Good news, cigar smokers: one of the terms of the big new US-Cuba deal is that American visitors to the island will be allowed to bring back up to $100 in alcohol and tobacco products. Previously, that was forbidden. For decades now, the ban on imports from Cuba has given its cigars a certain cachet in the United States, but it's worth asking: are they really that much better than ones from, say, Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic?
The answer is that formal cigar experts tend to rank Cubans very highly in blind taste tests. Cigar snobs really do prefer the taste of Cubans, even when they don't know they're Cubans.
Reminder: cigar smoking can lead to oral cancer and other health problems, so keep that in mind if you're headed to Havana.
Cigars experts say that Cubans really are better
Cigar appreciation is a matter of subjective taste, of course and there's nothing "wrong" per se in preferring cigars rolled in one country or another. So, at some level, the question is unanswerable. But if we're interested in cigar connoisseurs' views, there are worse places to look than Cigar Aficionado.
The magazine is currently in the process of unveiling its top 25 cigars of 2014, and the number one pick won't be out until tomorrow, but last year the winner was the Montecristo No. 2, produced by Habanos, the cigar arm of Cuba's government-owned tobacco company. Two other Habanos products made the list last year: the Cohiba Behike BHK 54 at #5 (which also was Cigar of the Year in 2010) and the Bolivar Royal Corona at #21 (which was Cigar of the Year in 2006). So far, yet another Habanos product, the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial, has placed at #4 in 2014.
Cuban cigars did appear to go through a brief but marked drop in quality in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In a 2001 article entitled "The Decline of Cuban Cigars," Cigar Aficionado founder Marvin Shanken lamented, "I want to go back to those glory days of 10 years ago when you could pick up one of the great Cuban brands and know that you were going to have a great smoke." But by 2002, the magazine was reporting that Habanos was improving quality control standards. By 2011, it was comparing the latest cigars from Cuba to those from the glory days of the early 1990s. In 2013, Gordon Mott declared the "dark age" of 1998 to 2003 over, dubbing 2012 "The Year of the Cuban Cigar."
This isn't just cultural cachet: research backs it up
So Cuba produces some excellent cigars. But do they, on average, surpass those of other countries? A 2003 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics and Finance suggests yes. The University of Virginia's David Freccia and Wesleyan's Joyce Jacobsen and Peter Kilby collected Cigar Aficionado quality ratings and price data for 689 different cigars, and sought to identify determinants of both high prices and high ratings. They took into account a battery of subjective factors — did the Cigar Aficionado review describe the cigar as mild? as well built? as smooth? was it nutty or cocoa-y or creamy? — as well as national origins.
They found that the single most important determinant of both prices and ratings was whether or not the cigar originated from Cuba. Being from Cuba bumped up a cigar's rating by 4.05 points on a 100-point scale, on average; by contrast, being described as "well built" only gained a cigar 1.28 points, and being "leathery" only resulted in a 1.87 point gain.
"The ability of the judges to identify the Cuba characteristic in a blind taste test suggests the presence of a unique Cuban flavor (or potentially another identifying characteristic like color or shape)," Freccia, Jacobsen, and Kilby conclude. That's a marked contrast from wine. Blind taste tests have found that expert critics can't consistently rate wines.
Why are Cubans better?
Explanations for Cubans' superior taste vary widely. Livescience's Stuart Fox has a good piece delving into possible theories. Columbia professor and Cuba expert Alan Dye tells Fox that Cuba's soil is uniquely well-suited to tobacco cultivation, in particular tobacco used for cigar wrappers, the component responsible for much of a cigar's flavor. Soil in other Caribbean and Central American countries is very similar, and growers there have tried to change it to more closely mimic Cuba's, but it's not identical, leading to a different flavor.
UCLA's Robin Derby noted to Fox that Cubans have centuries worth of experience harvesting tobacco, improving picking and rolling. Indeed, large-scale tobacco cultivation on Cuba began shortly after Christopher Columbus's acquisition of the island for Spain. The history of cigar production in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic is much shorter.
A proliferation of folk tales have also emerged to explain the difference in taste. Derby tells Fox that "early legends attributed the high quality of Cuban cigars to the fact that they were rolled in the laps of biracial Cuban women." That … is not why they taste the way they do. But it does speak to the degree to which a certain cultural mystique has emerged around Cuban cigars that may or may not actually be connected to their taste.
Correction: This post originally characterized a study as showing wine experts couldn't distinguish white wine from red; while that's the way the study has been reported by most outlets, it actually was conducted among undergraduate oenology students, not professional experts. We regret the error.