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Are Cuban Cigars Slowly Losing The Title of Best Cigar?

Since the 1600’s Cuban cigars have had the reputation of being the best cigar. In fact, the United States’ embargo on Cuban cigars has also given them a certain cultural cachet. It was a Cuban cigar that took the #1 cigar crown in 2013. However, Cigar Aficionado has just ranked 3 non-Cuban cigars as the top 3 cigars of 2014. So it is fair to ask this question: Are Cuban cigars slowly loosing the title of best cigar?

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People will agree that Cuba produces some excellent cigars but import embargos in the United States created a cultural cachet for Cuban cigars. One might wonder if their popularity and claim of being the world’s best cigar is based solely on this cultural cachet. Does the quality of Cuban cigars really surpass the quality of the cigars from other countries? According to a paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics and Finance in 2003 the answer to that question is yes. The paper’s authors were: David Freccia, Joyce Jacobsen, and Peter Kilby. Their objective was to collect quality ratings and price data for a wide variety of different cigars, and try to identify what factors contributed to a cigar’s prices and ratings. They took into account a long list of factors including where the cigars were from.

The authors found that the single most important factor of both prices and ratings was whether or not the cigar came from Cuba. On average, a cigar from Cuba saw a rating increase by 4.05 points. However, cigars described as “well built” only saw an increase in their ratings of 1.28 points, and cigars described as being “leathery” only saw an increase in their ratings of 1.87 points.

The judges concluded that “The ability of the participants in a blind taste test to correctly identify the cigars from Cuba points to a distinct Cuban flavor, color, or form”.

Explanations for Cubans’ preferred taste vary widely. Livescience’s Stuart Fox wrote an excellent article exploring some theories. Alan Dye, a professor from Columbia and a Cuban expert, tells Fox that Cuba possesses soil that is uniquely suited to tobacco production; more specifically the tobacco used for the wrappers. The flavor of the cigar is comes mainly from its wrapper. Soil in other Central American and Caribbean countries is very similar. This similarity is why growers in these countries have tried to alter their soil to match Cuba’s. Despite these efforts, the soil is not identical which leads to the cigars having a different flavor.

Also there are a large number of tales that have emerged to explain why Cuban cigars have a different taste. UCLA’s Robin Derby explains to Fox that “early Cuban legends described the high quality of Cuban cigars being attributed to them being rolled by biracial Cuban women.” These legends certainly don’t explain why Cuban cigars taste the way they do. It does however speak to the presence of a cultural mystique that has led to the popularity of the Cuban cigar.

Despite the results of this study and the arguments behind their high quality there is still evidence that Cuba’s hold on the title of World’s Best Cigar is slowly weakening. Despite the fact that Cuba has the soil conditions needed to grow quality tobacco, there has been a marked decline in the quality of cigars coming out of Cuba. The high demand of Cuban cigars has lead to rushing the product to market. This has resulted in improperly aged cigars which greatly affects the quality of the cigar.

There are a number of factors that are used to argue that Cuban cigars are no longer the world’s best cigar. They include:

  • limitations
  • experience
  • competition
  • technology
  • lack of a clear superiority in the characteristics used to rating a cigar

Limitations

One of the biggest factors leading to the slow loss of popularity of the Cuban cigar is the fact that Cuban cigars are made entirely out of Cuban tobacco. While some might consider this an important selling feature, it limits the flavor spectrum when rolling the cigar. In contrast, most non-Cuban cigars will use wrappers, binders and fillers from different countries allowing them to attain the highest quality flavor profile. This line of thought would certainly be supported by the Tabacalera Oliva De Esteli S.A. the #1 cigar of 2014. This cigars binder and filler are from Nicaragua but its wrapper is from Ecuador.

Experience

Until 1960, no one except Cuba was growing the premium tobacco used in cigars. Then 1962 arrived and the United States implemented their embargo on the importing of Cuban goods. As a result many Cubans left Cuba taking centuries of knowledge and tobacco seeds with them. Since then premium tobacco has been cultivated in other countries such as the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Competition

Competition is what keeps businesses on their toes. Cigars is a lucrative business. There are hundreds of cigar manufacturers trying to attract your hard-earned dollar. It is this competition that constantly improves a product. Seeing as everything is state-run, there is virtually no competition in Cuba. All companies have to rely on is their pride.

The increase in competition as also affected cigar prices, placing Cuban cigars out of the price range of most smokers.

Technology

Despite cigars being a very traditional art, there is a need for technology. This technology helps keep a product consistent. One example of how technology can help control the quality of a cigar is a cigar-breathing machine that is used to a cigar’s draw. These tests can make all the difference.

Lack of a clear superiority in the characteristics used to rating a cigar

There are a wide range of characteristics that are used when rating a cigar. Cuban cigars no longer have the clear superiority in these characteristics that they had in their prime.

Despite the compelling arguments from both sides, the answer to this question ultimately comes down to the personal preference of the smoker.

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