It is known, although whether affectionately or not is unclear, as the shoebox. Its dimensions and stout construction could easily pass as a piece of shoeshine paraphernalia: it is just about the right height for a customer to rest his feet on, while the man with the polish and cloth gets to work. However, to me, its flat top and sloping sides suggest a portable pre‑Columbian temple of some sort or other. But it is neither tool of the shoe-care trade, nor site of religious observance. It is a box of cigars: Bolívar Presidentes (£2,100 for a box of 50), not a familiar name in Bolívar, but rather the soubriquet given to the 5.9in x 54-ring-gauge trunk of Cuban tobacco made for the Swiss market in 2012. And instead of seeing this magnificent casket of Havanas in a Gstaad chalet or lake-view apartment in Geneva, I am examining it in Mayfair, in the comfortably clubby interior of the Birley Cigar Shop at 5 Hertford Street.
This epic piece of woodwork contains just one of a world atlas of regional editions: cigars made in Cuba for sale in one particular market. Almost as eye-catching is the hatbox-sized red lacquer tub covered in Chinese script and protected in a plush red velvet bag, made in 2008 to house the majestically dimensioned Bolívar Armonía (£4,500 for a box of eight, fourth picture) – a Zeppelin-shaped, double-ended monster that is almost 1in across at its widest point and 7.2in in length. There is also what I can only describe as a pleasing porcelain flower vase for a rarity called La Escepción (£2,000 for jar of 30, fifth picture) that was made for the Italian market. Indeed, it seems that everywhere the eye looks in this cosy shop it alights on some recondite cigar originally made for consumption in some exotic market, from the Sancho Panza Eslavo (£45 each) made for Serbia last year to the Ramón Allones Gladiator (£45 each), released onto the Andean market (Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador) in 2010.
Cigars are as much for collectors as they are for smokers. As a sybaritic agricultural product with increasing importance accorded to ageing and vintages, a good Havana cigar has all the allure of a classed-growth bordeaux, while the philatelic-level importance accorded to the two bands that adorn a regional edition and the unusual sizes in which they are made keep the cigar taxonomist busy.
Regional specificity also adds another layer of interest. Apparently there is one Peruvian customer at the Birley Cigar Shop who, when he is feeling homesick, comes and samples the Juan López Inca (£26 each), made for Peru in 2014. The Inca is smoking very pleasantly, and as a Petit Robusto can be enjoyed within 20 minutes – think of it like a strong espresso. The same can be said of Ramón Allones Petit Robusto of 2011 (£38 each), made for the Israeli market and offering concentrated punchiness, which develops a pleasing salty tang with a not unpleasant bitterness. Apparently, it is very popular with 5 Hertford Street’s Arabic customers, for whom it has the allure of forbidden fruit and also the fuller flavour that is characteristic of cigars popular in the Middle East.
Regional editions have been around for 10 years and the criteria are a little complicated. The brand must not be internationally available, instead it has to be made in an unusual size in what are described as “local” or “multilocal” brands, some of which are famous: Bolívar, for instance; others less so, such as San Luis Rey, Sancho Panza and Por Larrañaga.
In fact, it was a Por Larrañaga that kicked off the whole regional edition mania. There had been five regional editions in 2005 and six in 2006, but the Magnifico was released in 2007 and really captured the imagination of cigar smokers: two years later there were 23 regional editions including the splendidly named Punch Northern Lights for the Nordic countries. With a feeling of smug patriotism, I am pleased that the Magnifico was made for the UK.
As well as being a little known brand in an unusual but desirable size (50-ring gauge x 6.75in), the Magnifico established a pattern with its elaborate packaging. Regional editions tend towards what might be called cigar bling: as well as the regular band, they carry an extra paper ring proclaiming their region. With the Magnifico, UK importers Hunters & Frankau went to extraordinary lengths to recreate the old Por Larrañaga band, eventually finding a printer in Eindhoven with more than a century of experience in printing for the cigar trade.
I have fond memories of a floral, harmonious and aromatic cigar that was light and subtle; and memories are all I am likely to have, as according to C Gars’ vintage cigar specialist Mitchell Orchant, Magnificos, now change hands at around £1,400 a box – a remarkable appreciation in light of their original price of £457 – and are second only in desirability to the first batch of Ramón Allones’ Phoenicios, which, says Orchant, sell for around £2,000 for a box of 30.
Among cigar lovers the Phoenicio is, if not a mythical cigar, then at least a legendary one. Made in 2008 for the Lebanese market, it adopted the then relatively new Sublimes format: a girthy 54-ring-gauge cigar around 6.5in in length. It also had a fancy second band, rather than straight sides announcing the region; one side had a semicircle with the name of the regional distributor in it. The production run was 6,000 boxes of 30 with a second run of 3,000 boxes of 15: scarce enough to stimulate interest, but sufficiently available to create a market.
Its statistics are impressive on paper, and the cigar is even better when one sets fire to it, as I had the pleasure of doing recently. Ramón Allones is a brand of which I am wary, as on occasion it is too powerful for me, somewhere between the steamroller strength of Bolívar and the spiciness of Partagás. But that spiciness lends itself well to ageing, and seven years on, the first half inch of the cigar is almost fresh and grassy, then it assumes the familiar pepperiness, nuanced with herbaceous notes and a slight cedar undertone, so the cigar is not monotonously overpowering.
The second regional batch of Phoenicios (£850 from Birley) was made to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Middle Eastern distributor; and another celebratory regional edition, the Ramón Allones Aniversario 225, marks the 225th anniversary this year of UK importer Hunters & Frankau. This 50-ring-gauge, 5.5in Cabeza Tumbada is a “dropped head”, or blunt-headed sloping-shouldered cigar, and while it has the underlying strength typical of more powerful Havanas, there is subtlety and complexity with hints of roasted coffee beans and even a salted sweetness, all underpinned by a piquancy that bodes well for ageing. The packaging is spectacular: the humidors (£4,275, second picture) have four sliding-lid boxes of 25 cigars (£672.50 for a box of 25, or £26.90 per cigar), each stored inside a replica of the cabinets in which cigars were shipped in the early 20th century.
These cigars stand on their merits as cigars as much as regional editions. But, as Edward Sahakian of Davidoff explains, much of the appeal of the regional editions centre on their mystique and collectability: “There is a group of collectors who go around the world and make a point of having all the regional editions. It has become quite competitive and part of the excitement of smoking a cigar. We frequently get people asking for certain cigars they are missing. The Swiss ones are popular and the Edmundo Dantes from Mexico is highly sought after. We only have the UK regional editions and my personal favourite by far was the Por Larrañaga Magnifico.” Sahakian is fortunate enough to have a few humidors of 50 Por Larrañaga Magnificos from the cigar’s 2008 limited re-release in just 100 humidors (£5,000 each).
But not all regional editions are of the same quality, and while some cigars have seen spectacular rises in value, this appreciation has been anything but uniform. It’s possible that a collector who has paid substantially more than the retail price to fill a gap in his collection may find that in time its value has decreased. Mitchell Orchant recalls how he was asked to value a collection of regional editions in which the owner had invested €1m, and had the unpleasant task of informing the would-be vendor that he estimated the collection’s value at around half that.
The market for regional cigars is, however, about to get more interesting. The rules permit only one regional edition per territory per year and the sizes and shapes are limited too, but, in addition, from next year a region will not be able to follow up a successful edition until a minimum of five years has passed.
But however the market changes, there is one certainty. If you get stuck with a cigar that does not rise in value, unlike other investments you can always take pleasure from smoking it – and use the box to store your shoe polish.