Grading Havanas: Are Cuban Cigars Really Better?
Ever since February 2, 1962, American cigar aficionados have long dreamt of the day when they could buy a box of La Flor Del Caney Cuban Cigars directly from the source. That was the day President Kennedy ordered his press secretary to buy as many Havanas as he could get his hands on before JFK signed the Cuban trade embargo. Despite the sale of Cuban cigars being illegal in America since then, the United States has remained the world's biggest consumer of Cuban cigars. With the recent announcement by the Obama Administration that the economic embargo would be lifted and relations normalized, that dream of being able to purchase real Cuban cigars directly from the Communist island is slowly becoming a reality. An American embassy back in Havana means that American visitors to the island will be allowed to bring back up to $400 in Cuban products, including $100 in alcohol and tobacco. For over 50 years, the ban on Cuban imports has given Cuban cigars a certain mystique in the United States, but it begs the question: are Cuban cigars really that much better?
The short answer is yes, cigar experts tend to rank brands, like the world famous Cohiba Cuban Cigar, very highly in taste tests. However, cigar appreciation is a matter of subjective taste, so there's nothing "wrong" in preferring cigars rolled in one country versus another. So, at some level, the question cannot be answered. Despite individual tastes, there are certain factors that are commonly used in determining how good a cigar is. These factors are often based on the quality of the soil, climate, and level of experience the grower has with tobacco production. When it comes to Cuban cigars, there may be something more to their top dog position than just the ground the plants are grown in.
Location, Location, Location
When it comes to location, Cuba occupies a very special place in the world. The geography of the island, coupled with its tropical climate make Cuba an ideal place to grow quality cash crops such as sugar and tobacco. The soil of the island allows tobacco plants to produce extremely high quality leaves, in particular the ones used for the wrappers. The wrapper is considered the most important part of the cigar and usually provides the majority of the flavor. Soil in other Central American and Caribbean countries is very similar, but not identical, so it produces a different flavor. The weather plays a major role as well. As it turns out, Cuba’s humidity is not only good for growing tobacco plants, but it’s good for drying them as well. Aging the tobacco extensively can also be a factor in the taste. Like wine, if cigars are properly aged, they get much better over the years (10 to 15 years in some cases), unlike with Romeo y Julieta Cuban Cigars, which don’t need a long aging period to appreciate.
It’s A Long Standing Tradition
Cubans have harvested tobacco for centuries, with evidence of the natives smoking rolled up tobacco leaves in pre-Columbian times. Large scale tobacco cultivation didn’t begin on Cuba until after Christopher Columbus acquired the island for Spain. Currently, Cuba's cigar industry is directly regulated by the government. This governmental supervision serves as quality control to ensure that all of the cigars leaving the factories are properly rolled, well made, and don’t contain any flaws or imperfections. This is especially important for producers of the La Gloria Cubana Cuban Cigar, which is entirely made by hand.
Another reason Cubans stand out is because they’re made from high quality materials and a lot of detail goes into the making of each one. It has been estimated that it takes over one hundred steps to properly produce a single Cuban cigar. The Cuban cigar industry follows a detailed creation regiment that has not changed much over the last century.
Cuba’s Relationship with Spain Helped Fuel The Hype
Cuba isn’t the only country in the world with a friendly climate and good soil conditions well suited for producing world-class cigar tobacco. What sets Cuba apart is that, historically, they benefitted from a strategic alliance with Spain. Cuba had great promoter in Spain, who was able to not only spread the news of good Cuban tobacco to Europe, but was also in a position to benefit from Cuba’s position as a premier tobacco producer. The Spanish crown completely took over the tobacco trade in Cuba in 1557.
Now that Spain had a vested interest in Cuba due to her natural resources, which now included tobacco, they promoted Cuba as a high quality supplier of the cash crop. Although Cuba didn’t end up playing a significant role in the supply worldwide, they dominated the top shelf markets during the nineteenth century because they had a great product and a secure place in the economic market due to the positioning done by Spain. These two factors would later help them cement their top position in a significant niche market in the 20th century, namely premium handmade cigars.
The Hollywood Connection
Many celebrities, musicians, and professional athletes have been fond of Cuban cigars over the years and readily smoked them, thus adding to their glamour. For example, Saint Luis Rey Cuban Cigars were the brand of choice for Frank Sinatra and James Coburn. Red Auerbach was famous for smoking a Hoyo De Monterrey Cuban Cigar before the end of Boston Celtics basketball games. Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh is known to gravitate towards the Partagas Cuban Cigar. And even President Kennedy was known to delay signing the Cuban economic embargo just so he could secure a final cache of his prized H. Upmann Cuban Cigars.
A proliferation of folk tales has also emerged over the centuries to explain the difference in the taste of Cuban cigars. Some of the earliest legends attributed the high quality .of Cuban cigars to the fact that they were rolled in the laps of biracial Cuban women. That, of course, is not true, but it does speak to the degree to which a certain cultural mystique has emerged around Cuban cigars, albeit, not always actually connected to their taste.
So What Does It All Mean?
It is widely accepted that Cuban cigars represent the standard by which all other stogies must be graded against. With the recent announcement by the Obama Administration about lifting the embargo against Cuba, the United States will soon have access to the Cuban cigar market in a way that most Americans alive today have never experienced. Many tobacco industry pundits speculate that the price of Cuban cigars will initially skyrocket and then plummet as Americans get fed up with paying $30 for a Diplomatico Cuban Cigar, which is meant to be a less expensive alternative to a Montecristo Cuban Cigar. No matter what the ebb and flow of the American appetite ends up being, one thing is for certain, the cigar smoking world will never be the same again.