Reprinted from the October 2005 issue of Cigar Aficionado.
The world-famous brand's former Cuban cigar remains a highly sought-after collectible Late last spring, I smoked a Davidoff cigar in London with the company's top executive, Ernst Schneider, and the "C" word came up in the conversation. Cuba is not a favorite subject with Davidoff officials since the Swiss company stopped making cigars on the island in 1991 and moved its production to the Dominican Republic. But Cuba is still something the firm needs to come to grips with because Cuban Davidoffs were some of the greatest cigars ever produced.
Even the 84-year-old Schneider admitted that Davidoff Cuban cigars have enhanced his company's reputation and that, in general, the smokes were very good quality. "They certainly do not hurt our image in the world," he said. "They can be very good cigars."
The brief conversation occurred in London during a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the opening of the city's Davidoff cigar shop, owned by one of the world's great cigar merchants, Edward Sahakian. We smoked a cigar that Sahakian had commissioned for his shop's birthday, a 6 1/4 inch long by 42 ring gauge Davidoff with a special label commemorating the day. It was a strong yet smooth smoke from the Dominican Republic. Strangely, it was stronger than many Cuban cigars being made today.
Sahakian was the one who originally turned me on to Davidoff Cubans. Back in 1983, I visited his shop as a young journalist with the Wine Spectator magazine. I asked him about the various Davidoff cigars that carried the names of some of Bordeaux's most famous wine estates, such as Chateau Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion. Sahakian couldn't have been more helpful; not only did he describe how cigar guru Zino Davidoff created the Chateau series, he also explained how the Cubans took great care to produce the cigars.
But more importantly, Sahakian gave me my first Davidoff. I must have been sitting down for about 15 seconds in his shop at 35 St James's Street before he offered me an Ambassadrice, a small panetela with plenty of flavor. I was excited about the brand from that moment forward and I tried to smoke the cigars as often as possible.
What struck me about the Davidoff—even with a debutant's palate—was its balance and harmony. The cigars were rich and flavorful, yet elegant and refined at the same time. They delivered lots of flavor, but left your palate feeling clean and refreshed. Moreover, if you smoked one after dinner, the next morning your mouth didn't feel as if you had been chewing tobacco in your sleep.
Davidoff Cubans are still like that—even more so. Aged Davidoffs are some of the cleanest, finest smokes available, even though they haven't been made for more than a decade. I recently smoked a number of them during a trip to Hong Kong, and one after another was fantastic, delivering a purity of flavor that is hard to find in any cigar today. The Davies I smoked included the 1000, 4000, Haut-Brion and No. 2. The latter, which resembles the six-inch, 38-ring Cohiba Coronas Especial, was superb and it came from a cedar box of 50 cigars that were wrapped in a palm leaf.
I told one of the Davidoff executives with Schneider at the Davidoff shop in London about my experience in Hong Kong, and he immediately said that the cigars were fakes. His eyes widened in disbelief when I told him that I had been in a cigar shop on the island that was selling just about every Cuban Davidoff ever made, and that its biggest selling smoke was the Davidoff Haut-Brion—one of my favorite smokes.
"That's impossible," he said. "They have to be fakes."
"Go and look at them yourself," I said. "I know a fake when I see them, and the shop—Cigarro—is not selling fakes. I saw close to 100 boxes of Haut-Brion in the shop."
The fact is, a lot of the Davidoffs in Hong Kong came from cigar lovers who bought up the cigars in the early 1990s just after it was announced that the cigars would no longer be produced in Cuba. I know one guy who paid more than $100,000 in one order to the Davidoff shop in London in 1991—mostly No. 1s and No. 2s.
I still remember being in Havana in 1992 with Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken, and we heard that the cigar shop at the Havana Libre Hotel was discounting Davidoffs. Everything was being sold at $50 a box, including the Chateau series and Dom Perignons. Our jaws dropped when we walked into the poorly lit shop and saw walls full of boxes with the Davidoff's distinctive cursive script burned into their tops.
I remember saying to Shanken: "If I had a lot of money, I would buy all the cigars in this shop. They are going to be worth a fortune one day."
If only I had the money, and if only I could have legally bought them. (The U.S. government doesn't allow journalists in Cuba to buy Cuban products.) Most of the cigars are now worth a minimum of 20 times that price of $50 a box. Some are worth hundreds times more.
For example, Dom Perignons have sold in Christie's auctions in London for as much as $12,000 for a box of 25. The Chateau series reach as high as $4,000, although the rare Chateau d'Yquem, which was withdrawn from the original series in the early 1980s and replaced by Mouton-Rothschild, has fetched as much as $10,000 for a cabinet of 25. Even the cheaper No. 1s and No. 2s cost about $1,000 for a box of 25, although prices seem to fluctuate according to auctions, which are usually twice a year.
"They sell well because they are great smokes," says Brian Ebbesen of Christie's in London, who organizes the cigar sales. "Buyers know that they are no longer made and they know that the quality levels and consistency of the rolling was always top."
The best values are the No. 1s and No. 2s, even at $40 a stick. I have never had a bad one, and they deliver all the flavor and style of a Davidoff Cuban. The price is not that much more than you might pay for a box of current-production double coronas from Punch or Hoyo de Monterey in London.
The Anniversario 80, a mammoth smoke measuring nine inches long by 49 ring gauge, is the most expensive Cuban Davidoff. Produced for Zino Davidoff's 80th birthday, it sells at auction for about £12,000 for a box of 20, or about $1,000 per cigar.
Cigar collectors are also very fond of the Chateau series, which comprise the Latour, Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild smokes. (The latter replaced the Chateau d'Yqem after the famed Sauternes wine estate asked to have its name removed from the series.) Davidoff told me that he never had a contract with the first-growth wine properties. He simply sent them boxes of cigars with their chateau's names on them and informed them of the project.
The cigar guru always compared his cigars to the great reds of Bordeaux, emphasizing that his smokes were produced to improve with age. The fact that these cigars are still great after decades of box age underlines that Davidoff's departure from Cuba was never a question of quality. I remember Davidoff looking me straight in the eye and saying that the company had to leave Cuba because it could no longer be assured of the quality of the cigars it was getting. Zino even went on French television in the late 1980s and condemned the Cubans for poor quality. He burned 130,000 cigars in a huge bonfire, claiming that the cigars were unsalable.
However, I don't believe a word of this. It just can't be true in view of all the great Cuban Davidoffs I have smoked. The real story of the departure may be the conflict with Cuba over ownership of the brand, but the story of that dispute varies depending on which side you speak with. But that's business. And the mystery around the end of Davidoff's Cuban production does nothing to explain why the Cuban Davidoff blend was so outstanding.
I once spoke to the former manager of El Laguito factory in Havana about the blend. It was there that Davidoff had his No. 1s and No. 2s made as well as the Ambassadrices. The Cuban said that Davidoff basically followed the blend of Cohiba, but went for a slightly lighter wrapper to make the cigar smoother and more refined.
Who knows for sure what actually went on? In addition to El Laguito, Davidoff Cubans were made in the La Corona and Partagas factories. Some were also made outside of Havana. But the Cubans somehow maintained the blend whether it was a 5,000 or a Chateau Latour. They made about three million sticks per year.
Davidoff's annual production today in the Dominican Republic is three to four times that figure. The company is making some excellent cigars, but it can't emulate the magic it had in Cuba.
Schneider disagrees, of course. He said that even his sons-in-law were skeptical of the change from Cuba to the Dominican Republic when Davidoff made the move. "They were sure that we couldn't produce something as good or better than the Cubans," he recalled, getting ready to leave the Davidoff cigar shop in London. "But I took them to the Dominican Republic and they smoked the cigars themselves, and it wasn't long before they were convinced otherwise."
Some people may prefer Davidoffs from the Dominican Republic, but that doesn't take away anything from the legendary smokes under the same name that were once produced in Cuba.
For ratings on Cuban Davidoffs and other cigars, click here.
To read about Davidoffs in Hong Kong, click here.