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While most smugglers are amateurs, a few have recently begun to polish their operations. "We get solicited all the time by people who want to sell both legitimate and counterfeit cigars," says Oscar Boruchin, owner of Mike's Cigars in Bay Harbor Islands, a retailer/wholesaler and the second-largest distributor of premium cigars in the nation. Most just call on the phone, Boruchin reports, though a few actually drop by the store to display their wares. About six months ago, Boruchin recalls, he was approached by a man who had prepared a glossy brochure advertising several types of Cuban cigars. "It was like an organized company," he marvels. "I got the feeling this was real. I said, 'The owner is not here, give me your telephone number.' He walked out."
Shareef Malnik, owner of the Forge, an upscale Beach restaurant where glowing stogies are de rigueur, says most of the so-called Cubans he encounters on South Beach are fake. "So many people are selling these things it's ridiculous," chortles Malnik, who also owns the Cuba Club, a private smokers' club next door that caters to celebrities. "A guy came into the club the other day and says, 'How do you like this? It's a real Cohiba.' He'd bought it at another restaurant on the Beach. I'm like the last guy you would say something like that to. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen."
Boruchin and others say that the quality of the real Cubans has become so inconsistent that a harsh-tasting, seemingly counterfeit Cohiba might actually be genuine. Malnik points out that some of the many so-called fake Cubans appear to have been purchased on the black market on the island, where the odds are equally good that the cigars were stolen from an official cigar factory or rolled at home from tobacco refuse. "In Havana they are Cuban," he jokes. "They're just fake Cuban Cubans."
Mike Sheehan, a spokesman for Customs in Miami, reports "a phenomenal amount" of counterfeiting. In July, he says, agents caught someone who was relabeling Honduran cigars so as to appear Cuban. "If I'm interested in making money, do I go to the trouble of setting up a network to sell Cuban cigars here? Or do I stay home, go to the local drug store, buy some two-dollar cigars, unwrap them, and just print out my own band?" Sheehan posits. "Your risk factor is reduced dramatically."
Back at the Astor, Pete offers his Cohiba for a puff, assuring other smokers of its authenticity. It tastes smooth and mellow. A hotel employee watches impassively but later confides, "I have twelve Cohibas at home, but I forgot to bring them. I would have made $240 bucks, easy.