By Gregory L. Pease, Associate Editor
Writing for both a pipe and a cigar publication not only allows me to wear two of my favorite hats, but it also gives me the opportunity to express two different voices. It’s often thought that pipe smokers love agreement, while cigar lovers enjoy the smoke of heated controversy. While there may be some small grain of truth to this, I think all such broad-brush generalizations are unfair to the groups about which they are made. But, this month, I’m running with it, and diving in to splash in the pool of controversy, exploring what I’ll call the Cuban Mystique, and how it’s been used, or abused, to sell cigars, and to sell the sophistication of today’s cigar smoker a few cents short. Granted, this is a more germane topic to US smokers than to those in the rest of the world, but I live here, I’m writing this, and I can’t legally enjoy the precious jewels of Cuban origin because of a presidential decree, executed by JFK in February, 1962, minutes after he’d laid in a sufficient supply of his own favored smokes. El Bloqueo has been in effect ever since.
As a result of this embargo, the unfortunate reality is that most US cigar smokers today, being upstanding, law-abiding citizens, too young to remember the 60s, let alone the 50s, when Habanos were still legal tender, don’t have a greenback’s worth of a clue what a Cuban cigar really tastes or smells like. Unless they’ve traveled abroad, or dabbled in the perilous activities of illegal importation, they’re left only with the notion that they must be really good, and the tenuous belief that what the marketing departments are peddling might have some resemblance to reality.
For instance, have a quick look through any cigar catalogue, or the promotional literature of a few companies, or a few cigar publications. It doesn’t take long to find a dozen cigars or more, all very different from one another, all billed as full-bodied, strong, and "Cuban-like." How can this be? How can a dozen dissimilar cigars, made from different tobaccos, fermented, constructed and aged in different places, all be "Cuban-like," whatever that means? Worse, I’d bet a box of any of them that not one actually tastes like or smells like that to which it is compared. The short answer is that the term obviously has no useful meaning.
Somewhere along the way, the idea that Cuban cigars were 1) better than those made in the rest of the world, and 2) possessed enough strength to paralyze an elephant, gained currency in the American post-boom cigar-smoking consciousness, and has been propagated, embellished and enhanced ever since. Don’t get me wrong, here; there may be a tiny germ of truth in the first statement, but only just. I’ve smoked a lot of Cuban cigars over the past 30 years, and the best of them have been absolutely stunning – amongst the finest cigars I’ve ever smoked. But, I’ve also smoked Habanos, even some from celebrated manufacturers, that I simply could not consider worth the fuss, and, more than a few have been downright dreadful, both in construction and in taste, and represent some of my greatest cigar-smoking disappointments. We could discuss the reasons behind this, but that’s for another time.
If we lived in a perfect world, Castro would see the errors in his ways, or we’d be more forgiving of them, and we’d all be able to get Cuban cigars by the handful in order to enjoy the unique characteristics of the best of them. But the world isn’t perfect, and those of us residing in the land of the free are robbed of the experience because of a tired, outdated embargo that no longer does anything of importance. It may have been a brilliant show of might when Kennedy signed it into effect nearly half a century ago, but today, it carries almost as little meaning to either the American or the Cuban people as the term "Cuban-like." See? Controversy.
But, since we’re discussing perfect worlds, let’s explore what the that hyphenated word pair, "Cuban-like," might mean if we lived in one, and the expression actually did mean something. First, Cuban cigar tobacco is different. I’m reluctant to lump it all into one broad category, since there are several growing regions on the island, each with its own microclimate, its own terroir, and leaf that lives and breathes in those regions will have its own character, of course. But, taken as a group, Cuban tobaccos offer something a little different from leaf grown from the same seed in other geographical locations. It’s easy to think about the influences of the obvious things – the seed, the soil, the climate – but, I think there’s something more, something about the place itself that makes the tobacco produced there unique, that provides its sui generis funkiness.
By way of a few non-cigar examples, how about bread, cheese and wine? There’s nothing in the world that tastes quite like San Francisco sourdough bread. There are great sourdoughs made elsewhere, but ours is distinctive. There are countless fabulous bleu cheeses in the world today, but the singular taste of true Roquefort is born only in the caves of Mount Combalou. Similarly, there are exquisite Pinot Noirs made in many wine-producing locales, but those made in Burgundy are unique in all the world, and the best of them, like the best of Cuban cigars, can be a richly special experience. The list goes on.
The point is that the difference between the identities of the archetypal products and the others is the result of more than just the ingredients, more than the terroir, more than the grain, milk or vines, and more than the methods used to complete them. The place in which the ingredients are brought together, the environment in which the dough rises, the cheese ages and the wine ferments, has its own distinct influence on the final product, and that cannot be replicated.
And, so it is with cigar tobacco. I used to love the Montecruz, H. Upmann and La Regenta cigars made in the Canary Islands, and when they disappeared from the market or their production moved to the DR, I went on a mad quest to find something to replace them. Nothing. And, to this day, I can recall the special taste of Royal Jamaica cigars when they were made in Kingston. There’s nothing like them, either. And, so with Habanos.
Cuban cigars taste like Cuban cigars not just because of seed and soil, but also because they’re made in Cuba, with its unique mix of native yeasts and bacterial strains that are responsible for the fermentation of the tobacco. And, there’s an experiment I’d love to see someone do. Take fresh leaf grown anywhere in the world, sweat it and age it in Cuban barns, and see what happens. Similarly, take Cuban leaf, mature it somewhere else, and see how much of the Cuban characteristic it retains. (In the first edition of his book Burgundy, Anthony Hanson aroused the ire of the wine world by proclaiming, not in a disparaging way, if that’s imaginable, that Burgundy’s wines "smelled of shit," describing the marvelous, though funky, barnyard, decaying loam aroma unique to the wines of the region. We could say the same thing about the best Habanos. If you’ve ever opened a box and stuck your nose in for a deep whiff, you know exactly what I’m on about.)
All those words to say that no other country besides Cuba can really make Cuban-like cigars (and, arguably, not even Cuban manufacturers are always successful in their attempts), anymore than Cuba can make Dominican or Jamaican or Canary Island cigars.
As to the notion that "Cuban-like" implies strength, I call BS there, too. I’ve had more than a few modern, non-Cuban, sledgehammer cigars, those with an unrivaled ability to induce narcoleptic states, that the strongest of Habanos couldn’t even begin to approach. And on the other side, I’ve had many very gentle, yet delicious Cubans. So much for attempting to extract even a tiny shred of meaning out of an expression that I can only consider more ludicrous now than I did when I started this. It’s uninformative, at best, and misleading at worst.
So, let’s collectively do what we can to put the tired mystique to rest. There is a lot of remarkable talent amongst today’s new generation of blenders, and the variety of leaf available to them is unprecedented. In recent months, I’ve smoked some incredible cigars that were as good as any I’ve ever tasted, and many of these have offered new and unique flavor profiles. Granted, they may be different from the cigars of my youth, but vive La difference! The non-Cuban cigar industry has matured into something that richly deserves recognition on its own merits. And, though I still love a great Habano, they’re not the only sticks in the river. With this, I say to the manufacturers, the marketeers, the cigar press, and the shopkeepers, let’s stop saddling today’s great cigars on the back of a run-down epithet, and celebrate them for what they are, rather than comparing them with what they’re not. We cigar lovers might not all know what a Cuban cigar tastes like, but we know when we’re being sold a bill of goods.
[Editor's note: For our readers that do not know why Cuban cigars are illegal in the U.S., the simple explanation is as follows. Cuban cigars became illegal in the U.S. in February 1962 after President Kennedy strengthened the original embargo against Cuba. The embargo started in 1960 after the Cuban revolution of 1959 brought Fidel Castro to power and along with it Communism.
Tobacco farms and cigar factories were seized. Property of U.S. companies and citizens was taken. Today, the embargo is a controversial topic for several reasons. It is still in effect, nearly 50 years later, making Cuban cigars illegal in the U.S. Technically, a U.S. citizen is not even allowed to buy or smoke a Cuban cigar when he or she is outside the country. Although many of us do, even at home. As a matter of fact, I'm going to have one right now - Kevin. For more information on the Cuban Embargo - Click Here.]
|Gregory L. Pease Associate Editor.
Greg joins us for regular cigar reviews, his monthly editorial column, "Up in Smoke," and the occasional feature article, bringing over 30 years of deep passion for the leaf to our team. Prior to becoming the founder and principal alchemist behind the pipe blends of G.L. Pease Artisanal Tobaccos (est. 1999), he’d been a pipe and cigar aficionado since his college days, and spent time working at the legendary Drucquer & Sons Tobacconist in Berkeley, California to support his affliction. He is widely educated on tobacco and all things epicurean, is an experienced writer, and has quite a refined palate. He is also a wine and spirits geek, and a gourmet cook.