From Cuba with Questions

Love cigars or detest them, when a box of Cohibas lands in your lap, you don't say no

The rounds of coffee began flowing shortly after that cryptic announcement, and the conversation moved to the next topic. Inevitably Elian came up, and just as inevitably there was sharp disagreement. My grandmother went ballistic, and soon the reunion party fizzled to an awkward end.

A few weeks later my trim, wrinkled relative was pleased to be returning to Cuba. During the family reunion, Daphne had mentioned that the Little Havana niece with whom she was staying had asked her to remain in Miami permanently to care for her children while she pursued the American dream. "This is not for me," Daphne confessed to my father. He agreed.

I didn't begin questioning the authenticity of my Cohibas until after Daphne had left and I'd had a chance to learn more about Cuban cigars. When I thought back to her brief story about how she obtained them, I fixated on her use of the word contact. I began to imagine this contact actually being far removed from any authorized Cohiba factory and wondered if a few other contacts might have been involved: a forged seal here, a few inferior tobacco leaves there. Perhaps my Cohibas were fakes. Perhaps Daphne had been deceived. Perhaps she had deceived us.

I contacted Herb Sosa, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League. He once owned a Cuba nostalgia store in South Beach and even manufactured cigars. Sosa did some of his own research and informed me that two years ago the Cuban government allegedly had produced fewer cigars than records indicated the nation had exported. In fact, Sosa claimed, two-thirds of the "official exports" came from other countries and were relabeled as Cubans.

How would I know if mine were true to their seals and stamps? Certainly I was no expert; I didn't even know the cigars should be stored in a humidor to keep them fresh. After consulting with friends, I decided to take the Cohibas to Mike's Cigars. Surely someone from Miami's most exclusive cigar shop would have a clue.

Located on Kane Concourse in Bay Harbor Islands, Mike's has been in business since 1950 and is the second-largest distributor of premium cigars in the nation. It took many phone calls to persuade the store's management to test my Cohibas, but finally Oded Ben-Arie, Mike's senior vice president, agreed to an inspection.

Inside a large banklike vault transformed into a tasting room, Ben-Arie opened the box and stared at its contents. "The cigars look pretty good," he said while standing near the rounded corner of the room's sleek bar, "but that doesn't mean anything."

As an aquarium of tropical fish cast a cool light over the proceedings, Ben-Arie asked how I acquired them. When I finished explaining, concern was evident in his eyes. "A box of Cohibas that sells for $30 in Cuba cannot be legitimate," he said with a frown. "I mean, factory employees who steal them are selling them at a $100 a box. They are the pride of Cuba, the world's most premium cigar."

Ben-Arie lifted one of the cigars, passed it under his nose, and commented on its healthy honey-brown color. He took a close look at the distinctive paper band, which features the silhouetted profile of an Indian's head. "There are many details which give you clues," he noted. "The band, for instance, is designed a certain way." The near-microscopic white dots must be a certain shape, Ben-Arie explained. The bands on my Cohibas met the standard, but the scrutiny continued.

Using a pocket knife, Ben-Arie carefully sliced open one of the cigars and described its three layers. First there is the wrapper, which is the skin, a thin sheet of whole tobacco leaf soft to the touch. The second layer, the binder, holds together a third layer, the filler, a blend of tobacco leaves. With surgical precision Ben-Arie disassembled each layer and concluded, "It looks like a perfect cigar." After a pause he added, "I don't know why they would sell something like this for $30. It's a mystery because it looks to me like a perfect Cohiba." Then he prepared to smoke one.

Using a cutter Ben-Arie carefully snipped off the head of the cigar and held the foot to the flame of a lighter, rotating it smoothly. Then he puffed. Billowing clouds of smoke surrounded us and lingered in the small room. "I have a problem with this cigar," he declared. "There is no draw. I'm getting a hernia just trying to draw. It's packed too tight. It may be made out of the right stuff but there is something wrong with its construction. The guy rolling it must not have been doing a good job. With your permission I'd like to try another."

Ben-Arie lit up again. "This one feels better to me," he said with relief. "You know, taking a draw should be fairly easy. You can't have the feeling that you're fighting with the cigar." He observed that as the cigar burned, the ash tunneled evenly at the foot, another sign of quality.

Still, he pointed out, authenticating Cuban cigars is very difficult these days. Besides the rampant counterfeiting, the overall quality of legitimate cigars has suffered greatly in the rush to meet worldwide demand. The line between black-market fakes and poorly made originals has blurred. "I have a feeling something is wrong with this cigar, but I can't put my finger on it," Ben-Arie mused. "When it's coming from Cuba, the risk you take is so big."

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