Did you know that for more than 150 years, storytellers have been reading to the workers while they roll cigars in the Cuban cigar factories? This practice started in 1865 to beat boredom (rolling cigars is tedious, repetitive work) and educate the workers.
(View Video Of The Lectores @ Bottom Of This Article!!)
Today these readers, locally known as lectores, read all sorts of things from the latest news, novels, horoscopes, birthday reminders etc. Interesting, isn't it?
Cuban cigars have been around for centuries, and during this time, the industry has undergone a lot of transformation.
In this article, we take a deep dive into the history of the Cuban cigar industry, starting from its origin to where it is today.
What's So Special About Cuban Cigars?
Why are Cuban cigars so highly praised among cigar aficionados?
- First of all, tobacco has been grown in Cuba for hundreds of years and farmers have a vast wealth of experience to draw on.
- Like wine, the flavor of a cigar depends on the conditions it's grown in. Only a Cuban cigar tastes like a Cuban cigar.
- These cigars are not easy to purchase (more on that later), which has only made them more desirable. Interestingly, Cuban cigars tend to be more expensive than non-Cuban cigars.
- Cuba's cigar industry is under direct government regulation. The strict supervision from the Cuban government has served as quality control over the decades.
While it's not possible to quantify to what extent each of these factors has influenced the popularity of Cuban cigars, there's no denying that this Caribbean island has a long-standing reputation for producing world-loved cigars.
Some of Cuba's most popular cigars include:
Cohiba Behike - In 2010, the Cohiba brand released Cohiba Behike, one of today's most luxurious Cuban cigars. It comes in 3 different ring gauge sizes: 52, 54, and 56.
Serie D No. 4 - One of the very finest Cuban cigars from the Partagas brand, which was one of the first cigar brands started in Cuba.
Ramon Allones Superiores - Found exclusively in La Casa Del Habanos (cigar stores specializing in Cuban cigars), only 50,000 are released annually.
Related: 10 Cigar Terms You Need to Know
How the Cigar Industry in Cuba Started
While the onset of Spanish colonialism of Cuba was incited by their interest in gold and other mineral deposits, tobacco proved to be a more profitable export.
By the time the Spanish came to the scene, the indigenous communities of Cuba had been smoking tobacco for several millennia. "Cohiba," as locals referred to it, was dried, rolled in plantain leaves and then smoked for medicinal purposes, as well as in religious ceremonies.
Tobacco smoking was an instant hit with Spanish colonials, who then exported tobacco farming back to Europe.
Over the next few decades, the popularity of tobacco products rose throughout Europe.
For example, the French ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot, introduced snuff tobacco to the French royal court in the late 1500s.
Consequently, there was a sharp increase in demand for fertile agricultural land to cultivate this prized crop. It was not long before the Spanish discovered that Cuba had the perfect temperature, humidity conditions and nutrient-rich soil for growing tobacco.
By the mid 16 century, the Spanish had established a thriving business exporting tobacco from Cuba to Europe. However, the early cigar factories were built in Spain rather than Cuba. This meant that most of the tobacco leaves were shipped from Cuba to Europe to be rolled.
More than a century after the tobacco export started, the Spanish cigar producers came to another realization-- finished products would survive the treacherous sea voyage far better than leaves.
This led to the opening of Spanish-owned cigar factories in Cuba. Now the cigars were rolled on the Island then shipped to Spain and the rest of Europe.
It wasn't until 1821 when Spain allowed Cuba to manufacture Cigars, which led to the opening of Cuban cigar brands like Por Larrañaga (1834) and Punch (1840).
Soon, the demand in Europe for Cuban cigars surpassed the demand for sevillas (the Spanish version). By 1860, there were over 10,000 tobacco plantations in Cuba, with 1,300 factories in and around Havana. Just like that, the Cuban cigar industry was born!
The oldest Cuban cigar brand on record is Cabañas which was launched in 1797 by Francisco Cabañas. This was despite the Spanish crown's prohibition of commercial cigar production at the time.
Fidel Castro, the revolutionary Cuban dictator, had a far-reaching impact on the Cuban cigar industry, possibly more than any other individual.
Nationalization of Cuban Cigar Firms
In the mid 20th century, the primarily privately owned Cuban cigar industry was flourishing. Cuban cigars were by far the most popular cigars in the whole world--a stand upon which other cigars were measured.
But all that was about to change. On September 15, 1960, the Cuban army, under the directive of Fidel Castro, raided the Cuban cigar industry.
In only one day, they seized 16 cigar factories, 14 cigarette plants and 20 tobacco warehouses! In the days, months and years that followed the plunder, the cigar barons of Cuba fled to other countries, most of them leaving their motherland empty-handed.
Some relocated to other Caribbean nations, where they slowly rebuilt their once-thriving cigar business.
The Dominican Republic was especially popular as it had similar climatic conditions to Cuba, making it ideal for the famed Cuban cigar seed. This gave rise to the non-Cuban cigar industry that's flourishing today.
Aurora cigar factory, Santiago, Dominican Republic
On the other hand, once Castro had gained control of the cigar factories, he decided to eliminate all brand names (96 at the time) and began marketing a single cigar brand.
However cigar smokers worldwide were already accustomed to a large variety of labels and had strong brand loyalties, sales of Cuban cigars dropped dramatically. To counter this, the Cuban government recreated many of the famous Cuban labels that had existed prior to 1960.
Castro did not only nationalize his fellow countrymen's businesses, but he also turned against American companies. In the same year, he also nationalized all U.S.-owned businesses, including oil refineries, factories and casinos.
The companies weren't given any compensation, which prompted the United States to end diplomatic relations.
Two years later, J.F Kennedy signed a full-blown embargo on all Cuban exports, including its famed cigars.
Since then, US Customs agents have seized all Cuban cigars they find in travelers' bags. This means that for the past 60 years, Cuba hasn't been able to sell its premium cigars to the biggest market worldwide for cigars, the United States.
Cohiba, which is considered by many to be the most successful of all cigar brands, credits its origin to Fidel Castro. The story goes that in the mid-1960s, one of Fidel Castro's bodyguards used to smoke hand-rolled cigars he got from a friend. One day Fidel found him smoking and asked for one (Fidel frequently asked his subordinates to share their cigars).
Castro enjoyed them so much that he directed the bodyguard to put him in touch with the creator of the cigars. The man explained the blend of tobacco and everything he used to make the cigars to a team of cigar producers tasked with making the cigars for Fidel's personal use.
These came to be known as Cohiba cigars and in the early years, their production was a highly guarded secret.
In fact, they were only smoked by Castro or the high-ranking diplomats and government officials he gifted the cigars to. In 1969, Cohiba was made public, but the cigars were manufactured on a very small scale and only sold within Cuba.
Over time the increase in demand led to the brand launching in Spain as a premium cigar brand in 1982.
Global sales didn't start until 1989. The tobacco used for Cohiba cigars was and still is from Cuba's Vegas Finas de Primera (the best tobacco fields in Cuba). Cohiba Cigars are, without a doubt, some of the finest coming out of Cuba.
Where is The Cuba Cigar Industry Today
Today, Cuba's cigar monopoly Habanos, S.A. still has complete control over the production and distribution of Cuba's 27 cigar brands, which include Cohiba, Montecristo, and Partagas. Habanos, SA, which sells premium cigars in more than 150 countries, is co-owned by the government and Imperials Brand.
The Obama administration loosened up a bit and made it possible for cigar lovers to visit Cuba and bring a limited amount of these cigars ($100 worth of Cuban cigars) back home. However, the Trump administration rolled back these concessions. As it stands, Americans are no longer allowed to bring Cuban cigars home, regardless of where they got them in the world.
Europe remains the top regional market for Habanos, accounting for 60% of $507 million sales revenue in 2020. In the same year, China overtook Spain to become the world's biggest country-specific market for Cuban cigars.
The unique microclimate and rich volcanic soil found in the Pinar del Rio province (especially the Vuelta Abajo area) has made it the most important region for tobacco cultivation for the past 5 centuries. However, climate change has become the greatest concern among cigar tobacco farmers in this region. As the seasons become more unpredictable, this could affect both quality and production.
Fake Cuban Cigars
Cuban cigars do not necessarily have to be bought in Cuba as they are also all over the world. You can buy Cuban cigars online as well. That being said, it is important to be on the lookout for fakes. Unfortunately, there are a lot of individuals and even whole companies that dedicate themselves to making sub-par fake Cuban cigars.
It is difficult to tell whether or not these cigars are fake just by looking at them. That's why it's best to shop from reputable dealers.
Also, genuine cigars will have a code on the packaging for the factory in which the cigars were made, and a date stamp showing when the cigars were put in the box. Counterfeits are often missing some of these details.
Did you enjoy this article? Then check out the rest of our Cigar & Tobacco history series.