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The Price of Rarity: Pre-Embargo Cuban Cigars

J. Bennett Alexander Alexander's picture

J. Bennett Alexander

If you follow the cigar industry, you’ve likely seen articles about the auction of “vintage” or “pre-embargo” Cuban cigars. You may even have been tempted by reviews in the seemingly authoritative Cigar Aficionado where, occasionally, such a cigar appears in the “Connoisseur’s Corner” section with a score attached.

What Is a Pre-embargo Cuban Cigar?

Very simply, a pre-embargo Cuban cigar is one that was made before President John F. Kennedy implemented the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba in 1962. (Kennedy himself, knowing that buying Cuban cigars would be illegal after he signed the embargo, had his press secretary go out to Washington cigar shops and buy up all he could of the president’s favorite cigar.) That embargo remains in effect today, though it has occasionally been relaxed, and continues to prohibit the purchase of Cuban cigars to be brought into the U.S. If you want to go overseas and buy a Cuban cigar, you can do that. If you don’t smoke it before you return to the U.S., you risk that the cigar might be taken from you at Customs.

That said, Cuban cigars made before the 1962 embargo are legal to purchase, as long as you don’t buy them in Cuba, and they’re legal to smoke at your leisure anywhere you like. But are Cuban cigars worth it when you’re considering pre-embargo cigars that are several decades old? Is it just an old cigar or also a bit of history?

Pre-embargo Cubans for Sale

Cigar Aficionado wrote at the time about the 1959 Por Larrañaga No. 3, a Petit Corona,that, “This is an elegant, classy smoke, now more than 50 years old. It has a very light note of nutmeg and cinnamon. There is nothing but smoothness here, from the draw to the finish. Great cigar.” There was no price given for this cigar, but you can bet it’s not going to be a bargain. Well, for the most part. If you can determine that the cigars actually were made prior to 1962. And if you can be confident that they were well stored and maintained for so many years. Cuban cigars produced today cost a small fortune, so it should be no surprise highly collectable rarities with over six decades of rest behind them will be especially pricey.

Some cigar sites offer “genuine pre-embargo” cigars, often called “vintage,” for sale but they’re not a brand you’d likely be familiar with. The prices of pre-embargo Cuban cigars can be high. For an iconic brand like Romeo y Julieta, a box of 250 Invencibles, a discontinued vitola similar to a Churchill, went for nearly $50,000 at a 2015 auction. At the same sale, 50 Montecristo No. 1s were offered at about $9,000; a Ramon Allones Club Cabinet of 100 cigars was somewhere near $18,000; and a box of Flor de Allones Director's Choice, 50 cigars, were valued at up to $11,300.

Pre-embargo Cigars Review

I’ve been fortunate to have tried several pre-embargo Cubans and the range of quality is wide. I have never bought one. All the cigars came from reputable sources and were reasonably well maintained, though age takes its toll. All these Cuban cigars were uniformly milder than what I like to smoke. The wrapper on a Ramon Allones was so thin, though it didn’t seem dry, that it burned fast and unevenly. The draw was way too loose. A 1957 Montecristo No. 2 that came from a private collection that a friend had inherited from his father was fairly consistent throughout, though there was little of the sweet spice one associates with this iconic cigar. Decidedly mild to medium. The best pre-embargo Cuban I’ve had was a small Perfecto made by Partagás. Clearly old and faded, the cigar still had some elegance and good notes of earth and leather. Not powerful, to say the least, but flavorful. This was estimated to be from the early 1950s.

Buyer Beware

As with any cigar, you should buy from a reputable seller. That becomes a bit more difficult to assess when dealing with pre-embargo cigars as many of the auctions are sort of middlemen who offer cigars owned by private collectors. It’s not clear in all cases how authenticity and quality are determined. And you’re talking about a large sum of money in most cases. If you’ve got that and want to take the chance that you’re getting the real thing, go for it. Still, you should be aware, even if perfectly humidified and stored, these are old cigars, now at least 60 years old, and that will influence the flavor. Not always for the better. Even if they’re great, that box of 250 Romeo y Julietas that sold for $50,000 means each cigar cost $200. Is any cigar, irrespective of age and history, worth that? Well, that’s up to you and your financial planner.

Other Cigars to Consider

If you’re of the mindset of aficionados who pursue pre-embargo Cubans for their rarity, age, and impressiveness, but you don’t want to take out a loan or attend an auction to by a single cigar, know that there are plenty of coveted, top-shelf cigars being made today that you can buy at your local smokeshop. The 97-rated Fuente Fuente Opus X and the 94-rated Ashton ESG are super-premium cigars blended from very old Dominican tobaccos, including wrappers grown on the Chateau de la Fuente estates. You’ll find these at the top Fuente shops around the country. The 95-rated Padrón Family Reserve is handmade from tobaccos that are a decade old before the cigars are rolled, resulting in impeccable flavor right off the shelf. You’ll find all three in the ‘Top 10 Cigars of the Year’ in Cigar Aficionado on a routine basis, and there’s no worry over whether the product is legit.

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