Mark Twain once wrote, “The Cigar is the urban man's campfire”. In the old west, the campfire was the place where the community could come after a long day on the trail, and unwind to stories about the day, triumphs in the battlefield, and drain away sorrows that seemed to wear us down. Yet it seems that in this world of drive-thru coffee and fast food empires, the fax machine has replaced the handshake, and the conference call has replaced the family dinner. Yet when it seems that the days of the escape into one's own world have all but gone instinct, there is the Cigar. It is a place that we can all go to when the world caves in around us. The busy come and go of the workday seems to slip away onto the wafting smoke of the cigar as it leaves the tip. Worrying about how your stock portfolio is doing is quickly replaced with the concerns of how long this cigar will last. And with the boom of the cigar industry still echoing off the four corners of the map, the accessibility of a fine smoke has become almost as easy as getting that morning coffee we so yearn for when we know the uphill battle of the workday is upon us. Yet many people still pull that favorite cigar off the shelf of their favorite local tobacconist and do not realize the multitude of people and organizations that make that Cigar possible. Through the marketing and the sales, to the design of the boxes all the way down to the field worker who pushes that seed into the soil. There is a community of people who devote their life to the tobacco leaf, and to seeing it through its long journey of infancy through maturity, and ultimately, to your humidor. The world of cigars is one that few people really experience, but it is one that everyone needs to see.
Everyone who smokes remembers their first cigar. That first stick that once you put it to your lips and applied that fiery flame to it, your life changed forever with that first puff. All cigar lovers feel it, that first waft of thick juicy smoke that brushes over your tongue after a long day at work, on the golf course, or maybe the simplicity of sitting on your porch watching life pass you by. Many people have interesting stories about how that first cigar came their way. Mine came around 9 years ago when I helped a person drag their car from being stuck in an old canyon road in California after a long rain. Once I got him out and in the clear he let me know that he has nothing to repay me with. I let him know that there was no need for compensation, but he quickly ran to his car and returned with a cigar, saying it was the least he could do. I accepted and put the Cigar away for a few weeks until I finally pulled it out and decided to take a try. It was an H. Upmann, and as I sat there and puffed away, I realized that this person had just given me something that will change my life. And that is what those people have done for us. Once they handed that cigar to us, they passed the knowledge, love, and passion for cigars that keeps this industry going. That intangible devotion of its members that have dedicated themselves to passing the torch to other generations so that this wonderful world we call cigars not only survives but thrives.
You see, the world of cigars is not merely a plantation owner with acres of tobacco plants who harvest them, rolls them into a cigar, and then ships out to stores all over. The cigar that you hold in your hand has never been through a big complex machine. It has not been bathed in additives and chemicals, or thrown into a plastic bag and put on a shelf until someone orders it. The cigars that we hold sacred have all the love, time, and devotion of all the employees and managers of that particular Cigar company. They have walked those tobacco fields day in and day out. Monitoring and nurturing that tobacco plant as a weary mother does for a growing child. The workers make sure that the leaves get the right amount of sun and shade, the right amount of water and nutrients, and that the harsh elements that the earth can unleash do not reach the fragile outer layers of the plant. This is more than a finished product they deliver to you, it is their heart and pride in something that they have loved every day for the last few years. This is not surprising when you see the faces of factory workers light up when they ignite that first cigar from their latest batch. It is like the feeling one gets when they know all their hard work, blood, and sweat has all been rewarded.
But many cigars that reach the final consumer are not merely cultivated and rolled, but aged like a fine wine in the cellar of your favorite winery. We see the labels all over stating that the cigar is “vintage”, or “Private selection”, or sometimes they are labeled with a certain year that distinguishes when the crop was harvested and aged. Many fine tobacco plantations realize that, like good alcohol, aging their tobacco will give the leaves as well as the oils within them time to age and ferment. This aging smoothes the flavors out and sometimes creates bolder flavors that would not be noticeable to the palate if the cigar went straight from the leaf to the rolling room. But aging is no easy task. It requires controlled conditions when it comes to location, temperature, as well as the types of leaves that are aged with each other. One aging room will create a dark, oily Maduro wrapper with hints of spice, cinnamon, and maybe some earthy espresso notes on the palate. While another factory may age their leaves to produce a lighter Connecticut shade wrapper that has some earthy and buttery tones on the lips once the smoke clears. And the master blenders at each tobacco company mix and match, cut and paste, and toil over hundreds, sometimes even thousands of possible tobacco combinations until they get the one that they feel is right and ready to be unleashed upon the world. This explains many distributors, as well as consumers anticipation every year when tobacco companies release their new lines of cigars to the public. It is a chance to taste all the hard work and ingenuity that keeps these cigar makers up at night.
It is events like these unveilings that often command top dollar to attain tickets and a seat at a table to get a chance at having first glance and taste at many of the cigar worlds’ new releases. Many of whose prices for one cigar may exceed that of a fine meal at your favorite restaurant. So why pay these astronomical prices for ultimately what amounts to some tobacco leaves rolled in a circle? The answer is much simpler than people really think. They taste great! You see, to a seasoned cigar smoker who’s palate is developed from years of cigar tasting, it is easy to distinguish very complex flavors that range across an unimaginable spectrum of combinations that are held within the leaves of the Cigar. It is the same reason that a seasoned wine drinker will not show up to a fine dinner with a 12 pack of beer. They realize that the bouquet of flavors contained within that $20-30 bottle of wine will not only compliment the meal but enhance it to levels that would not have been reached with a different beverage. It is the same reason that many cigar smokers know exactly which cigars in their humidor match with certain meals at cigar restaurants. A stronger Maduro cigar may go well with a strong meat dish, while a milder Connecticut broadleaf cigar may do wonders with a fish platter. Just as we saw in the wine, the extremely subtle, as well as bolder flavors held within the leaves of the cigar will do wonders for the complete enjoyment of the meal the way the chef would have intended.
It is all these factors that keep cigar lovers coming back, year after year to their favorite tobacco shops and on-line stores for their favorite cigars. For many of today’s cigar generation, sports were not the national past time of America, it was cigars. The years that we sat on the floor of our family member's homes and watched as our fathers and uncles smoked cigars and talked about everything from the stock market to the work they were doing on their home. But through thick and thin, one thing remained constant, it was cigars. We seemed to notice that the cigar was the great equalizer. The thing that once lit, could bring the bank president and the local janitor to sit at the same table and see eye to eye on some of the world's most pressing issues, as well as some of the smallest. So when we see a cigar in someone’s hand, it is not merely a hobby or habit that they can't shake. It is the tool that many great people before us have used to change the world. People like Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, John F. Kennedy, and George Burns made some of the most influential performances and decisions of out time while puffing away on their favorite cigar.
And so it goes that cigar factories will continue to make their great products, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Sure, these cigar factories and their master blenders could easily find a way to make their cigars in half the time, with half the quality, and double their profit. But they would rather make a product that is near impossible to perfect, always changes, and could go up in flames in a second and see years of work gone forever. Because the people that make, market, and smoke cigars are a stubborn bunch. They have seen trade embargos, smoke laws, and social reform that have all but tried to make cigar enjoyment extinct. And yet they thrive, but how? It is all due to that man that handed me that Cigar in California years ago. It is all due to that cigar maker who spent his life savings to buy that factory years ago when everyone told him he was crazy. It is all due to that person who takes that cigar out of their humidor and realizes that what they are doing is not just lighting a cigar, but lighting the path for future cigar smokers to follow in their wake. To feel the passion and defiance that Dylan Thomas so typified in his writings over the years. To show the world that Cigar smokers will not go gently into that good night. That we will rage against the dying of the light and all obstacles that are thrown in our way. And after all the arguments have been fought and the dust settles, we will be seen standing with our most powerful tool for social change yet, our cigar.