Cuban Cigars 101

Can anything compare to the mystique of a Cuban cigar?

Beluga caviar, the finest champagne, and a Cuban cigar: the height of luxury and elegance. In fact, before imposing the trade embargo on Cuba, President John F. Kennedy ensured he had over 1,000 H. Upmann cigars in his possession lest he run out.

On your cruise to Cuba, you’ll have the opportunity to try a Cuban cigar for yourself. But what makes them special, and what should you look for to ensure a pleasant experience? To get you started, here's a simple infographic to highlight the basics:

Similar to wine, soil and geography — or terroir – is vital to a cigar’s quality. Cuba’s humid environment and rich soil ensure the highest quality tobacco leaf. And Cuba’s rollers, the skilled craftspeople who select the filler, binder, and wrapper and roll them into a perfectly triple-capped cigar, are the best in the world. Wherever a fine cigar may originate, you can bet the rollers had Cuban ancestors.

The 1990s were boom years for cigars, but attempts to ramp up production — combined with climate and economic catastrophes — led to a decline in quality for Cuban vintages. Luckily, over the past 10-15 years, quality has returned and Cuban cigars are once again considered the best in the world. So the time is perfect to try your first Cuban cigar.

When you taste a Cuban cigar, you’ll notice how straightforward the flavor can be. The focus is on the raw ingredients, cured and aged delicately so that the taste is complex but unified. Unlike many non-Cuban brands that may infuse additional flavors, age cigars in whiskey barrels, or focus on only the strongest-tasting leaves, Cuban cigars keep things simple.

If you are new to cigars, you’ll want to select a brand that is not as heavy or strong as, say, a Partagas. Instead, look for an H. Upmann or a Romeo y Julieta.

If you are a cigar smoker looking to try a Cuban for the first time, grab a Montecristo no. 2, perhaps the most famous cigar in the world. And if you are looking for something stronger to smoke after you’ve had a good meal, try a Bolivar or perhaps a Partagas Serie D. No. 4.

Beyond the delightful taste of tobacco itself, you should look for flavors including caramel, chocolate, or coffee. As the smoke rolls around your palate, you’ll discover earthiness, dry grass, and other pleasant tastes that may transport you to a rolling field in the countryside.

When selecting a cigar, appearance is important, as it indicates how the cigar was stored. David Savona, Executive Editor of Cigar Aficionado Magazine advises: “When you choose a cigar, look for ones that appear well stored. Most Havana cigar shops sell single cigars, so look for the ones that don't have flaky wrappers, flaws, or too many wrinkles.”

Importantly, “you want a cigar that looks like it has been cared for. I gravitate toward darker wrappers, but that's personal choice. Avoid ones that have a gray or greenish pallor.”

His simple rule of thumb? “A cigar that has the color of a chocolate bar? Grab it.”

Of course, one of the concerns about Cuban cigars is the chance of purchasing a counterfeit. Even in Cuba, there are vendors attempting to sell cheaper knock-offs of the popular brands.

So what should you watch out for?

“The biggest mistake travelers make when buying cigars in Cuba is buying them off the street,” says Savona. “There are plenty of people willing to sell you cigars for a deal, claiming they have friends who work in the factory, relatives at high levels of the government or perhaps some other story. Say no."

So where can you find the real article? “Stick to the shops, especially those marked La Casa del Habano. There are plenty in Cuba, including inside many of the major hotels. Most Cuban cigars can be had for around $10 apiece — quite a good buy.”

Of course, a cigar can often be elevated by what it’s paired with, and many cigar smokers take their spirits as seriously as they do their cigars! And Cuba is equally famous for its rum, so we recommend sipping some along with your cigar.

“Cuban rum goes exceptionally well with a great Cuban cigar,” says Savona. “Santiago 11 neat or Havana Club 7 with ice are always good mates for my Havana cigar. During the day, a cup of espresso does the trick.”

While Savona attests that cigars from outside of Cuba, including those from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras are superb as well (often scoring as high or higher as Cubans in Cigar Aficionado’s blind taste tests), he believes “there's nothing quite like sitting in Havana with a Montecristo No. 2 and a glass of Cuban rum, listening to some great music and watching the waves crash over the Malecón.”

We couldn’t agree more. For Savona, “it’s a bucket list experience.”

For you, it could be your next vacation. Find out more.

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