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The Taste of a Cuban Cigar

By , - Last modified: March 1, 2011 at 11:52 AM

A local manufacturer rolls pre-embargo tobacco into premium smokes

Woodbridge

A New Jersey company has been working a loophole in the U.S. embargo on Cuban cigars: It sells a line of Havanas made from Cuban tobacco that has been sitting in a Florida warehouse since before the U.S. banned imports in 1962.

But Woodbridge-based Puros de Armando Ramos has only enough leaves left for another 18 months or so. It hopes to use its signature product as a wedge into high-end cigar shops and onto the radar of choosy cigar smokers.

Puros introduced its “Cuban-tobacco cigars” in 2000, made from what the company calls nearly 50-year-old, pre-embargo tobacco that it acquired in 1999.

Puros paid $2.5 million for 46,000 pounds of leaves, along with the temperature- and humidity-controlled warehouse in Tampa, Florida, in which they had been stored since the late 1950s, says Puros owner Paul Magier, 48. The company rolls the stogies in a plant it owns in Ecuador.

The resulting cigars, in a line called Pinar, have been a hit with smokers. Puros says it has sold almost 600,000 to cigar shops nationwide, where they go for a pricey $10 to $15 apiece. A survey of readers of Cigar Aficionado magazine found that 42% of respondents pay between $4 and $7 per cigar.

Sales of the Cuban-tobacco cigars account for about 40% of Puros de Armando Ramos’ $2 million annual sales. But time—and the Cuban tobacco—are running out. “This is a very limited proposition,” Magier says. “There is only so much of it.”

He hopes the buzz from the Cuban tobacco will help the company promote its other products, including cigars made with Ecuadorian leaves. “With this [Cuban] tobacco, we could make a name for ourselves and build good relationships with good retailers that can last forever,” Magier says.

The company plans to piggyback on the Pinar line’s success with a new product called Pinar Suprema. Available on a limited basis, the cigars are made from Honduran, Nicaraguan, Costa Rican and Panamanian tobaccos and blended to taste like the Cuban-tobacco Pinar.

“I am happy to say we got very close,” Magier says. “We have suggested that our retailers begin introducing it to their customers, so when the day comes that there are no Pinars left, we will sell those.” The Supremas are priced between $5 and $6.75.

Magier says most smokers are initially skeptical when told the Pinars are made of Cuban tobacco. “All doubt disappears the second they put one of these cigars in their mouth,” say Magier, who says the cigar has a peppery taste that doesn’t bite the mouth or burn the tongue.

Gary Kolesaire, owner of The Tobacco Shop of Ridgewood, had his doubts when a salesman for Puros came around pitching an original Pinar. But after he lit up and tasted and smelled the tobacco, he concluded that it really was a Havana. “Cuban tobacco has a distinct bouquet,” Kolesaire says. “There is nothing else like it.”

The cigar has become a leading seller at his store, one of six shops in New Jersey and 200 nationwide that carry the Pinar.

Norman F. Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America in Washington, D.C., was unfamiliar with Puros, whose $2 million in sales is a drop in the bucket in the $350 million premium cigar industry. “I don’t know of any other companies using pre-embargo Cuban tobacco,” Sharp says. “It was pretty much used up when the Cuban embargo went into effect in the early ’60s.”

Magier says the tobacco was imported between 1956 and 1960 by the late Murray Grossman, a Tampa cigar manufacturer, whose estate was tied up in probate for two decades after his death. His oldest son, Jeff Grossman, finally inherited the tobacco in 1985. When President Bill Clinton started talking about loosening the Cuban embargo in the 1990s, Jeff Grossman feared the value of the tobacco would drop and began looking for a buyer.

Before closing the deal, Magier says he waited for agents from the U.S. Customs Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to inspect it. “I had three questions: ‘Is it in fact Cuban? Is it in fact pre-embargo tobacco? And would I go to jail for selling it?’ Everybody gave me the green light,” Magier says.

The fragile tobacco remains in the Tampa warehouse, and Puros ships small amounts to its Ecuadorian factory each month. “We could have sold them as fast as we could roll them, but that wasn’t what we were trying to achieve,” Magier says. “Our real goal is to create a unique cigar and introduce it to cigar smokers through a limited number of good retailers that we can forge long-term relationships with.”

Magier was running a New York City advertising agency in 1996 when he sold it and bought a tiny New York City cigar company from a Cuban named Armando Ramos for $150,000. “He had no names, boxes or brands,” Magier says. “He just had cigars. But limos would stop in front of his shop all day long. Anyone who was anyone seemed to know him.”

In the early days, Magier worked from the basement of his East Brunswick home, using his computer to print labels that his kids wrapped on Ramos’ cigars.

Today, the company has offices and a warehouse in Woodbridge with nine employees. It has 10 independent salespeople nationwide, five workers at the Tampa warehouse and about 60 people working at a factory and farm in Ecuador, which is overseen by the now 84-year-old Ramos.

“Progressing to a factory and warehouse has been an interesting journey,” says Magier, who was 12 when he encountered his first cigar. “I was fishing with my father and he gave me a horrific cigar and he said it would keep the mosquitoes away,” he recalls. “Little did he know, he was pointing me in my path for the rest of my life.”

E-mail to sgoldstein@njbiz.com

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