Beware the Cuban Fakes
From head to foot to box to seals, an essential guide to the tell-tale signs that your Cuban cigars are indeed the real deal or if you’re just the latest victim of sucker scams.
Many of us have heard stories of friends who scored big by buying a box of Cohibas for $50 from a Havana cigar street vendor. These cigars are then given to other cigar-smoking friends or sold in the tourist’s hometown and the image and prestige of Cuban cigars takes an understandable beating.
Cuban cigars are part of a growing global phenomenon of products that comprise the pirate economy (collectively referred to as the Black Market). Usually people associate the black market economy with drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin as well as technology products, internet videos, pharmaceuticals, music CDs, DVDs, after-market auto parts, and of course “name brand” clothing. According to the most recent Contraband Index from Havocscope, a website publishing statistics on the black market, the underground economy is currently valued at around $809.55 billion. The Counterfeit Cuban Cigar Market Value, defined as fake cigars sold under Cuban brands, is conservatively estimated at $100 million. These fake cigars are produced in clandestine factories located in countries ranging from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico, Brazil, Russia, and even Cuba itself!
According to a recent report published in El Nuevo Diario de Nicaragua, annual production of fake Cuban cigars is around five million units. Many of these cigars find their way into stores, hotels, and airports throughout Spain. But the value of the Cuban counterfeit market could easily be anywhere from three- to ten-times-larger than those current estimates. Any country that has easy access to the materia prima (wrapper, binder, and filler leaves - often scrap or second-rate); cheap, unskilled labor; high tobacco duties; and the desire to cash in on the Cuban cigar craze by defrauding uneducated consumers is a potential source of counterfeit Cubans. After all, if the cigar costs 25 cents, the packaging a buck, and the end product is sold as a Cuban to the unsuspecting for $10–$20, what a wonderfully profitable business! And the penalties and fines - up until recently - have certainly been worth the risk.
Canada estimates that 80 percent of its Cuban cigars are counterfeit. According to Abel Ortega, head of Havana House based in Toronto, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 boxes of fake Cuban cigars find their way into the Canadian marketplace each year. The impact of this black market is significant, as it cuts $52 million per year out of the Canadian tax revenues. Ortega says that fake cigars are churned out of factories by unskilled rollers using second-rate tobacco or anything else you can name. Many of the fake cigars, he says, find their way into Canada by its own tourists who bring them back from Cuba.
Why knock-off Cuban cigars? They are considered by many to be the best cigars in the world, enjoyed by the rich and famous, but global demand far outstrips the tiny Caribbean island’s ability to supply them. To this recipe add cheap raw materials, unskilled labor, and a relatively uneducated consumer base (Americans and their underlying allure of forbidden fruit), and a marketplace for counterfeit Cubans is born.
Taking the Plunge, But Not as a Sucker
According to Habanos S.A., the official export company for all Cuban cigars worldwide, average production ranges between 160 million and 170 million sticks each year. About 40 percent of this is earmarked for Spain and France, under an agreement inked back in 2000, as a condition of a merger between Tabacalera, the government tobacco company of Spain, and SEITA, the government tobacco company of France, and their acquisition of 50 percent of the stock in Habanos S.A. for $500 million.
That leaves 60 percent, or less than 100 million sticks, available for the rest of the world, excluding the U.S. where Cuban cigars continue to be illegal under the nearly-50-year-old trade embargo. It is noteworthy to mention, however, that the U.S. market is the largest in the world for fine cigars. According to 2005 FDA statistics, about 362 million premium cigars - defined as those selling for more than $10 - were sold in the U.S., while about 5 billion cigars were sold in the sub-premium market defined as cigars selling for less than $10.
One can still find Cuban cigars in the U.S., especially in Florida, New York, and California; however, the bulk of these cigars are not real - estimates suggest as many as 95 percent or more are fake. This percentage is consistent with the estimated amount of fake Cuban cigars sold throughout the world.
Also, if you like to smoke Cohiba, especially lanceros, esplendidos, or robustos; Montecristo No. 2 or 4s; or Romeo y Julieta Churchills, be extra careful as these are the most counterfeited cigars in the world. One way to avoid the problem of fakes is to consider selecting a smaller size or a less popular brand, as the economics of making fake Quinteros, for example, does not support fraud.
So if someone approaches you offering to sell you a box of Cuban cigars at an unbelievable price (well below market) remember the slew of old adages and use your common sense: “Caveat emptor” (buyer beware); “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is;” and “there’s a sucker born every minute.”
The wording on the seal has also changed in three locations. At the top of the seal, the previous English version read “CUBAN GOVERNMENT’S WARRANTY FOR CIGARS EXPORTED FROM HAVANA.” It now reads, “ORIGIN NATIONAL WARRANTY SEAL FOR CIGARS AND CUT TOBACCO.” On the left side of the seal, that French wording has been modified to read the same as the English and on the right side that same change is made in German.
An important modification to the seal is the use of micro-printing, which has been used on currencies around the world for quite some time as a way to deter counterfeiting. The hair-thin strips under magnification read “SELLO DE GARANTIA REPUBLICA DE CUBA” which translates to “Seal of Guarantee of the Republic of Cuba” and are repeated over and over again. The micro-printed lines are located directly above the large words “REPUBLICA DE CUBA” across the center and immediately below the wording “SERIE A NO. 1” and extending across the center of the seal ending under the wording “LEY DE JULIO 16/1912.”
Another modification is the addition of an eight-digit alphanumeric serial number printed on the bottom center of the seal in red ink. The first two digits are capital letters, such as “AB” and the other six digits are numbers like “012345” printed over a white background. Using an ultraviolet (UV) light source, two additional anti-counterfeiting measures are revealed. The first shows up with the number portion of the serial numbers appearing black while the two letters remain red. The second measure, in the center of the seal and above the serial number and still under UV light, appears as a faint watermark that under close inspection is the Cuban Republic Coat of Arms or Shield, the same design you’ll find in the left oval.
Next, scrutinize the Habanos chevron on the top upper right corner of dress boxes (25-count cedar veneer boxes “dressed” with paper) and the top lower left corner of cabinets. The label exhibits a black silhouette of a single tobacco leaf, “Habanos” in red letters highlighted in yellow (which makes it appear orange). Under the leaf and the word “Habanos” is written “DENOMINACION DE ORIGEN PROTEGIDA” in black ink, framed by two gold stripes at the top and bottom of the label.
Around the center of the box, top end, you should find a hologram shaped like a half moon (placed on the top of the box) attached to a rectangle (overlapping on to the front side of the box). The semicircle shows the island of Cuba and above it the word “AQUI,” which translates to “here.” The rectangular part reads “Su Garantia” which means “your guarantee,” and directly under this wording appears the old Habanos logo which shows the silhouette of a tobacco leaf, the word “Habanos,” and underneath both the saying “Unicos desde 1492” which means “Unique since 1492.” The rectangular portion of the hologram appears to have a design of sunrays emanating from the center on out. If anyone tries to remove the hologram it will tear apart and leave silver traces of the hologram on the cigar box.
On the bottom of the box you can identify three classic Hallmarks: “Habanos S.A.” in stylized lettering; “HECHO EN CUBA” (meaning “Made in Cuba”) printed in a simple capitalized lettering in the center of a rectangular oval shape; and “Totalmente a mano” in script which means “totally by hand.” The key point here is to touch these hallmarks and feel their depth, as they are not inked but are burned into the bottom of the box as with a branding iron.
You will also find factory and date stamps on the bottom of the box in blue, black, or green ink. Look for the factory code and a simplified date stamp like “NOV 07” which means the cigars were boxed in November 2007.
Depending upon which country the box is sold from, there may be other types of stamps for duty or customs, as well as information about the importer for that country and a health warning. These self-adhesive labels are normally found on the bottom of the box.
There are a variety of different presentations of Cuban cigars, including paper covered “dress boxes,” varnished or unvarnished cabinets, semi-boit natural boxes, slide lid boxes (SLBs), and small-quantity “transit packs.” Packages should always be in good condition: many counterfeiters re-use authentic boxes, so worn or chipped boxes are a red flag.
When you open a box of Cuban cigars you will encounter a rectangular sheet of parchment-like paper decorated with four gold-colored braids with the silhouette of a tobacco leaf in brown at the top and the Habanos logo in brown at the bottom. The sheet reads, “These Havanas have been made with the finest tobacco in the world. For fullest enjoyment, these cigars should be stored in a humidor, away from products with strong odors and under correct conditions of temperature (16–18 deg C) and humidity (65 percent–70 percent).” These instructions are written first in Spanish, and then followed in English, French, and German.
In a box of long-filled, hand made Cuban cigars, you will note that the cigars are presented naked (banded or un-banded) without any external wrappings like cellophane, except in the 3/5 Petacas style packaging or aluminum tube presentations with a cedar strip around the cigar. The Fonseca brand is presented with the cigar wrapped in Japanese rice paper with the band on the outside of the paper. The Romeo y Julieta Cedros De Luxe No. 1, 2, and 3 are presented with a cedar strip wrapped around the cigar and the band over the cedar and cigar. One will see machine-made cigars presented in cellophane. Often unscrupulous vendors will remove the cellophane sleeves from the machine-made cigars and place them in dress boxes and sell them as long-filled, hand made cigars. Be aware of this trick and stay prepared!
Also, dress boxes and non-SLB cabinets have their two layers of 25 cigars separated by a cedar sheet. This thin sheet normally has a curved cut-out or 45 degree angled cut on the upper right hand corner, to allow your finger to reach underneath the edge. Cabinet style boxes will have a cedar top sheet with the same brand’s logo etched in. On the bottom layer of 12 cigars, you will normally encounter a cardboard square tube designed as a spacer to keep this row nice and tight during shipping. In unvarnished wood box presentations such as the Partagas Series D No. 4, this cardboard spacer is replaced with a cedar block spacer.
Another point of consideration is the weight of the box. In my experience, fake cigar boxes are often heavier than their Cuban counterpart. This is because the counterfeiter uses cheaper materials to construct his boxes. The counterfeiter spends serious money on what you see and focus on, such as the packaging. Also, check the internal paper flaps of the cigar box, known as vistas, to insure they are consistent with the cigar brand and vitola.
When lifting the paper flap of a dress box, the two layers of cigars will typically have a wax-like strip placed directly over the bands of the cigars to protect them. Every cigar band should be in perfect alignment. SLB’s have their cigars tied with a yellow silk-like ribbon, called a “sandra” which is imprinted with the brand and vitola name. Where the ribbon comes in contact with the cigars you will also find a piece of paper or cardboard to buffer these pressure points.
Cigar wrappers should always be uniform in color within any given box. Since tobacco leaf is a natural product that varies in color, authentic factory-produced cigars are sorted according to color. There are 64 color variations and as many shade variations. Individual boxes are filled with cigars that match each other nearly perfectly in color for a more pleasing presentation. If you open a box and notice a lot of color variations in the wrapper, you’ve stumbled upon a red flag.
The wrappers should look and feel silky, a common trait for Cuban cigars because of tight plant cell structures. Cigar wrappers that exhibit pronounced veins, blotches, stains, or damage should cause you to raise some doubts about the cigars. The length of the cigar should be the length specific to that cigar’s vitola.
Rarely does one encounter more than 1/16 of an inch deviation in the published lengths of Cuban cigars. Also, the majority of all Cuban wrappers are natural and not maduro. Cuba’s production of maduro wrapper is very limited and is typically used for creating “Edicion Limitadas” or Limited Editions, and occasionally special regional releases such as the Montecristo Edmundo Dantes El Conde 109, made exclusively for the country of Mexico. These releases are always in very, very limited production. Therefore, if you notice that the cigars are dark and oily (and they are not special releases as previously mentioned) then you may want to reconsider your decision to buy since the wrapper is probably not Cuban.
The cigar’s ring gauge should also be uniform without much deviation from the published ring gauges for Cuban cigars. Ring gauge variation does occur when cigars that are box pressed are first opened and have not had the time to breathe. The cigar’s ring gauge is normally determined before the cigar is placed in the box and pressed.
The bands or cigar rings used on the cigars should be clean looking with good color. If the bands show any sign of being used or are damaged, torn, etc., this may indicate that the cigars have been re-banded. You can check the backside of the ring for tiny die-cut impressions found on real bands. Fake bands are usually copied and will be smooth. Many internet-based sellers of Cuban cigars based in Europe often remove the bands from the cigars and ship them separately. They also re-package the cigars in non-Cuban boxes that may be disguised as golf accessories or birthday presents.
The problem with this is that the band is put on the cigar shaft with a vegetable based glue. Since the process is done by hand and is imperfect, any glue residue will find its way on the cigar wrapper. Removing the band from an unlit cigar could cause even the most careful removal process to accidentally tear the delicate wrapper. If this happens, you will find out soon enough when you light up and find your draw compromised.
Next inspect the foot of the cigar. It should be cut even and clean without any angles. In cross-section, the tobacco at the foot of the cigar should be free from any large veins, as a “stripper” (not that kind) has typically removed these already. The tobacco is normally bunched so if the foot looks like the tobacco was rolled up or booked, this should be viewed as problematic.
You should also sample the bouquet of the tobacco by smelling the foot of the cigar. Cuban cigars have a particular bouquet that smells of grass, hay, and manure and it becomes more recognizable with each cigar you smoke. The smell of ammonia, a by-product of fermentation, should be absent.
Upon examining the head of the cigar, you will see three separate finishing leaves that form what is referred to as the “triple cap.” Actually, there is only one cap leaf at the very center of the top of the head of the cigar with the other two leaves forming the finish on the cigar’s head. This is the common way Cuban cigars are finished. Thus, if you notice a flag pattern finish on the head of the cigar, stop and reconsider your purchase. The caps on figurados or torpedoes are finished with a “switch back” flag pattern. The wrapper is rolled to the tip of the head of the cigar and then is trimmed to a strip, which is then wound back in the same direction down the cigar shaft.
Touch the cigar to feel for soft, hollow, or hard spots along the cigar’s shaft. Cuban cigars should feel supple and spring right back after pinch testing. The density of the tobacco should be consistent from the head to the foot of the cigar. Any deviation from a supple feeling cigar spells out potential draw and burn problems as a result of poor construction. If you are still in doubt about the cigar then you can always sacrifice one and perform “open-cigar surgery.” The tobacco does not lie: fakes will contain scrap tobacco which are sweepings off the floor; broken and torn, filled with whatever. A properly constructed Cuban cigar exhibits long, full leaves, supple to the touch, with a rich fragrant smell.
Now, unfortunately, after all is said and done, the reality is that we must “throw the baby out with the Caribbean bath water” when it comes to differentiating fake from real Cuban cigars. Why? With all of these tips and guidelines, it does not help you, the consumer, if the warranty/tax stamps, holograms, Habanos chevrons, vistas, boxes, etc., are stolen out of the factories in Cuba and are re-applied to create fake boxes anywhere in the world!
Although Canadian, French, Spanish, and Cuban Customs officials have had some success in tracking down and confiscating thousands of fake boxes of cigars, the battle rages on and tens of thousands of other fake cigars continue to circulate until they find you, or you are coaxed into buying them.
For the average cigar smoker who does not have the Cuban experience down to a science, or until science delivers us a way to confirm the origin of the cigar tobacco, it is best to buy your cigars from authorized, certified dealers like the global chain known as La Casa del Habano. The Cuban government, along with the Spanish and French governments, has authorized La Casa del Habano stores and dealers to sell their cigars around the world. All purchases from the La Casa del Habano chain come with a guarantee for quality and service. If you have any problems with your purchase, simply return the merchandise for credit or refund. Try doing that with some unknown person that you met on the street at home, or while vacationing, or online in a foreign country. Good luck, and by the way, did I forget to mention that I have a piece of a bridge that I’d like to sell you, real cheap?
SMOKE - Winter, 2008/2009