History of Cigars History of Cigars History of Cigars

The History & Lore of Cigars

n October 12, 1492, Columbus landed in the New World and, according to his log, was welcomed by natives who brought gifts, including "certain dried leaves which gave off a distinct fragrance.” But Columbus was looking for gold, not potpourri, and the aromatic leaves were unceremoniously tossed overboard. Poor Chris just couldn’t get a break; not only had he missed India by more than 10,000 miles, but if he had foreseen the promise of that modest handful of leaves, he might not have died in poverty 14 years later.
    Later Spanish adventurers observed the natives wrapping dried tobacco leaves in palm fronds. Then–¡Dios mio!– they set fire to the damn thing and “drank” the smoke from the other end! The first Spaniard to bring this peculiar practice back to Europe, Rodrigo de Jerez, was imprisoned by the Inquisition for witchcraft when neighbors observed him with smoke billowing from his mouth and nostrils.
    Still, this new world vice took the old world by storm and in less than 100 years. tobacco was being cultivated in plantations from Cuba to Maryland. However, what was true then is still true today–for a good cigar, you need good leaves, and the best tobacco leaf tends to come from Latin climes. For comparison purposes only we offer the following gross generalities.
cigars like Te-Amo tend to be mild but spicy, even peppery. Nicaraguan cigars such as Padrón offer a rich, dark sweetness with subtle spices in medium to full body. Cigars of the Dominican Republic, such as Arturo Fuente, traditionally feature mild to medium body with flavors of wood and leather. Jamaica often provides a tinge of nuts or coffee in milder cigars like Macanudo. Honduran cigars like Hoyo de Monterrey may be characterized by medium to full body with undertones of cocoa, nuts and spice. Finally, the best Cuban cigars such as Cohiba are known to smokers the world over for full-body, yet smooth and spicy flavor. Importation of cuban cigars was made illegal in the U.S. in 1963 (but according to Pierre Salinger, not before JFK had him obtain over a thousand Cuban Upmann’s for the presidential stash).

Birth & Anatomy of a Good Smoke

asically a cigar is just a tube made of leaves, but the quality of those leaves and the size and shape of that tube (called the vitola) make for an exciting variety of smoking experiences. Cigars are measured by length in inches or millimeters, and width, designated by the ring gauge, which represents the diameter in 64ths of an inch. And in this case, size does matter. Generally, the thicker the ring gauge, the more complex the flavor; the longer the cigar, the cooler the smoke and the longer it may be enjoyed.
    Like all good things, a cigar has a beginning, middle, and end. The foot is the open end of the cigar that is lit, the middle section of the cigar is called the barrel, and the closed end that is clipped and smoked is known as the head, and is usually finished with a cap, a small oval leaf that closes the head of the cigar. (A cigar should never be clipped below the cap or it may unravel during smoking.) The shape of a cigar is divided into two basic categories: parejo, the most typical shape with straight sides and rounded head, and figurado, cigars that have a more distinctive shape, such as piramides and torpedos with tapered, pointy heads and perfectos which are tapered at both ends and bulge slightly in the middle.
    Handmade cigars are created by a cigar roller (or torcedor), an old-world craftsman who assembles the following three different categories of leaf to painstakingly create each single cigar. (Special thanks to La Gloria Cubana in Miami, for letting me wander around their rolling tables with my little Nikon.)


F I L L E R (or tripa) - First, the roller creates a "bunch," a handful of filler leaves comprising the heart of the cigar. A good bunch is crucial: a loose fill will burn too quickly and unevenly, a tight fill will make it difficult for the smoker to "draw" smoke from the cigar.
(or capote) - The bunched filler is then rolled in a smooth, supple leaf called the "binder," forming the rough size and shape of the cigar, which is pressed in a wooden mold for about an hour before returning to the roller's table for the final step.
W R A P P E R (or capa) - After pressing, the cigars are removed from the molds and "wrapper" leaf is carefully rolled diagonally around the bunch and trimmed with the chaveta, a sickle-shaped blade. Wrapper leaves are selected for flavor, appearance and five main categories of color: oscuro, very dark, almost black; maduro, dark brown, colorado, (or rosado), a reddish brown; natural, tan to light brown; claro, very pale tan; and a rare greenish wrapper called Candela.)   

A Sample of Popular Brands

There are literally hundreds of brands of cigars on the market catering to almost every taste and pocketbook. Below are just six of the more popular brands, each originating from different countries, each possessing their own distinct flavor and strength characteristics.

The Padrón legacy began in 1964, when after leaving Cuba, José Orlando Padrón began a chinchalle (home-based cigar factory) in Little Havana, Miami. By 1970, he was growing his own Cuban-seed tobacco in Nicaragua to produce consistently excellent cigars that belie their reasonable cost. The pricier Anniversary series has become one of the benchmarks of the cigar world. Padrones are medium- to full-bodied cigars with distinctive dark sweetness and an earthy tinge of spice.

Probably the most famous of Cuba's brands, Cohiba began when Fidel Castro cadged one of his bodyguard's custom-made cigars. They became Castro's private blend until 1968, when the cigar was named Cohiba and produced solely for diplomatic presentations. It was not until 1982 that Cuba offered this elite cigar to the world. Leaves selected from the finest crops undergo three fermentations and aging in barrels to give Cohiba its full-bodied yet silky-smooth character.
The original Cuban Hoyo de Monterrey was created in l865 by José Gener. About a century later, the new owners sold the name to Frank Llaneza of Villazon cigar company who created the Honduran version of the venerable brand, using tobacco seeds smuggled out of Cuba by diplomatic bag. Honduran Hoyos are full-bodied with a rich flavor that rivals milder Cuban Hoyos and were maintained to the highest standards by master blender Estelo Padrón until his death in 2015.
The Fuente family began a cigar dynasty in 1912 in Cuba, moving to Tampa, Nicaragua, and Honduras before settling in the Dominican Republic in 1980. In addition to their popular light- to medium-body cigars, they also produce the stronger, higher-end Don Carlos, Hemingway, and prestigious Opus X lines, as well as various other brands, including Ashton, Cuesta Ray, Montesino, Sosa and La Unica.
Macanudo is spanish for terrific and since its debut in 1971, this mild, easy-smoking cigar has been a terrific top seller for the General Cigar Company. Originally an obscure brand of the Temple Hall company in Jamaica, General Cigar in 1968 brought in Ramon Cifuentes (formerly of Cuba's Partagás) to revamp the brand for the American market. Today Macanudo is manufactured in the Dominican Republic.

For years all Mexican cigars by law had to be puros, (the term for cigars with tobacco grown entirely within the same country) but in 1999 the government allowed Mexican cigar manufacturers to import and blend tobacco from other countries. It is this blending, plus ageing for 3-1/2 years, that gives Te-Amo Aniversarios more depth and richness than their classic peppery but mild puro cigars.

Written, designed, illustrated & photographed by Overton Design