For cigar aficionados, a fine smoke is about much more than flavour and aroma. Each puff is redolent with tradition, history and skillful production. Amongst connoisseures, a premium hand-rolled cigar is akin to a work of art.
When Christopher Columbus and his crew made landfall in the Caribbean on their maiden voyage to the New World they found the natives throughout the islands indulging in a curious practice: they twisted up dried aromatic leaves, wrapped them in a palm or plantain leaf, and smoked them.
Strange though it was, Columbus’ men quickly developed a taste for the habit, and before long had taken tobacco seeds back across the Atlantic and introduced smoking in Europe. The newly formed United States followed suit a little later, and by the early 20th century cigar-making operations there numbered over 80,000.
Five centuries later, the manufacturing process is infinitely more refined and cigars are smoked internationally – but the finest quality, hand-rolled cigars still come from the Caribbean region, with Cuban cigars commonly regarded as the gold standard.
Cuba’s enduring supremacy as a cigar producer is due both to ideal environmental conditions and centuries’ worth of knowledge and skill. Few, if any, other tobacco growing regions have soil and a climate that is so favourable for cultivating, curing and fermenting all three types of tobacco leaf – filler, binder and wrapper – required for cigar production. Indeed, the delicate, silky wrapper leaves are so tricky to grow that
many manufacturers import them from Cuba.
It is the great tobacco families of the island, however, who over the course of many generations, have perfected the art of harvesting the leaves at just the right stage of maturity, and painstakingly curing and fermenting them – a process that can take several years – to develop the desired colour, aroma and burning characteristics.
Master blenders are then tasked with carefully selecting a combination of filler leaves – those that form the inner part of the cigar – to ensure a depth and complexity of flavour. In the best quality cigars, the blend of filler may vary from head to foot of the cigar, taking the smoker on an experiential journey of tastes, strengths and aromas.
The final stage in the creation of a premium cigar is the process of hand-rolling. Although machine rolled cigars arrived on the market in the 1920s, the mass produced versions are widely considered to be of inferior quality.
Great skill is required to roll the perfect cigar: not only must the finished product be perfectly uniform in appearance, but the leaves should be packed neither too tightly, nor too loosely, to ensure a smooth and even draw, and the wrapper should be made from a single section of the glossiest, most flawless leaf.
Cigar consumption was at its peak when the Cuban cigar industry was dealt a double blow. In 1960 Fidel Castro’s new communist government expropriated all cigar-manufacturing operations on the island, turning them over to the state; two years later, President John F Kennedy imposed a trade embargo on Cuba, banning the import of all Cuban goods into the USA.
These two developments forced many of Cuban tobacco families into exile, taking with them their seeds, knowledge and trade secrets. Many relocated to neighbouring lands – the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Honduras and Nicaragua in particular – and started their businesses afresh.
Although success did not come overnight – it took years of trial and error to produce quality tobacco – the events of the early 1960s ultimately drove premium cigar production out of Cuba. Since the 1980s some excellent cigars have been produced in other parts of the Caribbean and Central America. The Dominican Republic now exports 350 million premium cigars annually, and in a 2014 taste test of over 700 cigars by Cigar Aficionado magazine, three out of the top five cigars were Nicaraguan.
While the basic ingredients of a fine smoke have remained unchanged for at least 500 years, cigar smoking has come a long way from its primitive origins. Now most often associated with success, affluence and a deep appreciation of the finer things in life, the ritual of choosing, clipping and lighting a cigar, and the slow savouring of the flavours is a fitting acknowledgment of the craftsmanship that has gone into the making of each cigar.
- The thicker the cigar, the more complex the flavours.
- A good cigar roller can produce hundreds of cigars in a day.
- In Cuban cigar factories ‘lectores’ are tasked with reading to the cigar rollers to keep them entertained while they work.
- Kept in the right conditions (temperatures around 70ºF and 70% relative humidity) a cigar can last for decades.
- The label 'hecho a mano' (made by hand) on Cuban cigars actually denotes cigars that have been machine rolled, but finished (wrapped) by hand. 'Totalmente a mano' is the label that appears on 100% hand rolled cigars.
- When machine-made cigars first appeared in the 1920s, the product was so inferior that it caused a widespread decline
in the cigar consumption.
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