Cuban Cigars: Why Obama's New Policy Won't Mean a New Flood of Cohibas from Havana

Photographer: Per-Andre Hoffmann/Getty Images

American cigar smokers anxiously flicked their lacquered lighters this morning when news broke that President Barack Obama would be easing the decades-old restrictions on Cuban travel and goods. Since 1962, Cuba's legendary cigars have been banned from the shelves of American tobacconists and many travelers have sadly handed over their duty-free smokes to border agents.

Legal...Sort Of

Before you start tweeting it to everyone you know, Cuban cigars have not been legalized for sale in the US. That much has not changed and cannot change until Congress agrees to reverse the trade embargo. Also, travel restrictions will be loosened, but it's not like you can run down to the terminal and grab a standby ticket this afternoon.

What has changed is that now a "licensed traveler" (no word yet on exactly who qualifies here) can bring back up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, up to $100 of which can be cigars and rum for personal use. While prices vary greatly -- not all Cuban cigars are created equal -- the $100 allotment will generally cover no more than a dozen high-end cigars from makers such as Partagás and Cohiba. There are vintage and limited edition cigars for which a single stick will still be too pricey to make it into the US.

It will certainly be easier for cigars to make their way onto American shores now, but the embargo has been anything but a perfect barrier. Aaron Sigmond, author of Playboy: The Book of Cigars and founding editor of both The Cigar Report and Smoke Magazine, estimates that "10 to 30% (some say higher) of Cuban cigars already land in the US … it's safe to say that those who desire these things now already have a pipeline to procure them."

Game Changer?

Still, "when the embargo first happened it certainly left a void," said Bill Sherman, Executive Vice President of US tobacconist Nat Sherman. The company was founded by his grandfather in 1930 and until 1962 was one of only three licensed importers of Cuban cigars in the eastern United States. Many of the larger Cuban brands tried to fill that void by licensing their names or setting up independent factories in other Central and South American countries where they could produce US-legal sticks. For example, cigars are sold legally in the United States under the Cohiba name by the U.S. General Cigar Company -- but those are made in the Dominican Republic, not Cuba.

The result is that even if Congress were to lift the embargo tomorrow, it's unlikely that Cuban cigars would immediately flood the shelves in New York. Because the major producers' non-Cubans are already present, figuring out the branding issues is no small task. "I really don't think it's a game changer," notes Sherman. "There's a lot of issues proceeding that [introduction to the US market] relating to trademarks, who owns those trademarks, how the cigars are integrated into the market, and all those dynamics. It's much more about the diplomatic shift than the cigar business right now." For now, makers in Ecuador, Nicaragua, and the United States don't need to panic.

Terroir

It's essentially received wisdom at this point that Cuban cigars are the best cigars. Before enacting the embargo, President John F. Kennedy stocked up, having an aide buy him more than 1,000 Cubans while they were still legal. But even many regular cigar smokers couldn't tell you what sets a Cuban cigar apart from a similar stogie from the Dominican Republic or Trinidad.

"The Dominican Republic and Nicaragua both make exceptional cigars, but nothing is like Cuba," said Sigmond. "It's analogous to wines. California, Oregon, Italy, all make exceptional vintage wines, but the wines of France reign supreme simple because of the terroir in Burgundy and Bordeaux." But Sigmond was also quick to admit that "romanticized reasons" play a roll in Cuban cigars' status and for American smokers, "there's of course the matter of the forbidden fruit."

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