Legendary author Aaron Sigmond provides us with part 2 of his history of cigars.
THE HISTORY OF CIGARS IN CUBA
Havana is inarguably the historic epicentre of the cigar industry. (Depending on your point of view, it might still be.) Everything that transpired in the nineteenth century culminated in Cuba’s supremacy. While 1740, as noted in part 1, was the embryonic stage, things hit maturity (for the time) in 1821, again, when, by decree of King Ferdinand VII of Spain, who was Cuba’s colonial overlord, Cubans were allowed to not only cultivate tobacco but also manufacture fully rolled cigars for export. This turned the island into a cigar production powerhouse.
As aforementioned, the first chronicled independent Cuban cigar brand predates Ferdinand’s proclamation, though. Cabañas was established by Sr. Francisco Cabañas in 1810, a time when the Spanish crown prohibited commercial cigar production. Cabañas would enjoy a respectable run one hundred and fifty-year run when production ceased in1962. Following the Cuban Revolution and nationalization of the Cuban cigar trade, many pre-Revolution brands (Cabañas amongst them) went the way of the dodo bird. Cabañas was briefly brought back by Empresa Cubana del Tabaco (the Cuban state tobacco entity, also known as Cubatabaco) in 1989 as a machine-made line until 2004-2005, when it was phased out of production, presumably for good. Since 2019 a handmade Nicaraguan incarnation has been crafted by the cult cigar maker My Father Cigars by Don Pepín Garcia, which also makes the non-Cuban version of the heritage Cuban label Fonseca.
The colorful history of Cuban cigars could fill a book, and it has, many times over. We’re all keen for a good story, after all, and one of my favorites concerns the tale of Don Jaime Partagás, who built his famed Real Fábrica de Tabaco Partagás in central Havana in 1845. This is the year most commonly associated with the brand, the one from which anniversary releases date. The factory would become the most iconic cigar fábrica in the world, with its instantly recognizable creamy pale yellow façade accented with maroon trim. Unfortunately, cigars haven’t been rolled there since 2010s (the exact year of the move is a tad bit allusive, having been reported as 2011, 2012 and 2016, rest assured moved it did at some point). The juicy bit: Don Jaime was murdered on one of his Vuelta Abajo plantations in 1868 (allegedly at the hands, or the orders, of a jealous rival who believed his wife and the cigar maker were having a clandestine affair), after which his son, José Partagás, took over until the company was bought by Cifuentes y Cia (né Cifuentes, Fernandez y Cia) in 1900.
Also noteworthy is the preponderance of post-Revolution brands that punctuated the latter half of the twentieth century: Diplomaticos (1966), Cohiba (1966; commercially, 1982), Cuaba (1996), Trinidad (1998), San Cristobal (1999) and the only regional Cuban cigar brand, Edmundo Dantes (2007), created by Max Gutmann of Importadora y Exportadora de Puros y Tabacos and Habanos S.A. exclusively for the Mexican market. Switzerland-based Davidoff (1969) and Dunhill of London (1982) also popped in and out of the Cuban cigar scene—which itself could fill yet another book.
The creation of the limited-edition (Edición Limitada), regional edition (Edición Regional) and Grand Reserve series from Habanos S.A.—established in 2000, 2005 and 2009, respectively—and the emergence of China and the Middle East (Lebanon and Dubai in particular) as major Cuban cigar markets caused a seismic consumer shift away from traditional European markets, setting the tone for the century at hand.
THE HISTORY OF CIGARS IN JAMAICA, THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC AND NICARAGUA
Cigar tobacco wasn’t commercially cultivated in Jamaica until the Reconstruction Era, when, in 1868, Cubans fled their island for Jamaica during the Ten Years’ War (the Guerra de los Diez Años, waged from 1868 to 1878), the first liberation conflict between Cuban colonists and Spain. It was during this time that the Temple Hall brand (which is still handmade today) came to be in 1876. “Jamaica has this legacy, this history of making good cigars,” noted Edgar M. Cullman Jr., former CEO of General Cigar Co. “During the late 1960s and early ’70s Jamaica was the premier place for making cigars in the Caribbean — outside of Cuba, of course.”
The Cullman family purchased the Kingston-based Temple Hall factory in 1969 and created the Macanudo brand there, as well as the non-Cuban iteration of Partagás (the latter under the watchful eye of master cigar maker Ramon Cifuentes, whose family owned the Partagás factory in Havana until the Castro regime seized it in 1959). The Temple Hall factory was shuttered in 2000, and, lamentably, the brand is now made without Jamaican tobaccos at General Cigar Dominicana in Santiago, Dominican Republic.
The best-known Mexican premium tobacco grower and cigar maker, the Turrent family (now six generations in), got started along the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas, a volcanic belt and mountain range along the southeastern Veracruz Gulf Coast in eastern Mexico in 1880, approximately the same time Jamaica got going. The oldest Dominican cigar-brand factory, La Aurora, was founded in 1903, though the Dominican Republic, didn’t start to truly morph into “Cigar Country” until the very tail end of the 1970s, and truthfully didn't firmly establish itself until the 80’s and early-90’s.
In Nicaragua, the first premium cigar company and brand, Joya de Nicaragua, wasn’t established until 1968 (though tobacco was cultivated in that Central American country previously). Though the most globally recognized premium and ultra-premium Nicaraguan cigar brand belongs to the Padrón family, was actually established in Miami, Florida, in 1964. It didn’t move to Estelí, Nicaragua, until 1970. However, the most historic non-Cuban cigar paradigm shift takes us back across the Caribbean Sea to the Dominican Republic and the creation of the Fuente Fuente OpusX, the first commercially viable Dominican puro.
(HINT: If you read nothing else, you’ll be wiser for perusing the following.)
The nineteenth- and twentieth-century history of tobacco and cigars is complex—far too complex for a mere feature-length article, but I’m trying to squeeze in as much as I can. Broadly speaking, it encompassed six quantum leaps.
The first was the rise and dominance of the Cuban cigar and tobacco industries, which includes the “Clear Havana made in bond” cigars produced in the U.S. with all (pre-embargo) Cuban tobaccos, as well as the advent of what we today call “heritage brands.”
Second: the 1959 Cuban revolution, which led to the Cuban diaspora and the migration of cigar know-how that would eventually guide the production of all non-Cuban cigars.
Number three was the rise, in the 1960s, of the Honduran, Mexican and Jamaican tobacco and cigar industries.
The fourth was the Canary Islands cigar supernova of the 1970s, which gave us the epoch-defining Montecruz Seleccion Suprema Dunhill Sun Grown (first major brand to use sun-grown wrappers) and which morphed into the fifth quantum leap: the strengthening of the Dominican cigar industry, which was punctuated early on by the defection of both Davidoff and Dunhill from Cuba to the D.R. in 1989 and 1990.
The fifth, finally, was the cultivation of a world-class cigar wrapper leaf and the creation of the Château de la Fuente
finca (plantation) in El Caribe, in the Dominican Republic’s Cibao region, resulting in the introduction of the Fuente Fuente OpusX cigar series. Why was this so important? Because no one thought it could be done. It also gave Cuba’s greatest cigar rival an even footing—prior to the OpusX not one Dominican cigar was swathed in a Dominican wrapper leaf (more often than not is was either true Connecticut, USA shade or African Cameroon). So both adversaries could now offer genuine puros (a Spanish double entendre for pure—all the cigar’s filler leaves, as well as the binder and wrapper, are grown and fermented in the same country in which it’s rolled).
It took Cuban cigars more than a century to attain their near-mythic status. More recently, it took Davidoff nearly 75 years; the Cohiba brand, separate from all other Havanas, needed decades to become widely known and respected on its own. It’s therefore nothing short of miraculous that the Fuente Fuente OpusX went from iconoclast to icon, joining the ranks of not just globally recognized cigar brands, but international luxury marques, in under five years. By the twentieth anniversary of the OpusX, in 2015, Greg Mottola of Cigar Aficionado reexamined the first Dominican puro and fittingly dubbed the OpusX “America’s First Cult Cigar.”