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Cuban cigar mystique stokes demand; but will it endure?

Some say widespread sales of Cuban cigars in U.S. would water down the brands

Winston Churchill smoked eight to 10 cigars — mostly Cubans — every day.

Fidel Castro smoked them for 40 years before giving them up to set an example for the Cuban people.

And John F. Kennedy ordered his press secretary to secure 1,000 Petit Upmanns just before he signed an embargo in 1962 prohibiting trade with Cuba.

Kennedy signed the embargo 52 years ago and since then true Cuban cigars have enjoyed the mythical status bestowed upon products that people aren't allowed to buy or possess.

But with those days coming to an end, local cigar bar owners say they're not sure whether demand for Cuban cigars will endure after U.S. cigar smokers quench their desire to taste the forbidden fruit.

President Obama's order this week relaxing trade restrictions between the U.S. and the island nation has cigar aficionados looking forward to legal puffs of the storied Cuban stogies.

The new regulations broaden the type of travel allowed by Americans to the nation, although recreational tourism remains prohibited. Travelers who go for educational, cultural, business, family, religious, sports, and humanitarian purposes will be allowed to bring back $100 in tobacco and alcohol for personal use.

That's not enough to satisfy pent-up demand for Cuban cigars. Tom Popper, president of person-to-person tour company Insight Cuba, said an average cigar in Cuba runs $10 to $12, and it's easy to pay up to $20. "So if you really like cigars, you are going to be able to bring back maybe three to five," he said.

Pat Patel, owner of Macabi Cigar Bar on East Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, said customers "have been asking about them all day long."

Like every other U.S. cigar dealer, Patel is forced to disappoint enthusiasts by telling them that Obama's action doesn't immediately clear the way for U.S. sales.

Retail sales of Cuban cigars in the U.S., along with tourism and wider trade, await the resolution of an expected political fight between the administration and Republicans in Congress who oppose Obama's initiative.

Then there's the tangled nature of how cigars are made and sold inside and outside of Cuba.

"It's going to be a long time before Cuban cigars can be sold here because of the way the structure is set up within the cigar industry," said Vincent Presti, manager of Smoke Inn in Delray Beach.

For starters, there's the issue of duplicate brands. Versions of several popular Cuban cigar brands — including Montecristo, H. Upmann, Partagás, Quintero and Romeo y Julieta, Cohiba — are sold in the U.S. from tobacco grown in Central America. Because of the embargo, Cuba's trademarks aren't recognized in the U.S., so many of Cuba's best-known cigar brands have a twin version sold inside the U.S.

Altidas SA, a multinational tobacco company that sells Montecristo, H. Upmann, Quintero and Romeo y Julieta in the U.S., also holds a 50 percent stake in Habanos SA, Cuba's national cigar maker. The Cohiba and Partagás brands are sold in the U.S. by General Cigar Co., a competitor of Cuba's national company.

When Cuba's government nationalized the island's cigar industry after the revolution, makers of the country's most popular brands emigrated to Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, taking seeds and growing expertise with them.

Central American cigars are considered nearly as good, and in some cases preferrable, by smokers who have tried both, Presti said.

Patel said that while Cuban cigars are generally considered superior because of the nation's rich soil, ramping up production to meet U.S. demand might degrade their quality.

If that happens, the cigar market will devolve into "Coke and Pepsi," said the proprietor of Havana Republic Cigars down the street on East Las Olas Boulevard, who would only give has name as "Iggy."

For now, though, Cuban cigars remain one of the most smuggled — and counterfeited — consumer goods in the U.S. Some claim they are coveted for a richer, smoother flavor.

Cigar store owners respond in varying ways when asked what makes Cubans superior to cigars from other countries.

"They have a little more of a bite than the Dominicans," Patel said.

Said Presti, "I don't think they're that great. The construction is not the best. I'll take a Nicaraguan over a Cuban. I like the taste better."

According to "Iggy," flavor is all in the mind. "Every cigar tastes different. It depends on how you feel in the morning," he said. "You can be smoking the same cigar all your life and wake up in the morning and say, 'This tastes like [something not very good.]'"

Staff writer Diane Lade contributed to this report.

rhurtibise@sunsentinel.com, 954-356-4071

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