Collecting Cuban Cigars: A Primer

With Cuba now open to American tourists and business, the best cigars in the world are now (legally) available. 
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With Cuba now open to American tourists and business, the best cigars in the world are now (legally) available. 
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If you haven’t yet, it’s time to start investing in the next great money maker: vintage cigars.

Already the Cuban cigar market is opening up to Americans, and as it becomes easier to get them into the country in larger quantities, the market for resale and collecting is going to have a boom.

For advice on cigar collecting, we talked to Ajay Patel, proprietor of London’s Casa del Habano. Patel is among the world’s foremost experts on Cuban tobacco, and his personal and public collection could make Castro’s mouth water.

When boxes of cigars can cost hundreds of dollars, jumping into the market can feel daunting. Patel says there are a few important steps that every collector, new or experienced, needs to take when deciding what to invest in.

1. Smoke the cigar.

It sounds simple, but you need to smoke what you’re buying. “When you purchase it, you have to smoke it,” says Patel. “I’ll smoke everything, and try to set tasting notes in my head.” He says it’s important to smoke the cigars yourself to understand what they taste like, so you can see them evolve over time. Like knowing when a wine has peaked, it’s about having it more than once over the course of many years.

2. Trust your instincts.

Cigars will essentially fall into two camps: instant classic, or wait-and-see. For the "wow" factor smokes, trust yourself, and buy. Patel emphasizes, with horror stories, to never hesitate. He’s made recommendations to clients and customers who’ve waited, only to have the cigar disappear from the market in weeks—or to see the market price shoot up. But more than that, second and third batches of great cigars will never be the same. “When it comes out and you get that 'wow' factor, buy the first batch. The leaves will never be the same.” If the cigar doesn’t have that instant draw, it’s a judgment call—and a much harder one. Some cigars will improve over time from so-so beginnings, and some won’t.

3. Buy two boxes—or as many as you can.

An amazing box of Cuban cigars can double its value in a few short years—or less time if it’s a real blockbuster. Resale is often about unbroken seals. So whether you’re collecting for personal enjoyment or profit down the line, a second box is a necessity. “It’s the same as wine—you have to put them away.”

4. Smoke the cigar, again.

The first box is for research. Patel says he’ll smoke the cigar once before he buys it, once when he purchases boxes, and then he’ll wait. “Put the box away if you feel it’s too young,” he says, “for five years or so.” Smoke the cigar every year or so, or as often as you feel you need to to keep an eye on how it ages. “By the time you come to finishing the box,” says Patel, “it could be up to 15 years—and the other box is still intact.”

5. Sell—or smoke.

Yes, it’s quite that simple: if you’ve kept your cigars well, they’ll be worth money. How much depends on the market, how well you’ve kept them, and the age, but after a certain number of years most cigars have accumulated additional value. Those incomplete boxes have market value too, especially if a smoke has become particularly hard to find like a Regional Edition (smokes only made to be sold in certain countries around the world for a given year) or Exclusivos (smokes made for a particular calendar year or particular shop that will never be replicated in the future).

Regional and Exclusivo editions hit shelves worldwide throughout the year, so there’s always something new to keep an eye on. Patel says right now he’s watching importer and distributor Hunters and Frankau, who brokered a deal for for a super limited collection of cigars bearing the Hunters and Frankau band for the company’s 225th anniversary. The limited run of Cuban smokes will go on sale in June.

Otherwise, Patel nods to the relatively quiet Diplomaticos brand, which is an easier entry price point, and is available year round. “It’s a great cigar to put down—it’s great after ten years.”

Oh, and a quick reminder: Cuban cigars are among the most frequently counterfeited products in the world, so make sure to buy from someone who knows what they’re doing—even if it’s a little more expensive.

Photos by Flickr.com/alexbrn