The question I am often asked by non-cigar enthusiasts when they see me enjoying a cigar is whether it is “a Cuban”. In the way that whisky is traditionally associated with Scotland, tequila with Mexico or chocolate and timepieces with Switzerland, the cigar not only remains tied to the island of Cuba but, also, in some quarters, Cuban cigars are deemed superior. Or, perhaps I should be so bold as to say, they are seen as superior by those who do not partake in cigars regularly, or readily go beyond their comfort zone.
In my mind, one reason for this is historical. The history of smoking tobacco in Cuba goes back centuries and was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in the late 1400s, who is said to have then taken the early forms of cigars — tobacco wrapped in maize or palm leaves — back to Spain where they became popular, spreading across other parts of Europe and America.
Although it was only in the late 1899s that cigar factories were established in Cuba, by the Spanish, driven by the ease of transportation of the cigars, the cigar has always seen as a Cuban product, one that was exceptional. The soil in areas like the western-most province of Pinar del Rio, which is at the heart of Cuba’s cigar industry, the more central Villa Clara province and the Viñales Valley is said to add different flavours and strength to the leaves, which set Cuban cigars apart. The three key elements needed are unique soil conditions, a conducive growing climate (warm weather, high humidity and regular rainfall) and experienced workers, which Cuba has in abundance.
But, with the Cuban Revolution in 1950s and the subsequent nationalisation of a number of industries, including the cigar industry, quite a few of the prominent, and not so prominent, cigar manufacturers fled Cuba. These cigar families eventually settled in and/or established tobacco plantations and factories in countries like Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Honduras and Costa Rica. This has significantly altered the cigar industry landscape.
And yet, there continues to be a certain mystique around the Cuban cigar, which also, in my opinion, is enhanced by the US embargo on Cuba following the Cuban Revolution. We don’t have that problem in SA and, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was quite easy to get Cuban cigars, including Cohiba, Montecristo, Partagás, Hoyo de Monterrey, Punch, and Romeo y Julieta. Yet, we still hold Cubans above others, or at least some do.
Meanwhile, I personally find that the more interesting developments are happening off Cuba, particularly around the agriculture of growing cigar tobacco. Countries like Nicaragua et al also have the three key elements required to grow cigar tobacco. The cigar families brought with them the skills and the environment is perfect. In fact, if you look at a country like Nicaragua, it has four tobacco growing regions, with each region having unique climatic conditions and soil characteristics, which comes through in the tobacco. For example, Esteli has black and fertile soil, Condega valley has rocky soil with heavy cloud cover in the area, Jalapa’s soil is fertile with red clay and Ometepe is a volcanic island.
While non-Cuban brands can draw tobacco from a couple of countries and regions within the countries, the Cuban brands have a limited geographical base, quantity and quality to choose from. With only one harvest a year, with soil that has possibly been over planted and, therefore, depleted, and diminishing quality control except for the more limited edition or high-end cigars, Cuban cigars do not always deliver on the quality of flavour and construction that they are known for.
When I started with cigars, I loved a Partagas Serie D No 4, a Montecristo Open Eagle and a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No 2 and I will, occasionally, reminisce with one or the other. But, in truth, they aren’t as appealing as they used to be for me. Plus, the chances of struggling to draw because the cigar is plugged are higher with a Cuban cigar.
Once I was introduced to the richness and diversity of flavours from cigars from other parts of the world, I experimented more and drifted further from Cubans. That said, I am still rooting for them. They may not be superior, but they still have a place.