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A Gift That Keeps on Giving

Yes, yes, we know, perhaps it’s not the most exciting name for a website out there, but if there’s one thing that pretty much every smoker of Cuban cigars would agree on, it’s this: The website www.cubancigarwebsite.com is, bar none, the most comprehensive online catalog of Cuban Cigars, period.

Back in early 2010, our fearless Asia correspondent, Sam Spurr, wrote a great piece on it called “A Gift to the Cigar World”, and we felt it was time for us to revisit the subject 10 years later and see where they are and what they have in store for us in 2021 and beyond.

We spoke with the current site owner, Alexander Groom, Down Under [in Australia] and he was gracious enough to give us some of his time for this interview and to share his experience with us. Towards the end of this article, you’ll also find some really awesome news, so keep reading. Also, pay special attention to the pictures, as Alexander tells us he dropped a few teasers into the shots …

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I also wanted to reach out to some of the world’s Cuban Cigar experts to see what they thought, so I poked Gino Ianillo (Amicigar), Rob Ayala (Friends of Habanos and Bond Roberts) and Mitchell Orchant (C.Gars Ltd) for some input on the topic, so thank you for your contributions.

Jorge Tapies: Alex, thanks for taking to time to speak with us today. Tell us about the history of the CubanCigarWebsite (CCW).

Alexander Groom: My pleasure, Jorge.

CCW was started by Trevor Leask in 2006. Trevor had recently sold his civil engineering business and retired, and he was collecting Cuban cigars as a retirement hobby.

Min Ron Nee’s fantastic encyclopedia had come out a few years earlier and was the first really comprehensive reference for collectors of Cuban cigars, but the time that book documents had really already passed, with hundreds of cigars discontinued in the early 2000s. Also, Habanos had a new marketing direction and had begun many new release programs around that time, with new limited editions, regionals, anniversary humidors, Colección Habanos and other things coming every year. There was no central reference for any of this, and so while building his collection, Trevor was doing research and creating his own lists of what was available. He decided to make this resource available to others, and that’s how the site began.

JT: And you? How and when did you meet Trevor Leask, and what made you become the new, rightful owner of the website?

AG: I had worked as a computer programmer for a few years, but in 2008 I took a sort of a gap year with a plan to teach English in Japan. I was sponsored to go over with a school, but when I arrived, the job they had for me fell through. I stayed anyway, and taught a bit casually here and there, and did other odd jobs, but mostly I had a lot of free time.

I had smoked casually for years but was getting into cigars seriously around then and smoking a lot of different things. At one point I entered a blind tasting competition on the Friends of Habanos (FOH) forum. I wanted a list of every cigar that matched the dimensions of the unbanded one they had sent me so that I could narrow down the choices for the tasting. This was impossible, really, anywhere at that time … The information was there on CCW, but you still had to go through and find all the cigars and compile the list yourself.

I sent Trevor an email with some suggestions about how he could improve things by adding a database, which would allow a proper search function. He was thinking of doing it himself, and we went back and forth for a few weeks before I ended up building him a little prototype. Things just sort of grew from there. I never would have conceived in those early days that I would still be working on the site 12 years later … I was just helping someone out because I had some free time.

For the next few years, we worked on it together. Trevor ran the site day to day and maintained all the data, while I did the technical stuff.

After Japan, I lived in China for a year, and then went back to Melbourne, Australia, where I am today. Trevor is in Sydney, but we didn’t actually meet until around 2011, when he came to Melbourne for a wedding. It was funny to finally meet after exchanging many thousands of emails over the years.

Around 2012, Trevor wanted to retire from the site, and so it passed to me. There were a couple of years of transition while I gradually took over more and more functions, but eventually we put everything into my name in 2014.

I still consult Trevor from time to time, of course, and we see each other for a smoke a few times a year. He collects stamps now, and he runs a website for that also.

JT: Since Trevor left the business in 2014, what have you maintained and what have you done differently on the website?

AG: Before Trevor handed over the website, he got it to a point where he considered it complete. It was up to date, included everything historical about which firm data was known, and the various text sections about construction and packaging, and so on, were all completed to the fullest of his knowledge.

So for that stuff, I have maintained it as new cigars are released and new information comes to light, but fundamentally it’s the same as it was when Trevor left.

Of the things I have added, it’s mostly more technical features. I think many users aren’t aware of it, but there’s a lot more to CCW than meets the eye, if you register on the site. I have added features where you can curate your collection, and a wishlist of things you want; you can keep a diary of your smokes, which will be aggregated with others in the average ratings you see on the site. You can add people as your friends, and there’s a feature for organizing trades, which matches up the things you’re missing from your collection with those in your friends’ collections. Those are the kinds of things I usually add.

JT: Tell us about the data loss in 2016; how bad was it?  Did you think of giving up at the time?

AG: It was bad!

I woke up one morning in December to find that my email wasn’t working. CCW was also down, along with a number of other sites I hosted on the same server. It was concerning, but I figured the host was probably just having a technical issue and things would come back online soon. I lodged a support ticket … and got a response explaining that their server had crashed and all data was lost. The crash had caused them to discover that their backup server had also not been working for a long period of time.

IT professionals say that any data that is not backed up is data you’re prepared to lose, so it was terribly lazy and stupid of me, but I had very little backed up myself. I’d been using that web host for my sites for over 10 years and never had a significant issue before, and I’d just become complacent.

I called Trevor to tell him the situation, and felt awful, because this was something that he had created over many years, and had trusted me with, and in just two years I had totally destroyed it. So for that reason, I never really thought about giving up. I felt I had a responsibility to recover it, no matter what.

Within a few days, more than one person had reached out to let me know that they had been using bots to scrap the site to create their own local copies. I didn’t ask too many questions as to why they would be doing this. Ultimately it saved the site, so I can’t be too unhappy.

Over the next six months or so, I rebuilt all the software from scratch. Actually, in many ways it was a big improvement for CCW in the long term. I was a much better programmer in 2017 than I was in 2008, and the current site is much improved for mobile phones, search engine optimization, speed, and so on. Also, the backup process is much more rigorous today.

JT: How is your relationship with Habanos S.A. and its distributors?

AG: I’m part of the Habanos Knowledge group run by Phoenicia, so through that group I have access to some Habanos people, but with Habanos itself I have no relationship. Once in a while at events I’m introduced to an Habanos S.A. executive, and none have ever been familiar with my site. So I think they have no awareness of it, to be honest. 

I have good relationships with a few of the distributors, who will send me info on their new releases and answer questions when I have them and invite me for a smoke when I’m in their country.

JT: How do you go about updating the site? How much time do you put into research, writing, taking the pictures, etc.?

It varies from week to week. To keep the database up to date is not much work. During the week of the Habanos Festival, every year I need to spend a few hours to add everything new that’s announced, and then during the year, the work is just as things are released. I need to update the status and add any new information that comes to light.

When I receive new cigars, I have a small studio set up to photograph them. It’s all streamlined so I just need to put the cigar on the stand, take the photo with the camera, and then all my software is set up so that it’s just a few clicks to process the photo and upload it.

Beyond that, there’s the research, which mostly comes about when someone emails me to ask a question about some oddity. Depending on what that is, it might be a few hours looking through old books and catalogs or emailing some other experts around the world. I have an archive of many thousands of pictures of old boxes and things, so sometimes I need to search through that, if the question is about strange marks on a box or something.

And finally, there’s the technical work. I have a list of features I would like to add to the site at some stage, and there’s always a little maintenance to do here and there. I also have a blog, where I write reviews and tell stories from my life.

I’ve had a lot of free time this year, so I’ve been working on a book, which adds a lot of time.

So all up? Maybe 10 or 20 hours a week. Or more? Whatever I have free, really. It’s hard to say, as this is my hobby. It’s how I choose to spend my leisure time.

JT: So if this is not your full-time job, what do you do for a living?

AG: Well, as I said, my background is as a computer programmer. I don’t do that much actual coding day to day anymore, but still, I work at a web startup. 

JT: Do you only smoke Cuban cigars?

AG: Of course!

JT: Any thoughts on compiling a similar catalog of New World cigars? Do you think there might be a need for it?

I’m sure there is a need for it, but it won’t be me who does it!

Honestly, I know almost nothing about non-Cubans. But where do you start and stop? Nicaraguan? Or all South and Central American? Indonesian? Dutch? A lot of this stuff is only really sold in the US market, so is that the boundary, or do you include all the local cigars from all over the world as well? It would take years of research to even really make a start.

The world of Habanos at least, is manageable, and that’s enough for me. There are a few more than 200 regular-production cigars, about 20 to 30 limited releases every year, and then a thousand or so discontinued models since the revolution. A big collector could probably obtain almost everything.

I don’t think there’s any way one person could do a global cigar website on their own – it would need to be a collective effort, like Wikipedia maybe, or a serious commercial endeavor. If anyone wants to take this project on, I would be happy to license them the software behind CCW. Send me an email.

JT: Since you are the ultimate source for a lot of people, we wonder where you go for accurate information?

AG: For new stuff, mostly just Habanos press releases and sources in the industry. Plus, we have the items that are on the shelves, so if there’s some question you can just refer to the product.

For discontinued things it’s harder. Establishing the dates when things were discontinued is especially hard, as cigars are sometimes produced for a few years after they are officially discontinued. Or vice versa: they’ll be out of production for years before being officially discontinued. And sometimes a retailer will report something as discontinued, but, really, it just means it’s no longer available at their supplier, or perhaps they have a marketing motivation to move some stock that has been sitting for a long time. For that, I have to make a best guess. I’ll consult as many sources as I can and try and come to a consensus answer.

For the long-ago discontinued stuff, well, there are the key books, the Min Ron Nee book, the Adriano Martínez Rius books, The World of the Habano book, and so on. Simon Chase used to do great research, some of which was published in Cigar Journal, and he used to be a great resource for me when I had questions. There are people like him who have access to the archives of the distributors who are very helpful. Plus, I have a collection of old catalogs myself to refer to. There are many mysteries in the history of Habanos, and sometimes even impeccable sources will contradict each other. In those cases I put what I think is the most likely truth and then perhaps add a note if there’s a serious question.

JT: Are you a collector as well? If so, what do you collect?

AG: I’d prefer not to be a collector. For me, cigars are to be smoked. But, as my photography and equipment has gotten better over the years, I’ve found that I often have a need to go back and rephotograph things, which of course is impossible when those things have been smoked.

So these days, I’m a collector by necessity. I try and obtain at least one of everything. And if I can, I’ll try and get at least one other, so that if I find some need to smoke the first one, I have a backup. And if budget and supply allow, I will try for two or three more so I can smoke those wherever I feel like it.

For regular production cigars it isn’t that hard. I have almost everything, and I can restock if I run out. The main time I need to spend buying a lot is when a new band is released, and I need to rebuy every cigar in the brand.

For the limited edition and LCDH releases it’s usually not so hard to find a box. For the regionals, I buy what I can. Some are easier than others. And for the real rarities, of anniversary humidors and so on, there are a few generous collectors who will gift me a single from time to time.

On top of the cigars, I also collect old catalogs and interesting books as reference material, and I also keep most of my old boxes.

JT: What do you normally smoke? Tell us about your favorite cigars, your all-time favorites, and what are you smoking today?

AG: Well, the answer is that there’s nothing I normally smoke. I like to try different things. I rarely smoke the same cigar twice in one year. I like the cheap stuff just as well as the expensive.

I’m a big fan of the H. Upmann brand. Just last weekend I had a Magnum 50, which is a cigar I haven’t smoked in years, and I was reminded how fantastic the brand can be when it’s on. I remember at one point I had a box of H. Upmann Monarchs from the last year they made that cigar that were just amazing. They were my go-to box for a while, and I gave them to several people who were new to smoking and who loved them and then later asked me why they could never find any cigars that were as good as that one. The Noelias in the jar are also fantastic cigars.

All the time, well, it is hard to say. The best experiences with cigars are when you appreciate them with good food, good drink, and good friends.

I’ve had the pleasure of smoking the Montecristo Maravillas No.1 from the 2005 book humidor a few times, and that’s an epic cigar. And I love the 2003 limited Cohiba Double Corona. I once had a Partagás 150th Anniversary cigar that I found was transcendentally good, and then years later I found out that the example I had was almost certainly fake. I wish I could find another fake like that! I’ve had a real one since, and it was great, but not as ‘next level’ as I remember the fake being.

JT: What advice would you give someone who’s starting to build their or own Cuban cigar collection?

AG: Wow, starting … it seems so long ago. When I first started smoking, I used to buy just singles at the liquor store, and then after a while I had a desktop humidor and would buy boxes in duty free when I travelled. The first serious box I bought with the intention of aging was a box of Cohiba Siglo IV that I purchased on a trip to Cuba in my early twenties. I suppose that would be the start of my collection.

Perhaps not advice, but a suggestion: try the CCW Collection Management tool. I may be biased because I built it, but for my needs it is the perfect tool for curating a collection.

For advice, I would say to try a lot of things. Buy singles, samplers, and trade with other smokers. If you find something that really excites you, buy a box. The standard cigars that everyone knows like the Monte 4 and PSD4 are great cigars, but there is so much more out there. Try a Partagás Culebras; those are great. Try a Romeo [y Julieta] Cazadores, and a Larrañaga Montecarlo, a Sancho Panza Beliscosos, a Quintero Favoritos, and a La Gloria Cubana Medaille d’Or No.4. There are so many different kinds of cigars out there, even in regular production, to say nothing of the limiteds. So that’s my suggestion. Don’t buy boxes straight away. Try a lot of things and figure out what the best cigars for your taste are.

JT: Do you realize that today the site is a reference to all Cuban cigar smokers worldwide? Have you ever thought of monetizing this?

AG: I’ve thought of it, sure. But how to do it?

I don’t want to do advertising, firstly because I feel it’s a little crass, but also because almost all the potential advertisers are the non-Cuban brands. It seems wrong to advertise those brands on a site that’s all about the love of the Cuban cigar.

So next could be a membership fee. I wouldn’t want to charge that for the basic site, because it’s not correct to charge for information. Information should always be free. But perhaps one day, I’ll add a premium feature that goes beyond the encyclopedia of the site and provides extra value to people. And maybe then I’ll charge for that. I have no plans for what this could be, though.

The monetization method I would be most likely to do is an affiliate link system, where I would display the prices of cigars at a range of stores directly on CCW, and users could click through to purchase, giving CCW a commission. I like the idea because it would actually be helpful for my users to let them compare prices at different stores and help them find rarities. The problem is that for it to work I would need to get a range of vendors onboard and overcome all the technical challenges of integrating their systems with my website.

So, faced with those options, I am happy for it just to stay a hobby.

JT: So you don’t make any money from this site? 

AG: No, there are a few donations every year, but it’s almost never enough to cover the running costs, let alone the time. It’s truly a labor of love.

JT: You mentioned writing a book? Is this a cigar book?

AG: Yes, it’s more or less a book version of Cuban Cigar Website. It covers what I think of as the modern era of Habanos, from the early 2000s until today. It should have all the CCW information on dating boxes and so on, and the production of cigars, and history, along with a catalog of all the production and special-release cigars in that period. The final version will be around 700 pages.

I’m working with a boutique publisher of high-quality works. The imprint is fairly new, but the editor in chief has a background in publishing specialist encyclopedias. We’re going through the editing process now, so hopefully we should be ready to take pre-orders around the time this interview goes to print, and then aim to have the books printed before the end of 2021. It’s a lot of fun. We’ll have a few different special editions with all kinds of little details that cigar lovers will appreciate. All the details and a mailing list signup will be on my website.

JT: So why a book when there’s already a website with this information?

AG: Well, the book has a few of my personal opinions, and so on, and more detailed notes about some things that are on the website. Plus, of course, it will have higher quality images printed in real life size, and all the text has been rewritten in a more refined style. There’s something nice about leafing through a quality book while you smoke a cigar, which you don’t get from browsing a website on your phone.

But my real motivation is that websites are more fragile than we think. I saw it in 2016 when negligence nearly ended CCW, but also around the same time, there was the sudden death of Nic Wing, the editor of the UK Cigar Scene magazine. The magazine had profiled CCW, and Nic and I would correspond occasionally, so of course I was upset when I learnt that he had passed. It was worse, though, to see that a few months later his hosting bills had stopped being paid, and all his sites went offline. So much of his hard work just disappeared. You can still find it on archive sites if you know what you’re looking for, but for new users it’s all lost forever.

So that’s the real advantage. If I can get a few thousand books out in the world then that’s the ultimate hard backup.

JT: What can or will you tell us about your plans for the future? What’s your vision for CCW for the next 10 years? 

AG: Oh well, I have no really firm plans for it. If the book goes well, I have ideas for another two books I could do, as well as a few other products for cigar lovers. People have been regularly asking me to do an app version of the site for more than 10 years, so I might do that someday.

I would really like to expand the site to cover pre-revolution stuff as well, but the scope there is so vast. I have slowly been accumulating research in this area, so I may build on that one day. I’ve also thought of allowing people to post reviews and to make the site more collaborative, but I waver back and forth on this because I like that it’s just a factual site at the moment, without opinions. But we shall see. There are other big data possibilities as well, tracking box codes and prices and trends over time. I have a list of potential features on my desk that I wrote about two years ago. There are 14 items on it and 5 have been completed, so hopefully in 10 years they’ll all be done!

JT: Finally, send a message to your old and new readers. 

AG: To the old readers: Thank you so much for your support over the years! 

To the new readers: Welcome!

I hope to enjoy a nice Cuban cigar with you all someday! 

 

To close, I wanted to share with our readers a few comments from Cuban cigar experts all over the world. 

Rob Ayala from Friends of Habanos (FOH) and auction site Bond Roberts tells us: “Without question, Cuban Cigar Website is the greatest resource on Cuban cigars today. Its founder, Trevor Leask, is one of the true gentlemen of the cigar world, and Alex Groom is a visionary who is taking CCW into the future. It’s remarkable that CCW is a non-commercial venture born from a love of Cuban cigars and the people who smoke them. The global cigar community (Habanos S.A., distributors, retailers and consumers) should not only give thanks for their immense contribution but actively assist with the ongoing maintenance of this precious asset.”

Gino Iannillo from Amicigar – The Friendship community tells us:I’ve always looked at Trevor’s work with huge hunger as I wanted to learn as much as possible. Cuban Cigar Website was and still is the main reference on the web for Cuban cigars and, I think, for the whole community. All of us are grateful to this enthusiast and to his friend Alexander Groom who helped him initially and has now taken the project forward. Alexander has pushed the site to a higher level, also with the help of many friends from FOH who keep everything continuously updated.”

Mitchell Orchant from C.Gars Ltd in the UK told us: “I literally have tabs to the website constantly open as I use it daily as the best possible and comprehensive resource available. The fact that it’s continually updated makes it invaluable to me.” 

Cuban Cigar Website Contact Information

E: [email protected]

Alexander Groom
Parcel Locker 1006963954
260 Elizabeth Street
Melbourne, Victoria 3000
Australia

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Jorge Tapies is a passionate cigar smoker for over 20 years who enjoys visiting a tobacco farm or factory as well as spending time with friends at a cigar lounge anywhere in the world over a glass of aged rum. Jorge holds the Tobacconist University Certified Consumer Tobacconist as well as the International Association of Cigar Sommeliers' Cigar Ambassador certifications and is an avid reader and book collector on anything cigar and tobacco related. Jorge is a regular contributor and ambassador for Cigar Journal, especially in Spanish speaking countries. He is also member of Cigar Journal’s tasting panel since 2012.


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