I’ll never forget the day it finally happened. Driving my car down a main artery in Washington DC on a cold, wintry day, my heavy Goodyear tires firmly crushed the black ice blanketing the roadway. To prevent boredom from settling in at a long red light, I turned to gaze out my slightly fogged up window to observe city street life. In the grayness of this bleak day, I watched as a small group of flannel-coated workers huddled together on a small strip of snowless sidewalk to smoke their cigarettes.
Inhaling furiously between spine-tingling shivers, it had finally happened- there was nowhere but completely outside one’s place of business to indulge a smoking habit. By the early 1990’s, there were no more break rooms for smokers, not even the bathroom was safe. Nope, you want a smoke-there’s the door and keep going through it no matter what the weather.
Oh how the mighty have fallen. I grew up in a time when the highly popular Chesterfield cigarette ads completely imitated real life. I swear some of those glamorous illustrated models puffing chicly on their reed-thin cigarettes looked eerily like my dear mother’s gal pals. To this day, I’m still slightly traumatized by the image of my portly pediatrician’s ashes building up at the end of his ciggie as he tapped my little knee reflexes. Flagrant cigarette smoking was all so normal back mid-20th century, so the sight of these freezing day workers sacrificing comfort and warmth, so committed to their nicotine, was indeed the end of an era.
But what about cigars? You can safely say that in many societies, and not just in an American one, that the white-stick smoker can be treated as an outcast. But cigar smoking is an entirely different matter. In fact, cigar smoking has never lost its cache and certainly has never lost the indoor space to enjoy a stogie.
While I would never judge anyone’s personal habits, if I had to choose a tobacco “vice”, it would be cigars hands down every time. Cigars, in my humble opinion, are like champagne. Except for the people who work in the industry, you probably don’t indulge in the bubbly too often, except to break out a bottle for celebrations. Cigars are akin to this idea; to be treated special, not necessarily to become habit-forming. But more importantly, cigars have a story and who can resist a good tale.
It’s been said that the crew of Christopher Columbus discovered tobacco on the island of Cuba in the form of dried ground leaves wrapped in a larger tobacco leaf and then smoked by the indigenous Taino population. The tobacco was brought back to Spain and spread throughout the world, but let’s put cigarette smoking aside, because cigars are much more fascinating
By mid-16th century, when the Spanish conquered Cuba, they established the first cigar making facilities and this Cuban art form has been going on ever since. With 500 years of production under their belt, it’s no wonder that cigars are the epitome of Cuban culture.
But all was not a rosy picture in Cuba in the premier days of production. In the early 1700’s there was a decree, the Tobacco Monopoly of 1717 by King Phillip V of Spain, that stated all tobacco grown in Cuba was only to serve the country of its conquistador. Anyone caught selling tobacco seeds to non-Spanish countries would be put to death. Fortunately, the industry became so rooted in the Cuban culture that by 1817, the ruling was overturned and the king allowed free trade of tobacco through Spanish ports. This lead to the birth of the modern cigar industry.
From the 1700’s and onwards until the Revolution under Fidel Castro in 1958, Cuban tobacco was a strong and steady export. With the change under Castro, it meant the nationalization of the industry and it altered the way tobacco was farmed, processed, rolled and sold. As a result, wealthy farmers and cigar barons had no choice but to leave the island, and many came to America bringing their expertise with them to Miami and specifically to Little Havana.
The cigar experience in Little Havana is a must-do. My enthusiastic tour groups always ask me where can they buy a good cigar. The exhilaration grows wider when I tell them that not only can they purchase a cigar, but that we are going to visit a shop and they will learn all about how a cigar is made.
So are Cuban cigars in America really Cuban cigars? Yes and no. Due to the rocky relationship the US has had with the island, it is difficult to obtain true Cuban tobacco leaves in the mass quantities needed. But every one of those leaves has to begin as a seed. The seeds from Cuba are sold to Central and South American countries and the leaves grow in Ecuadorian or Panamanian soil as examples. The leaves are then exported to the US. However, since most of the cigar businesses in Little Havana are owned by proud Cubans, the exact same island tradition of processing, rolling, and aging the cigar is used even though the leaves are grown in a different land. You can legitimately say that a seed is the beginning of life for many life forms, and so at its pure roots one can say these cigars are at the very least Cuban-style.
Tobacco leaves are usually planted late in the year and then harvested about three months later. They are then hung up to dry in curing rooms for about three additional months. After the leaves are cured, they are fermented to remove naturally occurring ammonia. In bunches of five, the leaves are placed on a heated 95 degree Fahrenheit platform to remove the moisture.
Then the leaves are sorted into three piles- wrapper, binder and filler. Each type of leaf is put through a second fermentation process, heated to temperatures up to 140F over a 60 day period. This process is what establishes a cigar’s taste and aroma. After fermentation the leaves are left in bales to age so that the sugars and tannins can develop the final rich flavor.
The best cigars of course are hand rolled and fortunately in Little Havana you can get a ringside seat to watch the process. It takes years of experience to become a master torcedor, a fancy name for a cigar roller, and while they make it look so easy, cigar rolling is quite the art. The torcedor begins by creating the filler from two to four leaves which are bunched together and then rolled using a binder leaf and this preliminary cigar is placed in a specialized mold for about 45 minutes. The filling and binder are then placed at an angle in a carefully selected wrapper leaf and are rolled so that the wrapper envelopes the filling and binder at every turn. Finally, a cap is made from a cut piece of the wrapper leaf and is adhered with a plant-based gum. The rolled product is then sent to the humidor to age again and the result is excellent quality merchandise-a shiny, smooth cigar with all the tobacco leaves rolled in the same direction.
Technical processes aside, the true Cuban cigar experience is one of relaxation and the zest for life. Unlike the hurried pace of cigarette smoking, one takes their time to enjoy every nuanced flavor of their expertly rolled cigar in Little Havana. And with smoking lounges within several of neighborhood cigar shops, we promise the experience won’t leave you out in the cold.
By Robyn Webb