January 28 2012
There’s something perversely satisfying about watching your hard-earned cash go up in a cloud of smoke. Comfortably couched in a swish London cigar bar, I’m one of two dozen or so people doing just that, amid an agreeable fug of burning Cuban tobacco.
Cigar merchant Mitchell Orchant jabs his smoking cigar into the air to emphasise an important point. “If you were shrewd enough to buy a cabinet of 25 Flor de Cano Short Churchills for £129 in 1991 and to have stored them properly,” says the managing director of C Gars, “you could pull that box out of your humidor today, blow off the dust and count your blessings. They are now selling for £6,000 a cabinet.”
Once I’ve picked up my cigar from the floor and flicked the spilled ash from my shirtfront, I begin to realise what he means when he claims cigars are “back in business”. While world economies are tumbling and stocks and shares play more snakes than ladders, canny investors are putting their faith in these rolled tubes of dried tobacco leaves.
“I’ve seen recent vintages here in the UK treble in face value inside five years,” continues Orchant. He might have pointed to the UK Regional Edition Por Larranaga Magnificos, which sold for around £375 on release in 2007, and now sells for £1,000. “Current quality in production and blending of Cuban cigars is the best I’ve ever known it, and more and more investors are coming to me looking to hedge against a hostile investment world. Cigars are a very attractive, low-hassle option. Right now is a great time to get involved.”
Eddie Sahakian agrees. The suave 30-something, who runs London’s famous Davidoff cigar emporium with his father, Edward, was a banker in a former life and knows a good thing when he sees one.
“At a time when people are [getting very little interest on their] money as it sits in the bank, cigars are an attractive option,” he says. “We have clients who are laying down several boxes of specific vintages each year. They leave them in storage and in later years collect on the value. Of course, the key is in knowing what to lay down.”
Of course. Not any old Romeo y Julieta is going to inspire an instant love affair with your wallet. Just like fine wines, cigars are a 100 per cent natural product, and are therefore subject to a host of factors affecting their quality, such as disease and weather. That’s why Cuban cigar lovers worldwide wince when the latest Caribbean hurricane threatens the island.
Cuba’s unique geography and topography make it arguably the best place on earth to grow cigar tobacco. For centuries these cigars have been prized as a symbol of wealth, power and contentment. These days, aficionados love their smokes because of the relaxation, complexity and opportunity they offer.
The Vuelta Abajo region of Cuba is sacred cigar ground, where – in the fine, red, fertile soil – the best tobacco is grown for the island’s premier smokes. Some of the most productive crop years have produced stunning tobacco, and when these vintages come together with fine blending and construction to make a superlative cigar, that’s when collectors show an interest.
For the most serious – those who fly around the world to attend an auction – the Holy Grail is a box of Cuban Davidoff or Dunhill cigars. Each year, a few of these cigars are unearthed from private collections and come up for sale. Boxes of Cuban Davidoff Dom Pérignon, bought for around £300 before Cuban production ceased in 1992, can now fetch in excess of £5,000 at auction. The Davidoff Château series – named after France’s first-growth wines – is now discontinued and equally sought-after. Even small Cuban cigars produced for the Dunhill brand fetch thousands of pounds a box.
Cigars, like wine, improve with age, and ones rolled decades ago can be incredible smokes – so long as they’ve been stored at the correct humidity and temperature (in a humidor or climate-controlled warehouse).
While top-quality aged smokes are in high demand among collectors, even cigars well past their smoking best can fetch staggering prices at auction. Pre-embargo smokes, for example – produced before the US imposed its trade ban on Castro’s Cuba in 1962 – are highly prized and can legally be imported into the US. A part-box of 24 glass-tubed cigars, rolled in the 1940s, recently went under the hammer for £2,400.
But cigars don’t have to be that old to multiply in value. The original 40th Anniversary Cohiba Behike humidor, complete with 40 cigars, was released in 2006 and sold, in Havana, for €15,000. It is now available in The Lanesborough’s Garden Room for a cool £2,000 per cigar (£80,000 per humidor). A Partagas 165th Anniversary humidor, containing 50 cigars, was released a year ago in Cuba, priced at around £2,500; the same humidor is already changing hands between private investors for prices approaching £5,000.
If you enjoy a fine cigar and are building a collection of smokes that you like, there’s half a chance that you may enjoy some appreciation of assets almost by accident. “Clever cigar lovers smoke for free,” explains Orchant. “When they spot the vintage they are after, they’ll buy several boxes and put them away. Over time they will enjoy the cigars from half or so of their boxes, and after a few years cash in the other half, paying for their investment.”
Today’s vintage cigar market is dominated largely by the financial clout of Asian buyers, but it’s still possible for a beginner to dip his or her toe in. “It’s a very niche market and, in relative terms, hardly anyone knows about it,” says Sahakian. “That’s a good thing. It’s not like wine, where virtually everyone has an opinion… most people don’t even know there are such things as vintage cigars. There is plenty of value still to be had.”
So what are the golden rules for the newbie cigar investor? “Always speak to an expert first,” says Orchant. “You can’t expect to jump into a market and make money when you don’t know what you’re doing. Having said that, there are some helpful general principles that have seen good returns.”
Beginners are encouraged to stick to small-batch Cuban productions, such as the regularly produced UK Regional Editions. These are different brands and sizes limited to around 1,000 numbered boxes, and tend to sell out quickly.
One of 2011’s Editions, the Flor de Cano Short Robusto, is a take on the 1991 smoke mentioned earlier. The new version has proved extremely popular. But it’s an accessible little beauty, too, at just over £300 per box of 25, and is proving a tempting investment for the medium to long term. Once the initial run is sold out, appreciation starts. When other investors and collectors want to get their hands on these boxes, they will have to pay a premium, which will increase over time as the remaining cigars on the market decrease in number.
Specialist dealers will keep your investment in their climate-controlled conditions for an annual charge (the basic fee is £250 a year, although it’s free to clients who buy five boxes a year). They will also be able to help you sell them when the time is right. C Gars hosts a biannual Havana auction in London, putting together buyers and sellers from around the globe (the next auction is in July).
“Stick with the bigger and thicker types of cigars to start with,” says Sahakian. “They tend to hold their price better. And buy from the prominent, big-name Cuban cigar brands, such as Cohiba, Montecristo and Partagas. They attract a premium in the investment market. Some smaller cigars are sought after, but the majority are larger smokes. These also tend to be more powerful and complex because there is more room for tobacco and more for the blender to work with. And they lend themselves to long-term ageing.”
Orchant believes investing in cigars is a market like no other. “Once you’ve bought a few boxes and held them for a year or two, and managed to not smoke them,” he smiles, “one day you’ll notice that someone, somewhere is buying them for a mark-up. I promise you you’ll feel very pleased with yourself that day.”