While traveling abroad, it can be difficult for a cigar aficionado (or even the novice) to resist the temptation of smoking a real Cuban cigar.
After all, Cuban cigars are one of life’s most indulgent luxuries, with production each year falling far short of worldwide demand.
The problem for the consumer is that this dynamic demand has created a substantial market for cigar counterfeiters. And in today’s world of laser printers and computer-generated graphics, the counterfeiters can easily convert a cheap bundled cigar into a $20 Cuban Cohiba.
The counterfeiters are driven by the rather lax penalties for being caught. In many cases, the penalties are non-existent and unlike the illicit drug trade, the cigar counterfeiter faces a relatively low risk of getting shot by an irate buyer.
However, the consumers largely are responsible for allowing this black market to flourish in that most people cannot discern between a real Cuban cigar and a fake one.
The Devil in the Detail
The good news is that there are a number of rules one could follow to identify a counterfeit Cuban cigar. All it takes is a little attention to the details on the exterior of the box to the interior of the box and cigar itself.
The following is an abbreviated list of details one could check to help ID the real thing.
1. Check for the Warranty Seal: Every box of Cuban cigars since 1912 has received a Cuban tax stamp, which generally is affixed to the left front edge. Since Cuban cigars are in high demand, the seal should be newly updated have a good registration of print.
2. Check for the Habanos Chevron: The Chevron is a label featuring a black silhouette of a tobacco leaf. This seal will be on all boxes of Havana cigars exported since 1994.
3. Look for the Hallmarks: The hallmarks are not ink stamps. They are burned-in marks that identify the exporter, and announce that the cigar was made in Cuba by hand. The Hallmarks include:
a) Habanos s.a.: This is the name of the Cuban company that exports Havanas.
b) Hecho En Cuba: These words were added in 1960
c) Totalmente a mano: This branding, meaning “totally by hand,” was added in 1989.
4. Look for the factory and date stamp: Habanos places a date stamp on each box.
5. Look for the import stamp: For instance, boxes from Canada should have a white and purple “duty paid” sticker. Since duties are charged worldwide on luxury items, these import stamps should be on almost every box purchased outside of Cuba.
6. Look for “Surgeon General’s warning”: Many nations generally require that all tobacco products carry a general health warning. If this warning appears on other tobacco products, then it should also appear on any imported box of Cubans.
7. Look for wear and tear: Various Cuban brands and sizes are packaged in specific boxes. Rather than replicate these boxes, counterfeiters often recycle used boxes.
1. Look for the parchment with the Habanos logo: Inside the box there will be a rectangular piece of parchment with the Habanos logo and storage recommendations. These instructions should appear in four languages: Spanish, English, French and German.
2. Avoid cigars in cellophane: Except in the smaller, multi cigar Petacas style packages, the handmade Cuban cigars are never wrapped in cellophane.
3. Look for the cedar separator: All the dress boxes and cabinet boxes should have a plain cedar separator between the levels of the cigars. Cabinet cigars will also have a top sheet featuring the brand’s logo.
4. Look for the paper flap: The dress boxes, except those with tubos, will also have a paper flap attached to the front typically featuring a second brand logo.
5. Look for symmetry: All the bands should be in a near perfect line and the color and registration of each ring should be consistent.
6. Look for the yellow ribbon: The cigars in the cabinets with sliding lids should be tied with a yellow ribbon imprinted with the brand and name.
7. Avoid any hint of ammonia: If you notice an ammonia order, the cigars are fake.
Examining the cigars
1. The cigars should be of uniform color
2. The cigars should be the length specified by the vitola (or type), including the ring size.
3. The cigars should be well made with solid bunching.
4. The cigars should have very fine veins, if at all. Cuban Corojo wrappers rarely show veins.
5. The foot should have a clean cut with no chipping
6. The cap should be a triple cap. In other words, you should be able to see three fine rings around the cap from where the wrapper was rolled to the tip and then trimmed to be wound back in the same direction down the cigar.
But most importantly, the number one rule is to be cautious. Many fakes are sold in reputable establishments and often without the knowledge of the storeowner. As a result, the best safeguard is to remain on guard.