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The word cigar originated from the Spanish “cigarro!, which in turn probably derives from the Mayan sicar (tobacco). A cigar is a tightly-rolled bundle of dried and fermented tobacco leaf, rolled in a series of types and sizes, that is ignited so that its smoke and aroma can be appreciated.
Cigar tobacco is grown in significant quantities in Cuba, Brazil, Cameroon, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia, Mexico, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Canary Islands (Spain), Italy and the Eastern United States. The origins of cigar smoking are still unknown. However, the explorer Christopher Columbus is generally credited with the introduction of tobacco to Europe. Three of Columbus’s crewmen during his 1492 journey, Rodrigo de Jerez, Hector Fuentes and Luis de Torres, are said to have encountered tobacco for the first time on the island of Hispaniola, in what is present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, when natives presented them with dry leaves that spread a peculiar fragrance.
Tobacco was widely diffused among all of the islands of the Caribbean and therefore they again encountered it in Cuba where Columbus and his men had settled. His sailors reported that the Taínos on the island of Cuba smoked a primitive form of cigar, with twisted, dried tobacco leaves rolled in other leaves such as palm or plantain.
In due course, Spanish and other European sailors adopted the hobby of smoking rolls of leaves, as did the Conquistadors, and smoking primitive cigars spread to Spain and Portugal and eventually France, most probably through Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal, who gave his name to nicotine. Later, the hobby spread to Italy and, after Sir Walter Raleigh’s voyages to the Americas, to Britain. Smoking became familiar throughout Europe—in pipes in Britain—by the mid-16th century. In 1542, tobacco started to be grown commercially in America, when the Spaniards established the first cigar factory on the island of Cuba.
Interestingly, Tobacco was originally thought to have medicinal qualities, but there were some who considered it evil. It was denounced by Philip II of Spain and James I of England.
Around 1592, the Spanish galleon San Clemente brought 50 kilograms (110 lb) of tobacco seed to the Philippines over the Acapulco-Manila trade route. The seed was then distributed among the Roman Catholic missionaries, where the clerics found excellent climates and soils for growing high-quality tobacco on Philippine soil.
In the 19th century, cigar smoking was common, while cigarettes were still comparatively rare. In the early 20th century, Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous smoking poem, “The Betrothed.” The cigar business was an important industry, and factories employed many people before mechanized manufacturing of cigars became practical.
Tobacco leaves are harvested and aged using a process that combines use of heat and shade to reduce sugar and water content without causing the bigger leaves to rot. This first part of the process, called curing, takes between 25 and 45 days and varies substantially based upon climatic conditions as well as the construction of sheds or barns used to store harvested tobacco. The curing process is manipulated based upon the type of tobacco, and the desired color of the leaf. The second part of the process, called fermentation, is carried out under conditions designed to help the leaf dry slowly. Temperature and humidity are controlled to ensure that the leaf continues to ferment, without rotting or disintegrating. This is where the flavor, burning, and aroma characteristics are primarily brought out in the leaf.
Once the leaves have aged properly, they are sorted for use as filler or wrapper based upon their appearance and overall quality. During this process, the leaves are continually moistened and handled carefully to ensure each leaf is best used according to its individual qualities. The leaf will continue to be baled, inspected, un-baled, re-inspected, and baled again repeatedly as it continues the aging cycle. When the leaf has matured according to the manufacturer’s specifications, it will be used in the production of a cigar.
Quality cigars are still handmade. An experienced cigar-roller can produce hundreds of very good, nearly identical, cigars per day. The rollers keep the tobacco moist — especially the wrapper — and use specially designed crescent-shaped knives, called chavetas, to form the filler and wrapper leaves quickly and accurately. Once rolled, the cigars are stored in wooden forms as they dry, in which their uncapped ends are cut to a uniform size. From this stage, the cigar is a complete product that can be “laid down” and aged for decades if kept as close to 21 °C (70 °F), and 70% relative humidity, as the environment will allow. Once cigars have been purchased, proper storage is usually accomplished by keeping the cigars in a specialized wooden box, or humidor, where conditions can be carefully controlled for long periods of time. Even if a cigar becomes dry, it can be successfully re-humidified so long as it has not been handled carelessly and done so gradually. The loss of original tobacco oils, however, will greatly affect the taste.
Some cigars, especially premium brands, use different varieties of tobacco for the filler and the wrapper. Long filler cigars are a far higher quality of cigar, using long leaves throughout. These cigars also use a third variety of tobacco leaf, called a “binder”, between the filler and the outer wrapper. This permits the makers to use more delicate and attractive leaves as a wrapper. These high-quality cigars almost always blend varieties of tobacco. Even Cuban long-filler cigars will combine tobaccos from different parts of the island to incorporate several different flavours.
In low-grade and machine-made cigars, chopped tobacco leaves are used for the filler, and long leaves or a type of “paper” made from tobacco pulp is used for the wrapper which binds the cigar together. This alters the burning characteristics of the cigar, causing handmade cigars to be sought-after.