relatively small because the cigars smoked were very small. They were like the Cuabas.
CA: Small figurados?
CA: Have you collected bands too?
Gutmann: I have bands with all the American presidents, French aristocracy... They used to use real gold for the bands back then. That would be impossible now! The labels would be more expensive than the tobacco!
CA: Has your taste changed in cigars? Are you smoking shorter cigars, for example?
Gutmann: You know, it has not changed that much. I always like to smoke different cigars. One of my preferred cigars has always been the Partagas Lusitania, the double corona, but I have also liked the Partagas Serie D No. 4 or Romeo & Julieta Churchill. But I also smoke Cohiba. I think the Siglo VI is one of the best new cigars to come out for a long time.
It depends on the situation too. It depends on your mood. Sometimes you smoke a cigar in the morning, and then you smoke a cigar at night and it tastes completely different. Your palate changes all the time.
CA: You only smoke Cuban?
Gutmann: Yeah, because I have always had Cubans available to me. In fact, it is hard to get cigars from other countries in Mexico. I started with them. I had the opportunity to smoke them. So that's what I do.
CA: What would you do if you couldn't smoke cigars anymore?
Gutmann: I would be very upset. [Laughs loudly.]