Our Wrap on the Cuban Cigar

Cuban cigars have long been considered the best luxury cigars on the market. Unfortunately, they’ve been illegal and unavailable in the United States since 1962. Even so, they continue to set the standard by which all cigars are judged, including those sold in America.

Roots of the Earliest Cigars…and the Rise of the Cuban Cigar

Box of Cuban CigarsArtifacts and archeological records indicate the ancient Mayans smoked cigar tobacco as early as the 10th century BCE. Experts believe those first cigars were used for medicinal and religious ceremonial purposes. In fact, it seems the Mayans so revered their cigars that they were often used as offerings to their gods. Now, 3,000 years later, the significance of the Mayan influence is still with us. The word cigar itself comes from the Mayan word “sikar,” which means “to smoke tobacco leaves.”

But the Europeans didn’t discover the allure of cigars until 1492, when Christopher Columbus was given a gift of dried tobacco leaves upon landing in the Bahamas. Initially unsure of what to do with his tobacco, Columbus found inspiration when he landed in Cuba a month later. There, he discovered that the Cuban natives rolled their tobacco leaves, which they called “cohiba,” in maize or palm leaf wrappers before smoking it. Cigar artistry was out, and Columbus made sure the world would never smoke the same.

When he returned to Spain, Columbus presented King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella with his newly discovered crop and introduced the Spaniards to cigar smoking. The popularity of tobacco quickly spread throughout the Old World and, in the mid-1500s, Spain’s King Philip II capitalized on the new craze by importing all the Cuban tobacco he could. He enlisted artisans to roll the tobacco and then exported the finished, wrapped cigars throughout all of Europe. Spain’s long-term commercialization of cigars was so successful that many years later, around 1676, they built the world’s first, fully dedicated, cigar manufacturing plant. Over time, tobacco became Spain’s second largest source of revenue behind silver and gold, and soon represented one-third of all Spanish domestic revenue. In an attempt to secure their control of the world’s best tobacco supply, in 1717 King Philip V declared a Tobacco Monopoly that required all raw Cuban tobacco could only be sold to Spain and its colonies. Those found guilty of violating the Tobacco Monopoly faced the death penalty.

But, like all commercial enterprises, efficiencies ultimately governed the day. When it came to making finished cigars, the Spanish cigar industry eventually realized that completed Cuban cigars could survive the long voyage across the Atlantic much better than raw leaves. Cigar factories were relocated back to Cuba. But, by 1810, disgruntled Cuban cigar brands were registering for their own trademarks even though they were still bound by the Tobacco Monopoly. Tensions escalated, and after a short but violent burst of revolts by the Cuban tobacco growers, Spain finally repealed the Tobacco Monopoly in 1817. Now, the Cubans were finally free to sell their own cigars to a world that had learned of their quality.

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What Makes Cuban Cigars so Good?

The quality of Cuban cigars starts with the tobacco itself. The nutrient rich soil of the Cuban island, along with its tropical, humid climate and year-round temperate weather, produces richly flavorful, high-quality tobacco leaves. Cuban growers have been perfecting their processes for centuries. Young tobacco plants are planted late in the year to take advantage of the lush, year-end climate. Then, three months later, the leaves are harvested and hung in curing rooms for up to three additional months. After curing, the leaves then go through a multi-step fermentation and aging process. And, while many premium cigars are made from blends of tobacco sourced from different locations, true Cubans are made exclusively of Cuban tobacco—filler, binder, and wrapper.

The outward mark of a fine, hand-rolled Cuban cigar is a flawless, shiny, smooth wrapper—with all leaves rolled in the same direction. The best Cubans are rolled by torcedors, who train for years to perfect their skills. After hand-rolling, the cigars are fumigated in a vacuum chamber and spot tested by professional, quality-control, human cigar smokers. Finally, the finished cigars are boxed in humidors to remove any traces of excessive moisture.

Cuban Cigars are the Forbidden Fruit in the United States since 1962

Political corruption and instability led to revolutionary uprisings in Cuba throughout much of the 1950s. Toward the end of the decade, U.S. President Eisenhower attempted to influence the outcome of the Castro-led Cuban revolution by imposing a series of arms and trade embargos against the island nation. The U.S. embargos were largely ineffective, however, in no small part due to Soviet counter efforts to supply and support Castro’s rebels. When Castro eventually took control of the Cuban government in 1959, it was clear that relations with the U.S. would be strained for years to come.

After the failed, U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs Invasion in April of 1961, Fidel’s government declared itself to be Marxist and socialist…and the country formed a strong allegiance with the Soviet Union. In response, the U.S. Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act which prohibited aid to Cuba and granted the President the authority to impose a complete trade embargo against Cuba. In February 1962, President Kennedy extended Eisenhower’s existing embargo to include the import of all products containing Cuban materials or components—even if the final goods were assembled or completed outside of Cube. As an interesting sidenote, Kennedy enlisted noted journalist and political advisor Pierre Salinger to bring him 1,200 Cuban Uppmans just before Kennedy announced his extensions of the embargo.

Then, in 1962, Kennedy further expanded the Cuban trade embargo to cover all Cuban trade, American exports included, except non-subsidized food and medicine. After the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of that year, Kennedy finally added travel restrictions that prohibited any Americans from traveling either to or from Cuba.

With only minor exceptions, the trade embargo and travel restrictions against Cuba have remained in effect ever since ‘62 . And although President Obama relaxed the bans on travel to Cuba and on Cuban cigars (for personal use) in 2014, President Trump reinstated both of the restrictions in 2020. As a result, today the embargo against Cuban cigars is fully in place and it remains illegal, even for personal use, to bring or deliver Cuban cigars into the United States. The penalty for doing so, even if they’re purchased in Mexico or Canada (where they are legal), could be as high as $55,000.