The indigenous inhabitants of the islands of the Caribbean Sea and Mesoamerica have smoked cigars since as early as the 10th century, as evidenced by the discovery of a ceramic vessel at a Mayan archaeological site in Uaxactún, Guatemala, decorated with the painted figure of a man smoking a primitive cigar. Explorer Christopher Columbus is generally credited with the introduction of smoking to Europe.
Two of Columbus’s crewmen during his 1492 journey, Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres, are said to have disembarked in Cuba and taken puffs of tobacco wrapped in maize husks, thus becoming the first European cigar smokers.
In the 19th century, cigar smoking was common while cigarettes were still comparatively rare. The cigar business was an important industry, and factories employed many people before mechanized manufacturing of cigars became practical. Many modern cigars, as a matter of prestige, are still rolled by hand; some boxes bear the phrase Totalmente a mano, “Totally by hand,” as proof.
Cigar makers in Puerto Rico, 1942
Tobacco leaves are harvested and aged using a process that combines use of heat and shade to reduce sugar and water content without causing the large leaves to rot. This first part of the process, called curing, takes between 25 and 45 days and varies substantially based upon climatic conditions as well as the construction of sheds or barns used to store harvested tobacco. The curing process is manipulated based upon the type of tobacco, and the desired color of the leaf. The second part of the process, called fermentation, is carried out under conditions designed to help the leaf die slowly and gracefully. Temperature and humidity are controlled to ensure that the leaf continues to ferment, without rotting or disintegrating. This is where the flavor, burning, and aroma characteristics are primarily brought out in the leaf.
Once the leaves have aged properly, they are sorted for use as filler or wrapper based upon their appearance and overall quality. During this process, the leaves are continually moistened and handled carefully to ensure each leaf is best used according to its individual qualities. The leaf will continue to be baled, inspected, unbaled, reinspected, and baled again repeatedly as it continues its aging cycle. When the leaf has matured according to the manufacturer’s specifications, it will be used in the production of a cigar.
The creation of a quality cigar is still performed by hand. An experienced cigar roller can produce hundreds of exceptional, nearly identical cigars per day. The rollers keep the tobacco moist– especially the wrapper, and use specially designed crescent-shaped knives, called a chaveta, to form the filler and wrapper leaves quickly and accurately. Once rolled, the cigars are stored in wooden forms as they dry, in which their uncapped ends are cut to a uniform size. From this stage, the cigar is a complete product that can be “laid down” and aged for decades if kept as close to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), and 70% relative humidity, as the environment will allow. According to some experts,[attribution needed] however, long-term cigar aging requires significantly lower storage temperatures (for example, 40 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended for a 50 year storage). The higher temperatures which are usually used in standard cigar storage will cause the deterioration of the cigar after several years, resulting an eventual corruption of the cigar’s flavor. Once cigars have been purchased, proper storage is usually accomplished by keeping the cigars in a specialized wooden box, or humidor, where conditions can be carefully controlled for long periods of time. Even if a cigar becomes dry, it can be successfully re-humidified so long as it has not been handled carelessly.
Some cigars, especially premium brands, use different varieties of tobacco for the filler and the wrapper. “Long filler cigars” are a far higher quality of cigar, using long leaves throughout. These cigars also use a third variety of tobacco leaf, a “binder”, between the filler and the outer wrapper. This permits the makers to use more delicate and attractive leaves as a wrapper. These high-quality cigars almost always blend varieties of tobacco. Even Cuban long-filler cigars will combine tobaccos from different parts of the island to incorporate several different flavors.
In low-grade cigars, chopped up tobacco leaves are used for the filler, and long leaves or even a type of “paper” made from tobacco pulp is used for the wrapper which binds the cigar together.
Historically, a lector or reader was always employed to entertain the cigar factory workers. This practice became obsolete once audio books for portable players became available, but it is still practiced in some Cuban factories. The name for the Montecristo cigar brand may have arisen from this practice. (See Cigar Brands).
Families in the cigar industry
A unique part of the premium cigar industry is that nearly all modern cigar makers are either members of long-standing cigar families — or purport themselves to be of one. Families dominate the cigar industry as the art and skill of hand making premium cigars has been passed down to each generation through family lines.
Families are such an integral part of the cigar industry that families are highlighted in the majority of cigar advertisements and in product packaging. When cigar lovers purchase a premium cigar, not only do they purchase a roll of fine, aged tobacco, but they also purchase a product of hand craftsmanship that is infused with the history and care of the family and roller that created it.
In 1992, Cigar Aficionado magazine created the “Cigar Hall of Fame” to recognize families in the cigar industry. To date, six individuals have been inducted into the Hall of Fame for their families’ contributions to the cigar industry:
- Edgar M. Cullman, Chairman, General Cigar Company, New York
- Zino Davidoff, Founder, Davidoff et Cie., Geneva
- Carlos Fuente, Sr., Chairman, Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., Tampa
- Frank Llaneza, Chairman, Villazon & Co., Tampa
- Stanford J. Newman, Chairman, J.C. Newman Cigar Company, Tampa
- Angel Oliva, Sr., Founder, Oliva Tobacco Co., Tampa
The oldest family-owned premium cigar company in America is the J.C. Newman Cigar Company, a four generation family who has been making their Diamond Crown, Cuesta-Rey and Maximus cigars since 1895 and are headquartered in Tampa’s famous Ybor City cigar district.
Perhaps the best known cigar family in the world is the Arturo Fuente family. Now led by father and son Carlos Fuente, Sr. and Jr., the Fuente Family has been rolling their Arturo Fuente, Fuente Fuente OpusX, and Montesino cigars since 1916.
The oldest Dominican Republic cigar maker is the León family, who have been making their León Jimenes and La Aurora cigars on the island since 1905.
Not only are premium cigar makers typically families, but so are those who grow the premium cigar tobacco. The Oliva Family has been growing cigar tobacco since 1934 and their family’s tobacco is found in nearly every major cigar brand sold on the American market.
Some families, such as the well-known Padrons, have crossed over from tobacco leaf grower to cigar maker. While the Padron family has been growing tobacco since the 1850s, they began making cigars that bear their family’s name in 1964.
Like the Padrons, the Carlos Torano family first began growing tobacco in 1916 before they started rolling their own family’s brands, which also bear the family name, in the 1990s.
Even the premium cigars made by the cigar industry’s two corporate conglomerates, Altadis and Swedish Match, are overseen by members of two cigar families, Altadis’ Benjamin Menendez and Swedish Match’s Ernesto Perez-Carrillo.
Families are such an important part of the premium cigar industry that the term “Cigar Family” is a registered trademark of the Arturo Fuente and J.C. Newman families and is used to distinguish and identify their families, premium cigar brands, and charitable foundation.
Cigars are composed of three types of tobacco leaves, whose variations determine smoking and flavor characteristics:
A cigar’s outermost leaves, or wrapper, come from the widest part of the plant. The wrapper determines much of the cigar’s character and flavor, and as such its color is often used to describe the cigar as a whole. Colors are designated as follows, from lightest to darkest:
- Double Claro – very light, slightly greenish (also called Candela, American Market Selection or jade); achieved by picking leaves before maturity and drying quickly; often grown in Connecticut
- Claro – light tan or yellowish. Indicative of shade-grown tobacco.
- Natural – light brown to brown; generally sun-grown.
- Colorado Claro – mid-brown; particularly associated with tobacco grown in the Dominican Republic or in Cuba
- Colorado – reddish-brown (also called Rosado)
- Colorado Maduro – dark brown; particularly associated with Honduras or Cuba-grown tobacco
- Maduro – dark brown to very dark brown
- Oscuro – a.k.a. “Double Maduro”, black, often oily in appearance; tend to be grown in Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil, Mexico, or Connecticut
Some manufacturers use an alternate designation:
- American Market Selection (AMS) – synonymous with Double Claro
- English Market Selection (EMS) – can refer to any color stronger than Double Claro but milder than Maduro
- Spanish Market Selection (SMS) – either of the two darkest colors, Maduro and Oscuro
It is often thought, mistakenly, that the darker the wrapper, the fuller the flavor. In fact it is the blend of the filler which dictates the flavour. If anything, dark wrappers add a touch of sweetness and light ones a hint of dryness to the taste.
The majority of a cigar is made up of fillers, wrapped-up bunches of leaves in its interior. Fillers of various strengths are usually blended to produce unique cigar flavors. The more oils present in the tobacco leaf, the stronger (less dry) the filler. Types range from the minimally-flavored Volado taken from the bottom of the plant, through the light-flavored (dry) Seco taken from the middle of the plant, and on to the strong Ligero from the upper leaves exposed to the most sunlight. Large-gauge cigars have a greater capacity to contain filler, and thus have greater potential to provide a full body and/or complex flavor. When used, Ligero is always folded into the middle of the filler because it burns slowly.
Fillers can be either long or short; long filler uses whole leaves and is of a better quality, while short filler, also called “mixed,” uses chopped up leaves as well as stems and other bits. Recently some manufacturers have created what they term “medium filler” cigars. They do not use whole leaves but part of the leaves. The quality is usually much better than short filler cigars because the leaves are not chopped up and there are no stems and bits in the filler. Short filler cigars are easy to identify when smoked since they often burn hotter and the smoker will be spitting out bits and pieces from the smoking end. Long filled cigars of high quality should burn evenly and consistently. Also available is a filler called “Sandwich” (sometimes “Cuban Sandwich”) which is a method of rolling a cigar using both long and short filler and using long outer leaf to sandwich the short in between.
Binders are elastic leaves used to hold together the bunches of fillers.
Size and shape
World’s largest cigar at the Tobacco and Matchstick Museum in Skansen, Stockholm, Sweden.
Cigars are commonly categorized by the size and shape of the cigar, which together are known as a vitola.
The size of a cigar is measured by two dimensions: its ring gauge (its diameter in sixty-fourths of an inch) and its length (in inches). For example, most non-Cuban robustos have a ring gauge of approximately 50 and a length of approximately 5 inches. Robustos which are of Cuban origin always have a ring gauge of 50 and a length of 4 7/8 inches.
See also Factory Name.
The most common shape is the parejo, which has a cylindrical body, straight sides, one end open, and a round cap on the other end which is either snipped off, sliced perpendicularly (a V-cut), or punched through before smoking.
Parejos are designated by the following terms:
- Rothschilds (4 1/2″ x 50) after the Rothschild family
- Robusto (4 7/8″ x 50)
- Hermosos No. 4 (5″ x 48)
- Mareva/Petit Corona (5 1/8″ x 42)
- Corona (5 1/2″ x 42)
- Corona Gorda (5 5/8″ x 46)
- Toro (6″ x 50)
- Corona Grande (6 1/8″ x 42)
- Cervantes/Lonsdale (6 1/2″ x 42), named for Hugh Cecil Lowther, 5th Earl of Lonsdale
- Dalia (6 3/4″ x 43)
- Julieta, also known as Churchill (7″ x 47), named for Winston Churchill
- Prominente/Double Corona (7 5/8″ x 49)
- Presidente (8″ x 50)
- Gran Corona (“A”) (9 1/4″ x 47)
- Panatelas – longer and generally thinner than Coronas
- Small Panatela (5″ x 33)
- Carlota (5 5/8″ x 35)
- Short Panatela (5″ x 38)
- Slim Panatela (6″ x 34)
- Panatela (6″ x 38)
- Deliciados/Laguito No. 1 (7 1/4″ x 38)
Irregularly-shaped cigars are known as figurados and are sometimes considered of higher quality because they are more difficult to make.
Historically, especially during the 19th century, figurados were the most popular shapes, however, by the 1930s, they had fallen out of fashion and all but disappeared. They have, however, recently received a small resurgence in popularity, and there are currently many brands(manufacturers) that produce figurados alongside the simpler parejos. The Cuban cigar brand Cuaba only has figurados in their range.
Figurados include the following:
- Torpedo – Like a parejo except that the cap is pointed.
- Pyramid – Has a broad foot and evenly narrows to a pointed cap.
- Perfecto – Narrow at both ends and bulged in the middle.
- Presidente/Diadema – shaped like a parejo but considered a figurado because of its enormous size and occasional closed foot akin to a perfecto.
- Culebras – Three long, pointed cigars braided together.
- Tuscanian – The typical Italian cigar, created in the early nineteenth century when Kentucky tobacco was hybridized with local varieties and used to create a long, tough, slim cigar thicker in the middle and tapered at the ends, with a very strong aroma. It is also known as a cheroot, which is the largest selling cigar shape in the United States.
Arturo Fuente, a large cigar manufacturer based in the Dominican Republic, has also manufactured figurados in exotic shapes ranging from chili peppers to baseball bats and American footballs. They are highly collectible and extremely expensive, when publicly available. In practice, the terms Torpedo and Pyramid are often used interchangeably, even among very knowledgeable cigar smokers. Min Ron Nee, the Hong Kong-based cigar expert whose work “An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Post-Revolution Havana Cigars” is considered to be the definitive work on cigars and cigar terms, defines Torpedo as “cigar slang.” Nee thinks the majority is right (because slang is defined by majority usage) and torpedoes are pyramids by another name, saying:
In the old days, torpedo could mean a perfecto or a pyramid shape cigar. After the Cuban Revolution the meaning leans toward the pyramid rather than the perfecto. Some cigar authorities insist that the correct meaning of a torpedo should be referring to a perfecto and not a pyramid. The majority of people who use torpedo to mean pyramid have got it wrong. I find it rather funny that a slang word can be incorrectly misunderstood by the majority.
Virtually all cigar aficionados enjoy the practice because of the rich and varied flavours one observes when smoking, although some eschew the connoisseurial qualities in favour of other factors. For those drawn by taste, each brand and type of cigar carries different qualities of taste. The wrapper does not, as is commonly thought, dictate the flavour of the cigar. However, darker wrappers tend to produce a sweetness, while lighter wrappers usually have a drier taste to them. Flavours of cigars whether mild, medium, or full bodied are not indicators of quality. Like all kinds of flavors they are highly personal.
Unlike cigarettes, cigars taste very little of smoke, and usually very much of tobacco with nuances of other tastes. Some cigar enthusiasts use a vocabulary similar to that of wine-tasters to describe the overtones and undertones observed while smoking a cigar. A fine cigar can have virtually no taste of smoke whatsoever.
Some of the more common flavours one observes while smoking a cigar include:
- Cocoa / chocolate
- Peat / moss / earth
Many different things affect the scent of cigar smoke: quality of the cigar, added flavours, tobacco type, cigar age, cigar humidity, production method (handmade vs. machine-made) and more.
Non-smokers subjected to second-hand cigar smoke have many different opinions about the scent of cigar smoke. Some enjoy the cigar smoke, noticing the difference between cigar smoke and the more common scent of cigarette smoke. However, other non-smokers do not appreciate or enjoy the scent of cigar smoke.
The most ardent enjoyers of cigar smoking will sometimes keep personal journals of cigars they’ve enjoyed, complete with personal ratings, description of flavors observed, sizes, brands, etc. The qualities and characteristics of cigar tasting are very similar to those of wine, Scotch, beer, cognacs and tequila. Within a given specification, there are endless varieties. This dynamic is part of the appeal to which cigar smokers are continually drawn.
Cigars manufactured in Cuba are widely considered to be without peer, although many experts believe that the best offerings from Honduras and Nicaragua rival those from Cuba. The Cuban reputation is thought to arise from the unique characteristics of the Vuelta Abajo district in the Pinar del Río Province at the west of the island, where the microclimate allows high-quality tobacco to be grown.
Cuban cigars are rolled from tobacco leaves found throughout the country of Cuba. The filler, binder, and wrapper may come from different portions of the island. All cigar production in Cuba is controlled by the Cuban government, and each brand may be rolled in several different factories in Cuba. Cuban cigar rollers are claimed to be the most skilled rollers in the world.
The label on Machine-made Cuban cigars — “Manufactured in Cuba”
Habanos SA and Cubatabaco do all the work relating to Cuban cigars, including quality control, promoting and distributing and exportation. Cuban cigars are either hand made, or machine made. All bear the statement Hecho en Cuba, on the box or label, regardless of method of production. Hand-finished cigars previously bunched by machine add Hecho a mano, while fully hand-made cigars say Totalmente a mano in stylized text. Some cigars show a TC or Tripa Corta – meaning short filler and cuttings were used in the hand-rolling process.
The label on Hand-made Cuban cigars — “Manufactured in Cuba, completely by hand”
List of current notable Cuban cigar brands:
- El Rey Del Mundo
- H. Upmann
- Hoyo de Monterrey
- Jose L. Piedra
- Juan Lopez
- La Gloria Cubana
- Por Larranaga
- Quai D’Orsay
- Rafael Gonzalez
- Ramon Allones
- Romeo y Julieta
- Saint Luis Rey
- San Cristobal de la Habana
- Sancho Panza
- Vegas Robaina
United States embargo against Cuba
The cigar became inextricably intertwined with U.S. political history on February 7, 1962, when United States President John F. Kennedy, intending to sanction Fidel Castro’s communist government, imposed a trade embargo on Cuba. Americans were thus prohibited from purchasing what were at the time considered the finest cigars on the market, and Cuba was deprived of a large portion of its customers. According to Pierre Salinger, then Kennedy’s press secretary, the president ordered him on the evening of February 6 to obtain a thousand H. Upmann brand petit corona Cuban cigars; upon Salinger’s arrival with the cigars the following morning, Kennedy signed the executive order which put the embargo into effect. Cigars (and tobacco leaves) imported prior to the embargo are not considered contraband, and are known as “pre-embargo Cubans.”
In the United States, authentic Cuban-made cigars often carry a mystique among some aficionados for being perceived as “the best smoking experience” of all cigars, and for being “forbidden fruit” for Americans to purchase. Some aficionados consider Cuban cigars to be superior in quality to similar cigars made in other countries such as the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In fact, many of the major brand name cigars from these countries are manufactured under the supervision of Cigar Family members (see Families in the cigar industry below) who descended from those that formerly operated cigar factories in Cuba.
As of 2007, it remains illegal for Americans to purchase or import Cuban cigars, although they are readily available across the Northern boarder in Canada and small quantities can be brought back without trouble from US Customs if the bands are removed prior to crossing. However, there is a lively smuggling trade in Cuban cigars, coupled with inflated prices and rampant counterfeiting. Cuban cigars purchased in overseas ports such as Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, or Mexico, are almost always counterfeit. Because of the increased use of home computers and the advent of the Internet, it has become much easier for people in the United States to purchase illegal cigars online from neighboring countries such as Canada where there is no embargo against Cuba. The full impact of computers and the Internet on the embargo is not known. As with all black market internet purchases, there is a high risk of being scammed, either from receiving inferior counterfeit goods, or nothing.
Italy produces the typical “Sigaro Toscano” (Tuscan Cigar).
Burma and India are traditionally associated with the cheroot.
Le Premier Cigarre, Les Beaux Jours de la Vie, by Honoré Daumier.
Cigars in culture, from a cigar box label at the Lightner Museum.
Modern cigar store front in Windsor UK
Cigars are often presented as stereotypical rich man’s accessory. Cigars are often smoked to celebrate good fortune, like the birth of a child, a graduation, a big business accomplishment, etc. Some buy and keep a cigar ‘for luck’ with regard to a bet, with the intention of smoking it after winning the bet. The expression “close, but no cigar”, said after a near miss, derives from that tradition.
King Edward VII enjoyed smoking cigarettes and cigars, much to the chagrin of his mother, Queen Victoria. After her death, legend has it, King Edward said to his male guests at the end of a dinner party, “Gentlemen, you may smoke.” In his name, a line of inexpensive American cigars has long been named King Edward.
Two men who died during the zenith of the cigar’s popularity owing ultimately to nicotine addiction and the consequent cancer were President Ulysses S. Grant of the USA (throat cancer) and Dr. Sigmund Freud (mouth cancer). Both these men were noted for regularly smoking an entire box (20 cigars) a day.
Although Grant was able for the duration of the Civil War to stop drinking, he was most often seen with a cigar and after his Presidency, Grant contracted cancer. Not wishing to leave his wife Julia penniless, Grant decided to write and publish his memoirs while in great pain.
Freud likewise succumbed in the 1930s to a habit which he seems to have been reluctant to psychoanalyze. Challenged on the “phallic” shape of the cigar, Freud is supposed to have replied, “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.”
Winston Churchill was a famous cigar smoker, while his time as Britain’s wartime leader was he rarely seen without one. Churchill also had a cigar size named in his honour.
Karl Marx the philosopher, and Groucho Marx the comedian were both heavy cigar smokers. When Groucho was ill with appendicitis, his brother Zeppo stood in for him onstage. Apparently, few people noticed the difference, but Zeppo admitted that the cigars he had to smoke made him sick.
Fellow Vaudevillian George Burns also smoked cigars as part of his “shtick.” Comedians have often used cigar smoking as part of their comic timing.
Famous quotes about the cigar include not only Freud’s but also from a Rudyard Kipling poem: “A woman is only a woman: but a good cigar is a smoke.” Also: “What this country needs is a good five cent cigar.” The cigar was also a staple for vaudeville jokes and slapstick, from the overexcited new father who says “have a baby, my wife just had a cigar” to the exploding cigar which may have been a coded proletarian gesture of resistance to the cigar, which with the top hat and tails was the semiotic for “capitalism” in the early 20th century.
In Stalag 17, P.O.W. JJ Sefton admits that he trades cigarettes with the Germans because he has no need for them; he only smokes cigars.
Arthur Daley, played by George Cole, in the U.K. comedy drama series Minder was often found puffing on a cigar. In one episode, he was unknowingly hypnotised out of enjoying them, and spent the rest of the episode searching for a brand that he would enjoy.
American actor George Peppard was an avid cigar smoker, most prominently in the series The A-Team, where it was his character, “Hannibal” Smith’s trademark.
In the 1983 film Scarface, Tony Montana often smoked cigars during scenes that showed him moving up in the cocaine underworld.
In the 1992 film Scent of a Woman, Lt.Col Frank Slade, who is staying in a posh New York hotel, orders his assistant Charlie Simms to get him a Montecristo No.1, knowing that it will take time to find one. Actually he is planning to shoot himself, so he wants Simms to leave him alone for some time.
Several storylines in the 1990s sitcom Seinfeld revolve around or pay regard to a box of Cuban cigars in season 4. Cigars rolled by Dominicans were part of a storyline on a season-8 episode. In addition, Kramer was an avid cigar smoker on the show, often seen smoking whether or not it was a part of an episode’s plot.
Since apart from certain forms of heavily cured and strong snuff, the cigar is the most potent form of self-dosing with tobacco, it has long had associations of being a male rite of passage, as it may have had during the pre-Columbian era in America. Its fumes and rituals have in American and European cultures established a “men’s hut”; in the 19th century, men would retire to the “smoking room” after dinner, to discuss serious issues.
Famous jazz musicians, most notably Miles Davis, were proud cigar smokers, appreciating their fine flavor & aroma, though never did they smoke on major stage. According to Davis, his favourite brand was Augusta, a rare brand only sold in restaurants & coffee shops, or directly to certain famous people, like himself.
Radio host Don Geronimo is and avid cigar lover. He has spoken at length about his love of cigars, especially the rare Fuente Fuente OpusX. Geronimo is one half on the nationally syndicated Don and Mike Show.
Radio host Ron Bennington is an avid cigar smoker, and has espoused so on many occasions on the Ron and Fez Show.
Hall of Fame former coach of the Boston Celtics, Red Auerbach is famous for lighting his signature cigar while his Celtics were on the cusp of a win.
One of the most recent developments in the cigar industry is to laser engrave right onto the outer cigar leaf (wrapper). This process uses modern lasers to remove the dark pigment from the leaf, leaving a white or tan print on the cigar itself. The process allows for personalization and improved logo visibility on these signature stogies. Cigars such as the Oliva Master Blend 2 have licensed the patented process; patent #’s: 6,180,914 and 6,172,328.