The Big Smoke: Cuban Cigars

Famed as a hotbed of revolution, the Caribbean island of Cuba is home to the Che Guevara University, Rumba music and, of course, the finest cigars known to man.

Shopping Essentials

image: Roll another fat one: a real Cuban cigar

Roll another fat one: a real Cuban cigar

Where: Pinar del Rio, Cuba, Caribbean
What’s in store: 
the best cigars known to man
100 stages of production, handrolled to an exact specification to create the perfect smoke
Where to Buy: Government stores in Havana or other major Cuban cities

Cuba is one of the world’s last Communist enclaves. The fading glory of a dying era is manifest everywhere in the crumbing buildings and run down towns, yet the country has an undeniable charm, welcoming and enchanting visitors from all around the world. Famed as a hotbed of revolution, the Caribbean island of Cuba is home to the Che Guevara University, Rumba music and, of course, the finest cigars known to man.

Hardly anyone comes to Cuba and doesn’t sample a genuine Cuban Habanos. Most visitors stash a few stogies in their suitcase for the folks back home. But for the native Cuban, cigar smoking is a way of life. Grown since the 16th century in the province of Pinar del Rio in the limestone hills of Viñales, Cuban tobacco comes from a special seed and yields a magnificently flavoursome leaf.

Master Craftsmen

There’s more then 100 different stages to the creation of a genuine handmade Cuban cigar, from the planting of the seed to the sealing of the box. The crop is cultivated with tender care by tobacco farmers known as guajiros, and the cigars are fashioned in government corporation factories. Cuba produces 65 million cigars a year for export, but one worker will make only about 100 a day. Each one is rolled with expert precision, as a cigar that is rolled too tightly or too loose will yield an inferior smoking experience.

How to Spot a Good Buy

Genuine Cuban cigars are among the best in the world and command deservedly high prices. However counterfeit cigars are big business in Cuba, and foreign visitors will be continually badgered by peddlers claiming to sell the real thing at vastly reduced prices.

The vendors will sometimes have an extraordinary story to tell about how they came by their illicit stash, but don’t believe a word of it. It’s most likely the cigars on offer are made from inferior tobacco and were inexpertly rolled in the family home. Many have an unappealing flavour and are simply unsmokeable.

Many people who work in Cuba’s cigar factories smuggle out vast numbers of cigars to sell on the black market to boost up their paltry wage packets. If you do choose to buy off these guys its best to smoke them then and there to avoid getting into trouble with the police or customs.

If you’re not an expert it can be hard to distinguish a fake cigar from the real McCoy. Here’s a few hints and tips to help you tell the two apart:

  • Sniff a cigar carefully. If it smells too strongly of ammonia it’s a fake.
  • ll the cigars in a box should be the same colour. If there is any slight variation they will be arranged in order, the darkest one on the left, and the lightest on the right.
  • The cigars should all be exactly the same length, within 1/16th of an inch of the size specified.
  • The end of each cigar should be cut evenly, and should not be chipped.
  • The box should be clean, new and free from scuff marks. Vendors of fake cigars will re-use old boxes, so inspect it carefully and reject it if it looks like it has been around a while.
  • Feel the weight of the box. If it’s too light the cigars may be loosely rolled and won’t burn properly. Conversely if it’s too heavy they may be too tight, which make it easier to produce a uniform shape.
  • Check the box for the green warranty seal on the left hand side, containing a shield and hat insignia. The seal is sometimes broken by quality control, so don’t be concerned if it isn’t intact. There should also be a white ‘Habanos’ sticker on the upper right hand corner of the box.
  • The bottom of the box should be branded with a heat stamp, under which there should be an ink stamp stating when and where the cigars were manufactured.
  • Genuine cigars are never sold at more than a 25% discount. Even this concession is extremely rare and offered solely to the best customers.
  • Avoid buying cigars form anyone you don’t know. The internet is a favorite outlet for unscrupulous dealers.

Cigars should only be brought from official government cigars stores. Those bought on the black market will invariably be seized from you by customs when you leave the country.



Perelman’s Pocket Cyclopedia of Havana Cigarsby Richard B. Perelman.
Perelman, Pioneer & Co. 1998

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