The Big Cigar
Where oh where would we be without the stogie? Could Churchill have won the Battle of Britain without the stub of a Perfecto clenched between his teeth? Could Clint Eastwood have stared down the bad guys in all those spaghetti westerns without his ever-present Corona? Could Fidel have ruled Cuba for fifty years without a Presidente to punctuate his most revolutionary pronouncements?
On the evening of February 6, 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered his faithful press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to find him twelve hundred H. Upmann Petit Coronas, JFK’s favorite Cuban import. When Salinger arrived the next morning with the haul, Kennedy signed the Executive Order putting into effect the trade embargo on Cuban products that lasts to this day—an embargo that prohibits US residents from importing Cuban cigars, but not from enjoying their classic flavor and aroma outside US borders.
There is evidence that the indigenous people of Central America and the Caribbean used tobacco in cigar form for smoking from as early as the 10th century. In 1492, a couple of Columbus’ crewmen became the first Europeans to try a puff when they happened upon it in San Salvador. After settling in Cuba, they took up the practice with abandon. In no time at all, tobacco smoking became the rage in the European courts and one of the world’s lasting symbols of luxurious consumption became the perfect companion to port, sherry, and cognac.
Though Kennedy’s embargo effectively killed off Cuba’s best market, they have never lost their place as the preeminent producer. Other countries like Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua have managed to impress the experts, but none have the cachet of a hand-rolled parejo from Cuba. The prestige of a box labeled totalmente a mano (totally by hand) still commands the greatest respect among connoisseurs.
Hand rolling is the last step in a complex and highly refined process that requires human attention throughout. The curing process, lasting from 25 to 45 days, reduces the sugar and water content and determines the color of the leaf. During fermentation, the leaf slowly dies while being constantly monitored to prevent rotting and disintegration. This is the stage that determines flavor, aroma, and burning characteristics. During aging, the leaves are kept moistened and inspected constantly until delivered for production.
In Cuba, cigar rollers are called torcedores and now many are women. Their skills are acknowledged as those of fine artists and they are highly respected in Cuban society. The chaveta, a crescent shaped knife, is used to cut and shape the leaves according to each one’s use as wrapper or filler. While they work, the rollers are “entertained” by a lector who reads to the workers in order to break up the tedium of their job. An experienced roller can finish hundreds of cigars a day (and probably more if the stories are particularly exciting). Some reports credit the Montecristo brand name to one of the stories favored by the torcedores. Anyway, at this point the cigars are dried on wooden forms and can be laid down for years of additional aging if kept at the right level of temperature and humidity (70 degrees and 70% respectively).
Cigars are categorized by ring gauge (diameter in 64ths) and length. A Cuban Robusto always has a ring gauge of 50 and a length of four inches. The outer wrapper determines much of the cigar’s flavor and is designated in eight categories from the lightest (Double Claro) to the darkest (Oscuro). The lighter colors tend to be dryer, the darker ones sweeter. If all the tobacco in a cigar is from the same country it is called puro.
The language of cigars is like the language of fine wines. Quality smokes can have a mild, medium or full-bodied flavor catering to the preference of the smoker. Descriptives such as spicy, peppery, green, earthy, woodsy, nutty, creamy, chewy and leathery are all used with abandon, and each flavor is further affected by production techniques and aging.
Perhaps the most coveted of all Cuban cigars are those carrying the Cohiba brand. Fidel himself gave birth to the brand when he noticed the particularly pleasing aroma wafting from the cigars smoked by one of his bodyguards. On learning they were hand rolled for private clients by a friend, Castro set this friend up with a team of five rollers in a former diplomatic mansion then had cigars made for his own personal use or to give as gifts to foreign dignitaries. He released his personal cigars as a premium brand in 1982 and they soon became one of the most sought after in the world. The original factory is now staffed entirely by women torcedoras.
As we sail by this mysterious, embargoed neighbor called Cuba, and if the island happens to be upwind, take a stroll on deck and see if you can detect an earthy, chewy or leathery aroma borne along on the sea breeze. Then ask yourself, “where do you suppose the phrase ‘close but no cigar’ comes from?”