Cuban cigars are world-famous, and the cigar industry in the country has thrived in spite of the loss of its single largest market when President John F. Kennedy placed an embargo on Cuban products in 1962. It was illegal for Americans to buy Cuban cigars, so a brisk black market trade in them. However, the trade in counterfeit Cuban cigars was thriving, so many Americans who have purchased what they believe are the genuine article, may have ended with cigars made in the Dominican Republic, where many cigar makers relocated after the embargo.
When President Obama changed the diplomatic relations with Cuba, the rules for purchasing cigars changed too. As of the beginning of 2015, travelers are allowed to bring back $100 in Cuban cigars and use American-based credit cards to do so. As the diplomatic relations change over time, the rules for purchasing may change. Check with the U.S. Department of Commerce website or contact the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C., for exact details.
Once you're on the island of Cuba itself, there are many ways for experiencing the iconic industry. One of the world's most important festivals dedicated to the cigar is held each February in Havana, and cigar enthusiasts from around the world attend.
How to Roll a Cigar
1. Preparing the tobacco is the first step. Shred the filler tobacco if you're rolling small cigars, or you can use whole leaves for larger ones. Cuban cigars are almost all made with whole leaves. Filler is what determines the strength and flavor, so the blend used is important and often a trade secret. Moisten the binder tobacco lightly by misting it with water and wrapping it loosely in a plastic bag or a damp cloth. As it becomes more supple, begin to wrap the bag more tightly. After about two hours, it is pliable enough to work with. Remove the mid rib (center vein) with a knife or sharp scissors.
Rolling the Cigar
2. The next step in how to roll a cigar is the actual rolling. The binder can be held together with a number of different natural gums or even egg white. Wrap the binder carefully around the filler. If using whole leaves, fold each one back into itself and bunch them together. This is a delicate operation, and there should be no tears in the binder. Use a cutter to cleanly cut off any loose tobacco at the end of the cigar. The results are then placed in a mold for about one hour.
3. Now comes the wrapper leaf—the type of leaf that is most important for flavor. In Cuban cigars these are of extremely high quality, and they are kept constantly moist. Each wrapper leaf is cut to the shape of the cigar it will become with a "chaveta," a special knife used exclusively by cigar rollers. Pectin is used as a binder and is spread on the inside of the wrapper leaf. A rolled cigar is removed from the mold, and the final roll begins, with more pectin being added as it is rolled. For do-it-yourself rollers, you can make a mixture of flour and water that is about the consistency of syrup instead of pectin (we used honey). Excess leaf at one end (called a flag) is twisted to ensure a tight fit. This becomes the more tapered end that is placed in the mouth.
4. The final step in how to roll a cigar is placing the band and boxing the finished product.
The culture surrounding cigars, including everything from how to roll a cigar to the venerable cigar reader, is important to all the local people. Cigars have been produced in and exported from Cuba since the seventeenth century. The institution of the cigar reader began around 1865. Rolling Cuban cigars is a painstaking, labor-intensive, and repetitive process, and work days last ten hours. To lighten their workload, the cigar rollers would nominate an educated person from among their number to spend his or her day reading out loud from newspapers, popular books, and even classic novels. Therefore, even poorly educated cigar rollers are apt to be able to relate long passages from Shakespeare or Victor Hugo. Since the reader is a fellow roller, and rollers are paid by the piece, the other rollers contribute enough from their own production to equal the reader's pay. Readers are beloved by rollers and even today, factories have readers rather than televisions or radios.
Cuban Tobacco Fields
The majority (about 70 percent) of the tobacco for Cuban cigars comes from the Pinar del Rio Province, the westernmost province of the country. In addition to tobacco farming, tourism is also important here, as this is the location of the beautiful Vinales Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is in this region that the Vuelta Abajo type of tobacco is grown—the highest quality leaf against which all other leafs are measured. If you visit Old Havana, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, stop in at the fascinating Museum of Cigars to learn more.