Cigar smokers around the world still remember the "dark period" of Cuban cigars, a long stretch of time from around 1998 to 2003 when the quality of construction and taste of their cigars was below par. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 and the subsequent end of billions of dollars in annual subsidies severely impacted Cuba's tobacco industry just as the global cigar boom began. An attempt to meet soaring demand by increasing production with fewer resources—everything from fertilizers to gasoline was in short supply—backfired and undermined the quality of many cigars rolled on the island.
But those days are in the past. Cuban cigars scored extremely well in 2012 taste tests at Cigar Aficionado and Cigar Insider, showing improved levels of construction quality as well as flavor. In both publications, editors rated a total of 98 Cuban cigars. In Cigar Aficionado, 93 percent of the 70 cigars rated 90 points or higher, and in Cigar Insider, 25 of the 28 cigars, or 89.3 percent, scored 90 points or higher. The average score for both publications was 91.25 for the year.
There are several reasons for the improvements. First of all, newer and stricter quality-control measures have been implemented in every factory in Cuba since 2005. Every factory now has a draw test machine that samples production every day to be sure that draw performance is up to standard. Overall production levels are also being maintained at sustainable levels, which means that all the skilled positions in factories are now being manned by people with extensive training and experience, instead of people being rushed into production positions before they were ready, which happened during the boom years.
Another possible explanation is the vintage crops of 2009/10 and 2010/11; the former was considered outstanding and the latter was characterized by growers in Cuba as the best in 15 years. Tobacco from those years would have begun to be used in cigars with box dates in late 2011 and 2012, and could be producing some of the most flavorful cigars in years.
Cuban cigar retailers also have noted the better quality. Edward Sahakian, the owner of the Davidoff shop on St. James's Street in London, said in a phone interview: "It's been a trend over the last four to five years, but the cigars have gotten consistently better during those years. They just keep going from strength to strength." He noted that was a sharp contrast to "tragic years" from the late 1990s into the early part of the 21st Century.
David Tourgeman, who runs Casas del Habano in several cities in Mexico, says: "They have really cleaned up their shop...they've always had good tobacco but now they are aging the leaves longer, and keeping the cigars longer to age. They are going back to the way they used to do things before the cigar boom."
Given the variability of vintage crops, and the ongoing economic pressures on the Cuban government, there's certainly no guarantee that Habanos S.A. will continue to produce high-quality cigars every year. But it is clear that the Cubans have focused a tremendous amount of time and effort on the manufacturing process for cigars, and are achieving results.