The Cuban Cigar Taste Test

I’ve only smoked a handful of cigars in my life, but I couldn’t visit Cuba without sampling their most famous product. The state-run tobacco stores in Havana were selling Cohibas for $6 to $20 per cigar, depending on size, but I held out to see what was on offer in Viñales, where the tobacco is grown. In Viñales, we took a horseback tour of the countryside including a tobacco farm.

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We learned all about the process of making cigars from this genuine old-time guajiro (tobacco farmer), who was wheezing and coughing throughout his Spanish- language presentation, complaining about the ‘gripa’ (flu) though I have to believe a lifetime of smoking might be the real problem.

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He told us that Cuban tobacco farmers are obligated to sell 90% of their crop to the state. Same for coffee, but not other crops apparently. We learned that a top-quality ‘puro’ (unbranded cigar) is made from only the best leaves at the top level of the tobacco plant, known as the corona. We also learned that all the nicotine is contained in the stem and veins, and in a puro, the central vein of each leaf is removed before rolling the cigar, rendering it mostly free of nicotine. He rolled a puro from scratch in front of our rapt eyes, in just a few minutes, while he explained the process.

I sampled a puro during the show, and Amy took one obligatory puff, while Elizabeth looked on, a bit shocked that her daddy would touch the foul thing.

I bought some cigars here for $4 each to bring back home for friends. The Cohiba’s of this size would have cost about $8 each. Just to make sure they didn’t pawn off a cheap substitute, I sampled one of the bunch from the terrace at our casa.

I never thought I’d really enjoy a cigar. It always seemed like some mandatory rite of manhood that everyone secretly despised. But, sitting in a rocking chair after in the relative cool of a late afternoon post-downpour, enjoying a puro and gorgeous scenery of magotes — limestone cliffs – and the pastoral goings-on of rural life in Cuba, I can honestly say I enjoyed the experience of smoking a good cigar.

Fast foward a week, to a state-run ‘cafeteria’ (combination bar and snack shop) where locals shop, I noticed cigars on sale — for only $0.04 each! That’s right – only 1/100 the cost of the ‘puros’ that I bought!

I bought a few to see how they compare. The cheap ones didn’t match up to the Puros, but they weren’t so bad, either. They also did a fair job of keeping the mosquitoes at bay while I relaxed in a rocking chair on the front porch.

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