Demystifying the cigar, from seed to shelf

Demystifying the cigar, from seed to shelf

By Aaron Sigmond 

CIGARS ARE SIMPLE. So simple that they comprise just a single ingredient: dark tobaccos. Not, of course, just any dark tobaccos, however. 

Much like grape varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir—there are said to be some 10,000 wine grapes varieties—so too are there many dark-tobacco varietals grown specifically for cigars. Their evocative names betray their regional designations: Cuban Corojo, Dominican Piloto Cubano, Brazilian Mata Fina, Mexian San Andrés, Jamaican Silver Tongue, Ecuador Habano, Cameroon (a wrapper) and hybrids like Habana 2000. 

What ends up in your humidor starts as such leaves on an unassuming plant in the soil. Not, of course, just any soil, however. 

The finest cigar tobacco relies on a finely tuned mixture of earth, temperature, moisture and sunlight—in other words, terroir. 


The land of red soil - Cuban tobacco growing region

Iconic red soil from Cuba's prime tobacco growing region, Vuelta Abajo, Pinar del Rio.


The most famed cigar terroirs where “Vegas de Primera” (first class fields; again, think of the wine designation Premier Grand Cru Classé 'A') are located are the Vuelta Abajo and Semi Vuelta in Cuba; the Yaque and Cibao Valles in the Dominican Republic; Nicaragua’s highlands and Isla de Ometepe; and growing areas further afield (the aforementioned Cameroon) and Connecticut River Valley (a New England microclimate where Connecticut shade wrapper leaf is cultivated; this was the leaf that in the 1950s and ’60s, topped the best long-filler hand-rolled cigars; then made with Cuban filler and binder tobaccos topped with a silken U.S. Connecticut shade wrapper.)

All geographical differences influence tobacco’s taste, but those tobaccos—regardless of their country of origin—make up the three basic components used to construct a long-filler cigar of the hand-rolled (hecho totalmente a mano) variety: filler, binder and wrapper. 

Those three components, rolled together, then become one of two basic “form categories”: parejos (straight cigars) or figurados (tapered). Within those two categories lie an enormous amount of sizes and silhouettes collectively known as vitolas. Vitola actually refers to the length, girth and overall shape of a given cigar; robusto, corona, torpedo and Churchill are some common ones. 

Regardless of a cigar’s shape, it will occupy one of two “tobacco designation” categories. The most prominent is puros, a Spanish double entendre for pure. In cigar parlance, it means that all the tobacco used in the cigar was grown in the same country in which it was rolled. All Cuban cigars are puros, as are some well-known Dominicans (the Fuente Fuente Opus X and Davidoff Puro d’Oro) and Nicaraguans (Padron 1964 Anniversary Series). The second designation category is, well, everything else: factory in one place, tobacco sourced anywhere else. 

Pretty simple.  


Torcedor hard at work at El Laguito

A dexterous torcedor at the Cohiba factory "El Laguito" intent in completing his cigar with the final part of its construction, the cabeza.


Technically, one must acknowledge, all cigars have a second ingredient—an odorless, flavorless vegetable gum (gomma) used to affix the wrapper to the finished bunch and to stick down the cap. But really, it’s still just tobacco. The wrapper is the outermost, exposed leaf that determines a cigar’s aesthetic and initial tactile quality (not its construction), and it needs to be glued, in essence, to the rest of the cigar by something other than compression. The wrapper has a cap—the top bit you eventually lop a portion off when you’re ready to smoke. The entire wrapper leaf, cap included, is thus attached to the binder and filler tobaccos (which are bunched and molded together, and stay that way via compaction) by the gomma.

In the end, then, like many simple things, cigars offer a degree of complexity, but it’s not difficult to garner the modicum of knowledge required to appreciate them. To help, think of something already familiar: Cognac and Champagne, to which cigars are far more analogous than to, say, wine. Cognac and Champagne are crafted from select, limited grape varietals (equivalent to a cigar’s tobacco leaves), then blended and aged. No one adds anything along the way. After the vintner, cellar master or cigar torcedor is done employing his art and technique, time and nature are all that’s required. And what could be simpler than that?


Cigar shelf at the Lanesborough Hotel in London 

About the Author:

AARON SIGMOND is an award-winning publisher, author and creative executive who has traversed the world of cigars both personally and professionally for more than 30 years. He is the founding editor of SMOKE Magazine and The Cigar Report, as well as the author of PLAYBOY: The Book of Cigars and most recently, The Impossible Collection of Cigars