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A Short History of Cigars

columbusCigars have a relatively modern history, compared with the long history of tobacco, and it coincides with Columbus' discovery of the new world. When Columbus sailed west in 1492 searching for a spice route, he encountered native cultures around the Carribean that cultivated tobacco, including Cuba where Columbus settled for a period of time. The natives smoked a primitive ancestor of the cigar which was often wrapped in non-Tobacco leaves, such as palm or plantain. Several of the Columbus' explorers then brought this tradition back with them to Europe. The sailors and conquistadors introduced the habit to the citizens of Spain and  the rest of Europe, where the practice was a sign of wealth. Initially cigar smoking was considered a pagan ritual (from the ritualistic smoking among native populations in the Americas) and smokers were imprisoned, although the practice soon became accepted.

As popularity grew, tobacco seed was transplanted to other growing regions worldwide, including the far east and the newly founded American states in the 1600's. Most colonists however, were smoking pipes rather than cigars. The modern variant of the cigar is generally considered to have been started in Spain during the early 18th century. As cigar production slowly spread through Western Europe (called a segar in Europe), cigar smoking became seen as very fashionable. It didn't really take off in France and Britain until after the Napoleonic wars when soldiers returning from service in Spain brought the habit with them. 

In Seville, Spain, where most of the Spanish and even European cigar production took place in the 1700's and 1800's, the raw materials for cigar production were imported from Cuba. It wasn't until 1821 that Cuba was permitted to produce cigars for export to Europe, and in appreciation, the Cubans would send a box of their finest cigars (Trinidads) to the Spanish king every year. Today, Cuban cigars are still considered among the worlds finest, although trade embargoes have allowed other countries to rise to the same level of quality.

Cigar smoking in America didn't start until a little later, in the mid to late 1700's when an American Revolutionary War general returned from service in Cuba to his home in Connecticut with cigars and tobacco. A burgeoning cigar industry started up in the Hartford area and tobacco growing soon followed. Today, many of the finest cigars use Connecticut shade leaf tobacco for wrappers. By the 19th century both Cuban cigars and domestic cigar production began to take off. Cigar smoking was far more common in the 19th and early 20th century than cigarettes. Today, as a remnant of cigar smokings' association with wealth and prosperity, many special occassions are celebrated with a fine cigar.


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The Making of a Fine Cigar

making of fine cigar hero

The making of a fine cigar begins deep in the tobacco growing fields of the Caribbean, Latin America, and other parts of the world, where careful stewardship of the tobacco crop yields the highest quality leaves for harvest. The multi-step process spans months and even years to convert the raw leaves into suitable components for cigar making. The complexity of the process belies the underlying simplicity of the materials, as a cigar is primarily composed of one ingredient – tobacco.


The Tobacco Plant


Tobacco is grown all over the world, but many of the finest leaves are grown in the Caribbean and Latin America.  Originally discovered in the South American Andes region of Ecuador and Peru, the tobacco plant is part of the Solanaceae family which also includes petunias, potatoes and tomatoes. Only two genus of tobacco are smokable, and only one is used in cigar making, Nicotiana tabacum. And while Nicotiana can be grown almost anywhere, it typically thrives in a sandy loam of volcanic soil in a hot, humid climate. 

Nicotiana tabacum has multiple sub-species that are used in the production of cigars.                                                                                                          

  • Bahia – which is one of the oldest native seed tobaccos and is grown in Brazil;
  • Broadleaf – widely grown especially in the United States;
  • Habanesis hybrids – developed from seed brought to Cuba from Mexico;
  • San Andreas Negro – cultivated by the Aztecs in Mexico;
  • Sumatran – planted in Indonesia from seeds brought by explorers and traders.

Varietal experimentation and continual research and development of the species have led to the  types of tobacco we know today.

  • Brazilian Arapiraca;
  • Indonesia (Java) Besuki of which there are two types Early Harvest (VO – “Vroege oogst” in Dutch) and Late Harvest (NO-“No oogst” in Dutch);
  • Connecticut Broadleaf – most popular for  wrappers;
  • Connecticut Shade – also popular for wrappers;
  • Connecticut Sun-Grown – with lineage back to Cuba, also called Havana Seed or Medio Tiempo;
  • West African Cameroon;
  • Cuban or Nicaraguan Corojo – bred from Criollo plants;
  • Cuban or Ecuadoran Corojo 99 – a hybrid developed for wrapper leaf;
  • Cuban, Honduran or Nicaraguan Criollo – refers to native seed tobaccos;
  • Criollo 98/99 – a more disease resistant version;
  • Cuban Habana 2000  developed in Cuba to be more resistant to disease than Corojo;
  • Phillipine  Isabela - quite mild;
  • Brazilian Mata Fina/Mata Norte/Mata Sul, from the Bahia type.
  • Dominican Republic Olor - also quite mild.
  • Dominican Republic Piloto Cubano, grown in many varieties.
  • Mexican San Andres - grown from ancient seeds in the San Andres Valley;
  • Dominican Republic San Vicente less powerful in flavor and aroma than Piloto Cubano;
  • Indonesian Sumatra;
  • Indonesian Tembakau Bawah Naungan or TBN - a crossbreed of the Besuki and Connecticut styles and used for wrappers.
  • Indonesian Vorstenlanden - wrapper leaf shade-grown from this seed is also known as VBN.
  • Each type of plant has its role to play in the making of a fine cigar. While a cigar is primarily composed of three types of tobacco, it is not uncommon now to see blends of five and even seven tobaccos being used in modern day cigars.  Similarly, each part of the plant may play a different role as well.


The Growing of Fine Tobacco Leaves

TobaccoPlant1The process of cultivating the leaves is a delicate and intensive process to ensure the highest quality leaves. The tobacco plant is comprised of three different kinds of leaves, depending on their location on the plant. The Ligero leaves reside at the top of the plant and are the strongest in flavor, Seco are in the middle and are used for texture and taste while Volado reside at the bottom of the plant and serves as mild filler for cigars.

The tobacco plant isn’t harvested in its entirety; rather the leaves are picked two or three at a time and only upon reaching  their optimum level of development. Well trained and experienced workers can see this distinction visually. Once picked, the leaves are brought to the curing house to be transformed from raw green leaf into something suitable for cigar making.


Curing and Aging the Leaves

dryingThe curing houses are huge, hundreds of feet long, often made of cedar, and are well ventilated to ensure rapid drying of the leaves. The leaves are strung up on long poles and hung in the curing house, higher or lower depending on the type of leaf. As the leaves dry they turn from bright green to a dull green. But this is only the beginning.

Once the leaves are dried, they are stacked into bundles for fermentation. The stacked leaves are kept moist and the pressure from being stacked generates a considerable amount of internal heat that helps to drive off impurities such as ammonia and tar. As the leaves cure during a month long process, they are broken down and re-stacked to ensure even curing.

Once fermentation is complete, the leaves are moved to a cooler part of the curing house for extended aging, sometimes taking 2-3 years. The aging process smoothes and improves the flavor. After the initial aging process, the leaves are de-stemmed and re-fermented at higher temperatures for 45-60 days. Once again the leaves are set aside for a second aging in open cedar boxes, which completes the process. Its little wonder cigars don’t cost more, considering such an extensive production process just to condition the tobacco.

Rolling the Cigar

moldCigars are made of three parts: the filler, binder and wrapper, each of which can be made from  a different variety of tobacco. In the case of the filler, it is often a blend of several different varieties.  When smoking a cigar, most of the flavor comes from the filler, but some character comes through  the binder and wrapper.

The first step is to bundle the filler, usually long leaf in high quality cigars, tightly together then wrap with binder leaves. At this point, the cigar is pressed into a mold that will determine the final shape (round, squared, torpedo, etc.) and size, measure by ring gauge. The mold is closed and tightened and the proto-cigars are left under pressure until the master roller determines that they are ready      for wrapping.

Only the most experienced rollers can progress to the position of master roller, as they are then responsible for the final appearance of the cigar. The master roller carefully selects the best wrapper leaf and carefully cuts it to shape using a sharp tool called a chaveta that looks like a broad, flat and curved spatula. The wrapper is carefully worked on the cigar and sealed with a natural tree sap glue, called gum tragacanth. Once wrapped, the cigar is finished by cutting to length and affixing a small piece of tobacco wrapper leaf to the head, called a cap, which completes  the fabrication process.


Wrapping and Final Aging

The finished cigars are typically grouped in bundles and wrapped in absorbent paper in preparation to be aged. The cigar bundles are then classified by types of cigars, the dates that the premium cigars were made, the tobacco blend of the cigars, and the code identifying the roller and master roller who made them. These marked bundles of handmade cigars are carefully placed in the aging room for the aged cigars process. The aging room is temperature and humidity controlled to make sure that the different types of tobacco in the cigars “marry” perfectly. These walk-in humidors maintain the cigars in the perfect environment.

Cigars can age for years. Normally 90 days is sufficient for the tobacco in the cigar to be fully married, but leaving them longer in the aging room improves the taste. Some are aged for over two years in an effort to bring their taste to the perfect level. After final aging, the cigars can be banded and packed for shipping.

The process from tobacco seed to cigar is long and very labor intensive. So when you fire up that cigar and enjoy the complex flavors and aromas, remember to appreciate the long journey it took to get to your hand.


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