BEIJING – In an oak panelled room packed with slender boxes of imported cigars, Eric Li dons a pair of white gloves and gets to work. As manager of Cigar Legends, Beijing’s oldest dedicated Cigar Bar, Li’s stockroom contains a roll call of Dominican and Cuban brands: Montechristos jostling for shelf space with Cohibos and Macanudos.“Cigar smoking is a way of life, and a sign of success” Li explains as a Norah Jones record whispers in the background.
China is home to one third of the world’s smokers, and Cigar Bars have opened in several of China’s more affluent cities to meet a growing demand for luxury smokes, often as part of hotel or real estate developments.
Imported cigars dominate the high-end of the Chinese market. China is already the world’s third largest market for Cuban cigars after Spain and France, and sales growth is far outpacing recession hit-Europe. Sales of Habanos cigars to China rose by almost 40 percent last year, as more affluent Chinese consumers turn to imported cigars as a status symbol. “The Chinese are quite heavy smokers and much more interested in luxury products. The best-seller there is the Cohiba, our most expensive cigar,” Cohiba executive Javier Terres told media earlier this year.
Cigar Legends opened seven years ago in the middle of Beijing’s Financial Street, and offers Beijing’s largest selection of foreign cigars. The district is home to over 1000 financial firms, and the bar attracts a high-spending clientele. “We’re a popular spot for CEOs,” Li said. “Our customers come here for business meetings as just as much as for socialising.” Portraits of notable cigar smokers, including Che Guevara and a grinning Winston Churchill line the walls.
But China’s cigar market isn’t all about fancy foriegn imports. China’s own brand of cigars, Great Wall, accounted for about half of cigars sold in China last year, according to research firm Euromonitor. Homegrown brands like Great Wall, Lion, and Three Gorges retail for as little as 30 cents each in Chinese convenience stores, meaning China’s cigar market is still dominated by low-end brands. But for Cigar Legend’s rich clientèle, only a imported cigars truly hit the spot. “Chinese cigars don’t taste as good,” Li said.