Many American cigar smokers dream of smoking a Cuban, legally. We're talking about Cuban cigars, which have been banned in the U.S. since the 1962 trade embargo against the Castro government. But as both countries now try to normalize relations, Cuban cigars soon may be available to American consumers. Mark Strassmann followed a trail of smoke to Havana:
Along Havana's waterfront, no one asks politely before lighting up. No one complains about the smell or the smoke. The annual Habanos festival is the most cigar-friendly spot on the planet, an international celebration of Cuba's pride: its cigars.
"Cuba and cigars go together. It's like France and wine -- they're one and the same," said David Savona.
For two decades, Savona has written about cigars AND Cuba for Cigar Aficionado, where he's now executive editor. He and Strassmann took a drive down Havana's famed Malecón esplanade -- the sort of thing you'd read about in his lifestyle magazine.
"The humidity, the sunshine, the open air -- it just begs for a cigar," Savona said.
Cuban cigars, often called "Cubans," come wrapped in mystique. Fidel Castro made them his trademark -- before quitting for health reasons. Winston Churchill loved the cigars, as did President Kennedy. Before he enacted the trade embargo against Cuba in 1962, he stocked his private humidor with 1,200 Petit Upmanns.
On July 1, President Obama announced an end to the diplomatic isolation of Cuba, and on August 14 the American flag will fly once again at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The president has also called on Congress to lift the embargo.
These steps could once again allow the sale of Cuban cigars in the U.S.
Not surprisingly, Savona's magazine has supported an end to the embargo.
Strassmann asked, "Will it make a significant difference to Cuba in any way?"
"I would think so," Savona replied. "We're talking about the world's largest market for premium cigars. They've been denied the legal channel to be there for all these years, so certainly it's important for the Cuban industry, the Cuban cigar industry, to one day be in the United States."
At La Corona, one of Cuba's largest cigar factories, workers hand-roll 30,000 cigars a day, five million a year. They blend different tobacco leaves for the most famous brands in the world -- Cohiba, Montecristo, Hoyo de Monterrey -- with each cigar essentially a sculpture.
"Absolutely," said Savona. "It's a work of art. Very hard to do. Imagine if someone gave you a pile of leaves right now and said turn that into a cigar. You'd have a hard time. I'd have a hard time!"
Those leaves come from Pinar del Rio province, western Cuba, often considered the world's premier tobacco-growing region.
If a Cuban cigar's soul is in the soil, it's also in 38-year-old Hirochi Robaina's blood. The Robaina family has been growing tobacco here since 1845. Hirochi's grandfather built most of the operation.
"The Cuban cigars are the best," Robaina said. And his cigars, he says, are the best in Cuba. "So, if it's the best in Cuba, it's the best in the world," he said.
"You're very proud of that cigar!" said Strassmann.
"I'm very happy," he said, because "all the experience of my family is inside this cigar."
Hirochi hopes his cigars will soon end up in the United States where, despite health concerns, cigar sales have almost quadrupled in the last 20 years.
"The United States is a 45-minute flight," he said. "So, very easy for our country to send cigars to the United States."
On this day, the United States came to HIM -- a cigar club from Florida. For Marcus Daniel, the trip to the Robaina Plantation was more than a pilgrimage. Daniel, an American who owns a cigar shop in Naples, has traveled here a dozen times. He and Hirochi Robaina see business opportunities emerging in the U.S.
"The open secret in cigarmaking is that you've got to have good relationships with the growers," Daniel said. "You need the growers. You've got to have the best tobacco."
"Is it an advantage to have made some of these relationships already?" asked Strassmann.
"Well, the early bird gets the worm, so we'll see!" replied Daniels. "I feel it's like two lovers that are ready to meet. There's a romance here. Both sides really want it to take place, and now it would just be nice to see it happen."
If it happens, the Cuban tobacco industry believes it would dominate the $6.7 billion U.S. cigar market, predicting a 25-to-30 percent share in the first year, and in time, a 70 percent share.
Is that realistic, asked Strassmann, or are the Cubans in for a surprise?
"I think they're not taking a full consideration of how good those cigars made outside of Cuba are today," said Savona. "Cigar of the Year this year is Nicaraguan. The Cigar of the Year from a couple years ago was from the Dominican Republic. It'll be no better time in cigar history to be a cigar smoker than when that Cuban product is one day sold side-by-side with those from the Dominican [Republic], Nicaragua, Honduras and elsewhere."
Legans Cubans have been a long time coming, but nothing about cigars is supposed to feel rushed.
And it's good news if you believe the only thing better than a great cigar ... is another one.
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