John F. Kennedy and His Affair With The H. Upmann Petite
The Strange Legacy of the 35th President’s Favorite Cigar
If you have spent any amount of time perusing the shelves at your local tobacconist, then chances are you have crossed paths with an H. Upmann cigar at one point or another. Not only is it one of the oldest cigar brands in existence (outdated only by Punch and Por Larranaga) but it also managed to survive the decades-long embargo by producing a non-Cuban counterpart under the same name.
This longevity, however, is hardly the reason that people are still talking about H. Upmann today. As the favorite brand of one of America’s most iconic presidents, this cigar has managed to remain popular among collectors and newcomers alike.
“It’s the cigar that JFK smoked!” is what you will likely hear from the overly-enthusiastic guy behind the counter of your local smoke shop. For any warm-blooded American, this is more than enough reason to light up a stick of this signature brand.
Of course, it isn’t technically true. JFK’s favorite stick was the original Petite Upmann, a machine-rolled Cuban with a mild smoke and a dense ash that has since been discontinued. But the mystique around this famous cigar is only bolstered by one of the most interesting stories in the history of cigars…
The Eve of Embargo: JFK’s Washington D.C. Cigar Sweep
The year was 1962, less than a year after the disastrously-executed Bay of Pigs Invasion. A freshly-elected John F. Kennedy had the unfortunate task of enacting a congressionally-approved Cuban trade embargo that would forbid the sale of Cuban products (i.e., cigars) on American soil.
Kennedy, a man who knew the value of a well-enjoyed cigar, had to act fast. He knew that the next morning he would have to sign the order, and from that moment on he would no longer be able to find his favorite cigar.
Enter Pierre Salinger, JFK’s rookie Secretary of State. According to Salinger’s own account, Kennedy called him into the Oval Office in the early evening with a hell of a favor to ask.
“I need some help,” Kennedy said plainly. “ … about 1,000 Petit Upmanns.”
Salinger, the diligent SOS that he was, jumped into action. An avid fan of Cuban cigars himself, he set out to visit every tobacconist in the D.C. area. All in all, he was able to procure 1,200 Petite Upmann cigars mere hours before the Embargo was to be signed into law. According to Salinger, Kennedy signed the document immediately after hearing about the impressive haul.
Though it was the failure of the Bay of Pigs that necessitated their stockpiling, these were nothing if not victory cigars, at least in the political sense.
The H. Upmann Petite: Gone for Good?
Today, the Cuban-made H. Upmann and the Dominican-made H. Upmann operate inside of a peaceful coexistence, though the recent loosening of restrictions has allowed a handful of people to partake in the Cuban versions. While the Upmann Petite has long since been discontinued, some efforts have been made to recreate the flavor and aroma of JFK’s favorite smoke.
The H. Upmann Original Petite Corona is an impressive attempt at this endeavor. This resurrected blend of Dominican and Brazilian tobaccos offers the same level of warm and nutty smoothness that Kennedy and Saligner had scrambled to preserve. For about 7 bucks, it is certainly worth a try if you come by one.
And for anyone who still holds a grudge against JFK for the whole Cuban embargo thing, it’s time to do what any lover of good cigars should do: move on, light up, and enjoy whatever you’re smoking.