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What’s So Special about Cuban Cigars?

Photo by Brian Canelles.

What’s So Special about Cuban Cigars?

Cuban cigars have been celebrated by Cubans and coveted by outsiders for centuries, beginning with the Spanish sailors who arrived with Christopher Columbus in 1492. In recent decades, American travelers have risked fines and imprisonment to smuggle them into the U.S.

But why? What makes Cuban cigars so special?

Hector Luis Prieto is a third-generation veguero, or tobacco farmer, in Vuelta Abajo in the Cuban province of Pinar del Rió, where some of the finest Cuban tobacco is grown. He says the secret to Cuba’s fine tobacco begins with the soil.

Abel Expósito Diaz, owner of Don Abel’s restaurant and cigar bar. Photo by Brian Canelles.

Abel Expósito Diaz might be the most knowledgeable, passionate, and highly regarded cigar man in Cuba. He says that one of the things that makes Hector Luis Prieto so well-respected is consistency.

“Each brand has its own recipe, like a meal,” he says. “They should have a specific farm that produces it to guarantee uniform quality.”

Just as cigar makers have to be exacting about their processes, Diaz is very particular about handling his cigars. While many people have someone walk their dog or water their plants when they leave town, when Diaz travels, he hires someone to check on his humidor.

“They must always be stored at between 65 and 70 percent humidity, 18 degrees Celsius [approximately 64 degrees Fahrenheit],” he explains.

Before touching a cigar, he says you have to dry your hands completely.

“Just your sweat can change it,” he explains.

He uses a small piece of cedar wood to light his cigars. He says it doesn’t leave a taste, unlike matches or a lighter.

Diaz is the proprietor of Don Abel’s, a restaurant and cigar bar in Havana, where he will always find time to sit down to enjoy a habano, or cigar, and to walk clients through the finer points of selecting the perfect cigar for their experience, tastes, and the time of day.

“For me, the Ramon Allones [Small Club] Corona is great after breakfast because it is the lightest, and it is short enough that you can go to work,” he says, sitting on a black leather chair next to his walk-in humidor.

“You should increase the strength throughout the day. After lunch, [Vegas] Robaina Unicos are best...Romeo y Julieta’s Churchill is perfect after dinner,” he said.

What sets Cuban cigars apart from the rest, he says, is a combination of science and art – and centuries of accrued knowledge passed down from generation to generation.

“Everything is like it has been for generations, routines, schedules…We are very careful about everything. That is how we guarantee quality,” he says.