When you buy a box of handmade cigars (certainly Havanas) you should ask to open the box to check the contents. No decent cigar merchant should refuse. If he does, he either doesn't know his business, or there is probably something wrong with the cigars. The first judgment to make is purely visual: they have to look good. Make sure that the cigars are all of the same color. They should be properly matched: darkest on the left, lightest on the right. If there is any significant variation in color, it would be sensible to reject the cigars, as they are likely to be inconsistent in flavor, and the box might possibly have escaped final quality control in the factory. If the cigars differ significantly in color and the box is already open, it is more likely to mean that some of the cigars have come from another box (or somebody: customs, the cigar merchant, has been messing around with them) - another good reason for rejecting them. The spiral of the wrapper leaf should be in the same direction on all the cigars. don't be afraid to smell the cigars to see if you find the bouquet agreeable - it is part of what you are paying for. If they smell good, they should taste good, too. Smell the cut ends, or take one cigar out, and smell the gap where it lay: that way you will experience the bouquet at its fullest.
And feel one or two of the cigars. They should give slightly when you press gently between finger and thumb, but spring back to shape. They should feel smooth. If they make a noise, they are too old or dry. If they don't regain their shape, they are not well made. If the cigar shows no resilience when you press or is mushy, it has been badly stored and will smoke badly. A fresh cigar (less than three months old) will spring back to shape even if your finger and thumb make the two sides almost touch.
If possible, buy cigars in large quantities (boxes of 10 or 25, say) rather than cartons of five which are often less good and less consistent than larger quantities. Nor is it as easy to inspect a cellophane carton as it is simply to open a cigar box. Some large cigar stores sell cigars in their own boxes or with their own label. This is normally a marketing ploy: if you have an empty box or two at home, buy them loose; otherwise, you are simply paying for the fancy packaging. The same applies to cigars in polished boxes: if you have the option, buy them in regular cedar, unless you are very fond of boxes or want to present the cigars as a gift. Unless you have sophisticated storage facilities, buy only what you can smoke in the near future (a month or two, say).
Cigars in aluminum tubes lined with cedar (invented by H. Upmann), though very convenient to carry, can sometimes be rather dry as the tubes are not completely airtight. They occasionally lose their bouquet and tend not to be as well matured as cigars in boxes. This applies particularly to small sizes, whatever the manufacturer may claim on the tube. You can, on the other hand, find perfectly well-conditioned cigars in tubes. In the case of the famous Romeo Y Julieta Churchill, the tube states: The rich aromatic flavor of this fine Havana cigar will be protected by the aluminum container until opened But many would disagree.
Cigars wrapped in the cellophane can be just as good as those left loose in the box (except, that is, if they are machine-made). They keep well, but mature less. Sometimes cellophane turns brown by absorbing the oils from the cigar it contains. This shouldn't make a difference to the quality of the cigar, particularly if it is then properly humidified. Handmade Havanas rarely come in cellophane, although some sizes of Cohiba do, when sold in small packs.
Some cigars, the Havana H. Upmann Cristales (a corona size), for instance, come in hermetically sealed jars. These are meant to be "fresh" cigars, theoretically not fully matured, and tasting like the cigar would shortly after it was actually made.
London (with shops like the 200-year-old Fox & Lewis, Davidoff, and Dunhill) is acknowledged to be the best place in Europe to buy handmade cigars, certainly Havanas. The London branch of Davidoff sells some 400,000 handmade cigars a year in 220 different sizes and brands. But British import and tobacco taxes are high, and the cigars don't come cheap. Paris and Geneva (the headquarters of Davidoff) are also good places to buy. You are unlikely to find non-Cuban cigars using Cuban brand names in most of the leading European cigar shops, so there should be little confusion. Although Spain imports more cigars than anywhere else in Europe (the Spaniards smoke around 30 million Havanas a year, compared to 5 million in Britain), the quality of Havanas there, with many machine-mades on the market to boot, is often dubious, though prices are cheaper than in most of the rest of Europe. Smoking cigars is a particular custom at bullfights. There is a good selection of non-Cuban handmades to be found in London and, of course, in the major cigar stores in the United States.
Beware of apparent bargains - in sales, for instance. These are sometimes machine-made cigars bearing famous Havana labels. As always, check the box carefully. The same applies at airports, where duty-free prices can look very attractive. Storage conditions are often poor, but fast turnover can mean the cigars are smokable. Inspection is not permitted, so there's a risk. You should certainly steer clear of small tobacco stores, news stands, and the like: the cigars will almost certainly be old and badly stored.