Cigars: A Complete History
Cigars carry an air of sophistication with a long and interesting history stretching back centuries. Many historical figures and celebrities have been linked to the cigar. Cigar smoking has a culture all its own, but it isn’t an exclusive club. Anyone can learn about cigars and take up the hobby with a little background on the history and the basics.
Early Beginnings: Where Cigars Originated
The history of cigars spans back thousands of years, although the specifics of the very first cigars are a little hazy. Several highlights stand out along the way, helping us arrive at the modern cigar. Highlights of the history include:
- 10th century: An ancient Mayan pot estimated to be from the 10th century found in Guatemala sheds some light on early smoking. The pot shows a Mayan smoking tobacco leaves.
- 1492: Columbus discovered Native Americans smoking cylinders of twisted tobacco leaves inside palm or cornhusks as he explored the Americas. He brought tobacco leaves and seeds back to Europe.
- Mid 16th century: It wasn’t until the 16th century that tobacco really took hold in Europe, as adventurers and explorers started smoking it. Spain and Portugal were hotbeds of cigar smoking, with Spain taking control of tobacco imported to Europe. Tobacco from the new world went through Seville, which became the core of European cigar production. This meant high prices for England. The country eventually began its own tobacco trade in Virginia in the 1600s.
- 1612: Virginia produced its first successful tobacco crop, thanks to John Rolfe.
- 1619: Tobacco became Virginia’s largest export.
- 1700s: The Spanish began rolling cigars in Cuba closer to the source instead of shipping the leaves and rolling the cigars in Seville. This resulted in higher quality cigars.
- 1730s: The word “cigar” started to take hold.
- 1800s: Cigars gained popularity outside of Iberia and South America. Cigar use grew significantly in the United States, particularly in the 1860s during the Civil War.
- 1868: The 10 Years War in Cuba pushed many cigar makers to Florida, where production took place in Key West. Eventually, many of the cigar factories moved to Tampa.
- 1960s: Cigars took a hit in popularity, mainly due to the increased popularity of the cigarette.
- 1990s: The popularity of cigars once again increased, with a focus on the lifestyle associated with smoking cigars.
The name “cigar” may go back to those Mayan origins. “Sikar” is a Mayan word that means “to smoke”. It’s possible that “sikar” eventually turned into “cigarro,” the Spanish word for cigar.
Political Impact of Cigars
How do politics and cigars relate? It’s not a matter of which politicians smoked cigars. The connection between political events and cigars dates back to 1959, when Fidel Castro overtook the Batista regime in Cuba. The U.S. tried to stop Castro from assuming power, which led to a trade embargo made official in 1962. This embargo would keep Americans from getting their hands on prized Cuban cigars. John F. Kennedy famously secured himself a stockpile of Cuban cigars before signing the embargo into effect.
Parts of a Cigar
Every cigar consists of three parts: the filler, the binder and the wrapper. The three parts blend together to determine the flavor of the cigar. Manufacturers often use different combinations of tobacco leaves throughout the three parts to achieve an appealing flavor.
Each plays a specific role:
- Filler: This is the core of the cigar. It is made of either long tobacco leaves or short pieces bunched together into a cylinder. The filler affects the draw and burn quality of the cigar.
- Binder: The binder goes around the filler, holding it in place and helping to form the shape of the cigar.
- Wrapper: Wrapper leaves are often the highest quality. They form the tight wrapping on the outside of the cigar and affect the overall taste.
Wrapper leaves range from light to dark. A light wrapper generally offers a dry flavor, while darker wrappers offer sweeter flavors. Cigar manufacturers designate the color differences with specific names. The most popular wrapper leaf designations from lightest to darkest are:
- Double Claro
- Colorado Claro
- Colorado Maduro
Cigar Sizes and Shapes
Cigars started out as crude bunches of tobacco leaves bound together for smoking. As cigar production advanced through history, the shapes and sizes became standard. Now you can determine the different kinds of cigars you like based on those defining characteristics.
The size affects the smoking time of the cigar. Larger cigars are best when you want to savor the experience, as they last longer than smaller cigars. Thick cigars tend to offer a slower, cooler smolder for a mild draw. Thin cigars burn hotter for a stronger draw.
Cigar measurements are based on the length in inches and the diameter measured by ring gauge, generally listed as a single number.
Cigars fall into two main categories based on shape: parejos and figurados. A parejo comes in the standard cigar shape with straight, smooth sides blending into a rounded end. Figurados are more irregular, and come in many different shapes.
Within each main category, you have several options affecting the size and shape differences. Common cigars in the parejo category include:
- Corona (5.5 to 6 inches, 42 to 44): Benchmark size used as comparison for all other sizes
- Petite Corona (4.75 to 5 inches, 39 to 42): Shortened version of the Corona, also called Mareva
- Corona Grand (5.5 inches, 46): Fatter Corona cigar, also called Corona Gorda or Corona Extra
- Double Corona (6.5 to 7.75 inches, 48 to 49): Longer, fatter version of Corona, also called Prominente
- Lonsdale (6 to 6.5 inches, 42): Longer Corona cigar, also called Cervante
- Robusto (5 inches, 50 to 54): Short, fat size gaining popularity
- Double Robusto (6 inches, 50 to 54): Longer than the standard Robusto
- Churchill (7 inches, 47 to 54): Longer, thinner version of the Double Robusto
- Lancero (7 to 7.5 inches, 38 to 39): Long, thin cigar which lost popularity but is regaining
Common Figurado cigars include:
- Torpedo (6.5 to 7.5 inches, 50 to 54): Shape features a pointed head
- Pyramid (7 inches, 52 to 56): Flairs out at the end, also called Piramides
- Belicoso (5.5 inches, 50): Similar to a shortened Torpedo with a more rounded head
- Perfecto: Features a bulge in the middle with narrower foot and head
- Culebra: Three thin cigars braided and tied
How are Cigars Made?
Have you ever wondered, “How are cigars flavored?” It all starts with the tobacco. Different types of tobacco produce different flavors and aromas. Cigar makers often blend different tobacco leaves to create specific flavors in their cigars.
Tobacco growers cultivate the plants under controlled conditions, starting indoors and eventually moving to a field outdoors. Pruning helps the leaves grow to the ideal size for cigar making. The outer leaves used as wrappers receive a little extra TLC, with cloths used to shield them from the sun.
Once the plants reach maturity, the cigar-making process begins. Here are the steps the tobacco goes through to become a cigar:
1. Curing: Harvested tobacco leaves goes through a curing process to achieve the desired aroma. Narrow wood strips, called laths, hang in a curing barn, holding the leaves in place. As they cure, the leaves become a brown or yellow color, with a dry texture.
2. Fermenting: Cured leaves go through a sorting process based on size and color, with smaller or damaged leaves going as filler. The sorted leaves go into bundles called hands, which then go into hogsheads, or large casks, for storage ranging from months to years. High-quality cigars typically use tobacco fermented for two to five years. This fermentation period develops the aroma and flavor of the tobacco.
3. Stripping: The stripping process removes the main stem from filler leaves to ensure an even burn.
4. Rolling: After stripping, the tobacco leaves finally get rolled into the cigar shape. How do cigar makers roll cigars? This happens either through a traditional hand-rolling method or with a more modern machine-rolled method.
5. Inspection: All cigars go through an inspection process to check for poor quality. Inspectors check the weight, size, shape and general appearance of the cigars.
6. Aging: High-quality cigars go through an additional aging process for 12 to 24 months. This aging process further enhances the cigars’ flavors.
7. Finishing: Approved cigars go onto the banding and wrapping process before packaging for shipment.
Traditional Hand-Rolling Cigar Method
In the early days of cigar smoking, hand rolling was the only available method. Fine cigars from around the world still use the time-honored tradition. Cigar makers often work in two-person teams, with one person, called a buncher or empunero, building the interior and the other person, called the roller or torcedor, wrapping the cigar.
As easy as it may look, rolling a quality cigar takes plenty of skill and practice. Many cigar rollers work at the skill for a year or more just to gain proficiency. The next time you puff on a hand-rolled cigar, take a moment to appreciate the work that went in to forming it.
The following steps go into the hand-rolling process:
1. Bunching: The handmade cigar starts at the core with the filler leaves. The buncher collects two to six leaves of even sizes to form the filler into a rough cylinder shape. Leaves must go into the cylinder in a straight folded manner, so the cigar burns evenly. If you notice uneven burning, the buncher who made your cigar is likely to blame.
2. Binding: The buncher holds the filler together with a strong binding leaf. He wraps the binding leaf around the filler to create the generic shape of the cigar. At this point, the cigar is called a bunch.
3. Molding: This step gives the cigar its final shape. The cigar goes into a mold, which resembles a tray with several slots. A press helps the mold form the cigars, and turns them halfway through the molding process.
4. Wrapping: The roller takes over at this point, using a wrapper leaf to finish the cigar. Wrapper leaves are of the highest quality, with a silky, elastic texture. These leaves are also the most expensive. The roller cuts the wrapper leaf to size before stretching, smoothing and wrapping the leaf around the bunch diagonally from one end to the other.
5. Finishing: Once rolled, the cigar gets a cap applied with pectin. The roller cuts the cigar to length.
Modern Machine-Rolled Cigars
Like so many processes in modern times, automation speeds up the cigar-making process with machine-rolled cigars. The rise of machine rolling primarily occurred between 1910 and 1929. During this period, the number of U.S. cigar factories dropped from 23,000 to 6,000. A large number of cigar factories still use machines. Some factories use machines for the bunching process with hand wrapping to finish the job.
The process still requires workers to operate the machines, but the actual rolling takes place in the machine. Here is how the modern machine-rolling process works:
1. Filler: An employee inserts the filler leaves onto the feeder belt, using guide bars with spacing determined by the length of the cigar. The leaves go into the machine, which bunches them to form the filler.
2. Binding: The next employee positions the binder leaf on the binder die, which uses suction to hold the leaf in place for cutting. The machine drops the filler onto the binder leaf and rolls it around the filler.
3. Wrapping: Another employee positions the wrapper leaf onto the wrapper die. The machine drops the bunch onto the wrapper leaf and wraps the cigar.
4. Inspection: A fourth member of the rolling team checks the cigar as it comes out of the machine and puts it on a tray.
Hand-Rolled Versus Machine-Rolled Cigars
Rolling is rolling, right? It seems that no matter how the cigar is rolled, it should have the same qualities, but machine-rolled and hand-rolled cigars often have distinct differences. Some variances include:
- Quality: In general, hand-rolled cigars offer superior quality. Machine-rolled cigars often use lower-quality leaves. The filler may consist of smaller pieces or scraps with undesirable qualities.
- Time: The machine-rolling process is much faster than hand rolling.
- Cost: Hand-rolled cigars generally cost significantly more than machine-made cigars due to the increased production time and the superior tobacco leaves that go into them.
- Draw and Burn Quality: The draw and burn quality is typically better on hand-rolled cigars because the filler runs the length of the cigar. Machine-rolled cigars that use smaller pieces of tobacco leaves may produce lower draw and burn quality because the filler doesn’t run the full length.
- Wrapping: Differences in the wrapper distinguish the two rolling methods. Hand-rolled cigar wrappers have a smooth, tight appearance with a slight oily feeling. Machine-made cigar wrappers often appear dull, and may not be natural due to the power of the machine used. The wrapping differences can affect the taste of the cigar.
- Prestige: Hand rolling represents the prestigious history of the cigar. Smoking a hand-rolled cigar shows your knowledge on the hobby and your preference for the finer things in life.
Infusing Your Own Cigars
You’ve taken the time to learn the history and characteristics of cigars and you’ve selected the perfect collection to start off your hobby. If you’re serious about collecting cigars, a humidor is an essential purchase. Cigar humidors keep your cigars at an ideal humidity range, between 70 and 75 percent. The humidor allows airflow to prevent mold growth and lets you age your cigars at home in a controlled environment.
Another way to customize your cigars is with a cigar infusion barrel. These barrels infuse cigars with flavor using your favorite spirits, giving you the best of both worlds. Browse our collection of Deep South cigar infusion barrels for a fine cigar experience.
- 1/2 Liter Cigar Infusion Barrel (no stamp)
- 1 Liter Cigar Infusion Barrel (no stamp)
- 2 Liter Cigar Infusion Barrel (no stamp)
- 2 Liter Cigar Infusion Barrel with Stamp
- 3 Liter Cigar Infusion Barrel (no stamp)
- 5 Liter Cigar Infusion Barrel (no stamp)
- 10 Liter Cigar Infusion Barrel (no stamp)
- 20 Liter Cigar Infusion Barrel (no stamp)