Man has been cultivating, preparing and smoking tobacco for over 7000 years. Any activity that man is involved with for that amount of time is sure to accumulate a wealth of myth, half-truths and ritual. While all of that is fascinating information to the dedicated cigar smoker, I would like to take this opportunity to explore a few of what I call “cigar mythconceptions”. These “mythconceptions” come in a variety of vitolas if you will allow me to expand the meaning of the term, and in this article I will focus on the first and perhaps most prevalent of all.
Myth #1 Cuban Cigars are the best cigars in the world
Any discussion of Cuban cigars must include some mention of the history in order to provide context and perspective to the discussion.
History and archaeology tell us that the native peoples of South America were smoking tobacco for many generations prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492. The seeds were originally transported to Cuba from South America which is particularly ironic since today almost every non-cuban cigar producer touts the use of Cuban seed tobacco.
The tobacco seeds transplanted to Cuba became the primary agricultural product of the tiny island and it was quickly integrated into the very fabric of Cuban society and culture.
Cuba was originally a property of Spain and Cuban tobacco was only allowed to be exported as raw material and only through the royal offices of Spain. This was a common economic relationship enforced by many colonial governments that assured the conquerors a regular flow of tax money and strengthened their control of the colony. Cigars were manufactured UsIng Cuban tobacco in Spain and distributed globally by Spanish interests. However, a deeply rooted appreciation for the leaf was motivating the development of skill sets that made the Cubans expert at growing and curing tobacco as well as producing cigars, if only for their own consumption. During this colonial period, the punishment for removing tobacco seeds or seedlings from Cuba to a non-Spanish colony was death. The Spanish took their cigars very seriously.
King Ferdinand VII, by royal decree, made the production and sale of tobacco and its derivative products, a legal endeavor in Cuba. The birth of the Cuban cigar industry! Until then, only raw materials came from Cuba. Essentially, for taxation and control purposes, Cigar producton in Cuba had been illegal until 1817. Cigar production has changed very little since the 1800’s. Seedlings are still transplanted by hand, leaves are harvested by hand and stacked in pilones for fermentation etc. Tobacco around the island is handled this way to this very day. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
However, Cuba is not he only country with a history of tobacco.
In the late 1800’s to mid 1900’s Florida was the king of shade grown wrapper production. The benefits of growing wrapper leaves in shade was first discovered in Gadsden County Florida in 1896 when a tobacco farmer growing the popular Sumatra seed wrapper, discovered that plants growing in the shade of a tree produced a superior wrapper leaf with fewer veins, smoother texture and superior flavor. Local farmers began growing Sumatra wrapper under wooden slats. Cuban and South American growers soon adapted a cheesecloth like fabric for the purpose of creating a controlled shade to reproduce the Florida methods. The shade wrapper sold for as much as ten times more than traditional wrapper leaf. At its peak, production in Florida encompassed 10,000 acres and yielded an estimated 10 million pounds of exceptional sun-grown Sumatra wrapper. The boom went bust by 1975 and fertile tobacco fields were converted to citrus, fruit and vegetable farming ending the short, but brilliant reign of Florida wrapper. It was during this same period that Cuban cigar production reached a zenith of world domination. Tobacco production in other countries such as the United States, South America and other locations had either not yet achieved significant quantities or been snuffed out by cheaper competition, weather or government malaise.
In 1959, the Castro Revolution initiated the mass exodus of many of Cuba’s best tobacco growers, blenders and manufacturers. This exodus became the basis for an increasingly quality product from countries such as the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Columbia not to mention the United States. With this sudden influx of talent, non-cuban cigars began to seriously compete with Cuban cigars in both quality and flavor. The cache’ of Cuban cigars in the United States was created by the exclusion of Cuba as a trading partner of the United States. The value of any desirable item is increased as its availability declines. Now in 2008, we have an entire generation that has never known a world of widely available Cuban cigars in the United States. The rest of the world has continued to consume Cuban cigars since the 1959 revolution and have suffered through the blue mold, shortages and all manner of blend changes without being seriously introduced to non-cuban cigars. And so it is from this hallowed olde world perspective, that we learned our reverence and opinion of Cuban cigars. A perspective that may be significantly flawed in its denial of the reality of today’s world.
Certainly Cuba has earned a reputation for producing exquisite cigars that are in demand all over the world, even in locations where it is illegal to purchase them. The fact that they are difficult to obtain feeds into the myth that they are THE best cigars in the world. At one time in history (around 1620 or so) tobacco grown in the Jamestown colony of what would become the United States was highly prized by Europeans and demanded premium prices.
Cuban tobacco provides a unique flavor profile that has defied reproduction elsewhere. But that does not make them a better cigar. There are a number of cigars from other parts of the world that also provide unique flavors and experiences for the cigar smoker. What’s best is left to the individual. For me, the best cigar is the one I am smoking right now, unless it’s the next one I smoke.
This article was writer by our good friend Bob McDuffee
co-host of Dog Watch Cigar Radio.
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