Unfortunately, forums are full of well-intentioned advice, which (regrettably) is often wrong and is invariably incomplete, and therefore misleading.
Luckily there are ways to prove that a cigar is or may be a fake. Some are definitive and some are indicative. Enough negative indications should be sufficient to raise reasonable doubts.
One needs to understand what a fake cigar is, which cigars are faked, who fakes cigars, and how fake cigars are sold. In this context, the term “cigar” includes the packaging.
A fake is anything made to appear other than it actually is, and is intended to be passed off fraudulently or deceptively as genuine.
There are good fakes and there are bad fakes. Fakes are produced by large professional groups, individuals, and everyone in between.
Cigars that may be genuine but mistaken as fakes are: special factory productions, factory trials, pre-production cigars, previously unrecorded cigars or releases, etc.
Habanos S.A. grants single a licence to import and distribute their cigars for individual territories. Regional Licence Holders have their own local distribution offices. These local distribution offices sell to sub-distributors and major retailers.
Sub-distributors may have retail sales and/or wholesale to smaller the retailers (tobacconists, bars, clubs, liquor outlets, etc).
Retailers can purchase from distributors, sub-distributors, parallel importers, parallel import themselves, or use a combination of all sources.
Parallel suppliers are legitimate (but unauthorised) suppliers selling outside their region.
Sub-distributors sell product into the grey market to increase their own volume turnover, since the more stock they sell, the better discount they can get from their distributor. Transactions, communications, and payment are normally done through third-party companies so that nothing can be traced directly back to the distributor/sub-distributor from where the cigars originated.
Many retailers purchase from both their authorised distributor and parallel supply sources.
There is nothing wrong with parallel importing (other than being unauthorised), but it does depend on the knowledge and scruples of both the parties involved. Many retailers that parallel import are 100% reliable; some regrettably are not.
For retailers, purchasing from a parallel supplier is generally cheaper, however there are two downsides: the possibility of fakes and there are no wholesale-level returns, and therefore no quality control.
Black Marketeers are professional criminal operations, generally originating from Central America, Cuba and Asia. These operations involve massive quantities of fake cigars.
They either sell into the grey market (passing themselves off as legitimate parallel suppliers) or they sell direct to the final point-of-sale sellers: websites, brick and mortar stores, bars, clubs, street touts, cruise lines, vacation destinations, etc.
The Grey Market is the retail level sellers who have purchased stock from Parallel Market Suppliers.
Some world-renowned retailers have been caught selling fakes (notably Limited Editions). When pressed they admitted that they purchased the cigars outside of the licensed distribution channel.
Since 2010, all Cuban Cigar boxes have had an individual barcode serial number, which can be used to trace the box back to the distributor it was originally supplied to. This is a mechanism for Habanos S.A. to monitor the paths that boxes enter the grey market. Some Grey Market venders remove this barcode so that the product cannot be traced back to the distributor.
Buyers should always use caution with buying from an unknown grey market dealer, however the Grey Market in itself is not an indication of fakes.
All cigars can and are being faked and can be categorised as follows:
Fake Cigars can be non-Cuban cigars or cheap local Cuban cigars (handmade but normally with short-filler tobacco scraps). They may or may not be to the correct size, and are sometimes sold with a totally bogus cigar or release name. Fake or upgraded cigars can also be genuine Cuban cigars with stolen or fake bands purporting to be an exclusive valuable cigar.
Fake Packaging includes genuine boxes (either stolen in large numbers or a reused genuine box), counterfeits of genuine boxes, or totally bogus boxes (e.g. the “classic” glass top boxed Cohiba).
Bands are either stolen genuine or forged/fake bands (commercially available on the web), or to a lesser extent, reused genuine bands.
For example, consider a standard production Montecristo No.4. Replace the standard band with a forged “Compay” band and it becomes the 2002 Compay 95 Aniversario cigar. Alternatively add a supplementary “Reserva” band and it becomes a 2007 Reserva cigar. Put these cigars into a "reused" genuine box of the correct type and it would be difficult for anyone to dispute that they were genuine cigars.
Cigar fakers range from full-time high volume Black Market/criminal organisations; to small time backstreet rollers; down to one-off individuals.
Some well organised professional fake manufactures operate out of China. These producers use professional printers to create high-quality copies of genuine packaging. The cigars are well constructed by professional rollers. These cigars are available on legitimate looking websites, and sometimes infiltrate supply lines into brick-and-mortar stores.
In South and Central America, fake Cubans are readily available, especially at holiday destinations popular with residents of the United States. These normally use low-quality printing, often with poorly applied foils, and sometimes bizarre packaging mistakes. They would appear to be a "backyard" level of operation.
In Cuba, all kinds of fakes are available. Refilling of legitimate boxes is common; with cigars ranging from low quality home rolls to "genuine" cigars that have been stolen from the factories. Any tourist walking a few blocks in Havana will undoubtedly be offered fake cigars multiple times.
These examples are just a tiny section of the wide variety of fake Cuban cigars available around the world.
Black market cigars are either knowingly or inadvertently sold by the Grey Market retailer system, or directly by unscrupulous end-user sellers. This usually involves large volumes.
Smaller volumes tend to be the “home” rollers, and one-off sales tend to be replacement or upgrading scams.
Other sources are the unknowing travellers who bring back a few boxes from overseas to “defray their expenses”.
All Cuban cigars sold in the USA should be treated with the highest suspicion. There has been no legal avenue for selling these cigars for many decades, so anybody doing so is committing a criminal act. Even if the vendor stands by their stock and believes it to be genuine, every link in their supply chain must be considered suspicious.
At retail level cigars are sold:
Before buying consider the following questions:
Who are you buying from and what is their reputation?
Do they provide full contact details (physical address and phone contact)?
Do they guarantee both product and delivery?
Do they specialise in Cuban cigars?
Do they sell Grey Market product?
Are the prices in line with market prices or are they just too cheap?
Is there range of discontinued or special release stock too extensive or beyond general market quantities?
Do they send checked open boxes or sealed unchecked boxes?
Why are they selling?
What is the source of the cigars?
How have the cigars been kept?
Do they accept returns?
Purchasing cigars in poor condition can be just as disappointing as purchasing fakes.
There are always concerns when buying aged or vintage cigars sight-unseen from retailers, and buying any cigars from unknowledgeable individuals. Cigars stored for long periods of time at unregulated temperature and humidity conditions are likely to be unsmokable. Storage conditions are important.
Before even beginning to investigate the actual cigar and packaging, it is essential that some preliminary information is collected and examined.
Without this basic information, many of the individual tests cannot be made. Very few of these tests are definitive, most are only indicative, and obviously many of these tests cannot be applied to cigars purchased as singles.
If a cigar passes a test, that does not prove it is genuine. Ultimately, nothing can ever prove a cigar is genuine.
If a cigar fails a definitive test, that is normally sufficient to prove it is a fake.
If a cigar fails a indicative test, that does not prove it is a fake, but enough "fails" should raise a reasonable doubt as to the authenticity of the cigars.
Check that the named cigar actually exists. You would be amazed how many fake cigars have totally bogus cigar or release names. Common examples are Limited Editions that don’t exist for the year indicated.
This should be a definitive test for post-1985 cigars. In the post-1962 period, hundreds of discontinued cigars were unrecorded.
The date of a cigar is the most important aspect to enable checking for fakes.
Methods of dating of a cigar fall into three main time periods. These major and minor changes assist either in dating a box or ensuring that the cigars, bands, and packaging is appropriate for the date of time periods known for the cigar in question.
During this period only a single warranty seal was used. The "Hecho en Cuba" Country of Manufacture stamp underwent several minor variations in the late-1960s, 1974, 1978, 1980, and finally in c1982/3. There are no box dates or codes applied during this period.
In 1985 box date codes were introduced. During this period the previous warranty seal continued to be used until 1999, at which time the red serial number warranty seal was introduced. The bar-coded seal was introduced c2010 and there was a transition period where the new seal was affixed over the old seal. There is also a Producer's name stamped onto boxes. Between 1985 and 1994 this was a "Cubatabaco" stamp that incorporated a stylised tobacco leaf logo. In 1994 the current "Habanos s.a." stamp was introduced.
Since 2010, all Cuban cigars have had a unique barcode serial number printed on their warranty seal. The code is a 12 digit sequential number, and when input into the Habanos website it will tell you what box it should be associated with.
The system is not fool proof. Because the number doesn't tell you anything specific about the box (such as date or factory code), all a faker would need to do to pass the check would be to obtain a single legitimate number and put it on all their box boxes of that cigar. There is also at least one cigar (the Romeo y Julieta Petit Royales), which has consistently returned an incorrect result from the Habanos website for the entirety of its manufacturing run (it returns as the Wide Chuchills Grand Reserva).
That said, if you purchase a box from a marginal vendor and the barcode does not check out, that is a clear-cut question-mark over the box, and it should probably be returned.
Determine if the cigar is a current Standard or a discontinued Standard Production cigar, or a Special Release cigar.
Check that the box date and the cigar status agree.
A 2003 Special Release or a Standard Production cigar discontinued in 2003 should not have a 2007 date stamp, however special release and discontinued dates do have some flexibility. Occasionally cigars are produced in the last few months of the year prior to release, and (more often) special release are up to a year late.
Check that the packaging type and size is both valid for the cigar name and for the production date. Sometimes cigars are offered in packaging types and count numbers that never or no longer exist.
Again, here as in every other test, a negative indication may be false. Not all packaging is known, and sometime Vendors repackage standard production cigars. An example is Hunters & Frankau (the UK distributor), who repackaged the Quintero Panetelas (2) produced in dress boxes of 25 cigars and place them in tubes and sell them as Panetelas Tubulars in packs of 10. The giveaway here was that these Tubulars show obvious signs of box-pressing.
Even before removing the cigar from a dress box, the uniformity of the band placement on the cigars should be checked, as well as checking the colour uniformity and shade graduation of the top layer.
Normally cigars of the same shade are allocated to a single box, but when there is a slight difference, the shades are arranged to run from darker to lighter, from left to right across the box. Bands should all line up.
Cigars, particularly older cigars, have slightly different head shapes. Check that the shape of the head of the cigar is correct. For example: some heads are conical and some heads have pigtails.
Cigars in dress boxes (except tubos and cedar sheet wrapped cigars) are "boxed-pressed" and show (to a variable extent) squared-off sides; so check for box-pressed cigars turning-up in cabinets and tubes, etc.
Both the length and diameter (gauge) should be checked using a ring gauge. This is a very simple test that is often overlooked.
Seasoned cigars shrink, so the actual length is normally 2mm to 3mm shorter than the nominal length. The diameter can be plus or minus one ring size.
The cigar bands need to be checked to ensure that they are the correct type based on the package date. They also need to be checked that they match genuine band images. The bands need to be correctly applied (overlapped), be free of glue marks, and uniformly placed. Cigars in cabinets did not have bands pre-c2006.
Cuban cigars have not been produced with cellophane sleeves since 1992. The only exceptions are the small machine-made Puritos produced by ICT.
The cigar wrapper (outer tobacco leaf) should be assessed for reasonable quality. Check for quality, condition, and consistency. Beware of fake wrappers such as “barber poles” or similar.
Premium Cuban cigars are rolled with what is called a triple-cap construction to the head of the cigar. A must have for high-end Parejos (straight) cigars. It is often miss-reported that all Cuban cigars use this head construction. This is incorrect. Smaller cigars (mostly former machine-made sizes) are constructed without the triple cap.
Special releases and almost all current production cigars are hand-rolled using long-filler (whole leaf) tobacco, however there are a number of current production cigars that were previously machine-made using short-filler (chopped) tobacco.
Where warranted, destructive testing by cutting 2 or 3 cm off the foot can be used to check for short-filler tobacco.
This is not a valid test for most people. Handmade cigars by their very nature are variable.
Detecting a non-Cuban cigar should be easy for most Cuban Cigar smokers. Some smokers may be able to detect or confirm a particular cigar or brand, but very few could detect an upgraded fake (i.e. a standard production Montecristo No.4 with a forged “Compay” band posing as the 2002 Compay 95 Aniversario cigar).
Check that the various stamps and stickers are correctly applied and appropriate to the box date. Note that the stickers must actually be applied - they are never placed loose in the box (common with fake cigars in South and Central America).
Also check the general quality of packaging. Cuban print and finish quality can be highly variable, with misprints, poorly applied labels, misshapen boxes, and so on all quite common. What is not common are misprints that would require a change in the design source. For example, it is possible that the embossing might be misaligned, or that the logo on a dress box might be upside down. It is not possible that "Havana Cuba" is written in an incorrect font.
For the standard dress box, all the appropriate stickers and stamps are on the outside of the box.
Some Special Releases in upmarket varnished boite-nature boxes come in a plain or decorative protective cardboard outer. Some of the stickers and stamps are placed on this outer packaging (for example, see the Cohiba 1966 LE2011 ).
A vitolina note with text regarding recommended storage conditions, written in four languages (Spanish, English, French, and German) should be in every box. There are several variations of these notices. Check that the internal notice used is appropriate for the box date.
Vitolina notes are frequently misplaced when boxes are inspected at the distributor or retailer level, so their absence in an unsealed box is not a cause for concern.
Many special releases have a unique internal notice providing pertinent details regarding the release.
Between 1985 and 1994 "Cubatobacco" was the authority responsible for the production of Cuban cigars. From 1994 to present "Habanos S.A." is the responsible authority.
There are a number of variations to this box stamp, applied from the Pre-Revolution period to the present. They should agree with box dates and all other items.
This is the Denominación de Origen Protegida sticker, normally applied diagonally to the top right-hand corner of cigar boxes. There are several versions of this sticker, which should agree with the box date.
These are supplementary stickers applied diagonally and below the DOP sticker.
Union and Warranty seals have been applied to Cuban cigar boxes from 1889 to the present. Check that the correct warranty seal is used in relation to the box date.
The current seal has a bar code that can be checked for authenticity on the Habanos SA website. The previous seal had a red serial number that can be used to ascertain the approximate release date.
In addition all seals should be correctly located on the box and the fold of the seal should be through the centre of the coat of arms (although poorly placed seals are a common packaging error).
Many regional distributors have logo stickers that they apply as an assurance of authenticity.
Some, such as H&F UK use a numbered "EMS" sticker that changes colour annually; and a different sticker for packages destined for Travel Retail and H&F's official export markets. These stickers double as duty paid stickers. In Germany, two separate stickers are applied.
These days, various pictorial or text stickers are plastered over cigar boxes; and this may provide another way to help in assessing the status of recent packaging.
Buying your Cuban cigars from a known reputable source is the best possible way to avoid fakes.
If you buy elsewhere, you can use this information as a general guide.