Ammo & Gear Reviews

Cigar Hunter: Havana comes to Northern Africa

David Martosko Executive Editor
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The Montecristo Edmundo — the kind made in Cuba — is a fantastic cigar. I just finished one on the pool deck of the Hyatt Regency in Casablanca. And I’m feeling grateful for a loophole in U.S. regulations.

I have no intention of bringing Cuban cigars home with me, and my host here in Morocco proudly presented me with a box of these Montecristos as a gift. (What’s behind the name “Edmundo”? Read this.)

A gift, you say? Yes. And the U.S. government apparently wants me to smoke them.

These Montecristos are the real thing. Not that the parallel brand made in the Dominican Republic is all bad — I especially like the dark “Media Noche” — but these Habanos are from the family tree that started it all. (RELATED: Cigar Hunter: Burning the midnight maduro)

It’s clear that importing Cuban cigars is a big no-no. So is buying anything made in Cuba when you’re in a foreign country, according to a 2009 Treasury Department circular (p.14, emphasis added):

[T]he Regulations prohibit any person subject to U.S. jurisdiction from dealing in any property in which Cuba or a Cuban national has or has had any interest. … For example, unless authorized, persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction (including U.S. overseas subsidiaries) may not purchase Cuban cigars in Mexico.

The official government regulations covering the U.S.-Cuba trade embargo (31 CFR § 515.204, if you’re a government geek) also address only financial transactions. U.S. citizens may not (p. 5, emphasis added):

… purchase, transport, import, or otherwise deal in or engage in any transaction with respect to any merchandise outside the United States if such merchandise (1) Is of Cuban origin; or (2) Is or has been located in or transported from or through Cuba; or (3) Is made or derived in whole or in part of any article which is the growth, produce or manufacture of Cuba.

Translation: You can’t buy Cuban cigars overseas, and you certainly can’t bring them back to the U.S. with you. But if you’re lucky enough to receive a box as a present, go ahead and light up. You didn’t contribute anything to the Cuban economy, and that’s what the trade embargo is meant to curtail.

If you’re shaking your fist at me right now, don’t fret. There’s a Nicaraguan cigar that I think approximates this Montecristo nicely: the Anniversary 1926 from Padron. It’s not cheap, but then again neither are Cubans. And you can find it at just about any neighborhood tobacconist. If you’re in Washington, D.C., I would recommend Georgetown Tobacco or Curtis Draper’s. If not, it’s up to you.

If you still need a reason to stop scowling, you might recall the story of how the late White House press secretary Pierre Salinger purchased nearly 1,200 Cuban cigars for President John F. Kennedy on the night before he signed the trade embargo into law.

Salinger told the story better than I possibly could:

So I had no compunction about blowing Cuban smoke into the Moroccan air, but I was concerned about Ramadan, the holy month observed in Muslim countries, which began on July 19. Officially, there’s no eating, drinking or smoking permitted between dawn and sundown each day.

But as I’m learning, the Arab world is full of exceptions — for both Westerners and natives. “I am Muslim,” a guide named Abdul said this morning during the drive from Casablanca’s airport. “I pray 5 times each day. But I’m not –”

At this point, he made a gesture indicating a long beard.

“If I see a pretty girl, well — you know …”

Not that Abdul would likely follow through. He’s a father of three and a proud grandpa. He’s also about 65. Sometimes the idea of indulging in forbidden fruit is far more appealing than the actual experience.

Some Cuban cigars — not all, mind you, but some — come through with the goods and meet our fond expectations.

When Montecristo introduced the 5.3-inch-long, 52 ring gauge Edmundo vitola eight years ago, it was the first new cigar size in the company’s portfolio since the early 1980s. Its filler tobacco comes from the Vuelta Abajo district in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province.

The draw was consistent, although the cigar itself seemed loosely rolled. There was a lot of “give” when I squeezed it between my thumb and forefinger.

The pre-smoke scent was the purest tobacco smell I’ve ever experienced. Hardly any aroma at all. But the moment I toasted the foot, the aroma of almonds and leather invaded my nostrils. More unadulterated goodness followed when I lit the cigar, with a strong pepper scent that actually made me sneeze.

Once I settled in, the prevailing flavor profile was a mixture of tangy, front-of-the-tongue sharpness and a mild bitter-sweet aftertaste that settled on my soft palate. I’ve read some reviews of this cigar that note some vanilla flavor, but I didn’t detect any. Just a pleasing coffee aroma that kicked in during the final third. (RELATED: Cigar Hunter: Dante’s favorite stogie? Hell yes!)

The first Edmundo I smoked needed a re-light halfway through, but the second went wire to wire, producing a solid stick of white ash. And the experience was as smooth as Humphrey Bogart’s “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”

My only complaint was that it was so compliant, so willing to surrender its wealth of smoke, that it burned a bit hot. All the more reason to smoke it slowly.

Cuban cigars are considered the crème de la crème worldwide because the soil in which the tobacco is grown there is something special. But very little agricultural land in Cuba gets the “Vegas Finas de Primera” designation. These plots are the best of the best of the best, where mineral content and microclimate are perfect for producing the legendary tobacco.

Even in Vuelta Abajo, acknowledged as the finest region in the world for growing cigar tobacco, only about one-quarter of the land qualifies. (RELATED: Cigar Hunter: A cheap Brazilian that doesn’t involve your girlfriend)

For Americans who have never seen a Caribbean or Central American tobacco plantation up close, it’s hard to comprehend how rare this land is. Think of the Scottish highlands for whiskey. Or the French caves where true Comté cheese is aged to perfection. Or, if you’re a New Yorker, the peculiar and irreproducible flavor of in-town bagels that comes from mineral deposits in the municipal water supply.

It is what it is, and you don’t find it anywhere else.

The date stamp on my Montecristo box tells me the cigars were hand-rolled in December 2011, so it’s possible they would mature into true powerhouses if I were to house them in a good humidor for a year or two. Being a law-abiding American, of course, I won’t have that chance.

But I’ll be in Morocco all week. It’s a big box of cigars. Waste not, want not.

Next up will be … well, I don’t know, really. Stay tuned. Morocco is a lovely country, and they’re fond of indoor smoking.

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