On the rise: the Asian market for regional edition Cuban cigars
The global celebrity and appeal of Cuban Cigars is of no surprise to anyone. Their position at the pinnacle of tobacco craft is undisputed, their heritage as a luxury tobacco product unrivalled. For hundreds of years cigars have left Cuba bound for destinations all over the planet, but politics and economics have long meant the majority head for Europe. Bonds left over from colonial times, a healthy appetite for cigars across the continent and strong performance of travel retail channels through her airport hubs have all been factors. Results for 2020 announced at the inaugural Habanos Online Days earlier this year showed that revenues for Habanos SA were still strongest in this region, but that for the first time in history China was the biggest buyer of Cuban cigars, when reporting by country.
Given the size of China in terms of population, this change should perhaps not be too surprising. A growing economy and middle class, a relatively relaxed public and legislative view of smoking when compared to the west, and the prestige attached to Cuban cigars – especially rare and limited releases – when given as gifts in the Guanxi system are all contributing factors to the sharp rise in sales there. Added to this are the effects of travel restrictions through 2020: shoppers from mainland China who would previously have availed themselves of the travel retail network while on business trips suddenly found themselves grounded, and forced to shop locally.
The view from the cigar deck at Skye Bar, Pullman Park Lane, Hong Kong
For some years now the availability of cigar smoking venues across east Asia has been impressive, at least in the major cities. Pacific Cigar Company, the distributor for the region, have created a fabulous network of stores, lounges and specialists across their territory, and many independent hotels and businesses have followed suit. From the Skye rooftop bar, on the 27th floor of the Pullman Park Lane in Hong Kong one can marvel at the views across Kowloon Bay – even spotting the Sheraton, home of the city’s La Casa del Habano – while Taipei’s P&L Club offers relaxed and elegant service, wine and whisky by the bottle or traditional teas to pair with an Asian regional edition cigar. The vast neon metropolises of east Asia are hubs of global finance, keen to show the rest of the world they can compete at the highest level in whatever they choose to offer. Their cigar scene is no exception.
A stunning Juan Lopez Seleccion No 4 enjoyed with traditional local tea at the P&L Club, Taipei.
So what, then, does this mean for aficionados who do their cigar shopping in other parts of the world? Rumours have circulated for a while now that the recent shortages of Behikes – or any Cohiba cigar with 2 bands, for that matter – is due, in part at least, to ultra-rich clients from China and the surrounding nations buying up all the stock before they even hit the shelves. Some European cigar smokers fear a sudden and significant price hike is on the horizon, with stock being redirected to Asia to match demand and shortages resulting in more traditional markets. These fears can be allayed with just a quick look at the wider figures: while China are at the summit, the top 5 countries for sales is completed by Spain, France, Germany and Switzerland. European sales combined account for 60% of the worldwide total; Asia-Pacific is a distant second with 16.2%. Clearly, there is a long way to go before balance, never mind a changing of the guard of major purchasers.
One way the growth of this market could benefit collectors from all over is the potential for more varied regional editions to be released to market. In 2005, when the regional edition programme began, only a handful of cigars were released, and to the European market. In 2006 the Ramon Allones Estupendos became the first release for the Asia Pacifico region. Subsequent years saw several releases offered most usually to the region as a whole, never – with a couple of exceptions for China – to individual territories. More recently the area has been broken down, with Hong Kong in 2017, Taiwan in 2018 and Malaysia in 2021 each seeing their own unique cigars. A desire to increase consumption in the area should, one hopes, allow the creativity of the blenders to run free, resulting in many different and exciting new cigars for us to try.
Left: The El Rey del Mundo Tainos, a regional edition for Taiwan in 2018. Right: The Flor de Cano Grandiosos, Asia-Pacific regional edition from 2013.
Such thing will of course take time, and the events have the last 18 months have not assisted matters. Harvest issues caused by weather and transport issues caused by the shutdown of global travel continue to take their toll on supplies to all markets, but some things are for certain: the sun still shines on Cuba, her tobacco still is packed with flavour and her torcedores still use their decades of experience to make products that will delight whoever they end up with. Before we know it, we will all be able to move between regions again, taking the regional edition releases from our nations to trade with our cigar-loving friends in many others. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.