“A smoke in times of rest is a great companion to the solitary soldier.” – Che Guevara.
A history of the Cuban cigar
Tobacco smoking in Cuba was first witnessed by Europeans when Christopher Columbus’s sailors saw the Tainos smoking a primitive form of cigar rolled in palm or plantain. It didn’t take long for Europeans to be smoking these primitive cigars and, although cigars are now far more complex, they are still viewed as an exotic luxury.
Cigars are associated with many iconic people – Winston Churchill, Babe Ruth, Al Capone and Groucho Marx, to name just a few. It’s estimated that Churchill smoked 200,000 Havana cigars in his time.
“If I cannot smoke in heaven, then I shall not go.” – Mark Twain
The upheaval generated by the Ten Years War in Cuba in the eighteenth century resulted in a number of Cuban cigar manufacturers relocating to Key West, Florida – contributing to the relationship between Florida and Cubans that exists to this day. Soon Key West was an important cigar manufacturing centre with growth spreading to Tampa, which by 1885 contained the largest cigar factory in the world at the time.
Good quality cigars cost money and it’s not surprising that high end cigars are still almost always handmade. This is a labour intensive process following on from the ageing and treating of tobacco leaves. A cigar-roller can produce hundreds of cigars a day but this is still far lower than the amount of cigarettes a factory can produce. Most cigar rollers are women and are known as “torcedoras”. Once rolled, much like a fine wine, a cigar is “laid down” and aged, often for decades.
“Only fine cigars are worth smoking, and only men who smoke fine cigars are worth kissing.” -Joan Collins
Premium cigars will use long tobacco leaves throughout, often blending leaves from several areas in the Island to create the perfect blend. Most people have seen the quintessential image of the “fat cat” smoking a thick cigar so it’s not surprising to learn that the thicker a cigar is, the more filler tobacco it contains and therefore the more complex the its flavour will be.
The US trade embargo with Cuba had a massive impact on Cuba cigar manufacturers including those based in Florida as they were no longer allowed to buy Cuban tobacco. Rather hypocritically, just before signing the executive order to put the embargo into effect, J. F. Kennedy ordered 1,200 Cuban cigars according to his press secretary at the time, Pierre Salinger. Interestingly many years later cigars were once again in the centre of a political storm when news got out of a cigar being involved in Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton’s trysts.
“…I promised myself that if I ever I had some money that I would savour a cigar each day after lunch and dinner. This is the only resolution of my youth that I have kept, and the only realized ambition which has not brought disillusion.” — Somerset Maugham
Cuban cigar manufacturers
Many Cuban cigar manufacturers moved to the Dominican Republic and began producing cigars there under their original brand names using seeds from their original plants. At the same time Cubatabaco, a state run tobacco monopoly in Cuba set up after the Revolution, continued production of cigars under their old brand names. This creates a unique situation where a number of brands such as Romeo y Julieta exist in both Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Luckily Fidel Castro is apparently a keen lover of cigars and has insured that standards have remained just as high as before the Revolution. In fact there aren’t that many photos of Castro without a cigar in his mouth and he is credited with raising the popularity of Cohida which is a cigar with extra fermentation. The creation of cigars is really an art rather than a science and this has enabled Cuba to retain its status at the forefront of cigar manufacturing, despite being unable to keep up with technical innovations.
“Given the choice between a woman and a cigar, I will always choose the cigar.” Groucho Marx
It is still incredibly difficult for Americans to obtain Cuban cigars as buying them is illegal for Americans – irrespective of which country they are bought in. In January 2015 the embargo was eased by Obama, meaning that for the first time up to $100 worth of tobacco may be brought legally from Cuba to America. A boon to the cigar connoisseur who knows a Cuban or is willing to travel. Not long afterwards, Obama was handed a Cuban cigar at a White House reception. Although only able to smell it due having given up smoking, he became the first President in 52 years to publicly savour a Cuban cigar.
Cigars have faced many different threats over the years but it seems the latest hurdle is the decline in smoking generally. In fact there was a recent furore when a statue was unveiled of Isambard Kingdom Brunel without his trusty cigar. It was deemed to be not in keeping with modern values. A dangerous precedent for Cuba given that they hold 70% of the world’s market in cigars.
“The most futile and disastrous day seems well spent when it is reviewed through the blue, fragrant smoke of a Havana cigar.” – Evelyn Waugh
Are Cuban Cigars Legal?
The embargo means that it’s not legal to bring back Cuban cigars in large quantities to sell. A few cigars for personal use is not a problem. To know exactly where you stand check the personal exemptions for your country.