It may be the best-kept-secret about the vaunted Cuban cigar: It's often not that good.
Yes, Cuba produces some of the best cigars in the world. And for the first time in more than 60 years, there's legitimate hope that they will once again be sold--legally--in the United States. On the heels of the announcement that the United States and Cuba are officially working toward normalizing relations, Americans who qualify to travel to Cuba can already bring back up to $100 worth of cigars.
"There's an incredible demand for Cuban cigars," said Jeff Borysiewicz, the president of Corona Cigar company, one of the largest Cigar retailers in the country. "There's this whole mystique about them. Just look at how big the counterfeit market has gotten."
Yet the bold truth is that the Cuban cigar is not all that it's made out to be.
Each year, Cigar Aficionado, the leading industry magazine, publishes a list of the top 25 cigars in the world. Last year, the number one cigar was the Montecristo no. 2, which is made in Cuba. But only two of the remaining 24 also came from the country.
By contrast, 11 were from the Dominican Republic, and 10 were made in Nicaragua. The magazine has yet to reveal its top pick for 2014, but among the remaining 24 the vast majority are once again from countries other than Cuba. And a similar pattern can be seen in virtually every year that the publication has issued its rankings. "The playing field has been leveled," said David Savona, executive editor of Cigar Aficionado.
The trend has less to do with the deterioration of the Cuban cigar than it does with the improvement of cigar production and quality elsewhere. But it's also incorrect to assume all Cuban cigars are exceptional. "Just because a cigar is Cuban doesn't mean it will be a high-quality cigar," Savona said. "There are good cigars and bad cigars from Cuba, as with other cigar producing countries."
All that means that as enamored as Americans are with the possibility of puffing on freshly-lit Cuban cigars, there's reason to believe they will soon find themselves disappointed, or, at the very least, underwhelmed.
The mystique around the Cuban cigar probably has something to do with how long it's been banned. When the United States first broke ties with the Cuban government in 1961, the island nation was in the midst of nationalizing its storied cigar industry. At the time, the country was effectively the cigar capital of the world, but the government's nationalization campaign made many, very capitalist cigar factory owners exiles--and drew a ban from a hostile U.S. government.
Those exiles then helped nurture cigar businesses in other Latin American countries.
"They brought their expertise to places like the Dominican Republic," Borysiewicz said. "There was basically one brand in the Dominican Republic and few elsewhere before that happened."
Now there are countless internationally acclaimed cigar makers not only in the Dominican Republic, but also in Nicaragua and Honduras. And they more than compete with the quality of the cigars being produced in Cuba—they often surpass it.
The real problem with Cuban cigars today is inconsistency within individual boxes, according to industry experts. For unclear reasons, boxes tend to come with duds, or sub-par cigars, and sometimes many.
"Cuban cigars really just aren't as consistent as they used to be," said Bill Shindler, general manager at Rich's Cigar Store in Portland, Ore. Shindler has been working in the tobacco industry for nearly 40 years. "That's a big deal."
That inconsistency, Shindler explains, is something people forgive when a product has the kind of reputation Cuban cigars do. But the favorable treatment won't last forever, much less if the aura fades as relations normalize.
For that reason, cigar makers elsewhere are eager to see how the greater public will react when and if the embargo lifts.
"The reason people want Cuban cigars is because they're looked upon as a forbidden fruit," said Eric Newman, president of J.C. Newmand Cigar Company, the oldest cigar company in the U.S.. "I'm looking forward to the day they can be sold here. There's been this great myth about Cuban cigars, but ours and even our other competitors' are by and large better and more consistent than the cigars coming out of Cuba today."
Jorge Padrón, the president of Padrón Cigars, which operates out of Miami but makes its cigars in Nicaragua, welcomes the competition. "Taste is a very subjective thing," he said. "At the end of the day, the consumer is going to have to answer whether the mystique is real or not."
In 2001, Marvin Shanken, the founder of Cigar Aficionado, lamented the decline of Cuban cigars. While the magazine has since written about a rebirth in the country (only a year later, no less), and even declared an entire year (2012) the year of the Cuban cigar, the real test will likely play out in the coming years, especially if the embargo is lifted and they can once again be sold freely in the United States.
"Cuban tobacco has a very distinct flavor that's different from tobacco everywhere else. It tends to be extremely strong," said Borysiewicz. "The day Cuban cigars can be sold on the shelf here, people will buy them based on that, on their merits, and not on the whole mystique."