Or The History of Cigars and Tobacco
I love a good smoke as much as anyone. One of my lasting memories as a child was watching a television commercial for a (rather cheap) brand of cigars. It wasn’t the quality of the brand that I remember so much, as the first line of their advertisement, “happiness is a cigar…” and went on to show how the “hero” of the ad faced many adversities and lost, however, as soon as he lit his cigar all his troubles vanished in a puff of smoke.
My love affair with cigars and tobacco began then, at the mild age of 7 (actual smoking came much later), and my curiosity has not abated since. This wonderful habit has such a rich history. So many great quotes, characters, tropical climates, flavours, memories of warm wood panelled rooms with luxurious chesterfield sofas. The history of cigars is one that spans centuries, cultures and continents.
Probably the most famous cigar smoker of recent times was Winston Churchill, something he and FDR had in common. During the Second World War, Churchill was rarely seen without his eponymous cigar in the media and on the newsreel. The Allies used his fondness for cigars as a symbol of the pugnacious British bulldog and its fighting spirit.
A plot was hatched by Hitler and the Nazis during the early stages of the Second World War to poison Churchill’s cigars, thereby ending the war and speeding up their plans to rule Europe. The British, with the aid of the Americans, sought to protect the whole supply chain and even stored his favourite smoke, the Romeo y Julietas in secret vaults and British Intelligence had batches of them regularly checked for poison probably to the dismay of many a mouse!
I have often mused, during moments of extreme pleasure while enjoying a cigar, that I am convinced that Churchill’s, FDR’s and Stalin’s love of cigars triumphed over Hitler and Mussolini’s hatred of smoking, though one may be stretching history a tad.
The real history of tobacco is intertwined with that of the New World, as one was apt to call it, Europeans like the French Ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot just had a hand in making it fashionable (and in the process lending his name to the Latin name Nicotiana tabacum), in reality, the Americas were its home and birthplace. The origins of the word tobacco are as shrouded in as much smoke as an evening with a Hoyo and a large brandy.
Some say that it came from Tobago, the Caribbean island, while others believe it comes from Tabasco, a region in Mexico and not after the fiery chilli sauce we all like in our Bloody Marys, the jury is still out on that one. We are sure, though, that the Mayans from Mexico, probably the Yucatan Peninsula to be more exact, were the first to cultivate the plant and smoke it.
Soon they were passing on the habit with swift acceptance. It spread north and south through the continents and it is rumoured that the Mississippi corridor was the first region on North America to begin cultivation with tribes bringing the plant from the South.
With the advent of Columbus in 1492, Europeans discovered this habit, though Columbus himself was not fond of it. It was most definitely tried by sailors and soon they were puffing
away on it and passing it round with a bit of grog. Interestingly, the first tobacco plantation in the US, as we know it today, was in Virginia, a state still renowned for the quality of its tobacco, though planted acreage has declined dramatically over the past century as cheaper producers have gained prominence because quantity is now as revered as quality used to be. The states surrounding Virginia soon realised the popularity and profitability of the crop and Maryland soon followed suit with the growing demand for tobacco for pipes.
Cigars were first produced by the Spanish, one would like to think as an accompaniment to a nice Rioja, who knows, and introduced to the US by General Israel Putnam, who had gone to Cuba after the Revolutionary War and come back with a magic box of cigars, and the rest, as they say is a long story to be recounted over a Churchill and a glass of Armagnac. I jest somewhat, though I don’t jest when saying they were magic for if you look at their popularity today, you will no doubt agree with me.
In Europe it was a different story. The battle for the Spanish Peninsula, a part of the Napoleonic wars, the Peninsula War, ended in after six years in 1814. This saw many veterans, who were already accustomed to the cigar, returning home to France and England and spreading the smoking of cigars soon fashionable society caught on.
Recently, Cuba has mastered the art of tobacco and its quality is unparalleled. They have experimented over the years and you will often find, interspersed with the tobacco, pepper plants, coffee and other aromatics that allow the tobacco to imbue some of the surrounding flavours and give each blend such a distinctive taste.
Moreover, I have found some older cigars to take on a fuller more flavoursome note with the tobacco getting a more chocolatey colour, rather like an old Bordeaux mellowing with age when kept in optimum conditions. The colour of the tobacco changes as does the aroma when you first open an aged box of cigars, with a mellower aroma as opposed to a fresher aroma for a new box.
Today, cigars are associated with the wealthy and people with a discerning taste. I agree with this, however, we must always remember how they became popular, through the average adventurer. It’s this history of tobacco that I am always reminded of when I treat myself to a cigar and sit there, often on my own and reminisce about the days of yore and what it took to get that cigar to me in the perfect condition it is in. In my view, long may the tradition last!