Hunting for Cuban Cigars – An Unpretentious Guide for Beginners

Posted on May 29, 2017. Under Culture.

beginners guide to cuban cigars

I’ll be upfront with you – I’m not much of a smoker myself these days. Back in the day I was but my choice were cigarettes, not cigars.

However, I did travel to Cuba extensively and if there’s one thing you shouldn’t miss while you’re there, it’s Cuban cigars, even if you don’t have a passion for smoking.

Look at it this way – let’s suppose you’re not much of a drinker. Would you go to Paris, France without tasting that delicious French wine?

Didn’t think so!

During my first visit to Cuba, I went on a hunt for those famous Cuban cigars. I made a lot of mistakes and got conned a couple of times – but I did learn from it.

I still have a lot of learning to do but this short post should give you an idea of what to look for when searching for cigars in Cuba, especially if you’re a beginner and simply want to hold a piece of history in your hands.

Cuba – Cigar Capital of the World

The first association you get when you hear the word ‘cigar’ is Cuba. Well, presumably. This holds true for a lot of people.

I was recently talking to a friend from Croatia about cigars and he told me that, in Croatia, they generally just say ‘kubanka’ (a cuban) when buying a cigar in a shop.

The notion that cigars might be from somewhere else rarely crosses anybody’s mind.

The tobacco plant was brought to Cuba somewhere around 3,000 – 2,000 B.C. It’s originally from Africa and we have no conclusive ideas on how it spread but it did.

It was used for medicinal and religious purposes until the Spaniards came (leave it to the Europeans to turn something someone holds sacred into a purely hedonistic thing, right?).

From there, it spread like wildfire across Europe and the rest of the world, despite smoking being banned in most countries.

To cut a long story short, in 1717, king Philip the V of Spain established a tobacco-growing monopoly in Cuba. If you were a tobacco grower and you defied him, you died.

The monopoly lasted for 100 years, during which time Cuban cigar manufacturers became increasingly good at what they did.

The funny thing is, even though research shows that Cuban cigars are no longer the best in the world, they are still perceived as the only ‘real deal’ by casual cigar smokers and tourists visiting Cuba.

Part of the reason is that they are ‘genuine’ – Cuban handmade cigars have been rolled in an identical way for several centuries now. The government has a vested interest in protecting the industry so it strictly controls what’s manufactured and what’s leaving the country.

Nicaraguan and Dominican cigars might be slightly better to a connoisseur but they lack the history and that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to ever be able to hold a candle to their Cuban counterparts.

The Best Cuban Cigar Brands

Cubans are responsible for a lot of great things that are (arguably) bad for us. The two most important are rum and cigars. A great Añejo takes time to make but so does a good Cuban cigar.

And trust me – there are a lot of choices in this department.

Let’s take a look at a few of those Cuban cigar brands that you definitely want to give a try when visiting Cuba.

A note to American tourists; Cuban cigars can be brought to the USA now that the embargo has been lifted – make sure that the brand you choose is featured on this list if you’re looking for quality.

Doña Paulina smoking a cuban cigar

There are a lot of brands of Cuban cigars on the market and, what complicates things further, there are also a lot of ‘makes’ (size and ring gauge) and styles. That’s why we’ll focus on several that are commercially available and rank high among cigar lovers.

Partagas Serie D – we start the list with a less-known brand (certainly not as famous as Montecristo or Cohiba) but one that’s has a very long history. Partagas is one of the oldest cigar makers (over 160 years) and they make cigars for connoisseurs. Heavy and robust, Partagas Serie D, has an earthy, peppery taste that doesn’t lack in tobacco flavors.

Cohiba – Cohibas are what you might call the cream of the crop. Think Château Lafite Rothschild if you absolutely have to compare your cigars to wines. Going up from there becomes increasingly difficult. There are many Cohiba makes but Cohiba Behike is constantly voted one of the best cigars in the world. Cohibas were the poison of choice for Fidel Castro, too. Their grassy taste with hints of coffee, vanilla, and cocoa make them a very pleasant smoke.

Romeo y Julieta – named after tragic Shakespearian lovers, Romeo y Julieta cigars are almost as complex as their namesakes. They don’t have to sit too long to be thoroughly enjoyable (minimal aging required) and their flavor is wildly confusing – floral, nutty, woody, tangy, and herbal, all rolled into one exquisite cigar. Winston Churchill was such a huge fan that there’s a vitola (a unique measurement of the brand) named after him.

Bolivar Belicoso – made in the heart of Cuba, at the old Partagas factory in Havana, the Bolivar Belicoso is a full-bodied cigar that takes some getting used to. Its complex flavor features predominantly earthy tones, with a strong presence of tobacco. This cigar should be enjoyed slowly and carefully (slow puffs), otherwise, it could put you off cigars for good!

Montecristo #2 -the Montecristo is one of the most popular Cuban cigar brands in the world. Not too strong and with just the right amount of spiciness tempered with a bean cream flavors of cocoa and coffee, the Montecristo #2 is the epitome of Cuban cigars worldwide.

How to Recognize a Real Cuban Cigar?

Although Cuba is the home of the genuine article, it’s also the home of sweet-talking hustlers who will scam you in a blink of an eye. Your best bet is to buy your cigars in real cigar shops in large towns or when visiting cigar factories.

If you’re approached by someone selling cigars on the street, know that it’s illegal.

The story usually goes that they have someone working on the inside who supplies them (so far I had a guy tell me that his brother, uncle, and grandma all work in different cigar factories, on several different occasions).

The cigars may very well be the real deal, you just have to know how to spot that.

Here are a couple of tips:

  • Although nearly all Cuban cigars are half-price in Cuba (compared to anywhere else in the world), be wary if someone offers you a box of premiums that’s nearly 5 times cheaper than in the store – chances are it’s fake.
  • ‘Habanos s.a.’ and ‘HECHO EN CUBA’ are printed inside the circle on the box. Making an appearance there are also the words ‘Totalmente a mano (if made entirely by hand), as well as nk-stamped factory code and date of packaging.
  • The best way to know if a Cuban cigar is genuine, however, requires you to be in the know – consistent texture, elasticity, flavor, and the duration of flavor are sure signs that you have the real deal.

Planning a Trip to Viñales Valley

Tobacco farms in Vinales Valley

For a really authentic look at cigar-making and the techniques used in the process, you should definitely add a visit to Viñales Valley to your itinerary.

The valley is located west of Havana, in the Pinar del Rio province. A trip there won’t set you back much – you can get a taxi (or use the cheaper alternative, a bus ride), directly from Havana.

Once there, book a local guide who will show you around the valley and take you to small cigar manufacturers where you can learn about the process.

Nearly 90% of tobacco crops are bought by the government (this quota is mandated by the government) and the remaining 10% are left to the farmer for personal use or to sell to tourists.

Here’s a helpful tip: if you really want to learn about cigars and meet some of the most colorful people in your life, walk around. Visiting just one hut is like drinking one brand of wine over and over – your experience is limited.

Every farmer in the Viñales Valley has their own cigar-making process and a story. Some ferment their tobacco with pineapple, others with vanilla, yet others with rum – most are willing to share their secret recipe with you, but there are some who guard it as the most precious thing in the world.

Because it probably is to them, being passed down from generation to generation for God knows how many centuries.

Of course, there’s more to Viñales Valley than just tobacco fields. The entire valley has a status of UNESCO World Heritage Site and as such is full of natural wonders.

It’s very popular with hikers, trekkers, and cave explorers so if you have any interest in those activities you should definitely plan to spend a couple of days there.

Casas Particulares are relatively cheap in Viñales and you should have no problems when booking accommodation.

A Tour of the Cigar Factories

A visit to Viñales will give you an idea about how cigars are made in totally old-school sort of way.

However, if you want to see the production of cigars that are sold around the world (or don’t have the time to fit Viñales into your schedule), a visit to a cigar factory is much easier to plan.

Havana is full of them and some of the oldest and the most beautiful factories (well, as beautiful as a factory floor can be) are located there.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any in other parts of Cuba, however.

Here’s a short list of Cuban cigar factories that are open for tourists. Keep in mind that you should book tickets with a guide or ask your host for more information.

Also, bring a bottle of water with you – the factories are extremely hot and humid so it’s best not to take kids with you (you don’t want them sampling the goods in any case).

  • Romeo y Julieta Cigar Factory, Havana Centro
  • Partagas Cigar Factory, Old Havana
  • Francisco Donatien Cigar Factory, Pinar del Rio
  • Camajuani Cigar Factory, Villa Clara
  • Anastasio Cárdenas Cigar Factory, Cienfuegos
  • Jesus Feliu No2 Cigar Factory, Holguin
  • Cesar Escalante Cigar Factory, Santiago de Cuba

Partagas cigar factory in Havana

Tourists Hunting for Cigars Isn’t About Smoking

It really isn’t!

As I said, I’m not much of a Cuban cigar smoker – I’m not much of a smoker, period!

But to visit Cuba without learning more about one of its biggest exports would be a total shame.

You don’t have to smoke. Just holding a cigar and listening to the stories will teach you more about the history of this country then a visit to any museum could.

So don’t deny yourself the experience, you certainly won’t regret it.

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