Cuban Cigars, Don't Smoke the Label
"It happens all the time."
Ron Melendi, General Manager of De La Concha in New York, is tired of seeing guests walk through the door of his tobacco shop and ask for "Cubans." It's no secret that cigars from that particular island are illegal, yet people ask anyway.
It pisses Melendi off, and I don't blame him.
Cuban cigars are seen as a rare treat in the small, tightly intertwined community of upscale smokers. Since they have been illegal in the United States for more than 40 years, the act of cutting and lighting one implies unusual access, connections that most simply do not have. But, that's about it. A general decline in Cuban cigar quality, especially over the past decade, leaves the label as the only coveted aspect of the experience.
Of course, it's easy to dismiss this popular notion among tobacco retailers and manufacturers as a case of "sour grapes." After all, they can't sell what everybody wants. Jealousy wouldn't be much of a stretch ... if the quality issues weren't so real.
Several trips in the past three years to France, Spain, Mexico, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Canada have led to Cuban cigars between my fingers. I've seen different humidors in stores in each of these countries and been able to rule out problems resulting from poor storage. I've had a few decent smoking experiences, but they haven't been life-changing. Even when the cigars are properly maintained, the taste and construction simply have not delivered.
Gallery: De La Concha Tobacconist
"I've seen it all," Melendi recalls. "They don't give up! They just keep trying to 'enjoy' these Cuban cigars." He sees me take a draw from my Davidoff Maduro and remarks, "See, that was easy." The mouthful of smoke I pushed out punctuated the comment. "With Cubans, it's becoming hit or miss. The quality's going down hill."
However, his customers still salivate at the thought of a Partagas Serie P or a Montecristo #2. It's a mark of prestige, a symptom of I-have-it-and-you-don't syndrome. Veteran cigar smokers are drawn to products they normally wouldn't enjoy because of the exclusivity they convey.
The problem isn't an unavailability of high-end or rare cigars. There are plenty on the shelves of every humidor in the country. Padron Anniversario, Davidoff Millennium and Opus X, among others, can be hard to come by, cost north of $20 a piece and result in absolute bliss. But, you can buy them.
U.S. trade laws, it seems, make Cuban cigars a little tastier.
So, it's no surprise that someone who gets his hands on this sort of contraband will rush to his local cigar shop to smoke it before an audience. After all, conspicuous luxury is the best kind.
When I ask Melendi about this, he shakes his head and wears the pained expression of someone who has had to address this situation far too often. "They just don't understand what they're doing," he says. "It's bad enough that they're smoking someone else's cigars in my store," he continues, "that's just inappropriate." Like most retailers, De La Concha has to contend with tight margins in a good year, and the current recession has made every sale more important. Every cigar from the outside – as every Cuban stick must be – steals a sale from the store.
And then there's the legal issue.
A Cuban cigar in the store puts jobs at risk. Fines are stiff and could easily reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The store could lose its tobacco license, as well, if Cuban cigars are found on the premises. "I've seen some guests sitting in the lounge with the band [on the cigar] in plain view." The floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall window that faces Manhattan's busy Sixth Avenue magnifies visibility, making this transgression even more severe, which is why Melendi asks those with Cuban cigars to leave. "If they want to put themselves at risk [of legal repercussions]," Melendi says, "that's their own business. I won't let them do that to my staff."
Yet, there's always someone who tries. More often than not, it's a smoker who should know better – and not just because of the embargo. The most seasoned connoisseurs still melt when presented with a mediocre Cuban cigar, because the band sends a powerful message: I'm among the few. I'm connected.
"Smoking the label," as Melendi calls it, defeats the purpose of smoking a cigar. "This is an experience to be enjoyed," he says with another puff. I couldn't agree more. Taste trumps provenance.