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 believed that tobacco has been growing in Cuba for around 4000 years, and Christopher Columbus reported encountering indigenous people who were walking “with half-burned wood in their hands and certain herbs to take their smokes” when he first visited the island in 1492. Of course, tobacco was one of the discoveries of the new world that quickly gained popularity back in Europe, and it’s impressive to think that Cuban cigar factories practice a craft that stretches back for thousands of years. In addition to their historical significance, cigars are an integral part of the Cuban economy, bringing in around $200 million per year. Despite the country’s close association with tobacco, smoking in bars, restaurants, hotels and offices has been banned since 2005, although the ban is reportedly not strongly enforced.
A Perfect Climate
Cuba’s geographic position and relatively high humidity (around 80%) makes it the perfect place to grow succulent tobacco that results in perfect cigars. The soil is well suited to the crop and the amount of rainfall and sunshine couldn’t be better for tobacco. Cuba grows the second highest amount of tobacco of any country on earth. Tobacco seedlings are generally planted in a sheltered or indoor area, and are then transferred to the field after around 40 days where they left to mature for another 45 to 80 days till harvest.
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. From there you can take a guided tour of a working tobacco farm.
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.
Fascinating Visit to a Cigar Factory
A Cuban cigar factory tour is a remarkable experience. Instead of gleaming machines going through the motions, you’ll find a room full of skilled workers hand rolling individual cigars in what feels like an almost community atmosphere. Sure, there’s a production schedule and each worker needs to make a daily quota, but the whole process feels laid back and unhurried. The rich smell of tobacco permeates the air and can be quite confronting to visitors, although in a perfectly pleasant way. Cigars are a valuable export item for Cuba, so the production process has become an attraction in itself, and guided tours of factories are easy to source and book.
The flagship brand of the Habanos brand, production of Cohiba Cigars began in 1966 and they were exclusively for Fidel Castro and as gifts for selected government officials and occasionally for foreign dignitaries and this was the case right up until 1982. Still banned outright in the US alongside Cuba’s other cigars, they have a limited
international release and are therefore very difficult to find aboard, making them perhaps the most famous of things you can only get in Cuba. What makes them so special is the still secret method used to produce them. What we do know is that the tobacco is hand-selected from just ten fields and that the ‘filler leaves’ undergo an additional fermentation to give them a supreme smoothness. And of course they are hand rolled!
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 is the case. Of course, if you’re not a cigar aficionado this may not worry you so then you can smoke it as soon as you buy it!
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 smoke-able, 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.
How Many is Too Many to Take Home?
Outbound travelers leaving Cuba can take out 50 cigars, but please check 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 your country, since those beauties would quickly be confiscated unless you pay a rather hefty import tax.
So that great idea of buying Cuban cigars for your family and friends might quickly become very expensive indeed!