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|| News Item: Posted 2001-07-27

The Count on Cigars: How to Spot a Fake Cigar
The Good, the Bad and the Counterfeit

By Eric Risberg

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What do cigars have in common with other luxury goods such as Rolex, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, and Givenchy? Other than their obvious appeal, they are all heavily counterfeited with lost sales to manufacturers reaching into the billions of dollars. One of the things I most hate telling colleagues who approach me with excitement about their recent purchase of a Cuban cigar is that it is probably fake.

While the numbers vary among experts, it is my own guess that 90 percent of the Cuban cigars that people purchase here and abroad are fake. With the recent decline of quality in Cuban cigars and the high quality attained by many non-Cuban manufacturers such as Fuente and Padron, non-Cuban cigars are being heavily counterfeited as well. In the past few months, Padron has been putting serial numbers on their popular 1964 Anniversario series to thwart such action.

Before I offer some tips on how to detect fake cigars, I'll recount for you a few times when the reality of fake cigars really hit home:

About five years ago during a trip to Havana, I joined three professional tasters in a small room atop the La Corona factory to taste and evaluate a sample of Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 robustos that had recently been rolled. The three men included a manager and two top workers at the factory. No more than five minutes after my friend and I had left the factory, we were approached outside by one of the men who had been at the tasting, and asking if we wanted to purchase the same cigars we had just tasted at a much-reduced price. Having been warned about the large numbers of fake cigars sold in Havana, we declined. Initially it came as a surprise that a top factory worker would do this, but given the small salaries that Cuban cigar factory workers make (about $150 a month), and the high price of Cuban cigars like the famed Cohiba, it's easy to see the temptation to sell fake ones. Most of the fake cigars in Cuba are sold for $25 to $50 per box to tourists on the street who know very little about cigars. The cigars are either smuggled out of the factories by workers or are made by individuals making a few boxes a week in their homes from stolen tobacco, boxes and bands obtained from cigar factory workers and farmers. The tourists then bring them home and try to sell them or give them to friends.

On a recent visit to Mexico at a little steak house in a coastal town south of Cancun, I talked candidly with a restaurant owner about cigars while sitting next his modestly sized humidor filled with Cuban cigars, which he sells to diners. I asked him if they were real. He said, "No way, man. If they were, I couldn't afford to sell them, and certainly none of these stupid tourists would be buying them either." He then explained the math: Someone either buys them in Havana for $25 to $50 a box, or a salesman brings Mexican-made counterfeits to the steak house owner and sells them to him for $50 to $100 a box. The steakhouse owner then makes a nice profit by selling each of the 25 cigars in the box for around $10 a stick to people who don't know anything about cigars, but are just excited to be smoking what they think is a Cuban for a decent price. The restaurant owner explained that if he was selling a real Cuban cigar, the price would be too high, there would be no profit and tourists would balk at the cost.

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So how does one detect fakes cigars? One of the first giveaways is the cost. If someone is offering to sell you a box of top quality Cubans or even some of the non-Cubans like the Fuente Opus X, Ashton VSG, Padron Anniversario, or Davidoffs for a very low price, they are probably fake. Like the old saying, if something is too good to be true, it generally is. Take a box of Cohibas, for example, probably the most-counterfeited cigar there is. In Havana, they sell for $200 to $400 per box. In Europe, they sell anywhere from $250 to $600 a box. The price is even higher in the U.S. because Cuban cigars are not legally available.

The next giveaways are the construction of the cigars and the appearance of the packaging. Often the cigars will not be uniform in the color of their wrappers: Some will be light, and some will be dark. The wrapper leaf can also be very veiny and rough in appearance. Many of the fake cigars I have seen are also very tightly rolled and are very firm when you slightly squeeze them.

The packaging offers more clues - particularly, the flaws that can be found when looking at the band and the boxes. I have seen many cigars cellophane-wrapped that are not supposed to be, and Cohibas, which come in plain varnished boxes, being sold with glass tops or in tubes. One of the most difficult counterfeits to make has to be the Fuente Opus X with the very detailed artwork on the band of the cigar. I think cigarAficionado's web page under the special features section has an excellent counterfeit gallery. There are nearly a hundred examples of the 18 most counterfeited brands.

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The best way to avoid getting duped is to buy cigars from reputable people. The Cuban government has authorized Casa del Habano stores and dealers to sell their cigars throughout the world. These stores display the brown and gold tobacco leaf Casa del Habano logo. Same applies for non-Cuban cigars sold in the U.S. Most of the major Internet and mail order companies in the U.S. are very reputable; the fake Dominican and Nicaraguan cigars often show up at small bars, restaurants, golf shops and some Internet sites.

A question that inevitably comes up about a fake Cuban cigar is that even though it is fake, it must not be too bad since it has Cuban tobacco in it. While I have been given a few of these cigars and tried them, in most cases they were missing something. They may have started burning okay, but generally ended up tasting very harsh from ammonia, unlike how they were supposed to taste. Most of the fake cigars have blends that are not consistent, and many are made with the leaf scraps swept up at the end of the day's production. A good comparison is to think of trying to enjoy a favorite drink or recipe with a few of the ingredients missing or in the wrong proportion.

Until next time, happy smoking in the dog days of summer, and don't take any wooden nickels.

The Count.
(Eric Risberg, "The Count" is a staff photographer with the Associated Press based in San Francisco.)

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