Perhaps it's that revolutionary history. Perhaps it's the cultural memories of Ernest Hemingway with a lit stogie, contemplating Havana.
More likely, though, it's the tobacco. The area we now know as Cuba was under Spanish control during the eighteenth century, when the Spaniards began producing the first modern cigars with tobacco imported from their protectorate. Cuba was involved, then, in the very birth of the cigar. From early on - 1830 or so - much of the region's tobacco was grown in the Vuelta Abajo (or Vueltabajo) district of Pinar del Rio Province, in the shadow of the Organos Mountains. This area is considered a "microclimate" - its climate differs from the area surrounding it - perhaps because of the influence of the mountains; for whatever reason, it is the place, according to Cigar Aficionado writer James Suckling, "where, according to most cigar aficionados, the best leaf in the world is grown."
So far, so good - just buy the Vuelta Abajo leaf and roll it elsewhere, right? In fact, whole cigars travel better than tobacco. So when, later in the nineteenth century, Cubans began producing their own cigars, they skyrocketed in popularity, and dominated the market for decades, all the way into the twentieth century.
Then came Castro. Relations between the United States and Cuba deteriorated quickly after the revolution of 1959 (the CIA's assassination and coup attempts probably were the first sign that something was off), and on February 7, 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed a trade embargo against Cuba. (According to his own press secretary, Pierre Salinger, Kennedy personally ordered Salinger to stock him up on then-Cuban H. Upmanns the night before the embargo went into effect. He didn't sign the order until Salinger delivered the boxes of Cuban cigars.)
At that point, many of the great cigar-making families of Cuba headed for other Latin American countries, not wanting to see their great fortunes nationalized. It's for that reason that cigars from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras and other nearby countries are often considered, by experts, to be the taste equals of Cuban cigars. Still, the demand for these premium smokes hasn't died down in the United States - people love forbidden fruit - and demand without supply equals a counterfeiter's paradise. Sometimes it takes nothing more than a laser printer and some computer graphics to make a cheap short-leaf machine-rolled cigar - a "cigar pawn" - into expensive, marked-up, fake Cuban cigars. Weak laws and slap-on-the-wrist penalties in many of the counterfeiters - native countries only increase the criminals - incentive.
That being said, it's time to take the old Roman advice, Caveat emptor - let the buyer beware. Cigar buyers must protect themselves. The easiest (and only legal, and thus only recommended) way for Americans to do this is to sample the great cigars of other countries, cigars which can legally be purchased in the United States. But in case you're curious about how to tell a real Cuban cigar from a pawn, here are some tell-tale marks:
The Warranty Seal. Most real Cubans since 1912 will have a Cuban tax stamp on the top left front edge. Check that it's there, that its print is clear (not photocopied-looking) and that its date is recent.
The Habanos Chevron. Every box of Havana cigars made since 1994 should have an additional label with a tobacco leaf's silhouette on it.
Hallmarks. Cuban cigars have the exporter's name burned in to the wrapper; they often say Habanos s.a. (for the company that exports Havanas), Hecho En Cuba ("Made in Cuba", added in 1960), or Totalmente a mano ("by hand only", added in 1989).
The boxes themselves should include a piece of parchment with the Habanos logo and Spanish-language, English-language, French-language and German-language storage instructions. If the cigars are wrapped in cellophane, they're probably fake. Another tipoff is the smell of ammonia - real Cubans don't give off this order. As for the cigars, they should be finely-veined or not veined at all.
There are wonderful cigars from all over the world - and for Americans, almost any of them are easier to obtain. Many great Cuban brands, including the aforementioned H. Upmann, have relocated and can be bought here in the US. Keep an open mind.
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