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12 Cigar Legends: Truth or Myth?

Posted by on Aug 5, 2014


Cigar smokers and cigar makers alike got a jolt of positive news recently: Despite harsher smoking laws, higher taxes, and fewer cigar shops than the 1990s, cigar imports to the United States actually increased in 2003. Far be it from us to prematurely declare Boomtime back, but it does lead one to speculate: are existing cigar consumers buying and smoking more, or are there more cigar consumers coming in to the market?

We tend to believe it’s a little of both, but heavily lean toward the latter. And as a new generation discovers the pleasures of cigars, it may be time to re-visit some of the great myths, legends, and persistent questions about this fascinating hobby and its history and traditions – and maybe put the lie to some long-held misconceptions.

While some people in the cigar business – perhaps not coincidentally, those who grow wrapper leaf – will maintain that a wrapper imparts 70 to 75 percent of a cigar’s flavor, most experts agree that this is an exaggeration, at least in most cases.

Ralph Montero, a 22-year veteran of the cigar business now employed as vice president of Alec Bradley Cigar Company, points out the role of the cigar’s other components – filler and binder – on the ratio of flavors. “If you have a Cameroon or Ecuador wrapper, on a cigar with 90% Esteli ligero in the filler,” he suggests, “you can’t tell me the wrapper is going to represent 70% of flavor. Some of the heavier wrappers influence flavor more but you’d have to have a very mild filler blend and a non-influential binder leaf. Other wrappers are more neutral, and let the filler be prominent.”

Manuel Quesada of Fonseca Cigars believes the cigarmaker has control over which is the dominant element of a cigar… and his choice of wrapper and filler leaves can widely vary the percentage of flavor contribution. “If you want to make a cigar with a wrapper as a dominant element you can do that. If you want to make one with filler as a dominant element, you can do that as well,” he says. “but the idea behind the cigar, in my opinion, is the roundness of the blend: all three elements combining to create a particular taste so you can’t attribute a dominant factor to any of the three.”

In short: a Connecticut broadleaf wrapper over a very mild filler blend could dominate a cigar’s flavor, but a Connecticut shade wrapper over a full-bodied filler certainly would not.

This notion has become a selling point for many cigars since the status-conscious boom years of the 1990s, despite the fact that Cuban cigars, still the benchmark of excellence, are not known for this particular attribute.

So what does a clean powder-white ash contribute to a cigar’s quality? “Other than aesthetics, absolutely nothing,” is the blunt answer from Bahia Cigar’s Tony Borhani. “It means the soil has lots of phosphorus and calcium. The soil that produces Sumatra tobacco will always give a white ash. Cuban soil is low in calcium and that’s how they maintain it, so Cuban cigars’ ashes are hardly ever white.”

Quesada adds magnesium to the list of minerals that could influence an ash’s color, and believes that a range of gray ashes indicates healthier tobacco. “The traditional criteria in the industry are that extremes are never the rule,” he states. “Too white or too black is not as desirable as a range of grays.” Magnesium, while it may have an effect on how sweet a tobacco tastes, can also cause the ash to become flaky if there is too much of it in the soil.

Many Americans – especially those who’ve rarely or never tried genuine Cuban cigars – believe this to be the case. But cigarmakers inside and outside of Havana would dispute it based on the definition of “strong.”

“I define strong as excess nicotine – like when you smoke a cigar and get a head rush,” states Borhani, who strives for Cuban-style flavor in many of his Nicaraguan-made Bahia Cigars. “A full-bodied, flavorful cigar is a different thing. I’ve smoked Cuban cigars that I’d call mild that have tons of flavor and they’re not super-strong or harsh.”

Borhani points out that much like the classic wines of Bordeaux, many Cuban cigars are made with aging in mind. “Some of these cigars are not designed to be smoked right away,” he posits. “Cuban tobacco is the only tobacco I’ve experienced that lasts 15 to 20 years and can still deliver a beautiful package of aroma and flavor.”

Quesada, a veteran of the Cuban cigar industry who now makes cigars in the Dominican Republic concurs: “Cuban cigars do have a history of strength, and in recent years, some have been overpowering,” he says. “Some of it has been attributed to lack of fermentation, tobacco that was not quite ready to be made into cigars. That makes them a lot heavier and more powerful. A little aging does tone down a little bit of that power.”

The details on the creation of this famous Cuban brand – once the personal cigar of Fidel Castro – constitute one of the most enduring mysteries of cigardom. “Cigar Czar” and Smoke Contributor Richard Carleton Hacker chimes in on this one in his best selling The Ultimate Cigar Book. “Cohiba was supposedly created by Che Guevara (Cuba’s first Minister of Industry after the revolution) at the express request of Fidel Castro,” he reveals. “…However, Che Guevara died before this cigar officially came out, so that story – which was originally told to me in Cuba – is somewhat suspect.”

The author goes on to describe a more plausible version of the story, involving one of Castro’s bodyguards giving him a cigar that the Cuban leader took an immediate liking to. The guard revealed that the cigar was a special blend with no existing brand name, rolled by a torcedor named Avelino Lara. Lara is now the master roller for the Nassau, Bahamas-based Graycliff Cigar Factory, and has claimed that he did indeed roll the first Cohiba. Other accounts claim that the cigar roller in question was named Eduardo Rivero Irrizari, who also makes the claim, and further purports that he was made the personal roller for Castro after the brand was created. As far as is known, Irrizari continues to roll cigars in Cuba.

While the full story may never be known, one (or perhaps both) of these men is very likely to have been instrumental in the birth of the Cohiba, and Che Guevara’s involvement is quite likely a fabrication, possibly an attempt to further enhance the Cuban revolutionary’s legendary mystique.

South African cigar expert Theo Rudman addresses this hoary old legend in his on-line magazine. “It is a lovely idea,” he writes, “but alas is a legend that has persisted since the mid-forties, when a visiting journalist saw tobacco leaves being sorted and graded by women who placed the respective piles on their laps.” The visitor apparently took some imaginative journalistic license when he later wrote that Havanas were rolled on the thighs of virgins. Certainly, this story hasn’t hurt the mystique-laden marketing of Habanos.

“Yes, they would stretch the leaves on their uncovered skin, but to roll a cigar on one’s leg – you cannot do that,” Borhani says with a snicker. “I challenge anyone – man or woman – to put bunched tobacco on their thigh and roll a successful cigar.”

In most cases, not so – in fact, the opposite is usually true. According to Montero, “It gets harder to maintain a complex blend properly when you get down below a 43 ring gauge.” An inexperienced roller, he goes on to explain, would find it tougher not to create a plugged cigar – one that does not draw properly due to knots and lumps in the filler blend – at the thinner size. “It’s actually easier to get complexity in a 54 ring gauge, because you have more area to work with. As most avid cigar smokers know, a shaped cigar- like a torpedo, perfecto, or pyramid – is the most difficult to roll well at any size. Thus, a 7 x 52 straight-sided Churchill, for example, while it may take more man-hours to roll, uses more leaf, and thus costs more – may take less skill than a 4 x 32 mini-torpedo.

Don’t buy it. While experts have varying opinions on several other subjects discussed here, on this one virtually all agree. The Cuban embargo happened in 1962, and no cigars or tobacco have been shipped to this country (at least, not legally) since then. Some U.S.-based cigar manufacturers did have the foresight to stockpile the raw material when they saw the Embargo coming, and did make cigars with actual Cuban leaf while supplies lasted. But those supplies, according to those in the know, are now long gone.

Henry “Kiki” Berger, who spent years in the Cuban tobacco business before heading up his current cigar company, Tabacalera Esteli, in Nicaragua, is in favor of some kind of official authentication system for tobacco’s origin to prevent disreputable companies from deceiving consumers. “If there is any Cuban pre-embargo tobacco out there today, then I don’t exist,” he states unflinchingly. “There’s just no such thing. If there was any tobacco here from Cuba, it was gone during the Boom. [To claim otherwise] is just lying to the consumer.” As far as cigarmakers claiming the covert use of illicit Cuban leaf in their blends, pre-Embargo and otherwise? “Cuba doesn’t sell tobacco outside of Cuba anymore; they only sell cigars.”

“That tobacco would be dead,” Borhani states incredulously, referring to pre-embargo leaf. “If you don’t roll it into a cigar, tobacco will continue fermenting; heat continues developing in the bales. Tobacco stored for 50 years would be old enough to deteriorate in your hands.”

Best advice is to be suspicious of any cigar not verifiably made in Cuba prior to the embargo (and these do exist; though they are rare, quite expensive, and spotted occasionally at high-end auctions). Rule of thumb is that good cigars, kept in a properly humidified atmosphere, can age for decades, just like good wine. Raw tobacco leaf, even properly maintained, has a much shorter shelf life.

As most devotees of cigar history know, President John F. Kennedy – while not a fan of Fidel Castro – was a great lover of Cuban cigars. And, according to many contemporary sources, Kennedy dispatched his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to acquire as many of the president’s favorite cigars as he could before the landmark legislation was signed. Hence, Salinger was able to get his hands on 1,200 H. Upmann Petit Coronas, Kennedy’s favorite regular smoke. Tragically, he would not live long enough to enjoy all of those cigars, meeting his death at the hands of an assassin’s bullets in Dallas the following year. What many people don’t know – and what would probably drive them nuts – is that Kennedy actually attempted to have cigars exempted from the embargo! Richard Goodwin, a White House assistant to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, revealed in a 2000 New York Times article that in early 1962 JFK told him, “We tried to exempt cigars, but the cigar manufacturers in Tampa objected. I guess we’re out of luck.” Indeed – as an entire generation of cigar enthusiasts eager to sample the island’s output remains out of luck today.

If you’ve been on any of the various cigar message boards, you’ve probably encountered this one: man buys an expensive box of Cubans, insures it for $100 grand, smokes all the cigars, then makes a claim to the insurer that the cigars were all destroyed in a series of a small fires. Having no recourse, the company pays the claim, then countersues the shifty cigar collector for fraud, charging him with separate counts of arson…and wins!

We’ve found no evidence that this is anything other than one of those notorious urban legends…albeit an entertaining one. In fact, the tall tale has grown to such mythic proportions that country-western singer Brad Paisley made it into a song (entitled simply, “Cigar Song”) on his 2003 album Mud on the Tires.

Depends on whether you’re talking length or girth (ring gauge). According to Perelman’s Pocket Cyclopedia of Cigars (an invaluable source of information for retailers and cigar mag editors alike), the U.S.-sold cigar measuring the longest from head to foot is Puros Indios’s famous Chief. It’s 18 inches long, and at a ring gauge of 66, fairly respectable in the thickness department too.

There is a longer one out there, however, but only available to U.S. smokers if they’re vacationing south of the border. Santa Clara cigars in Mexico still makes the Magnum, a monster at 19 inches by 52 ring gauge. Only its lack of a distributor in the States keeps it from our top spot.

If you’re looking for the fattest, you’ve got to look toward Nicaragua, and the ambitious, talented, and somewhat sadistic cigar makers of Tabacalera Perdomo. Their Cuban Parejo Galaxia actually weighs in at a Brandoesque 100 ring gauge, as well as a 10-inch length. The Galaxia even manages to make Perdomo’s other infamous big boy, the aptly named Inmenso (6 x 70) look like a dwarf.

Last year, Davidoff captured the distinction of producing the smallest hand-rolled cigar, introducing the diminutive Exquisito (3 3/8 x 22 ring gauge). If you don’t mind the machine-made stuff, there are a number that are even more lilliputian: Al-Capones, Joya del Reys, and Schimmelpennicks at a length of 2 3/4” and Villigers, Dannemanns, and Henri Wintermanns at 2 7/8”.

To us, the idea of lighting up a cigar after a milestone accomplishment such as a sports championship is just common sense. But it took legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach to make it the tradition it remains today.

Bostonians are justly proud of Auerbach’s record of nine NBA championship titles in 10 years (and total of 16), and his renowned habit of lighting up a cigar when a game’s victory was well in hand. Many are probably unaware that Auerbach’s cigar tradition actually began not with the storied Beantown franchise but during his earlier tenure with the NBA’s long-defunct Washington Capitals. It wasn’t until the glory days with the Celtics, however – when Auerbach coached such legends as Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and Sam Jones – that the coach had occasion to celebrate such triumphs on a larger stage. Today, coaches, players, and managers emulate the practice on a regular basis, as Florida Marlins manager Jack McKeon did last October when his team beat the favored New York Yankees in the World Series.

At the time, the fact that Auerbach lit up before the game was actually over struck many as arrogant, though ironically, Auerbach saw it as the opposite. He believed that casually puffing on a cigar when your team is up by 20 points with a minute left was far more sportsmanlike than aggressively pushing your team to pad the score. These days, the victory cigar is almost exclusively an indulgence for after the win is official. Whether that’s more because of sportsmanship, or because you simply can’t light up in a crowded sports arena anymore even if you’re a championship-winning coach, it’s hard to say.


Photo credit to Bodega Premium Blends.

via http://www.smokemag.com/0604/feature.htm

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