In Praise Of The Cuban Cigar
Phssst...the match flares, and as you slowly rotate the cigar above the flame and take a few gentle puffs, you get the first tantalizing hint of what is to come. Then, with the cigar lit and the match discarded, you sit back and draw in the smoke, savoring the sweet, brown, nutty aroma as you contemplate the smoke lazily curling upwards, secure in the knowledge that you are about to be rewarded with one of life's great sensual pleasures, the smoking of a fine cigar.
And of course, despite the excellent products now being made by Cuba's Caribbean neighbors, for most people a fine cigar means a Havana cigar. A unique combination of soil and climate, technique, tradition and skill coalesce to produce a cigar that is fuller and richer than any other, one with a more subtle, complex and evolved flavor. Smoking a Havana is one of the most satisfying experiences one can enjoy--some people have even claimed that a good cigar is on a par with good sex. In fact, for some people it seems to have been better. Rudyard Kipling wrote that "a woman is just a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke," a sentiment the expression of which reputedly cost him a knighthood, and one evidently shared by Groucho Marx, who claimed he would always choose a cigar over a woman.
Sensual pleasure and elegant sophistication are the attributes justly associated with Havana cigars, but beyond mere epicurean indulgence, they also possess remarkable restorative qualities. They are a balm for life's travails, the facilitator of measured contemplation and a solace from pace and frenzy. They represent, above all, the conscious affirmation of a civilized life.
These virtues have long been appreciated by the famous and the erudite. Evelyn Waugh observed, "The most futile and disastrous day seems well spent when reviewed through the blue, fragrant smoke of a Havana cigar" and George Sand called them "the perfect complement to an elegant life." Her contemporary Franz Liszt added that they "close the door to vulgarity," though he didn't have the privilege of visiting a 1990s cigar bar; if he had, he might not have been so emphatic. The fact that a few vulgarians have turned Havanas into a Freudian status symbol should not be allowed to detract from the supreme sybaritic pleasure these delicious cigars afford.
The Quality Factor
A cuban cigars is an inherently old fashioned product--no machine can turn out a cigar anywhere near as good as a skilled roller--and they are essentially made the same way today as they were a hundred years ago. It is a complicated and labor intensive process. Each plant is visited on average 170 times during its four-month growing cycle and the harvesting alone requires multiple visits over several weeks as leaves from different parts of the plant are picked by hand as they mature. Then they are dried, fermented once, sorted and graded, then fermented a second time before being packed in bales and left to mature for up to two years.
When the tobacco is finally ready, it is shipped to the factory in Havana where it is again sorted before being distributed to the rollers for final assembly. Rolling a handmade cigar is a great skill. The rollers serve a nine-month apprenticeship and many fail to graduate. Those that do then start on the smallest and easiest-to-make sizes, the panatelas. The longer and thicker a cigar, the harder it is to roll, with the irregularly shaped torpedoes and pyramids being the most difficult, and therefore the most expensive.
The finished product then undergoes an elaborate quality control process and further aging before being ready for sale.
There have been major quality problems in the recent past but with the help of a large investment from Tabacalera, the Spanish government tobacco import monopoly, these have for the most part been overcome, and while long-time connoisseurs claim that current Havanas don't match pre-Castro cigars for flavor, the glaring physical defects have been eliminated.
The Cohiba Phenomenon
Fidel Castro has done very little right during his 41-year rule but he has managed one remarkable achievement: the creation ofcohiba cigars.
All the Havana brands date from before the revolution, some going back to the 19th century--all, that is, except for Cohibas. Originally conceived by Che Guevara when he headed the newly nationalized cigar industry in the 1960s, they were designed to be a superpremium cigar for the private use of Fidel and his cronies, and as prestigious diplomatic gifts.
As a result of their superior quality and lack of commercial availability, they quickly attained a cult status among cigar lovers and when they finally were made available to the public in 1982, they were an immediate hit.
Whether this marketing coup was the result of design or accident is open to speculation but they are now the most sought-after brand, commanding prices far above other Havanas.
And they are worth it. The Esplendido and Robusto especially are magnificent cigars--they have a wonderful rich, complex flavor, at the same time full-bodied and smooth. They are the best cigars I have ever smoked.
Nick Passmore, an Englishman living in New York, goes back to Britain frequently for the sole purpose of indulging his passion for Havana cigars.
Monday, June 18, 2007