General Cigar launches Partagas Heritage

General Cigar announced a new blend called Partagas Heritage, which the company says “honors the heritage of Partagas in blend, box and band.”

Partagas Heritage featured a Honduran wrapper that General says it developed for this launch. The remainder of the blend comprises a Connecticut Broadleaf binder and fillers from from Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

“We set out to create a retrospective blend that celebrated the very best of Partagas to date, and took great pride in putting together the ingredients, just like coming up with a very special recipe. This was a group effort, with our blenders in the Dominican Republic and Central America working with the marketing team to achieve the final taste,” said Jhonys Diaz, who led blend development, in a General Cigar press release.

The cigars are packaged in 20-count boxes and are available in four vitolas: Rothschild (4 ½ x 50; $8.49 per cigar), Churchill (7 x 49; $9.99 per cigar), Gigante (6 x 60; $9.59 per cigar) and Robusto (5 ½ x 52; $9.59 per cigar).

Alec Bradley announces its new TAA-exclusive release

If you shop at a TAA member store, you’ll soon have access to a TAA-exclusive smoke called Alec Bradley Black Market will eagerly anticipate Black Market Illicit. This “illicit” extension is a new iteration of the already popular Black Market line.

Black Market Illicit is a 6 x 50 Toro featuring Nicaraguan wrapper. Two binders (one Honduran, the other Nicaraguan) and Nicaraguan fillers.

“This is the first exclusive series cigar Alec Bradley has developed for TAA retailers since we introduced the Prensado Figurado in 2013,” said Alec Bradley owner Alan Rubin in a press release. “We like to describe this iteration of our number one-selling cigar as Black Market ‘on steroids.’ True to its name, Black Market Illicit embodies the characteristics that have earned its namesake consistent ratings of 90 among cigar enthusiasts around the world. This iteration was specially designed to cater to TAA’s exclusive network of retailers.”

Black Market Illicit starts shipping to TAA retailers in July, packaged in 22-count boxes and with an MSRP of $8.75 per cigar.

Rocky Patel Royale gets a 6 x 60

Rocky Patel Premium Cigars issued a press release announcing the expansion of its Rocky Patel Royale brand. The company is adding a vitola called 60 (a 6 x 60) to the lineup.

According to the release, “The new size was added due to consumer demand for a standard gordo size. Rocky Patel Royale Sixty will be packaged in 20-count boxes and has a suggested retail price of $12 per cigar.”

The brand made its debut at the 2013 IPCPR trade show, and the cigar landed a spot on Cigar Snob’s Top 25 Cigars 2013. The 60 joins several other vitolas of Rocky Patel Royale: Corona, Robusto, Toro, Torpedo, Colossal, and Toro Tubo. The 60 will be a round parejo like the Colossal and Toro Tubo, while all the other vitolas are box-pressed.

 
 

Davidoff announces AVO Improvisation LE17

AVO Cigars announced the the fifth installment in its AVO Limited Edition Improvisations Series: AVO Improvisation LE17.

The cigar packaging — in keeping with the brand’s musical themes — features a full black leather exterior with orange leather interior lid and dual silver clasps. It’s meant to be evocative of a vintage guitar case.

As for the cigar itself, the AVO Improvisation LE17 draws inspiration from three other AVO products. According to a press release, “The new blend utilizes the same variety of Dominican binder and filler tobaccos that were featured in the AVO LE05, blended with the same Estelí, Nicaragua filler tobacco used in the AVO Syncro Nicaragua Fogata and presented in the 6 x 60 boxed pressed format of the AVO Syncro Nicaragua Special Toro.”

“When developing the fifth AVO Improvisation blend, I wanted to use the foundation of my fifth AVO Limited Edition ever released, the celebrated AVO LE05, to see if we could craft something extra special,” said Avo Uvezian in that same release. “When we blended in filler tobacco from Estelí, my palate immediately began to dance with the many flavor notes. The combination worked so well together that a 60-ring gauge format was the proper way to fully showcase this wonderful arrangement, finished in a flawless box pressed shape.”

The cigar is wrapped in Ecuadorian Habano and is priced at $18 per cigar, or $288 for a box of 16.

Rocky Patel releases Vintage 1999 Minis

 
image: Rockt Patel Premium Cigars

image: Rockt Patel Premium Cigars

 

Rocky Patel Premium Cigars announced that, starting in April 2017, its popular Vintage 1999 series will be made available in a small new vitolas called Minis.

The cigars are manufactured at Honduran American Tobacco S.A. in Danlí, Honduras. The Minis measure 4 ¼ x 32 and feature the same aged Connecticut shade wrapper that smokers recognize from other Vintage 1999 formats.

Rocky Patel, President and CEO of RPPC, describes the Minis as “the perfect mild smoke in under ten minutes.”

In a press release issued by Rocky Patel Premium Cigars, Executive Vice President Nish Patel described the Minis as maintaining “that creamy, buttery, ‘nuttery’ taste, just like the other 1999 shapes.”

The Vintage 1999 Minis are packaged in 10-count tins that retail for $17.

La Palina Classic expanded with new blends

La Palina announced an expansion of its Classic line. The brand will be adding new wrappers, blends, and sizes.

“I am very proud to be expanding La Palina Classic with new wrappers and blends,” said La Palina’s owner, Bill Paley. “We have been working on these for over a year and now have the best cigars you can find at prices everyone can enjoy.”

La Palina Classic is now available in three blends: Connecticut, Rosado, and Maduro. These blends had been made available in limited quantities in 2016, but are not being made widely available; The Connecticut and Rosade are already shipping, while the Maduro will be available to retailers at the end of March.

“The Classic line has always been close to the hearts of La Palina supporters,” said Sam Phillips, president of La Palina Cigars. “It is a great cigar for a reasonable price. Whether it is our Classics or our limited editions, we strive to deliver the highest quality cigar with the most refined taste. We feel that we have achieved this with our new generation of Classic cigars.”

Here’s the blend information we got from La Palina.

Connecticut:
Wrapper: Ecuador
Binder: Dominican Republic
Fillers: Dominican Republic, Nicaragua

Maduro:
Wrapper: Honduras
Binder: Dominican Republic
Fillers: Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras

Rosado:
Wrapper: Honduras
Binder: Honduras
Fillers: Honduras, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua

Jonathan Drew returns to an executive role at Drew Estate

Jonathan Drew at his Miami home

Jonathan Drew at his Miami home

Drew Estate announced that Jonathan Drew will return to an executive role with the company as president and founder, with oversight for the entire portfolio of brands. Jonathan will also continue to serve as CEO of his spirits venture, John Drew Brands, which is initially focused on bourbon, rye, and rum.

“Jonathan Drew is a dynamic entrepreneur, respected tobacco man, and a tenacious brand evangelist. He is the original Disruptor, and I am excited to help build a team around JD that is raw, provocative, and unafraid to challenge the mainstream and take risks,” said Drew Estate’s CEO Glenn Wolfson in a statement included in the press release.

I'm a student of graffiti ... and philosophically I look at tobacco the same way,” said Jonathan in that same release. ”There is an evolution to the painted walls in the streets, just like there was on the subways back in the day. Change is natural and accepted. You just have to bomb harder and stay true to your technique and style - and always keep loyal to your crew. There's a lot to learn from areas outside of our main canvas at DE. We will return to high-level curation, mixed media platforms, and true collaboration. We have lost our way a bit, but DE will bubble back 1,000 times stronger. Believe me.”

Learn more about the history and trajectory of Drew Estate — including the hip hop and graffiti elements that inspired the brand’s identity — in this piece we published in the November/December 2016 issue of Cigar Snob.

Toraño launches two new blends

torano_yellow_open_left.png

General Cigar issued a press release announcing the launch of two new Toraño blends.

One of those blends is called E-021. It features an Ecuadorian Sumatra, Connecticut Broadleaf binder, and fillers from Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. The cigar is available in two sizes: 4½ x 50 and 5 x 52 (priced at $5.49 and $5.99, respectively).

A second blend, W-009, features Nicaraguan wrapper, Honduran binder, and fillers from Honduras. This second blend is also available in two sizes: 5½ x 54 and 6 x 50 ($6.49 and $6.49, respectively).

“Our blending team in Nicaragua re-envisioned a couple of dynamic blends from my family’s original recipes. Both new lines round out the sizes available in the Vault line while continuing the tradition of exceptional blends in stand-out packaging and affordable prices. I look forward to sharing the new Vault lines with Toraño fans at cigar shops and special events across the country,” said Jack Toraño, who was recently hired as a full-time brand ambassador for Toraño, in a press release.

Punch Gran Puro Nicaragua launches

General Cigar announced the launch of Punch Gran Puro Nicaragua, an extension of the brand’s Gran Puro line which comprises four formats ranging in price from $5.29 to $6.99: 4.875 x 48, 5.5 x 54, 6 x 54, and 7 ½ x 54.

 
 

“For the extension of the Gran Puro line, our artisans built a blend that balances Nicaraguan tobaccos with a Maduro wrapper to deliver a layered, dimensional flavor not traditionally found in Nicaraguan-based cigars. We are confident that Punch Gran Puro Nicaragua will be a fast favorite among tenured smokers,” said Ed McKenna, director of marketing strategy for General Cigar, in a press release.

Produced at General Cigar’s HATSA factory in Danlí, Honduras, the blend features a Connecticut broadleaf wrapper along with Nicaraguan binder and filler tobaccos.

Villiger ships 1888 nationally

Villiger Cigars began shipping Villiger 1888 to U.S. shops on Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. A special launch event is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 16 at Miura Cigars’ annual Holiday party (which will feature Villiger products and Zafra rum) in Miami.

Villiger 1888 was part of a 2010 limited-edition production, which celebrated Villiger’s 100 year anniversary in Germany. The regular production cigar, made in the Dominican Republic, features an Ecuadorian wrapper, Mexican binder, and Dominican and Nicaraguan fillers.  

A Villiger press release describes the smoking experience this way: “One can expect Dried fruit, roasted coffee and caramel notes, fortified with a peppery and floral finish.”

The line comprises five vitolas ranging in price from $5.95 to $8.20: Corona (6x43), Robusto (4 7/8x50), Toro (6x50), Torpedo (6x52), and Toro Gordo (6x60).

Drew Estate — where they came from and what's next in the "Rebirth of Cigars"

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Sunday, January 29, 1995. Chances are you were stocking up on beer, prepping chip dip, and maybe rifling through your closet for your Stan Humphries Jersey (which you’d learn later that night wasn’t all that “lucky” after all). Everyone’s focus was on Miami, one of the epicenters of the American cigar industry, but cigars had nothing to do with it. Joe Robbie Stadium would play host to Super Bowl XXIX, in which the San Francisco 49ers wrote the unhappy ending to the San Diego Chargers’ Cinderella season.

In New York City, one guy who couldn’t have cared less about the game (he’s not a sports fan) was heading into the first chapter of his own unlikely success story. That was Jonathan Drew’s first official day in the cigar industry, and it surpassed all of his wildest expectations.

“It wasn’t Monday yet. I thought, ‘This is preposterous. Holy shit. I just made $500,” said Jonathan, recalling that day from his Miami apartment in the Wynwood Arts District. He didn’t know it then, but his retail cart in the World Trade Center was the start of a journey that would change the way many thought about how cigars are made and marketed. Some serendipitous meetings, a fresh perspective, and a tragic accident all converged to create the Drew Estate you know today.

New York Beginnings

Jonathan attended and graduated from law school, even interning at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. While he was a law student, he — along with some friends, including Drew Estate cofounder Marvin Samel — made some money with a beach share house on Long Island. They took it upon themselves to offer their tenants some amenities, which meant cooking breakfasts and — more importantly — providing stogies. That last one quickly became a service Jonathan was known for well beyond the walls of his share house.

“I was a cigar smoker and everyone knew I had the good cigars. People knew I was the cigar guy. So everybody in the Hamptons was coming from all sorts of different share houses to stop by and get cigars from me. So sometimes I would charge them what I paid, sometimes I would give out free shit, sometimes I would give out Macanudo Miniatures, or Macanudo Caviars, and I would have all this other shit. That’s when I started to think I would open my own cigar shop, because I needed cash. So I opened up my first cigar shop as a retailer at the World Trade Center in Manhattan on the ground floor.”

 
Young Marvin Samel and Jonathan Drew plotting during the early days of Drew Estate

Young Marvin Samel and Jonathan Drew plotting during the early days of Drew Estate

 

The roughly $500 he made on his first day selling cigars from a cart — keeping fans near the 5’ x 4’ humidor to keep it cool and getting some help with the setup from his mom and dad — put him on his way toward paying the cart’s monthly rent, which he says was about $3,000. It was also the beginning of the formation of the business’s identity, which is informed by not only the struggle of its leaders to keep it afloat and innovate, but also by the gritty hip hop culture in each of the places it’s called home. That identity developed as the business branched off into different aspects of the cigar trade — namely humidors, as well as cigar sales and distribution for other established brands.

“That was way back in the day. I had the red and black lumberjack jacket with the hat to match,” Jonathan said, alluding to the lyrics of Juicy. “It was good times. I was on J Street in Manhattan, and right next to me was Jay Z and Roc-A-Fella Records. They were nobody. In that time period, you had Biggie blowing up in New York, you had Puff Daddy, hip hop was in a transitional period.

And that’s really important to the earliest days of Drew Estate. Because one of the things that always distinguished us from everybody else is that we weren’t a cigar company. We knew we weren’t a cigar company from minute one.”

Rather than a cigar company, Drew Estate sees itself as dealing in lifestyle and experiences. It’s an approach that separated them from their competition in the earliest days and continues to do so today. In the earliest days, when Jonathan was running things from Dumbo, Brooklyn, just beyond the end of the Manhattan Bridge that’s a hallmark of Drew Estate branding, that lifestyle brand approach began to reflect the company’s New York City roots. In fact, a year after the cart business launched, the company’s first brand, La Vieja Habana, was rolled in New York City by a small company called La Rosa Cigars. And then it wasn’t.

“The guy who made those cigars, Antonio Al- manzar, got decapitated,” said Jonathan. “They slid in the rain under an 18-wheeler in his car and his head got taken off.” The freak accident created a need to find a new manufacturer for La Vieja Habana. That’s when Jonathan hooked up with Nick Perdomo.

“Nick was supposed to make them in Miami, but his dad had moved to Estelí,” said Jonathan. “So I was going out to Nicaragua every time he did, eight or nine times a year in ‘96 and ‘97.”

At the time, Jonathan was also considering having La Vieja Habana made by other companies. For instance, he said he came close to going with Ernesto Pérez Carrillo, who was making his cigars in the Dominican Republic. Instead, frequent trips to Estelí brought Drew Estate closer and closer to the next chapter in its story, and Jonathan Drew closer to his next home.

Estelí

“It was very creepy. You would go to Nicaragua and everything was riddled with bullet holes,” Jonathan said. “People were not proud to be making cigars in Nicaragua. It wasn’t like it is now where ‘Nicaragua’ is written all over everything.”

It’s hard enough living under the conditions that seem to come standard in any Central American economic or political system. At the time Jonathan started getting to know the country, Nica- ragua was also reeling from the Contras and the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Goods and services were in scarce supply, and getting a business off the ground — especially as a gringo with more of a cultural gap to bridge than many of the Cuban families whose companies had put down roots (think Padrón, Perdomo, etc.) — wasn’t easy.

“No place in Central America is as loving of people as Nicaragua. Nowhere at all in Central or South America is as safe as Nicaragua. Nowhere,” said Jonathan. “Including Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, nothing. But that’s not what it was back then. It was rougher. Women couldn’t get makeup. Forget cell phones. The roads were bad. Medical equipment and needs were really bad. Couldn’t get cars either. Getting a telephone line took a year. I couldn’t get a bank account open for almost two years.”

At first, Jonathan made the transition to Nicaragua by living in the Perdomo factory. That was about the time that he crossed paths with Jeff Borysiewicz, his longtime friend and owner of the Orlando-based Corona Cigar Company.

“I remember when my supplier of Lars Tetens cigars didn’t sell them anymore. I was all pissed off because the rumor was some young lawyer dude from New York named Jonathan Drew was the one doing the distribution. I immediately didn’t like him even though I’d never met him,” Jeff said.

Jonathan Drew strikes one of his signature poses at his Miami apartment.

Jonathan Drew strikes one of his signature poses at his Miami apartment.

“I was down in Nicaragua with Nick Perdomo, who was making our Cielo cigars. American Airlines had lost my luggage, and while I was over at Nick’s office this guy came by,” Jeff said. “Kinda looked like a hippie dude. It was Jonathan Drew. I was feeling kinda dirty because it was all dirt roads and working on the farm gets you even dirtier, right? I didn’t have any clothes and John said, ‘You look about my size. I’ll send my driver with some clothes for you.’ Sure enough, about an hour later, some dude came by with a backpack and a fresh change of clothes. The clothes weren’t my style. John was always wearing that funky stuff that he wears, but that’s all right. I had a clean shirt and a clean pair of shorts.”

Jonathan’s kind gesture had already begun to change Jeff’s impression of him. But what he saw later that night was probably what really cemented their friendship. Jeff is roughly Jonathan’s age, and Jonathan was proud of the way he’d begun to build Corona — getting minimal sleep on the couch, working long nights from his home, going years without writing himself a paycheck. When he dropped by the Perdomo factory to see Jonathan again, Jeff realized they had a lot more in common than he imagined.

“It was about 11:30 at night. I’ll never forget it. He had a bucket of white paint and a roller in his hands — like what you would paint the walls in your house with — and he was painting the wooden boxes for his new brand, Natural. It totally changed my perception. This wasn’t some rich, hotshot young lawyer. This was a hard workin’ dude who’s doing the same thing as me.”

The transition from having a retail cart in New York City to sleeping in a factory in Estelí happened in a relatively short time. By 2002, Drew Estate had grown to the point of having more than 200 employees. But the struggles hadn’t ended; the company made headlines in Nicaragua when it was forced to lay just about all of them off.

“I’m a true tobacco guy. I lived in the factory for 14 years. I didn’t go to Nicaragua once a month, once a quarter, and stay at the hotel near the factory. I lived in it. Me here and the tobacco there,” said Jonathan, motioning toward a spot a few feet away. “I was constantly doing the dumbest shit you could ever imagine, number one because I didn’t know what I was doing, but also because whatever I did do that was working, there was no one else to do it but me.”

You were smoking graffiti, you were smoking hip hop, you were smoking the life and struggle that is now considered a lifestyle.
— Jonathan Drew

Just as Drew Estate owes its Estelí identity to the moment the decision was made to have cigars manufactured by Perdomo, it owes its survival to a woman named Candida, who owns an Estelí restaurant called La Confianza. The restaurant’s name translates to “trust,” and she put two years of it into Drew Estate, feeding the team for that long before they were able to pay the tab.

“These are not rich people,” Jonathan said. “So, many years later, when we opened factory 2 across the street (from our main facility), I called Candida to the stage and told the story.”

Candida was doing more than feeding a cigar company. She was fueling ideas that, as Jonathan likes to put it, were disruptive in their industry. And that started with an infused cigar brand called ACID.

Disruption

“So you had three market segments: premium, short filler, and flavored. What is ACID? ACID is its own segment. That’s one of the things Drew Estate is known for: creating market segments that didn’t exist. With the ACID brand, we created a market segment in the infused premium cigar,” said Jonathan, noting that tobacco was altered or blended with flavoring ingredients by ancient people long before there was such a thing as the long filler cigar. “That was modern era. We journeyed back in time to where the taste profiles were based with taste and aroma that wasn’t straight tobacco. ACID was nothing new, but it was new for the market at our time. ACID was raw. You were smoking graffiti, you were smoking hip hop, you were smoking the life and struggle that now is considered to be a lifestyle.”

ACID went on to become (and still is) a monster brand in its own right; it is among the world’s best-selling long filler cigar brands and comes in more than two dozen variations. Further innovation in infused cigars came in the form of the company’s partnership with the Kahlua brand, which spawned the industry’s first coffee-infused cigar. Drew Estate became known for the infused market segments it had created.

“You take an Acid Kuba Kuba, and it looks a thousand times nicer than a lot of the other high-end stuff out there. Appearance, construction, consistency,” said Drew Estate Master Blender Willy Herrera.

 
Jonathan shows off tobacco in a curing barn.

Jonathan shows off tobacco in a curing barn.

 

That success brought with it a new set of challenges. As the company looked to expand into more traditional cigar products, it needed a way to challenge the perception that it couldn’t possibly compete with companies with more legacy and expertise in that space. As Jonathan points out, many consumers assume that the addition of Liga Privada cigars to its portfolios was enough to pull that off. But the truth is that another, far more innovative project opened the door for things like T52.

“When our transition time came, we weren’t known as Drew Estate; we were the ACID guys,” Jonathan said. “Think of what happens with a child actor. They’re already locked into people’s minds as a set value. How did Drew Barrymore transition into becoming a real actress? It’s very difficult. Everybody’s interpretation is set in stone, so you have to disrupt people’s impression and make them decide whether what you stand for fits in their value set. There was something that opened the door for Liga Privada, and that was Cigar Safari.”

Considering the state of Estelí when Drew Estate got its start, it shouldn’t be surprising that there wasn’t much cigar tourism to speak of there at the time. Cigar Safari helped not only to make Estelí a leisure and learning destination for cigar smokers, but also to open their eyes — for the first time — to the idea that Drew Estate could be a credible player in traditional cigars. Cigar Safari hasn’t changed a whole lot since it began. Guests still visit the Drew Estate facilities, experiment with creating their own blends, and get to know Nicaragua through a variety of cultural experiences.

“I had never been to Central America before,” said Billy Walsh, an Orlando police sergeant and part-time employee at Corona Cigar. “It was amazing all the way around. The only thing was that it was short; it was only like three days. So it felt like when we flew in, we were flying right back out. I thought, ‘The next time I come here, I have to spend more time because the country is beautiful.’”

This coming March, Billy will embark on his tenth and eleventh Cigar Safaris.

“In the beginning, I was more of a Padrón and Fuente guy,” Billy added. “But after going on the Safari and experiencing their blends ... Yeah, that definitely hooked me. I’ve smoked most of what they make, and it’s exceptional to me. I think each Safari reinforces that over time.”

Early on, Cigar Safari guests tended to be people with wider influence in the cigar world: retailers, media, that sort of thing. It had at least a somewhat similar impact on them, and Drew Estate had a much easier time of breaking into traditionalists’ humidors with products like the ones in the Único Serie. The company has expanded on that experiential marketing model with more accessible (because you don’t need a passport) Barn Smoker events, which bring smokers closer to the farms that produce some of the more unique American tobaccos used in Drew Estate products. For instance, one recent Barn Smoker was held at Jeff Borysiewicz’s Florida Sun Grown farm just outside Orlando.

“That was where people could see and experience the commitment of everybody (at Drew Estate),” Jeff said of Cigar Safari. “These guys are the real deal. They’re legitimate cigar makers.”

The next episode

All these years later, a trip to La Gran Fábrica Drew Estate can make it easy to lose sight of where the company came from. The facility that produces Drew Estate products and hosts Safaris feels — especially as compared to other cigar factories — like it’s part museum, part theme park, part factory. Jonathan Drew has been at the center of that from the beginning, but he hasn’t been alone. Aside from having benefitted from the generosity, example or mentorship of people like Candida, Nick Perdomo, Kiki Berger and José Orlando Padrón (to name just a few), the company has managed to create a culture that generates real buy-in from its employees.

“People feel like they’re part of something,” Jeff said.

 
Willy Herrera outside of Drew Estate HQ in Miami

Willy Herrera outside of Drew Estate HQ in Miami

 

It’s why those smokers most familiar with the company know Jessi Flores, who is now the director of Subculture Studios (the arm of the company that produces so much of its custom art and swag), but started out as Jonathan’s driver and translator shortly after his arrival in Estelí. It’s why Manuel Rubio, who many remember seeing at the Drew Estate factory working a low-level job when he was 18 years old, is now the factory’s manager.

And it’s why another guy who started at the bot- tom in Estelí, Pedro Gómez, went from manag- ing Cigar Safaris to running around the United States as one of Drew Estate’s most beloved ambassadors.

“Everybody is equal in the company,” said Willy, who created blends like Herrera Estelí and Norteño. “We bring up from within. All our management in Nicaragua are people who started at the ground level, whether it was stripping veins off of wrapper, or drivers, or as assistant to one of the key people. Those are all in our management now. I like the fact that everyone is happier (at Drew Estate). You go to some other factories where people don’t even look up from their tables. Here, you walk into our factory, people are looking and smiling and saying hello.”

The team Drew Estate has built now pumps out some of the most respected cigars in the world across a variety of segments, including infused products, traditional cigars, and more recent additions to the portfolio, like Kentucky Fire Cured.

“I would say (the variety) makes things different for me in that, because of all these different branches, I have a much broader audience. So I’m not just dealing with the traditional guy,” Willy said. “I deal with the infused guy, I deal with the traditional stuff, the Herrera stuff, everybody. I have a much bigger audience than the guy who just has a brand with two or three lines. I’ll talk to a lot of these hardcore infused guys, and by the end of the day they’re smoking a Herrera Estelí, or an Undercrown Shade. It’s always good because the bigger the audience, the more chance you’ll have to introduce something new to them.”

The newest addition to their team is CEO Glenn Wolfson, who is a newcomer to the premium cigar industry and is transitioning from a long career consulting for companies like Walt Disney Company, Purina, Kraft, and United Airlines.

I deal with the infused guy, I deal with the traditional stuff, the Herrera stuff, everybody. I have a much bigger audience than the guy who just has a brand or two with three lines.
— Willy Herrera

“I’ve never come across a culture like this in my life,” Glenn said. “The thing that makes it really wonderful, wacky, and wild is that it’s incredibly familial. The way people pull for each other, the family values, the fact that they really care for each other. We are the brand in many ways. The way we dress, the ink on our arms. It’s a creative, innovative organization. We’re rebels with a cause. It will forever be Rebirth of Cigars. We’ll always be progressive, innovative and disruptive. It’s been in our blood since Marvin and Jonathan founded the company.”

These days, Jonathan is branching out even further. After the sale of Drew Estate to Swisher, he’s launched his latest project, John Drew Brands (expected to launch officially in February 2017), which will introduce a selection of craft spirits to his résumé and present new challenges in terms of how people perceive his expertise and credibility. He knows he’s not known as a “whiskey guy,” and because of that, he might have an uphill battle making a success of products like his new Brixton Mash Destroyer, which is a four-year Kentucky bourbon mashed with a five-year Florida rum — another instance of Jonathan’s insistence on changing the status quo. With the grit and hustle that he drew from after moving to Estelí in the late ‘90s, along with the help of the institution he’s built in Drew Estate, he might just pull off his next disruption.

“John Drew Brands is based right at Drew Estate. They were really great to me, they built out my offices for me and my team,” said Jonathan. “If you want to know what the early days of Drew Estate was like, all you need to do is look at John Drew Brands. We’re going through those early growing pains that Drew Estate went through when I came into the cigar industry.”

Fidel Castro is dead. Now what?

Throughout the weekend of Friday, Nov. 25, crowds gathered outside, Versailles — the iconic Cuban restaurant in Miami — to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro. (photo: Nicolás Antonio Jiménez)

Throughout the weekend of Friday, Nov. 25, crowds gathered outside, Versailles — the iconic Cuban restaurant in Miami — to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro. (photo: Nicolás Antonio Jiménez)

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Fidel Castro is dead.

That was the big news late Friday night. The longtime dictator, whose younger brother succeeded him 10 years ago — about the time Cigar Snob was hitting the scene — was no more. And just as soon as the news was out there, we began to see a wide range of reactions in the media, on the street, and, in some cases, in our homes.

Heads of state like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama drew criticism for their official statements in the wake of Castro’s death.

Kiko Alonso (himself the son of a Cuban father and Colombian mother) became, at least for the weekend, Cuban Miami’s new favorite athlete, as he ended the Dolphins’ win over the 49ers by tackling Colin Kaepernick — who had recently drawn the ire of Cuban exiles by engaging in the kind of Castro apologist talk about the despot’s history that Cubans have been hearing for decades. The significance of the play wasn't lost on Kiko; he later shared a photo of the hit, including the caption "Vamos Coño" (which translates loosely to "Let's go, damnit") and the hashtag #cubalibre (free Cuba).

 

Vamos Coño !!!! 🇨🇺🇨🇺 #finsup #miamidolphins #cubalibre

A photo posted by Kiko Alonso (@elbravo_47) on

 

The streets outside iconic Cuban restaurants in Miami, especially La Carreta and Versailles, were packed with jubilant crowds.

And in Cuban exile homes all over the country, champagne was uncorked as families toasted to the final assurance that this one monster in particular would never terrorize them, their families, or their countrymen again.

Carlos Eire, who won the National Book Award for his childhood memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana, ran through some of the reasons we should all be glad Fidel Castro is dead — and some of the things we should never forget about how he lived — in a Washington Post op-ed.

In sum, Fidel Castro was the spitting image of Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel “1984.” So, adiós, Big Brother, king of all Cuban nightmares. And may your successor, Little Brother, soon slide off the bloody throne bequeathed to him.
— Carlos Eire

This isn’t so much a celebration of a death as it is the manifestation of the catharsis that comes with knowing a man who did so much evil is finally out of the picture for good. It’s a loud sigh of relief (leave it to Cubans to sigh loudly and to the beat of congas accompanied by clanging pots and pans) at the kind of guarantee of safety that only biology and time can provide.

A few days have gone by. As the dust settles and everyone begins to litigate the significance of this event, many of us are left asking ourselves and everyone around us the same question we’ve asked every other time it’s felt like Cuba was on the verge of turning the page to a new chapter of its history.

Now what?

For those of us with lived or inherited experience with Castro’s evil, treating this as some kind of moment of victory or justice would be to lose sight of what's important. Fidel Castro lived a long, long time. He died on his own terms, in privacy, and for every last second that nature and science and the unlimited resources that come with being the owner of nearly 12 million slaves would grant him. His brother and his tyrannical government survive him while millions of those who actively opposed him did not.

Whatever catharsis there might be on the island of Cuba is felt in secret except by those who are willing to risk their lives or their livelihoods to express themselves. One person in Cuba described the mood on the street to a member of our staff as “tranquilo, pero extraño.” Calm, but weird.

If what matters is the lives of Cubans, nothing has changed. Cuba's constitution still makes it the most repressive regime in the hemisphere, and the system is such that new generations of government are deeply incentivized to keep it all in place.

Fidel Castro — to the extent that this is possible for any mortal — had the last laugh. That's nothing to celebrate. The silver lining is that all that energy people used to leave their homes at the drop of a hat at 2 in the morning to bang on pots and pans, and toast with cigars and rum (including some, ironically enough, purchased from Castro's monopoly, helping fund his life support) and all the time we've spent debating the potential impact of Castro's death... all that can also be used to make sure that his last laugh doesn't echo for very long.

For our part — and on this I think I can say that I speak for everyone else at Cigar Snob — we’ll continue to use our platform to speak some truth about Cuba in a media space that can sometimes seem eager to romanticize the island and ignore its dark side, perhaps because it’s hard to enjoy Cohibas and Havana Club when you’re reminded the brands' owners wear olive green fatigues and jail their competition.

Fidel is dead. But this fight isn’t. Some things are bigger than cigars.

Drew Estate and Pappy & Company Announce two cigars in time for the holidays

Drew Estate announced the release of new products that have come out of a collaboration with the makers of Pappy Van Winkle: Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Barrel Fermented Churchill

And Pappy Drew Limitada. The cigars are available at Pappy & Company, the Van Winkle family’s online store (pappyco.com).

The Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Barrel Fermented cigar features a barrel-fermented wrapper over a Mexican San Andrés base wrapper, as well as aged Nicaraguan Filler tobaccos.

“The Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Barrel Fermented Churchill is a 7 x 48 packaged in 10-count boxes with an MSRP of $17.00 per cigar, while the Pappy Drew Limitada is a 4 ⅞ x 60 packaged in 3-count soft packs that are only available as gifts from the Van Winkle Family when you purchase a box of the Pappy Van Winkle Barrel Fermented Robusto, Toro, and Churchill together.

Miami Cigar ships NMC Corojo

Miami Cigar & Co. announced that the Nestor Miranda Collection Corojo, which is debuted at the 2016 IPCPR trade show in Las Vegas, has begun to ship to retailers all over the United States.  

 
 

The Nestor Miranda Corojo, packaged in 20-count boxes, is a medium- to full-bodied Nicaraguan puro made in four formats: Robusto (50 x 4 ½), Corona Gorda (46 x 6), Toro (54 x 5 ½), and Gordo (60 x 6). MSRPs range from $7.50 to $9.50.

“Nestor (Miranda) has been adamant about introducing his beloved Corojo wrapper to the Collection. We would have loved to introduce it sooner but we decided to wait until the blend was perfect. The reaction from the retailers at this year’s IPCPR solidified our thoughts on the blend,” said Jason Wood, Vice President of Miami Cigar, in a press release.

La Aurora launches three products it announced at the IPCPR trade show

La Aurora has officially launched three products that it announced at July’s IPCPR trade show in Las Vegas: La Aurora 1903 Edition Double Barrel Aged, Preferidos Parejo, and La Aurora 107 Cosecha 2006.

La Aurora has long barrel-aged some of the tobaccos used in its super premium lines. What makes the tobaccos in La Aurora 1903 Edition Double Barrel Aged different is that they’re barrel-aged for at least a full year, whereas other products use tobaccos that spend six months in barrels, according to a press release issued by La Aurora. The new cigar’s blend comprises Ecuadorian Habano wrapper, Brazilian binder, and fillers from the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Nicaragua. MSRP is $218.17 for am 8-count box.

 
Image: La Aurora

Image: La Aurora

 

There are also three new untubed parejo formats for all the blends in the La Aurora 1903 Edition line: Corona (5 ½ x 42), Robusto (5 x 50), and Toro (5 ½ 54). Boxes of 18 are priced at $157.68, $177.39, and $193.16, respectively. Not using a tube and making these blends in less costly parejo vitolas will make these this line more accessible than ever.

 
Image: La Aurora

Image: La Aurora

 

Finally, the Dominican company is releasing the La Aurora 107 Cosecha 2006. This cigar’s blend features Ecuadorian Habano wrapper, Brazilian binder, and fillers from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Brazil. All of those tobaccos, as the name suggests, were harvested in 2006. It’ll be available in Churchill (7 x 50), Corona Gorda (6 x 47), and Robusto (5 x 50), with pricing ranging from $107.31 to $111.69 per box.

 
Image: La Aurora

Image: La Aurora

 

Oliva Cigar Co. acquired by Belgian company J. Cortès

J. Cortès, a Belgian cigar manufacturer, announced in a press release that it had acquired Oliva Cigar, in an effort to diversify its product portfolio and further establish its position in the worldwide market.

The Vandermarliere family — which runs J. Cortès — has been in the cigar business since 1926. The Olivas have been in tobacco since 1866. Together the two clans bring generations of expertise in machine-made and hand-made cigars.

“Where J. Cortès is mainly active in Europe, Oliva plays an important role in the American market. What they do have in common? Strong family ties and the way these businesses are being run: with passion, craftsmanship and humility,” reads the release.

The deal is effective immediately.

Read the full press release here.

To learn more about the acquisition and the two companies, take a look at this video from J. Cortès.

 
 

My Father Le Bijou 1922 - Limited Edition - 2016

image: My Father Cigars

image: My Father Cigars

My Father has announced its Le Bijou 1922 - Limited Edition - 2016. The 2015 blend won much critical acclaim; this 2016 edition’s blend comprises an Ecuadorian Habano wrapper. The oscuro leaf gives the cigar an “intense dark and rich color,” to use the language in My Father’s press release.

The full-bodied blend also features binder and filler tobaccos from Nicaragua, including a Pelo de Oro tobacco.

Shipping June 27, the 6 1/2 x 52 smoke will only be available in the U.S. market. It’s packaged in 14-count boxes, with each cigar in its own coffin. MSRP is set at $23.

Drew Estate launched its new mobile app

Drew Estate announced the launch of Drew Diplomat, the cigar manufacturer’s mobile app (which is available for iOS and Android users).

“Drew Estate has worked diligently to develop an industry-leading app that allows users to easily keep up with daily breaking news from Drew Estate, earn points for chances to win one-of-a-kind pieces of art from Subculture Studios,” according to a press release issued by Drew Estate.

Here’s a video the company produced introducing the new app.

 
 

This new app is a replacement for the existing Drew Estate app, which will no longer be updated.

To learn more about the Drew Diplomat app, visit http://drewdiplomat.com.

Maya Selva to debut a new box pressed smoke in July

Maya Selva Cigars announced the adition of a box-pressed format to its Flor de Selva Maduro line. The 6x56 Flor de Selva Pressé “will stay true to the collection's maduro blend,” according to a press release. The Grand Pressé blend comprises Honduran Habano wrapper, Brazilian Mata Fina binder and Honduran fillers.

 
Image: Maya Selva Cigars

Image: Maya Selva Cigars

 

The product will debut at the IPCPR trade show in Las Vegas in July and be available — at least at first — only in the U.S. market. MSRP will be $11.75 per cigar; the product will be packaged in cedar ten-count boxes.

Cuba between the lines

Ten years ago, Cigar Snob was born as Cuba entered into a new era in its history.

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Egberto Escobedo was born and raised in Camagüey, Cuba. It’s his official place of residence on government records. Yet, when he goes home to Camagüey, Egberto is deported — not from Cuba, but from Camagüey. See, he moved to Havana to be with his wife, but he still has family in Camagüey. Sometimes being deported has meant being taken back to Havana. Other times, it’s meant being put in a patrol car and dumped on the highway nearly 200 miles outside Camagüey.

So what did Egberto do to so thoroughly piss off the Cuban government? He’s on the coordinating committee of the Forum for Rights and Liberties, an independent Cuban organization whose name is pretty self-explanatory. The Cuban government doesn’t encourage groups like these. It certainly didn’t appreciate Egberto’s heading into Camagüey with copies of the speech Barack Obama had delivered in Havana during his historic March 2016 visit. He and other dissidents had plans to study the speech closely and figure out what their take would be.

“My wife and I — and activists like us — are the victims of beatings and other mistreatment in the streets and in police stations. In Camagüey, they’ve declared me persona non grata,” said Egberto. “A government official told me that he wouldn’t allow me to go into the province. I have a 22-year-old daughter there who I haven’t seen in three years and he told me I couldn’t see her. I told him, ‘We’ll see.’” At about 1 a.m. the morning of our phone interview, he had been spirited into his own hometown, where he’d hide out at a relative’s home until he was “deported” all over again.

A new chapter in Cuba

Cigar Snob debuted May 20, 2006 (Cuba’s Independence Day). In July of that year, Fidel Castro’s health took a sharp turn and his brother Raul — who had been Cuba’s minister of the armed forces since the regime took power in 1959 — assumed the role of acting president in Cuba. He officially became president in 2008.

Frequent readers of this magazine know we don’t rate or report on Cuban cigars. From the beginning, the magazine’s owners and employees have fielded questions about why that is; the answer is simple. For one thing, those cigars are generally not legally accessible to our overwhelmingly American readership. For another, all those cigars are made by companies owned by the Castros, and the Castros are assholes. Thanks to the fact that the timing of Cigar Snob’s birth coincided with Fidel’s permanent switch from olive green fatigues to Adidas track suits, our history has run in parallel to a new chapter in Cuban history.

... all those cigars are made by companies owned by the Castros, and the Castros are assholes.

Almost immediately, speculation began as to whether Raul would — even if only out of necessity — rule as a reformer.

“In the economic sphere, when Raul Castro took over from Fidel Castro nearly 10 years ago, he began introducing a series of small reforms in the economic domain,” said Dr. José Azel, a scholar at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies. “One of those reforms was to allow a certain amount of self-employment in precisely 171 activities. They have now been expanded to something like 206 activities, but they’re all domestic activities. None of them have anything to do with the external sector, and they are trades such as repairing cigarette lighters, selling fruit, repairing umbrellas, and things like that.”

Self-employed Cubans are referred to as cuentapropistas. The categories of independent work in which Cubans can legally engage are as narrow as the examples José listed. You can obtain a license to sell fruit on the street, but you’ll technically need another license if you’re going to also make your living peeling fruit, he said.

Lighter repair is one of the very narrow trade categories in which Cubans can legally operate independently. (Image: Reuben Strayer)

Lighter repair is one of the very narrow trade categories in which Cubans can legally operate independently. (Image: Reuben Strayer)

“This is not a private sector as we understand that term in the United States — you know, sole proprietorships, corporations, partnerships and the like. These are individuals that have been granted a permit by the state. They don’t have the kind of legal standing that we associate in the West with the private sector,” said José.

They’re limited, but the changes have made a difference in some Cubans’ lives — albeit a small one compared to how they’d benefit from even freer markets. Egberto is skeptical.

“Over the 56 years this regime has been in place, it has on various occasions freed the market in order to lift the economy. They know free market measures develop the economy. And every time they do it, they later begin to undo the freedoms they had allowed because they are afraid of losing economic control over individuals,” said Egberto. “I don’t think they’ll change their politics; their system survives thanks to totalitarian control of the market. We’re in a time of crisis, and they’re allowing people to be self-employed because the government can’t provide jobs. As they begin to recover economically, they’ll scale back those freedoms.”

Another important change Cuba has undergone is the abolition of its “white card” system. Until 2013, Cubans with valid passports needed what amounted to a trip-specific exit visa in order to leave their own country, a clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Cuba is a mocking signatory.

“If the world’s six billion inhabitants could travel any time they wanted, the jam there would be in the skies of the planet would be enormous,” said Ricardo Alarcón with a completely straight face in a forum in 2008. At the time, he was president of Cuba’s National Assembly (the country’s legislative body). He’d been asked to explain the logic behind the white card absurdity.

When white cards were done away with, Cubans who had been denied permission to travel took full advantage. One of them, blogger Yoani Sánchez, who has been named one of TIME Magazine’s Most Influential People in the World, has been traveling persistently, whereas just a few years ago she’d been unable to leave despite countless invitations to accept awards, give lectures, and sit on panels about Cuba. She and others are rushing to get all this travel in before the Cuban regime changes its mind. There’s concern about the decision being reversed or — more realistically — passport renewals being denied to those who the Castros prefer not to see challenging the government’s narrative abroad.

The thaw

A little more than a year before Cigar Snob’s first issue, Barack Obama was sworn in as a U.S. Senator. He won the presidency in 2008 and has been as much of a game changer for Cuba as Raul. Under Obama, U.S.-Cuba relations have changed as much as could be expected without Congress lifting or altering the embargo. Diplomatic ties have been almost completely normalized, with each country’s interest section becoming a full-fledged embassy. Restrictions on American travel to Cuba have been loosened.

Barack Obama and Soledad O'Brien during a Q&A session on entrepreneurship in Havana (Photo: IIP Photo Archive)

Barack Obama and Soledad O'Brien during a Q&A session on entrepreneurship in Havana (Photo: IIP Photo Archive)

Though Cuba had begun to allow its citizens to own certain consumer tech, Cuba’s unchanged totalitarian core was revealed in 2009, when USAID contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba for delivering satellite and computer equipment to Jewish communities. Ricardo Alarcón (champion of air traffic control) accused him of working for American intelligence agencies and Alan ended up in prison for “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state” until a controversial 2014 prisoner swap.

The thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations continues to evolve, but it’s hard to see any moment eclipsing Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba in symbolic significance. It’s easy to find glowing reviews, though, so let’s go to Egberto for another take.

“His visit was a fiasco,” said Egberto. “The Cuban government is capitalizing on it abroad as a tool to undo limitations imposed on it. These people have more experience than Obama does and know how to neutralize his efforts. They’ve begun to make life harder for cuentapropistas with higher taxes. Eventually, you’ll only have a small number and they will be controlled by the regime. That’s not freeing the market.”

The scenario Egberto describes — in which the Cuban government closes doors shortly after opening them — has played out before. Today, travelers to Cuba enjoy paladares (private restaurants usually run out of homes) and stay in casas particulares (think sharing economy lodging, a la Airbnb, without the software). Those businesses only came out of the black market shadows in the mid-90s, during Cuba’s “Special Period.” At the time, Cuba’s extreme poverty couldn’t be helped by the Soviet Union (which had just collapsed) or Venezuelan oil money (Hugo Chávez wasn’t around yet). The U.S. embargo was in full effect — no exceptions for cash-up-front trans- actions, food or medicine. As conditions worsened on the island, the people’s protest for freedom grew louder, peaking in August 1994. In response, Cuba began to allow paladares, but then raised taxes on them in February 1996 and stopped issuing new licenses altogether that April. They even cracked down and shuttered independent restaurants that had become direct competition for government- owned establishments. Baruch College professor Ted Henken wrote that at least one paladar owner he interviewed in Havana saw her licensing fees go up from $23 to $775 in a six-year span. The average Cuban salary is about $20 a month. That’s pushed lots of people back into the black market. I know; I’ve eaten at a clandestine paladar. The shrimp was delicious. It’s also worth pointing out that licenses to for paladares and casas particulares allow their owners to cater either to Cubans or to foreigners, effectively creating an apartheid system against the country’s own citizens.

Cuba has made similar moves in agriculture, the arts, and other areas. So what should Obama have done differently to ensure the change that took place while he was in the White House was more durable?

“Obama should have met publicly and openly with Cuban opposition leaders. Not the way he did: in an embassy office, hidden from the press,” said Egberto. Obama wasn’t quite hidden, but it’s true that his meeting with some of Cuba’s most prominent dissident voices had a decidedly diminutive quality to it that contrasted with the visible nature of his speech at the Teatro Nacional, his attendance at a baseball game with Raul Castro, or his sightseeing jaunt through Havana. There were cameras at the meeting, but it seemed like a slapped-together affair and was, indeed, crammed into a tiny space at the very large U.S. embassy. Case in point: you probably didn’t know that meeting even happened.

Obama should have met publicly and openly with Cuban opposition leaders. Not the way he did: in an embassy office, hidden from the press
— Egberto Escobedo, Cuban dissident

Among the 13 dissidents present at that meeting with Obama: José Daniel Ferrer, the head of Unión Patriótica de Cuba (UNPACU); Guillermo Fariñas, best known for activism for unrestricted Internet access; Berta Soler, the leader of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), who attend Mass every Sunday before silently marching through Havana demanding the release of political prisoners; and Antonio Rodiles, the founder of Estado de Sats, an independent Web series in which Cubans discuss everything from art to economics. Berta and Antonio were in the minority who actually told Obama that he should have stayed in Washington.

“For people to find out what was said in that meeting with some opposition leaders, those leaders practically had to call separate press conferences in other places to tell people about it,” said Egberto. “The Obama administration should have been more critical and less fearful. And he should have done more to ensure that the details of his trip were made known in Cuba, not just outside of Cuba.”

Crack in the dam

“Once this stuff really starts happening in Cuba, it’s going to go like light speed,” said Matt Brady, who has years of experience in democracy promotion and studying government transitions. “Once there’s a crack in the dam, the water is just going to gush. And there’s nobody — not the Cuban government, not the U.S. government — that is going to be able to stop the flood that is going to happen.”

Matt is well versed on the subject of Cuba. He has years of experience in democracy promotion work in that country with Freedom House and the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba. But the dam metaphor only relates to money flowing into and out of Cuba. Whether that dam’s bursting will have implications for political freedoms and human rights is a big question mark.

“Once you tell Americans they can go to Cuba, they’re going to go in hordes whether you want them to or not,” Matt said. “Once you allow companies to set up cell towers or airlines to establish roots, they’re going to expect to lose money for one to two or three years, hoping that they’ll end up with a pole position for a monopoly or something close to a monopoly. That’s the jockeying that’s happening with the hotels and the airlines.”

Once you tell Americans they can go to Cuba, they’re going to go in hordes whether you want them to or not.
— Matt Brady

While there’s disagreement on whether this was the ideal path for the relationship between the American and Cuban governments, just about everyone has come to terms with the idea that the travel and trade restrictions loosened by Obama won’t be tightened any time soon. So what does that mean for people on both sides of the Florida Straits? For one thing, at least some amount of American investment will continue in Cuba. Companies like Carnival, American Airlines, Airbnb, Netflix and Sprint will continue to pump money through the crack in the dam Matt described. Either until the dam will break, leaving them in a great position, or the cracks will be patched by Cuba’s communist government, leaving American businesses on one side and their money on the other.

“Companies know they’re going to lose money for a bit, but they essentially are going to set themselves up and there’s nothing that the government can do,” said Matt, “unless they start seizing assets again [in Cuba], which is possible. You could have that. You really could. That’s the X factor.”

Matt laughed at the idea. What else can you do? After all, this is the same regime that nationalized billions of dollars’ worth of American assets when it first assumed power. And it’s still the case that foreign ventures in Cuba must be owned in partnership with the Cuban government. That can be a dangerous proposition, especially since Cuba’s tourism industry and other sectors that interact with the outside are controlled by the military.

In the cigar world, we have a recent example of the hazards of investing on the island. Cigar Rings prints a large number of the cigar bands you see every time you walk into a cigar store. Its owner Albert Montserrat ended up in the Dominican Republic when he moved there from Havana about 10 years ago. He’d gone to Cuba from Spain thinking he’d find a stable opportunity printing labels for Cuban cigars. It wasn’t too long before he gave up on the Cuban government pulling its weight in the partnership. He was essentially forced to cut his losses and leave. In Cuba, there’s nobody to complain to or sue. You just lose.

“Let’s consider the seventh congress of the Communist Party that closed [in April],” said José Azel, referring to the meeting of Cuba’s Communist Party officials in which Raul Castro was elected to another five years as the head of the party. The first such congress was held in 1975. “Raul Castro and all the Cuban leadership and even Fidel Castro made an appearance to make absolutely certain — so there would be no misunderstanding — that there is not going to be a change in Cuba’s economic or political models.

“The purpose of economic activity [in Cuba] is not to enrich anyone, and in fact when people talk about the Chinese model, when Deng Xiaoping introduced economic reforms in China, which were far more extensive and profound than the economic reforms in Cuba, Deng Xiaoping made the statement that to get rich is glorious. He was trying to change the mindset,” said José, addressing the enormous communist country that so many people point to when drawing comparisons on everything from U.S. diplomacy to the prospect of gradual political and economic reforms. “Raul Castro has made the statement that the accumulation of wealth will not be allowed.”

José thinks it’s more likely that Cuba, years down the road, could come to resemble what he called the “kleptocracy” of Putin’s Russia, in which the old guard of the military and KGB took roles as captains of industry.

“You’re going to have an oligarchy,” Matt said. He also sees Russia as being the best place to go for a look at what Cuba’s economic and political sphere might become, albeit way down the road. “Fidel and Raul in particular have developed these state-owned companies that control large sectors — tourism, foreign exchange, banking. The money from the outside is going to flow into these companies and people that are in charge of them are going to pillage the companies. That’s already started happening. How will the Cuban people react?”

The more things change

Ladies in White leader Berta Soler (pictured here at Prague's Václav Havel Airport) was detained by Cuban authorities and only released just before she was scheduled to meet with Barack Obama during his visit to Havana. (photo: People In Need Cuba)

Ladies in White leader Berta Soler (pictured here at Prague's Václav Havel Airport) was detained by Cuban authorities and only released just before she was scheduled to meet with Barack Obama during his visit to Havana. (photo: People In Need Cuba)

Plenty of people are more optimistic about Cuba’s future. Even Matt describes that Russian-style oligarchy as a step toward something more free, more fair. But it’s important to face the reality that having an embassy in Cuba and seeing an American president touch down in Havana are not sure signs that significant or lasting change is happening in Cuba. In fact, while Barack Obama was in the air on his way to Havana, dozens of members of the Ladies in White were arrested during their weekly march. There’s little indication that any of the economic openings translate into a Cuba where people have political freedoms, an independent press, or a government that can go more than a week without beating peaceful protesters in the street. Case in point: Cuba’s National Commission for Human Rights, an independent (and, therefore, illegal) organization that tracks human rights violations on the island, reported that the Cuban regime had made at least 1,380 arbitrary political arrests in the month of April alone, bringing the 2016 total to at least 5,351.

So these half-baked changes — which have had bigger implications for foreign investors, tourists and Cuban officials than for the average Cuban — leave us at Cigar Snob and you, the smoker, with things to think about. What should our relationship with Cuba look like, as a publication and as individuals, and what should be prompting us to change that relationship?

Here is just some of the video of the arrests that took place while Air Force One was on its way to Havana.

 
 

“I’d suggest that people who visit Cuba try to create their own agenda for the trip,” said Egberto of what he thought travelers should keep in mind while in Cuba. “They should try to carve their own path inside of Cuba, independently. If you’re taken by the hand to specific locations (chosen by the government), you’re not going to get to know the real Cuba. When you see what the government wants you to see, you might think, ‘They’re on the right path.’ It’s a lie. But Cuba is not only coffee, tobacco and rum. If our economy is freed, if private enterprise is allowed, Cubans are creative enough to create great things in a way that is sustainable.”

I know from experience that Cuba’s government manipulates travel experiences to preserve the facade. In 2009, I was turned away at José Martí International Airport. A security agent told me that I was not allowed into “any part of the country,” then escorted me back to the Mexicana Airlines plane that had taken me to Cuba and had me board. No boarding pass, no interrogation, no air marshal. Just an arbitrary, extrajudicial determination that I was too dangerous to let in. It probably had something to do with all the dissidents, underground journalists and artists I had met with during previous trips.

In fact, the U.S. embassy in Cuba recently said Cuba’s government has a practice of treating American citizens who were born in Cuba as Cuban citizens while they’re visiting the island. In other words, Cuba doesn’t recognize the rights and legal protections that Cuban natives would enjoy while returning to the country of their birth. This is clearly meant to intimidate the travelers most likely to spread subversive ideas.

Even non-Cubans can feel it. In December 2015, filmmaker and YouTuber Casey Neistat posted video commentary about his own trip to Cuba. “I was there as part of a technology delegation,” he said in one of his vlogs. “We were supposed to meet with our Cuban counterparts and discuss technology and what it could do. The Cuban government actually stepped in at the last minute and said no to a lot of the things we wanted to do and a lot of the things we wanted to discuss. And a lot of what we were there to do was compromised. They dictated the terms of what turned out to be a very boring panel that should have been interesting. This idea that a government can tell you what you can and cannot say is something that I know nothing about.”

 
 

Especially if you’re traveling to Cuba as part of a tour group, it’s unlikely that you’re getting an unfiltered view of what life is like there. Hamlet Paredes, who joined Rocky Patel to create his own cigar brand, Tabaquero, arrived in the U.S. a little more than a year ago from Cuba, where he was one of the cigar industry’s star cigar rollers and ambassadors (which is at least part of the reason he speaks such good English). He still has family in Cuba, and he’s more optimistic than Egberto is about the impact of Obama’s diplomatic efforts. That said, he has some similar takes on how travelers to Cuba should approach their visits.

“It depends on the objective of each traveler. When I visit a new country, I like to get to know its people and see its reality. Most tourists are in a fishbowl and they’re shown everything that paints the country in a positive light. Meanwhile, they’re walking right by the reality and don’t even see it,” said Hamlet, adding that eating at paladares is one way to get a closer look at the lives of ordinary Cubans.

Those opportunities to engage with Cuban cuentapropismo are more limited if you’re planning a cigar-centric trip. None of the limited categories in which Cubans can run licensed businesses involve making cigars or growing tobacco, for example. For the foreseeable future, Cuba’s cigar industry will be monopolized by Habanos, which markets every cigar manufactured there. Even if Cubans were allowed to open independent boutique factories tomorrow — which is highly unlikely since the Cuban government has no interest in creating competition for its cash cow — it would take a long time for Cubans to build the skill sets necessary to compete.

“There are things we’re not used to,” said Hamlet. “I’m still learning to do things like negotiate. Those are things I never had to do in my country because everything is so tightly directed by the state. That kind of thing will happen to those who go into business for themselves.”

In the meantime, we at Cigar Snob will be anxiously awaiting substantive change in Cuba. God willing, we’ll be reviewing independent brands produced in small, independent Cuban factories.


Editor's note: The story above appears as it did when it ran in the print edition of Cigar Snob Magazine. Shortly after that issue shipped, it was reported that Cuba would be "legalizing" small- and medium-sized businesses. What exactly that means and how it will impact Cubans — especially in the long term — is unclear, especially considering that the country is still ruled according to a constitution that (among other things) gives the state the ability to legally lay claim to any property it wants.