Last year was a horrible one in too many ways to count, but there was something positive by one metric. Despite a year that saw interruptions in both cigar factories and cigar shops, imports of premium, handmade cigars were up, with boom-time numbers when all was said and done. And cigar sales appear to be at their highest levels in many years.
Bolstered by a stunning 71 percent gain in shipments in the month of December alone, the year 2020 ended up with 361.3 million handmade cigars shipped to the United States, a seven-percent increase over 2019 numbers, according to data released today by the Cigar Association of America.
This was the ninth year in a row that cigar imports exceeded 300 million units, and brought shipments back to their 2018 levels, when imports reached a 20-year-high.
The strong shipments echoed reports from cigarmakers and cigar retails about booming sales.
“It’s probably the best year we’ve ever had. It’s almost like we’re back in the boom time—that’s what it seems like. The demand for premium cigars is through the charts,” Rocky Patel told Cigar Aficionado this afternoon, minutes after the import figures were released. “The factories were closed for a couple of months, so that hurt production, but now we can’t keep up with the demand. It’s unbelievable.”
Patel said the high demand was still occurring, continuing throughout the first quarter of 2021.
“2020 has been a year I will never forget in our company, our country and around the world,” said Javier Estades, head of premium cigar operations USA for Tabacalera USA, which includes Altadis U.S.A., JR Cigars and the Casa de Montecristo chain of retail cigar stores. “Despite challenges resulting from the pandemic, and with a focus on the safety of our customers, consumers, and employees, we have closed an incredible 2020,” he said. “In our case we have delivered significant growth at a very complex moment as we were in the middle of an ownership transition.”
Jeff Borysiewicz, owner of Corona Cigar Co. in Florida, also said sales were booming. “Overall, we had a great year—our sales were up, company-wide. Mail order was through the roof,” he said. Borysiewicz, who has three stores in Orlando and one in Tampa, had a great year despite roadblocks to his business. “We had shutdowns in Orlando. We had bars that were closed for three months, where we couldn’t serve drinks…Our downtown store was a ghost town.” His business changed, and while some stores were slow, others saw a sales gain. Where there were fewer tourists, locals bought more. “When people are working at home, they can smoke a cigar,” he said. Business picked up as the year progressed, and now he says things are much like they were before the pandemic.
“The beginning of the pandemic was filled with uncertainty and fear. We had no idea what would become of our business,” said Michael Cafagno, owner of the Tobacconist of Greenwich in Greenwich, Connecticut. Operations, he said, “came to a screeching halt when the world shut down and we had to figure out how to pivot and adjust our model.” He turned to e-commerce as part of a new strategy, and the result was his best year ever. “2020 turned out to the best year of Tobacconist of Greenwich in 46 years of history,” he said.
Only yesterday, Scandinavian Tobacco Group (STG), the parent company of General Cigar Co., released its 2020 annual report, which showed increases in profits and revenues. Handmade cigar consumption, said the company, increased in 2020.
Three countries produce the lion’s share of handmade cigars shipped to the United States. Market leader Nicaragua shipped 186.2 million cigars in 2020, up 10 percent from 2019. Dominican shipments were 102.6 million, down 3 .3 percent from 2019, and Honduran shipments were 71.2 million, up 18.1 percent. The Dominican Republic was the only country among the top three exporters with a drop in shipments.