How did Cuba become the Gold Standard of Cigars?
Even people who do not smoke cigars know Cuba’s reputation as the go-to country for cigar aficionados. The country’s legend only grew after the trade embargo went into effect in 1962.
After a time, that forbidden fruit aspect seemed to feed into the myth of the Cuban cigar. In reality, Cuba manufactured cigars for centuries before Kennedy enacted the embargo. This lengthy history influenced the quality of the cigars, from the individual leaves to the actual rolling and quality control that ensures each cigar is free of flaws and imperfections.
The History of Cuban Cigars
When Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba, he discovered natives smoking tobacco wrapped in the leaves of plantains and palm trees, the prototype of early cigars.
The climate and soil of Cuba create the perfect environment for growing quality tobacco. Columbus took a supply of these leaves, and soon sailors were rolling and smoking them. Then, Spain began importing tobacco from Cuba to manufacture cigars.
In Cuba, tobacco growers and cigar manufacturers began experimenting with improving the flavor of cigars, through the drying and fermentation of tobacco leaves. Cuban cigar manufacturers began wielding more influence on the growers, working with them to improve quality and production.
Cuba also pioneered practices such as using different leaves for each part of the cigar, its wrapper, binder, and filling. The leaves grew in different regions and were cultivated specifically for their prescribed purpose.
By creating the cigars right there, close to the source, Cuban manufacturers further improved the quality, as sealed cigars withstood transatlantic voyages much better than the raw leaves.
What Makes them Special?
Cuban cigar manufacturers spent centuries perfecting the craft, and growers spent that same amount of time perfecting the cultivation of tobacco. The result is quality materials and a superior, highly detailed process that requires over 100 steps to make a single cigar.
Another difference between Cuban cigars and most others is that all of the tobacco comes from Cuba, rather than the blend of tobaccos that most other manufacturers use. For some, this blend is a selling point (similar to blended scotch and single malt). For others, though, the distinct aroma and taste of a genuine Cuban cigar are unmatched.
Of course, perceived rarity also helps create the feeling that these cigars are special. After more than 50 years, President Obama relaxed the trade embargo against Cuba in 2016. However, even though Americans may now visit Cuba, and even bring a limited number of cigars back home, the commercial import of these cigars is still forbidden.
Famous Cuban Brands
Before the embargo, the Ybor brand made its way to America’s shores when Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his factory to Key West, Florida. He even built a self-contained city with housing for his workers and their families. After the embargo, workers could no longer migrate between Cuba and the United States, and most opted to settle permanently in North America. This effectively ended the supply of Cuban tobacco for Ybor’s cigars.
The most popular Cuban brands at the time of the embargo were the Montecristo, Upmann, and Hoyo de Monterrey. In fact, President Kennedy, before signing the embargo, made sure to procure a supply of his personal favorite brand, Upmann. These same brands remain popular today, despite Castro seizing control of the cigar industry. Probably because Castro himself loved a good cigar.
So, are Cuban Cigars Really the Best?
Though deciding which is the best cigar always comes down to a matter of personal taste, there is no denying the superior craftsmanship of a Cuban cigar. Cuba’s government is highly invested in maintaining the country’s reputation for quality cigars and exercises strict control over the industry. The result is that every cigar leaving Cuba contains high-grade Cuban tobacco. It also provides the perfect smoke, every time, because each cigar is flawless.
The unique flavor profile of Cuban cigars, though, makes them unpopular with some, especially inexperienced smokers unused to the strong aroma and taste of Cuban tobacco. As always, the best cigar is the one you enjoy smoking the most.