In 1962, the United States imposed a total trade embargo on Cuba. Just before signing it, President John F. Kennedy told his press secretary Pierre Salinger to scour Washington, D.C. tobacco stores and buy him as many H. Upmann Cuban cigars that he could find. He came back with 1,200, and a delighted Kennedy then signed the embargo. The scarcity and price increase created by this certainly boosted the allure of Cuban cigars, giving them an air of luxury and exclusivity.
While this is a big part of their mystique, the hype is deserved. So what’s the secret behind Cuban cigars? What makes them so good? Most of it has to do with Cuba’s ideal environment for growing cigar tobacco, particularly the soil and the climate. The soil on the island causes the plants to grow exceptional leaves while the humidity is perfect for growing and drying them. The terrain also plays a role. The high-grade tobacco in the cigars is unmatched and very difficult to find, while the tobacco leaves used for the wrappers, considered the most important part of a cigar, develop a flawless form there.
Growing Cuban tobacco seeds in a different environment (“terroir” in wine culture) won’t produce the same flavors and aromas as a cigar rolled with leaves grown from the same seeds in Cuban soil. In 1960, Fidel Castro made all cigar factories state-owned, causing former owners to flee to nearby countries like the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua to restart their operations. They brought their expertise, brands and seeds with them, but the cigars still didn’t taste the same.
Cuban tobacco has a unique blend of tastes and aromas which gives the cigars a rich, distinctive flavor profile and makes them a luxury product. They are known to have a sophisticated flavor with touches of coffee, chocolate and leather.
Beyond the environmental factors, Cubans have centuries of tobacco farming experience, which gives them advanced harvesting schedules and rolling techniques. Tobacco plants existed on the island long before Spanish settlers arrived. Aztecs enjoyed smoking and used tobacco medicinally. They introduced the plant and smoking to the West when Christopher Columbus’s crew arrived in the New World.
Some of the top Cuban cigar brands are Montecristo (best-selling brand in the world), Cohiba, Partagas, Bolivar, H. Upmann (Kennedy’s favorite), Romeo y Julieta, Hoyo de Monterrey, Vegas Robaina and Punch.
If you’d like to experience this delicacy first-hand, join us in February on Paul W. & Kim’s Dream Vacation – Discover Cuba, Mexico & Belize. We’ll take an exclusive Insiders Tour of Havana, complete with a cigar rolling demonstration and a chance to shop Havana’s La Casa del Habano.
By Mike Capalbo
Group Products Specialist