Do You Smoke After Sex?Revolution Brings Evolution to the Cigar Industry:
“A smoke in times of rest is a great companion to the solitary soldier.” – Che Guevara, Marxist Revolutionary
In the past few reviews I’ve covered cigars from two of the most famous cigar brands in the world, Punch and Romeo y Julieta. Both of these brands have existed since the 19th century, and continue to be among the top selling cigars worldwide today. We owe the Victorians to making cigar smoking popular in the 19th century, but it was always an activity that was exclusive to the upper classes of society. It’s hard to believe that something as ubiquitous today as the banana was virtually unknown to Europeans and North Americans until the late 19th century. It was the same with other tropical products: sugar, coffee, and of course, tobacco. As global trade started to flourish towards the end of the century and into the 20th, products from the tropics became more popular in Europe and North America because they could be mass produced and imported to Europe and North America inexpensively. Cigar factories sprang up all over the New World, even as far north as Montreal, a hub of cigar manufacturing at the turn of the last century. But perhaps more than any other product, the politics of the 20th century dramatically changed how tobacco was grown and marketed.
Europeans, usually with no horticultural knowledge, often saw opportunity for profit in the exploitation of the tobacco crop. These were always men with capital: bankers, industrialists, tycoons, etc. With no tobacco growing experience, investors relied on locals to be their experts in the cultivation of tobacco, and upon torcedores
, highly skilled tobacco workers familiar with drying and rolling the tobacco into cigars. With the introduction of mechanization into the cigar industry, production exploded, and quality disappeared. Instead of being rolled as whole leaves, tobacco was now processed and cut into a mince. The cigars were filled with the minced leaves and rolled into a reconstituted wrapper, and marketed very inexpensively. Most cigars are still manufactured this way, China being the largest manufacturer of machine-made cigars. Additionally, another industrialist had the idea of rolling the mince into paper instead of tobacco, and the cigarette was born, making smoking even cheaper. By the mid-20th century, cigarette smoking surpassed cigar smoking as the chief way to consume tobacco. Fortunately, there remained a strong market for premium, hand-rolled cigars made from unadulterated tobacco leaves, and this is probably why we associate cigar smoking with the upper class today. Everyone else (and it really was close to everyone) smoked something cheaper.
Tobacco for cigars was originally cultivated on the island of Hispaniola, in what is now the Dominican Republic. But the Caribbean was a mťlange of imperialist holdings and colonies, and the natives were starting to become fed up with subjugation and subversion from their European masters. This was especially prominent on the island of Cuba, a Spanish colony. Colonial wars were almost constant through the last quarter of the 19th century, culminating in the Spanish American War in 1898, the result of which Cuba (along with the Philippines) became a US Protectorate. It was during this time that various Europeans and Americans were almost constantly at war with natives in the Caribbean, one of the secondary effects of which was while they were there they began smoking cigars. Winston Churchill was among those who travelled to Cuba as a soldier, and fell in love with cigars from that country. While war continued to rage in the Dominican Republic disrupting manufacturing of cigars, the relative peace in Cuba after 1902 resulted in Cuba emerging as the dominant producer of tobacco for cigars. Cuban cigars became so popular that premium tobacco (that is, tobacco grown for use in making hand-rolled cigars) virtually disappeared outside Cuba. Tobacco cultivation centered around the family unit, with members of the family becoming experts in growing tobacco as well as the local environment and microclimate.
Famous brands flourished through the 19th century into the mid-20th century. Punch, first sold in 1840 by a German investor, became popular in the UK. In 1844, a banker named Herman Upmann invested in a cigar factory in Havana and began marketing H. Upmann cigars. This became John F. Kennedy’s favorite cigar. Partagas was born in 1845 from a Spanish investor. In 1875 Romeo y Julieta, Winston Churchill’s favorite, came onto the scene, actively personally marketed by Pepin Rodriguez Hernandez, who mingled with the who’s who of Europe and America, and owned a racehorse aptly named Julieta. Nellie Tayloe Ross, the first ever woman to be elected Governor of a US State (Wyoming) also enjoyed the Romeo y Julieta brand. All of these brands, among others, still exist today.
However, in the post-WW2 era political upheaval again began to shake the island of Cuba. Marxists led by Fidel Castro and Argentina-born Che Guevara overthrew the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. During the 1950s, many of the tobacco cultivating families of Cuba could see the writing on the wall, and began to emigrate from Cuba. Some came to the United States and Europe, others went to elsewhere in the Caribbean. Castro’s Revolutionary Government immediately began nationalizing industry, including the all-important cigar industry. The cigar industry was consolidated under a state-owned monopoly named Cubatabaco. This company began producing cigars under the exact same brand names that had existed before the revolution, even though the families that produced the cigars were no longer there, and still owned the labels for their own cigars.
In 1962, the Kennedy administration created and enforced a trade embargo upon Cuba that is still in place today, 50 years later. It prohibited Americans from importing and selling any Cuban product. While the rest of the world still snickers about the wisdom of keeping the embargo in place, its effects impacted the tobacco industry more than any other. This is somewhat ironic considering Kennedy wanted to exempt cigars from the ban, and only did so because of political pressure from cigar manufacturers in Florida, who knew the embargo was going to make them a lot more money. Legend has it that Kennedy had 1200 boxes of his favorite H. Upmann cigars purchased before he signed the enforcement order of the embargo.
The United States was by far the largest market for cigars at the time, and the displaced Cuban tobacco growers perceived an opportunity to get back into the business. They sought climates that were similar to those in Cuba in which to restart tobacco cultivation. The Dominican Republic and Nicaragua became the most popular choices, but Mexico, Ecuador, and Brazil among others also started growing tobacco to serve the US market. In addition, cigars came to the US market under the same brands that existed prior to the embargo. As a result, two identical brands exist under different ownership. H. Upmann, Partagas and Romeo y Julieta moved to the Dominican Republic; Punch moved to Honduras.
The second half of the 20th century saw so much evolution in cigar manufacturing and marketing it’s difficult to compare to the previous era. Under nationalization in Cuba, the old brands are produced without the effects of market competition, and other than who tends the fields not much has changed from the pre-Communist era. Outside Cuba however, free trade and market forces has resulted in a diverse diaspora of tobacco and cigars. New tobaccos were cultivated and mixed, and new investors entered the market. As a result, cigars in the US became much more diverse than they had been, and gained popularity worldwide against Cuban cigars, even where both were available. This is why, in my opinion, the thought that the best cigars come only from Cuba is dated. There is likely no chance that a cigar manufactured by a monopoly is going to be superior to a cigar that is made as a result of competition and market forces.
In response, Cubatabaco came up with the “Puro” designation in order to affirm the preeminence of the Cuban cigar. This is a cigar in which the filler, binder, and wrapper of the cigar are all grown in the same country. Most countries aren’t able to grow tobacco of high enough quality that a Puro cigar is any good. Cuba only makes Puros, Nicaragua produces some Puros, and in Mexico Puros are the only cigars that can be legally sold domestically, which has served to virtually kill the market because they aren’t any good.
Revolution again rocked the cigar industry in 1979 when in Nicaragua, a bloody conflict led to the deposing of the Somoza dictatorship as a result of the Sandinista Revolution. During this period, many tobacco growers moved to neighboring Honduras, where the major problem was lack of infrastructure to support trade. An extremely poor country, Honduras had failed to build any roads in rural areas, and it was tobacco cultivation that spurned economic growth in the region.
Today, experimentation and diversity brought about by market forces dominate premium cigar marketing in the United States. New entrants to the industry such as Drew Estate have been rewarded by consumers for risk-taking in an otherwise traditionalist industry. The premium cigar industry will continue to evolve with consumption choice, experimentation, and agricultural science. Thus, the best cigars are going to come not from Cuba, but from manufacturers who embrace the idea of market evolution.