History of Cigars: Part 1

Cigar Keep's global community requires legendary figures from all over the world to join us in spreading the news and championing the cause of togetherness. In the first in a series of articles, this week Aaron Sigmond walk us through the history and making of cigars.

For more than 500 years, cigars, cigares, Zigarren, charities, シガー, 雪茄 — in any language — have been the pleasure and passionate pursuit of kings, princes, dukes, and their stewards; industrial magnates and their valets; Michelin-starred chefs and their sous-chefs; cops; fishmongers; and most everyone in between. And the tobacco from which cigars are hand-rolled is a global commodity, one traded among investors on a historic par with gold, grains and spices—a proud legacy to be sure. 

“Son, bring me the firefly of the night. Its odor shall pass to the north and to the west. Bring with it the beckoning tongue of the jaguar.”

Book of the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) of the Chumayel (Yucatec-Maya) 

Cigars, like wine, beer, brandy, Chartreuse, and many of the world’s great pleasures, have their origins in religion. The Mayan, like most Mesoamerican peoples, smoked tobacco as part of their religious rituals (in addition to developing a written language, a 365-day annual calendar, and vegetable cultivation — no slackers, they). Artifacts from the period portray both nobles and Mayan deities puffing away. Their verb for smoking, sikar, would eventually be co-opted by the Spanish into a noun, cigarro

Nor were the Mayans alone in their enjoyment of smoking. From tribes in Mexico and North America puffing on pipes to the Aztecs setting fire to tobacco-stuffed reeds, the pursuit was enjoyed by a broad swath of cultures in the Americas. 

Of course, as we all know, in fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. After a five-week journey from the Canary Islands — one encompassing epic waves and vast distances — the explorer’s crewmen dropped anchor within sight of the Bahamas. From there, it was another 16 days of sailing before they arrived off the coast of Cuba on October 28, 1492. 

Once ashore, two of the explorers, Luis de Torres (also known by his Hebraic name, Yosef ben HaLevi HaIvri) and Rodrigo de Jerez, came upon an unusual sight. The indigenous inhabitants were puffing away at lit “catapults” (most likely rolled plant leaves) stuffed with tobacco, or, as the locals called it, cojoba (alt. cohiba). These were the Taíno people, who inhabited not only Cuba but also Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). One can imagine how the Spaniards, doubtlessly stressed from the most cramped and terrifying Atlantic crossing prior to the invention of the 777 and basic economy class, responded to the sight of people calmly drinking smoke: “We’d like some of that. Now. Please.” 

The Taíno were representative of most Mesoamerican civilizations that had been smoking tobacco in shamanistic rituals for thousands of years before European exploration. Some archeological anthropologists now believe — after a recent discovery in Great Salt Lake Desert, Utah, by Henderson, Nevada-based Far Western Anthropological Research Group director Daron Duke and his team — that the practice actually goes back to the Stone Age, as far as 10,000 BC — some 11,500 years before Columbus & Crew came ashore.

One group of historians credits Hernán Cortés with bringing the first tobacco seeds back to Spain in 1518. The Portuguese and Dutch argue that their own heroes were the first to import the plant. Another good story has colonist-poet-adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh introducing tobacco to Jolly Olde England, although chances are better that it came across the English Channel from France after ambassador Jean Nicot brought the plant there from Portugal. While tobacco started as a medicinal cure (Nicot wrote in 1573 that the plant, which he named Nicotiana, was “an herb of marvelous virtue against all wounds, ulcers, noli me tangere, herpes and other such like things”), smoking it evolved into a pastime of note among the French and Spanish. It spread from there to other European nations that were endlessly fascinated by novelty. Catherine de Medici, for example, insisted tobacco be called Herba Regina, the “queen’s herb.”

THE MODERN CIGAR ERA

So what happened after 1492? (Syphilis, slavery, genocide, deforestation and religious conversions notwithstanding.) A period of about 140 years (roughly 1600 to 1740) was the nascent period for the tobacco and cigar trades, up until King Felipe V of Spain issued a royal decree on December 18, 1740, that established the Royal Trading Company of Habana (La Real Compañía de Comercio de la Habana), creating a monopoly on tobacco trade from Cuba—interrupted in 1762 when the British conquered Cuba, though they returned it to the Spanish crown a year later. These were the wild west and far east years—the cigar equivalent of La Tène culture, distinguished by the royal decree and the subsequent erection of Spanish-owned cigar factories in Mexico, the Philippines and Seville, Spain. Little changed until 1810—an auspicious year, one that begins what we now call the Modern Cigar Era.

What happened during this seminal year? The first commercial cigar factories in the United States were founded by the Viets brothers in East Windsor and Suffield, Connecticut. The first unauthorized Cuban cigar brand, Cabañas, was also founded, though it would be another 11 years until King Fernando VII of Spain decreed that Cuba was permitted to manufacture finished and rolled cigars for export; previously, it could only export tobacco.

After Cabañas, the proverbial floodgates opened, and the modern era of cigars burst forth. Along with it came many of the most noteworthy, venerable and pioneering marcas (brands) that still dominate the market today: Partagás (circa 1827), Por Larrañaga (1834), Ramón Allones (late 1830s), Punch (1840), H. Upmann (1844), Hoyo de Monterrey (1865), Romeo y Julieta (1873) and La Gloria Cubana (1885).

All of which dovetails nicely into everyone’s (well, Cigar Keep members, at any rate) favourite topic: Havanas. [Which the editorial team will keep you waiting to hear about in the second installment of Aaron’s tome. Stay Tuned]

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 here.