The numbers are there and they are extraordinary. Last year, 456 million handmade cigars were shipped to the United States, according to the Cigar Association of America. Shipments were up 25.3% from 2020. Cigar retailers said imports only tell part of the story – cigars are also selling in record numbers.
“It’s been an absolutely phenomenal year, double-digit growth over the previous year — and 2020 has been pretty good,” says Gary Pesh, who has been selling cigars since 1980. Pesh, of Old Virginia Tobacco Co., owns seven stores. “It was truly one of the best years we’ve had.”
Jeff Borysiewicz, owner of Corona Cigar Co. in Orlando, Florida, calls the year “the best I’ve ever seen,” he says. He has been selling cigars for 26 years.
All three major cigar-producing countries recorded gains in 2022, all of them significant. Nicaragua, by far the market leader, shipped 240.9 million handmade cigars in 2021, a 29.4% increase over 2020 figures. (Nicaragua accounts for more than half of shipments of handmade cigars to the United States, 52.8%). The Dominican Republic saw a 22.5% gain, shipping 129.5 million cigars. Honduras recorded an increase of 18.3%, to 84.2 million handmade cigars.
The strong 2021 followed a fairly strong 2020, when 361.3 million handmade cigars were shipped to the United States, an increase of 7% over 2019 figures. This growth came despite the pandemic closures of cigar factories, particularly in the Dominican Republic and Honduras, in the first half of 2020. The gains were particularly strong at the end of 2020, with an astonishing 71% increase in December 2020 compared to December 2019.
In comparison, December 2021 has not been so good. It was almost inevitable to disappoint, given December’s performance of the previous year, but December cigar shipments were down 23.8% from December 2020.
In retrospect, prior to the 1990s, sales of handmade cigars in the United States were low. Imports were equal to or less than 100 million units. Between 1977 and 1992, annual imports of premium cigars hovered between 73 million and 103 million cigars, according to the Cigar Association of America. Cigar sales in America exploded in the mid-1990s, soaring to 136 million cigars in 1995, 243 million in 1996 and 418 million in 1997, three years that were the strongest anyone living can remember in the world of cigars.
Cigar shipments cooled after 1997 and then rebounded. The past decade has been good for cigars, and it was the tenth consecutive year that cigar imports exceeded 300 million units, and the first year since 1997 that imports exceeded 400 million units.