It has long been held that Cuban cigars are the best in the world. But recently, prominent tobacco magazines and cigar manufacturers have been claiming that Cubans are terrible now, and what you should really be smoking are Nicaraguans and Dominicans. But, customers insist: there’s just a magical something about Cubans.
What’s the truth? It isn’t just that Cubans have a mystique about them, that grass-is-always-greener feeling, although that certainly plays into it. Having enjoyed a few contrabandos myself, I have to admit; despite my prejudices against Cuban cigars, I found them to be truly wonderful.
Nearly all tobacco used for cigars are “Cuban Seed.” This is quite telling. The fact is that although Cuba undoubtedly grows some of the best tobacco on the world, they don’t make the best cigars. Cuban farmers have been growing tobacco for cigars 50 years longer than anyone in the industry–the farmers and producers of the tobacco taught everyone the trade. But when the embargo hit, the best rollers and blenders moved elsewhere–mostly to La Republica Dominica and Nicaragua. So, while the tobacco grown in Cuba still is truly magical, the cigars have gone down drastically in quality–in fact, new cigar companies which sell to European markets intentionally roll their cigars too tightly, because that is what Europeans are used to, consuming mostly Cuban cigars. The reason for the bad rolling technique comes from a lack of competition in their major markets, a governmentalized push to produce millions of cigars a year, and the fact that the American market attracts the best rollers and blenders to the Dominican and Nicaragua.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Cuban farmers are a separate community and industry than the cigar manufacturers themselves, leading to an unfriendly relationship in which the rollers and blenders do not communicate with the farmers and producers of cigar tobacco. Compare this situation to modern Nicaraguan and Dominican cigar manufacturers, who often own the tobacco plots. This makes for a more consistent and interesting product, and a product that has much more care and thought put into it. Compare this to estate-grown-wine. Wine whose grapes are grown on the estate which also produces the wine is almost always of higher quality and consistency than wineries which merely by grapes from many estates and blend them . When a vintner walks every day among his grapes, his final product will reflect a deep understanding of the grapes and will almost always result in a more balanced and interesting wine. So too with cigars–and the Cuban cigar mystique has suffered from the lack of care and attention that used to be the hallmarks of the brand.
But this is not to say that Cuban cigars are bad. The tobacco itself carries the weight, and has a buttery, silky texture that is naturally balanced, with an aftertaste that lingers like incense or perfume. Never insult Cuban tobacco, but feel free to criticize Castro for the push that made the quality drop.
If the ridiculous embargo is lifted, which I both doubt and hope for, the benefits would be fantastic. Not only would Cuban cigars be forced to raise their quality standards, but the great blenders that now work in the Dominican, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica, and other countries would be able to blend their now stunning tobaccos with the experience and care that Cuban tobacco exudes. The result, in other words, would be better cigars all around, and a whole new set of flavor and texture profiles.
So, when some snide guy swaggers up to you and says “I only smoke Cuban cigars” (“you poor, uncultured buffoon” you’re meant to understand), smile and think to yourself, “If only you knew.” Although it might not wipe the smirk off his face, you still can puff proudly on your Padron, waiting for that fateful (and probably nonexistent) day which our government is less restrictive than Cuba.