From Cuba with Questions

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

The box of 25 Cohiba Esplendidos was presented to me as a gift. A distant relative from Pinar del Río, Cuba's mountainous western countryside where tobacco grows in fertile valleys, brought three boxes of the island's renowned cigars to Miami on a recent visit and offered them to family members she hadn't seen in years.

My relative doesn't want her real name used, so I'll call her Daphne. She is a petite, neatly dressed woman with roller-curled hair dyed a golden brown. At a recent family reunion, she wore frosty pink makeup and assumed a slightly haughty air as she smoked her cigarettes and chatted. Apparently the guajiros on my father's side of the family don't lack self-assurance.

Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandfathers, and grandmothers sat in white plastic lawn chairs on the patio of a modest home in Little Havana. Daphne's recently arrived niece, also from Pinar del Río, was renting the house. My maternal grandfather, a typical Cuban storyteller from the industrial Havana suburb of El Cerro, cracked a few jokes but remained uncharacteristically guarded. He eyed Daphne warily.

After trying her first menthol cigarette (she found it refreshing), Daphne headed inside the house and slipped into the guest bedroom her niece had prepared for her. Moments later she emerged carrying three boxes of Cohibas. "Miren, tomen (Look, you all take these)," she announced, more a command than an offering.

As I sat on a kitchen stool, she dropped a box in my lap. My grandfather, a smoker since childhood who'd quit not long ago, declined to accept one. His wrinkled nose, corrugated from a lifetime of nicotine, could no longer tolerate the smell of tobacco, so he walked outside.

An uncle who'd been glued to the television suddenly snapped out of it, leaped from the family room to the kitchen, and grabbed a box, though he doesn't even smoke. Another distant relative, a second-cousin I think, seemed unsure but eventually latched on to one.

Although I don't share Daphne's love for tobacco products, I was thrilled to have an entire box of Cohibas. The fact is I'm fascinated by anything that comes from Cuba, especially when it hails from a location with special meaning for me. For instance there's the bottle of rum an aunt who visited the island bought for me in Guanabacoa, the heavily Afro-Cuban Havana suburb of my birth. Each time I share a glass of that ron with just the right person, the aroma takes me back to my first breath of air in Guanabacoa. Now, from Pinar del Río, the enchanting land of my father's youth, I would have cigars, even if I never smoke them.

I did some research to learn more about Cohibas. The tobacco comes from Pinar del Río's legendary Vuelta Abajo district, a 90-mile-long, 10-mile-wide swath of exceedingly fertile land along the southern edge of the province's mountain range, the Sierra de los Organos. Cuba's equivalent of the Bordeaux region in France, this is where the world's finest tobacco is cultivated.

Given that native Taino Indians were smoking cigars, or something similar to a cigar, when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, the Cohiba brand, created in 1968 at the behest of Fidel Castro, is a veritable baby -- but a very privileged baby. Castro ordered that the revolutionary government's official tabaquero, Avelino Lara, be given first pick of the island's finest tobacco, from which his staff of skilled rollers fashioned their Cohibas (cohiba is believed to be the Taino word for cigar) at a special factory that took the name of its Havana neighborhood, El Laguito.

For nearly fifteen years, Cohibas weren't commercially available at all. Only Cuba's ruling elite and select diplomats or heads of state could sample the limited supply. Before long these elusive puros attained a near-mythic reputation for being the finest the world had ever known. Eventually, though, Castro allowed production to increase, which led to more factories and a greater variety of cigar sizes and styles. Global demand for Cohibas soared, but the U.S. trade embargo prevented their distribution and sale here. American smokers smoldered in frustration.

This nation's cigar craze of the early Nineties drove Cohiba prices sky-high. An illicit box from abroad easily could fetch $1200 or more. Money like that proved irresistible to con artists, who began producing counterfeit Cuban cigars of all types, including Cohibas. But savvy American buyers quickly learned how to spot obvious frauds, which in turn led to more sophisticated fakery.

Today the Internet offers numerous Websites devoted to Cuban cigars, several specializing in Cohibas. Potential buyers are warned to inspect the warranty seal on the right bottom side of the box. (It must be creased just so.) A white sticker reading "Habanos" must run diagonally across the upper left corner. A heat stamp must adorn the bottom of the box. ("Look closely to make sure it is a heat stamp and not an ink stamp," cautions one Website.) Various arcane government codes are used to denote what factory the cigars come from and their date of manufacture.

Of course I knew none of this when Daphne perfunctorily handed out her three boxes, fresh from the island. I was just happy to have them. She then revealed their source: The Cohibas had come straight from a Havana factory by way of a "contact" who had given them to her as a gift but was selling them for $30 per box. She wouldn't elaborate. End of story.

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."

So I was left where I started, with a box of cigars I don't intend to smoke, given to me by a relative I barely know. And now I'm not sure I can trust her or the cigars. Too bad my grandfather no longer smokes Esplendidos, or anything else for that matter. They would have made a fine Christmas present. He would have grown nostalgic as he happily puffed away, recounting the days when he used to smoke cigars rolled by the same man who made them for el comandante. "They were a foot long," he would say, holding up his hands to demonstrate.

I would have listened to the story yet again, silently wondering just how much of it was true. When it involves Cuba, I learned from him, you just don't know what to believe.

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