From Central America to Cuba, to Cigar City: A Brief History of Cigars
Can you imagine what it was like to smoke the first-ever cigar? Not one of the crude creations of rolled tobacco that was burned by ancient Mayans in Central America. But the first true cigar, full of rich Cuban tobacco, meticulously cultivated and carefully wrapped in fragrant tobacco leaves. The first true cigar ever smoked may have been on the bow of a ship, heading back to Europe after a trip to the New World. With one spark of a match came the first-ever puff of one of life’s greatest pleasures.
As you sit back in your chair, put your legs up and fire up your next stick, take a moment to appreciate where those finely packed leaves came from and how many years it took to craft the ideal cigar.
A Brief History of Cigars
As history tells it, on October 12, 1492, two of Christopher Columbus’s sailors came upon Cubans smoking tobacco wrapped in plantain leaves. Columbus returned to Europe with his discovery, and thankfully, the Europeans came up with a much better idea: use tobacco leaves as the wrapper. Spain then commissioned multiple cigar factories in Cuba, and the cigar industry was born.
This refinement of the cigar wrapper was the turning point that preceded the cigars we know and love today. But the world would still have to wait for the finest sticks to be made. Around 1640, the first US tobacco that was high enough quality for cigars was grown in Windsor, Connecticut. But America had 122 years to wait for the finest tobacco seeds to come over from Cuba.
Thanks to the never-ending conflicts between Spain and England, an officer in the English army found himself in Havana during a siege. When the siege was over, the first-ever Cuban cigar smuggler brought home roughly 30,000 cigars, and enough seed to start growing in a new climate.
Tobacco popularity soared throughout Europe and the colonies, and they all demanded one thing: Havanas. In 1804, Cuba imported over a million pounds of American leaf to be used as a wrapper, much of it from Connecticut. The United States began importing Cuban tobacco, and production ramped up as iconic brands came into existence, such as Montecristo, Hoyo de Monterrey, and Partagas.
As Spanish conflicts continued to rage across Cuba, cigar operations started to shift. In 1868 during the 10 Years War, operations were moved from Havana to Key West. And in 1885, operations were moved to the Tampa area. As others followed to Tampa, it gained the name “Cigar City.” By 1890, there were an estimated 3500 cigar factories in the US. And in 1920, an estimated eight billion cigars were packed, rolled, and enjoyed.
Castro and the Embargo
Fast forward to 1959, and Fidel Castro had nationalized the cigar industry in Cuba. By 1961, the Cohiba brand was born, a cigar meant only for Castro and VIPs. But an American embargo on Cuban products shook up the industry, and it wasn’t until the 1990’s that the new boom in cigars took place. Cigar Aficionado was launched in 1992, and the cigar lifestyle was reborn.
Today, standards have never been higher, and the quality of cigars is more robust than ever. While it’s wistful to imagine smoking the first-ever cigar on the bow of a great ship, the reality is there has never been a better time than the present to fire up the latest creation.
photo credit: Gold News