A Smokin’ His Cigar
What Fidel Castro, Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger
have in common (besides dabbling in politics).
The cigar is the prop used throughout history as status symbol of the elite. We all have a hard time imagining Churchill, Hemingway, and Castro without a stogie wedged or pressed between their lips. Churchill was such an aficionado that a type of cigar was named after him, as was one after Hemingway. Castro was introduced to them by his father at the tender age of fifteen and both he and Che Guevara used them before, during and after the Revolution. And the image of the cigar smoking Union General Ulysses S. Grant was so strongly impressed upon the American people that a song called “A Smokin’ His Cigar” helped him become the eighteenth American president. And the Dominican Republic is one of the leaders in production and quality stogies.
But what is it that draws people (no pun intended) to this stick of dry leafs? As with wine, cognac or whiskey or even a good meal, cigars are a matter of taste, which sets them apart from ordinary ‘coffin nails’. Quoting prince Sined Yar Maharg, “a fine cigar is the essence of life.” A true connoisseur will not simply ‘light-up’ to satisfy an addictive craving. He will select his cigar with care; he will feel, smell and even listen at it and, if fully satisfied, sever the head with the care and instrument a surgeon might use, and finally light the tip the way one roasts a marshmallow over a flame selected with much the same care as the cigar itself. And he doesn’t smoke it, for ‘smoking a cigar’ is actually a misnomer: like a drink of smoke, cigars are savored between tastebuds and palate, yet never inhaled into the lungs. Half-way down, the stump is extinguished and put aside and the connoisseur will enjoy the complexity of the left-over taste called the ‘finish’ lingering on his palate.
The cigar is also undoubtedly the most complicated stimulant humanity could think of. Each step from growing, preparing to smoking is an art in itself, and it takes years to perfect each. There are only a handful of tobacco men who understand the entire process in its intricacy, and their artistry in bringing together the various elements needed for a good smoke can be tasted. It is their experience and innovations that have given cigars the reputation they nowadays enjoy.
Creating A Cigar
It all starts with choosing the location were the seedlings will be planted for its soil quality. In an interview with the magazine Cigar Aficionado the living cigar-legend Fidel Castro observed that “many things contribute to this quality: the climate, the soil, the amount of sunshine. It is exactly like wine.[…] Tobacco for cigars is not a question of quantity. It has to be planted in a certain place, and it is a selected product.” Naturally we take his word for it.
Preparing the soil is the next step. During the hot summer months July to August tobacco farmers plow vegetable matter by way of fertilizers into the soil several times over. Planting begins in September and October, but not until the seeds have previously germinated for at least six weeks. Starting in October, the maturing plants are continuously scrutinized for pests, and are constantly weeded and groomed for another period of six weeks. Flower buds and side-shoots are clipped and the plants generally fuzzed about, a process that takes the farmer to each leaf over a hundred times. During the period of yet another six weeks the leafs are finally harvested, picked by hand, sewn together in pares and hung on long poles in drying barns. Skipping through the Dominican countryside these roof-only barns amidst green fields of tobacco are hard to miss.
Fermentation follows afoot. Once the leafs are nearly dry, the stems are removed and each leaf classified and stacked in huge bales. The temperature inside each bale can reach as high as 140 degrees, and the leafs ‘sweat’ in the early stages of fermentation. They are then continuously turned and remoistened, a process that releases ammonia and nicotine from the tobacco.
About three months later the leafs are wrapped into bales surrounded by burlap and shipped into tobacco warehouses for final aging. This last stage of fermentation is the longest, lasting between 18 months and three years minimum. Some cigar manufacturers even keep a few bales over ten years in the warehouse before turning them over to the roller.
It is the roller’s experienced hands that shape the cigar, but it is the master blender’s choice that shapes the taste. After sorting the individual leafs by color, size and texture the blender creates the particular recipe for each type of cigar which the roller must then follow, leaf by leaf.
The art of rolling has fundamentally the same instruments–a board, a knife, a guillotine and vegetable glue–but how the leafs are rolled and then pressed can wary. Once the cigar is pressed in a wooden mold it returns to the roller’s board to be wrapped and vegetable-glued with the wrapper leaf, a special tobacco leaf chosen for its supple and elastic attributes, as well as unblemished beauty (the growing of these special wrapper leafs is an art in itself and most wrapper leafs hail from a different crop and country then the filler leafs).
But the process is long from smokeable. The cigars are now individually inspected for imperfections, examined for evenness of construct, length, shape, and gauge and rejected if defective. Finally they are bunched and weighted in packs of 50, labeled and shipped yet again into an aging room. The different types of tobacco used in the cigars must now ‘marry’. For anywhere between 21 and 180 days they remain in the conditioning room until they are removed for inspection by the color grader, the most highly paid worker in the factory.
The grader and his assistants sorts the cigars into over 60 different shades inside cedar wood boxes and passes them on to the bander who places the cigar bands on the face of the cigar.
Finally the finished product is delivered to stores and exporters for retailing.
Knowing DR Cigars
Yes, the rumors are true: it was the embargo placed on Cuba by John F. Kennedy that helped the Dominican cigar industry to fame and glory. Although the Cuban cigar still reigns in the smoke-heavens as the world’s best, the Dominican comes in second in a photo-finish. Much of this fame comes by way of the internationally renowned Davidoff Cigars which are grown, aged and rolled outside the city of Santiago in the fertile Cibao valley. Yet the smoke-heavens have many Dominican novas and supernovas besides Davidoff: Ashton, Joya de la Romana, La Aurora, Don Diego, Fuerst Bismark, Noris, Santa Damiana, Dunhill, Griffin’s, Henry Clay, Arturo Fuente, Juan Clemente, Cuesta Rey, Cubita, Avo, Paul Garmirian and Troya, to mention a few. Each come in the many cigar styles and are locally available through dealers strategically positioned in all tourist centers of the island. Santiago itself harbors also the Museo del Tabaco, interesting not only for dedicated smokers.
Cigars and Politics
A word on cigars and politics. Somehow the two are inseparable, gracing each other throughout wars and peace. A negotiation room without a cloud-cover of cigar smoke is as unlikely to be separated from history as the image of Churchill flicking ashes at Hitler. Cigars have been offered as presents and peace-pipes, bribes and props, even used as weapons of war: it is now a well-established fact that the CIA’s Office of Medical Services attempted to sneak cigars laced with virulent toxins and super-hallucinogens into Fidel Castro’s stash. The brilliantly clever spymasters even developed explosive Cohibas for the loathed Cuban, a plan that was obviously aborted. The Loony Toons would have had a field day.
More recently however anti-smoke policies and campaigns have forced long-time puffers to abandon their habit or go underground. Fidel Castro for instance quit a few years ago (gasph!) in order to support a health movement in his nation and has not puffed since, not even privately. The White House tradition of smoking US presidents (vintage George Washington who even grew his own tobacco) extinguished abruptly when Hillary Clinton prohibited Bill’s stogies from being lit, forcing the apt politician to find other ways to make use of his cigars. On an anecdotal note president Calvin Coolidge was the deftest user of cigars as a political prop. Like an orchestra conductor “Silent Cal” is remembered for directed the attention of legislators and senators with the tip of his stogie to emphasize and punctuate issues.
It should be noted that health wise cigars are as harmful as ordinary cigarettes–only slower. Whoever decides to take up this historic hobby should be aware of the risks to him self as well as bystanders. A more recent generation of cigar aficionados has therefore found an alternative to smoking them: simply collecting them like stamps. This relieves the health-issue yet still retains the éclat surrounding cigars. But collecting can be more expensive than smoking, for only the rarest cigars are worthy of not being lit. As example serves the box of 50 Cohiba Lanceros signed by Fidel Castro himself, auctioned at a charity dinner in London for approximately $18,500 US.
Buying a cigar, even for a novice, is much like buying a car: a process that should not be conducted without an experienced tobacconist at your elbow. Prices range between 15 to 100 pesos and more per cigar and before you buy a box of Hemingway, Churchill or Torpedo style cigars, you should at least take a test drive. If the box is a present/bribe for your boss or a gift for a friend, investigate the particular person’s preference. Mistakes made in the smoke of the moment can be embarrassing. If you present your cigar-connoisseur boss with a box of Trinidads for instance because someone claimed they are the same type Fidel Castro gives as presents to dignitaries, any suckup plans might backfire in the truest sense of the word since Fidel gives and smokes only Cohibas. Also, you do not want to give a long, fat Lonsdale type to your petite sister-in-law, or a short, thick Hemingway to your elderly father-in-law only because he admires the Old Man and the Sea. Like ill-fitting suits cigars can bring a person down or render them as overblown and in poor taste. Cigars should fit a person’s character as well as taste. Take your examples from such aficionados as Castro, Churchill, Hemingway, Schwarzenegger, even Clinton: cigars do not make the man–they only compliment him.