The forbidden fruit, the Cuban cigar, is no longer forbidden.
On Tuesday, the Obama Administration announced that Americans can now legally buy Cuban-made goods, including cigars, for personal consumption while traveling in other countries.
The changes are part of the slow thawing of the US-Cuba trade embargo that President Obama has been working on for over a year. In January, the U.S. government said Americans traveling legally to Cuba can return with $100 worth of Cuban cigars.
The announcements seem nominal, but the precedent is significant after 54 years of an all-out ban on travel and commerce. But when relations are completely normalized between the two countries, will Cuban cigars once again reign supreme?
Last year in Havana, Cuban cigar-maker Habanos S.A., which is co-owned by the government and Imperial Tobacco Group Plc of Britain, told reporters that the island nation would immediately gain up to 30 percent of the U.S. premium cigar market once the embargo is lifted. After a few years of scaling up production, Habanos S.A. told Reuters that Cuba would capture 70 percent of the U.S. market.
That is an ambitious goal, considering the U.S. consumes the most cigars out of any country in the world--300 million premium cigars annually, according to a report by the Cigar Association of America. The Dominican Republic is the largest supplier to the U.S., with Nicaragua and Honduras in second and third. Cuba exports 100 million premium cigars a year, just below Nicaragua's production.
David Savona, the executive editor of Cigar Aficionado, agrees that Cuban cigars will do well in the states.
"When the embargo does drop, the interest in Cuban cigars will be tremendous. There will be an immediate boom for the Cuban cigar industry," Savona says. But, he doesn't agree that Cuban cigars will swallow 70 percent of the U.S. market.
"I think that is rather outlandish," Savona said. "The Cubans don't have a lot of perspective on the U.S. market because they've been out of it for 50 years. What has happened in the last 50 years is that the non-Cuban cigars, from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras, have become exceptional products."
Savona doesn't argue with the fact that Cuba is the birthplace of the premium cigar and the country makes superb, distinctive and powerful smokes, but, he says, the market is so big and there are so many great cigars that not one country could logically take over.
Pat Gargano, the manager at Barclay-Rex, a storied cigar shop in New York's financial district, says that Cuba will also encounter logistical and supply chain problems when the embargo drops.
"Cuba cannot even supply the European markets with enough cigars," Gargano says.
The Cubans haven't planted enough fields to supply the U.S. and the European and Asian markets at a consistent basis, Gargano explains. That's because cigars, like whiskey, requires aging. The process of planting tobacco seeds and harvesting the leaves takes time, but the curing and aging process can take even longer, says David Diamante, founder of Diamante's Brooklyn Cigar Lounge in Fort Greene.
"It takes a long time to make a good cigar," Diamante says. "You have to age tobacco and the tobaccos have to marry. When you have such a demand for a truly organic product, from seed to box, that is hand-rolled, there is going to be a problem with supply. There is already a problem with supply."
As an owner of a cigar shop, Diamante says if Cuban cigars do enter the U.S. market it will be good for the industry.
"There will be a surge. You will have a huge glut of people, especially first-timers, coming to buy the forbidden fruit," he says. "It will level off eventually, but it will bump up sales immediately."
There is also a complicated legal issue that needs to be settled before Cuban cigars can enter the U.S. market. For anyone who has smoked a Cohiba, Montecristo or Romeo y Julieta, you know there are two different versions: the Cuban and non-Cuban.
Cohiba, which was created in 1960 for Fidel Castro, is owned by Cubatabaco, the Cuban state monopoly. But thanks to the embargo, General Cigar Company bought the U.S. trademark in 1981. In 1997, General Cigar tried to market its Dominican Cohibas outside of the U.S. and Cubatabaco sued. The legal battle has rumbled on ever since.
"Trade mark battles and ownership issues will have to be hammered out. It won't be as simple as the embargo is over and now you get your Cuban Cohibas this year," Savona says.
Calls to General Cigar were not returned.
Diamante points out that although French wine is thought to be the gold standard, people still buy wine from Chile, Napa Valley and other regions. Cigar smokers, like other aficionados, like variety. Savona echoes the sentiment; when it comes to smoking cigars, smokers like unrestricted variety.
"It would be a sad world to be limited to one type of cigar, or a cigar from only one country of origin," Savona says.