In the world of wine there is Champagne, in the world of whisky there are single malts and, in the world of cigars there is Cuba. Many, if not most, products have their stars but it is rare that within that category there is one clear leader. Unusually, Cuban cigars have that flagship brand that is not only put at the top by its manufacturers but also by the press and the consumers.
With a distinctive flavour all of its own, a high price tag and a totally unique history, perhaps it is not too much of a surprise that Cohiba is thought of quite as highly as it is.
Even though there are plenty of experts on the subject based here in the UK, going to Cuba to do some on-location research seemed like the best plan, especially given that my knowledge of how a cigar is made is limited to a few glimpses of cigar rollers at parties that I have been to over the years; somehow, I doubted this was the full story. The process of cigar-making from start to finish is so extraordinary that having seen it all happen, my admiration for the pure craftsmanship that goes in to all of them, Cohiba or not, has been magnified exponentially. Starting with the growing of the tobacco, through to the maturing of the leaves, the blending of the flavours and the rolling of the actual cigars, each process reminded me of subjects that I do know slightly more about wine making, whisky distilling and watch-making. It seems that the most difficult and skillful processes from each of these areas is incorporated into each hand-made Habanos cigar that rolls off the production line.
Like wine regions on France, there are areas of Cuba that are regarded as better for growing tobacco than others. In fact, the far east of the country, where Captain Cook first discovered the plant, tobacco is still grown today but it is not considered to be fit for use in anything decent. There are a few areas spread around the island that do produce the good stuff but, only one region, to the west of Havana, produces all three types of leaves that are needed to make a cigar the wrappers, binders and three filler leaves.
What really reminds me of the wine industry is how much attention is lavished on each plant, all by hand. The wrapper leaves are perhaps the most important of all the types, after all they are the only ones that are seen by the smoker and, if some people are to be believed, they also contribute significantly to the taste as well. In order to get the fine texture and blemish free surface, the plants which produce wrapper leaves are grown under shade for their entire lifetime. At a certain time of year, men on stilts can be seen prancing around the countryside hauling huge lengths of cheesecloth into place over acres and acres of fields, whilst underneath, an army of workers winds string around each plants base before tying it to the ceiling. Over the course of the growing season each of these lengths of string must be retied and kept taut as the plants continue to reach upwards.
For the filler leaves, the process is not quite so complex and they are grown in full sight of the fierce Cuban sun. Leaves at the top of the plant get the full effect of the sun and, as a result, they have a higher composition of oils, which in turn makes them both thicker and fuller in flavour. This also happens with the wrapper leaves and, it has big consequences both at the time of harvest and all the way through the entire process after that. When harvest time rolls around, in the inferior growing areas, the entire plant is plucked from the ground and hung on a trestle in the field to dry. This method may be quick but it ignores the subtle difference between each layer of leaves. In the really fancy areas there are three harvests, starting from the bottom of the plant and working up to the top. Obviously, this means three times as much work but it also pays huge dividends come blending time the flavours of each type of leaf are hugely enhanced and differentiated.
What follows is a very technical sequence of events, starting off with drying the leaves in a highly controlled environment, where they turn slowly from almost fluorescent green into a rich shade of brown or ochre. Next comes the fermentation, which can last for up to two weeks. Special attention must be paid to the temperature of the leaves because if they get too warm (above 42°C exactly) they will start to decompose. Each intricately constructed stack of tobacco must be constantly taken apart and rebuilt to ensure that each leaf gets an even treatment. Finally, the leaves are packaged into bundles and left to mature for anything between 9 and 24 months, depending on the flavour characteristics that are desired. At each stage along the way everything is repeatedly categorised and sorted into very precise sections depending on its size, colour and condition, meaning that, for the next stage, the blenders will know exactly what it is they are getting.
So ends my wine making analogy, on to the whisky. In LUSSOs last edition I wrote about Woodford Reserve, a bourbon whose distillery I visited in Kentucky. What astonished me on that trip was realising the incredible skill required to mix all the wildly different flavours in the individual casks into one consistent spirit that was recognisable year after year, bottle after bottle, as Woodford Reserve. Well, if anything, the job of the cigar blender is even more impressive. Not only do they manage to combine the three types of filler leaf, Ligero (the strongest, from the upper leaves) Seco (medium flavoured, from the middle of the plant) and Volado (lightly flavoured you can guess where on the plant this comes from) but they do this for as many as 40 different products in the line up. As far as I know, there is no distillery that produces 40 types of whisky! To top it all off, the master blenders are reputed to never write anything down – apparently, for fear of espionage – so each recipe comes straight out of their heads. As part of the blending process, it is sometimes necessary to smoke individual leaves in order to fully assess their quality and just like with the component parts of whisky, by themselves, they do not always taste that good. Even if in isolation they are bad, there may be some characteristic that is needed to make a good cigar, especially in this world where complexity is such a sought-after attribute.
Once the blend has been decided on, batches of the correct leaves are sent out to the cigar rollers or torcedors, which literally means twisters in Spanish. Now I have to say that Cuba and Switzerland are very different places, in the same way that a watch factory and a cigar factory are very different places you would never mistake one for the other. But when you wander around El Laguito, Cohibas central Havana cigar factory, the general atmosphere is uncannily similar. El Laguito is admittedly not the norm; it is much smaller and quieter than any other factory in the country and this, undoubtedly, adds to the feeling of intense concentration and purpose of the workers. Starting off with the wrapper leaves being steamed to make sure they are pliable, to the sorting of the fillers, through to the actual rolling and then the many levels of quality control, sorting, labelling and boxing, everyone involved in the process is obviously a total expert and incredibly good at their job.
It is well-known in Havana that, for people working in this industry, a job at Cohiba is the thing to aim for. Not only does it have a social status befitting the brand, it also pays some of the wage in Cuban Convertible currency, which allows the workers access to goods normal people cannot get. Although I do not understand the complex communist/capitalist hybrid system in Cuba, it is obvious that this is a big deal and it shows the commitment of the management to get the best people and, therefore, the best products for Cohiba.
Next time you open a box of Cohiba, take time to look down at the cigars and how they are arranged. After the rolling process and, after each one has been plugged in to a sort of vacuum cleaner to check how well it will smoke, a team of two ladies spend all day sorting individual cigars by colour. I could not see much difference between each cigar but there are 60 different shades that they must be able to distinguish between. Any minute variations in a given box are then arranged so that they go from darkest to lightest, left to right. If your box of cigars does not do this, be suspicious, it is probably a fake.
One more thing which strikes me on my tour is how many of the workers are women, just like in the Swiss watch industry where around 70% are female. I ask Cohibas director of production, Rafael Cabrera, if this is intentional and he replies that yes, of course it is; Women have softer hands. This may be true but there is another reason why there are so many women at this particular factory and it goes all the way back to the beginning of the brand.
Back in the early 1960s, when the wounds of having such a close Communist neighbour were fresh in Americas mind, the CIA repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to kill off Fidel Castro. Amongst some of their frankly bizarre machinations (such as trying to defoliate his beard, therefore making his subjects lose respect for him) was an idea to plant explosive cigars with his aides. The effects of explosive cigars in Fidels mouth being lit by a match does not need much imagination and so, when the Cubans discovered the plot they swiftly came up with a plan to negate it. Not too long before, one of Fidels bodyguards, Chico Perez, had been smoking a cigar rolled for him by a friend, Eduardo Rivera. Fidel found the smell bewitching and asked to try one of the unknown cigars. It was love at first drag and, from that moment onwards, Eduardo was tasked with only one job making cigars for the President. Although at first he did not know what his lovingly made cigars were being used for, soon Fidel started not only to smoke them himself but also to give them away as diplomatic gifts. Even though one torcedor can roll around 100 cigars a day, Eduardo could not cope all by himself; they had to set up a factory.
With the CIAs spectre hanging over them, the Cubans set about starting up a secret factory in an abandoned 19th century house in Miramar, one of Havanas upmarket districts. An English family, the Fowlers, who had been big names in the sugar industry, had built the house. Its name was El Laguito and, as you will have gathered, it is still in use today. At the time, the cigar administration was trying to get more women involved in the industry and so the original workers at the factory were all recruited on this basis. Today, the trend continues more so at Cohiba than throughout the industry as a whole, although perhaps Rafael is correct in thinking that they are, in fact, better at the job!
Soon enough, the brand became sought-after due to the fact that it was well-known in aficionado circles but was almost impossible for mere mortals to actually get hold of. Although they were communists at home, the Cuban cigar industry was not afraid of cashing in on this fast growing image and so, in 1982, Cohiba was launched onto the international cigar market, where it remains the default choice when money is no object.