What do you think of smokers? In many countries, smokers are treated as outcasts, all forced to furiously puff away on their white sticks in specially designated areas (areas which are rapidly disappearing). In the Queen Street Mall (which is the main street of Brisbane, Australia), it’s actually forbidden to smoke.
OK, so it’s a dedicated pedestrian area, and yet it’s still outside… but you still can’t even smoke on this street. Even in Paris, long associated with the supposed glamour of smoking, conjuring up images of smokers seducing each other with their eyes as they puff (which perhaps means they don’t need to smile and show their yellow teeth), smoking is no longer allowed in bars.
But what about cigars?
This is another matter altogether. No offense if you enjoy a cigarette or two (or a pack… whatever, we don’t judge), but it’s not a bold statement to suggest that yes, cigarette smokers are often treated as outcasts. This is not the case when it comes to smoking cigars, with their pungent aroma and stylish connotations.
Cuba is often proclaimed as the home of the cigar and the history of Cuban cigars is as rich and as sweet as the smoke produced by these beauties.
Blame it on Christopher Columbus
If you’re opposed to smoking in any form, you might want to blame that pesky explorer Christopher Columbus. It has been said that his crew first encountered tobacco in what is now Haiti, and it was in Cuba that they first encountered what was the precursor to smoking as we know it – ground, dried tobacco wrapped in a larger tobacco leaf and then smoked by the local indigenous Taino population.
This miraculous discovery was brought back to Spain and spread throughout Europe, and then eventually, throughout the world. And lo and behold… we have the “gift” of smoking. But let’s forget about cigarettes for a moment, since the history of Cuban cigars is altogether more interesting.
By 1542, smoking cigars had become so popular that the Spanish decided to establish a cigar factory on their fairly newly-claimed territory of Cuba. Cigar production has been a Cuban institution ever since.
The Tradition and History of Cuban Cigars
It’s remarkable to think that the history of Cuban cigars stretches back almost 500 years, and yet when you consider this, it’s not surprising that the Cubans have got it down to a fine art. Tobacco crops themselves are pretty, although not all that remarkable to look at. They are simply medium sized plants with broad green leaves. The end product of these plants is truly remarkable though. If you want to see the birthplace of many of these cigars, you’ll need to head to the delightful town of Viñales, around two and a half hours from Havana by car.
This is arguably where the modern history of Cuban cigars can be found. The fertile soil around the town is ideal for the growth of tobacco crops, and you will see ramshackle sheds dotted throughout the farmlands. These shacks are where the tobacco is cured, and this takes around one month. The harvested leaves are stored in the shack and are allowed to partially dry out, reducing the water content in the leaves.
They are then sent to the production facility for more pronounced drying, whereupon the leaves are shredded and are ready to be made into cigars. There are a few things you need to know about Cuban cigars if you want to grab a few to take home with you.
1. Smoke Now or Smoke Later?
You can smoke a cigar as soon as you buy it, but many cigars are best stored in humidors (or something that provides a similar environment) for a prescribed period of time before they should be smoked. Ask the retailer where you bought the cigars if this should be the case. Of course, if you’re not a cigar aficionado (and might not be able to taste the difference), then you can smoke it as soon as you buy it.
2. Hand Rolled or Machine Rolled?
To truly appreciate the history of Cuban cigars you should visit an actual cigar factory. The factory floors are like some sort of social club, where workers happily chat to each other as they expertly roll those cigars together. There is often a foreman who reads to the workers from the day’s newspaper. It’s not a bad working environment really! And then there is the other side of cigar production which is generally not featured on tours.
The history of Cuban cigars has not been spared from automation, and a large number of cigars are now rolled by machines. You might want a cigar that has actually been rolled by hand, and you can easily find these. But whether it was rolled by man or machine, the smoking experience will remain exactly the same.
3. Buyer Beware
You will encounter a number of dubious individuals who will approach you on the street and offer you some so-called authentic products, supposedly the best that have ever been produced in the history of Cuban cigars. In a word, no… just no. Anything bought on the street is likely to be counterfeit.
While such cigars might be half decent and are still smokeable, they are a poor imitation of the cigars that are on sale at legitimate retailers (which are everywhere). You might think that you’re getting a bargain, but you are most definitely being ripped off.
4. How Many is Too Many?
Please check with the import regulations in your final destination (and any countries where you will be stopping on the way where you will stay longer than merely being in transit). It would be a shame to buy more cigars than you are permitted to bring into the country, since those beauties would quickly be confiscated unless you pay a rather hefty import tax.
That amazing idea of buying Cuban cigars for your family and friends might quickly become very expensive indeed.