At first blush, it seemed like a dandy inspirational anecdote for anyone interested in rolling his or her own cigars.
One day in the 1970s, Fidel Castro caught a whiff of his bodyguard’s cigar and was so bowled over by the aroma that he ordered the maker, a friend of his security forces, to be found and ensconced in a secret factory where he would make cigars only for the dictator and his inner circle.
The smoke came to be known as Cohiba — “tobacco” to indigenous people — and the tale would seem to indicate that what is now the most famous cigar in the world started as the product of a do-it-yourselfer.
But as is the case with so many great stories, it’s not quite true.
To ward off assassination attempts, Castro and his forces operated their cigar factory in secrecy. Over time, as the haze cleared, the credit for creating this most special cigar went to a pair of torcedores, or cigar rollers, who in 1961 opened El Laguito, a small factory in western Havana; its origin stemmed from a cigar-rolling school for women.
For the record, until Castro quit smoking in 1985, he was never far from his favored roll, Cohiba’s Corona Especial, as he told Cigar Aficionado in a 1994 one-on-one interview.
Ismail Houmani, owner of La Casa in Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Las Vegas, has visited the tobacco fields and the El Laguito factory. “What Cuba has that nobody else has is the soil,” he says. “You can take that same seed and plant it anywhere else, and you’re not going to come out with the same taste. To me, it’s God’s gift to the Cubans.”
The Cuban style of rolling also contributes to its unique flavor — and it’s all done by hand. Most other cigar producers around the world use machines that wrap fillers with binders. “The Cubans use two different binders for the cigars,” says Houmani. “They’re called half-binders.”
Houmani once employed a cigar-roller in the store window of his Detroit shop, but demand for his 20-Minute Cigar — a half-size smoke — grew to the point that the cigars are now rolled at a boutique factory in Costa Rica.
Nash Zaitouna, owner of the Churchill’s Cigar Bar and Bistro locations in Birmingham, Grosse Pointe Woods, and West Bloomfield Township, says the ability to match the skill and flavor of Cuban cigars is a tall order. “I suppose you could try it,” Zaitouna says, “but you can’t duplicate the climate, the soil, and the other things to produce a good cigar. I’m not a big Cuban guy myself. I’ve tried them, but they can be inconsistent.”
For Churchill’s branded cigars, Zaitouna turned to AJ Fernandez, a nearly century-old grower and roller in San Luis off Cuba’s western coast (the family eventually made their way to Nicaragua), along with Davidoff, which got its start in 1967 at the Laguito factory. The so-called “King of Cigars,” Zino Davidoff oversaw a tobacco specialist shop in Geneva before cutting a deal to create a namesake line with Cubatabaco, Cuba’s state-run tobacco monopoly. In 1990, the line was discontinued; Davidoff took his brand to the Dominican Republic that same year and now sources tobacco from multiple countries.
As a fine roller will attest, cigars are typically rolled on wooden surfaces — the older the better — and heavily pressed by hand to compact tobacco layers that are added in a prescribed order. Today, most accomplished torcedores are women.
So, man or woman, how does the curious cigar-making hobbyist get down to it?
First, patience is a virtue; the rolling process takes plenty of practice, and each finished cigar needs to age. A freshly completed cigar is smokeable, but not particularly palatable. Aging melds the flavors, dissipates excess moisture, and blunts any rawness. The longer the aging, the better, as long as they’re stored in low light at about 70 percent humidity. For the home roller, the best choice is a good humidor.
Understand that unless you’ve rolled hundreds of cigars a day for decades and found a way to source proprietary, triple-fermented tobaccos, you will never come close to duplicating a Cohiba. Even with more readily available leaves, finding the right balance between construction and flavor takes time.
Before detailing the gear needed for home rolling, it’s essential to understand the anatomy of a well-made cigar (see sidebar). Whole-leaf cigar tobacco is available from several sources on the web, and the tried-and-true favorite for home rollers is leafonly.com, which carries a very wide variety of leaves, some in bags of selected blends, as well as starter kits for new rollers, including basic equipment and a selection of tobacco.
All of the equipment is readily available. In place of a hard rolling surface made from wood, acceptable substitutes include tile, a kitchen cutting board, or whatever else is handy.
Tobacco leaves are cut with a simple piece of flat stainless steel, curved and sharpened on one side, known as la chaveta (available online). Another option is a pizza cutter or a mezzaluna, a curved blade used for mincing herbs and vegetables. The idea is to roll the sharp edges from tip to tip, as slicing may tear the leaf.
Certain parts of the cigar are lightly glued during the rolling process. Professionals commonly use tree sap, dried or powdered, adding trace amounts of water as needed. Just as effective is fruit pectin, available in grocery stores. Look for the powdered form that’s reconstituted with water (tip: use distilled water for the sake of purity). Once reconstituted, fruit pectin stores longer in a fridge. Apply water with a spray bottle to soften and refresh tobacco leaves that are a little too dry, to restore flexibility.
Traditional Cuban cigars are finished with a “triple cap” that holds the head in place to prevent unraveling. It includes a “flag” at the end of the wrapper, which is glued in place as the first cap. It’s much easier and just as functional to cut a circular piece from a scrap of the same tobacco for the wrapper, using an appropriately sized piece of copper tube fitting — straight or elbow — sharpened all around one end with a file. This cap is then glued in place over the head of the cigar.
And though it isn’t necessary, the roller who wants a nicely shaped final product should buy a wooden cigar mold in the size and shape of choice.
To get started, lay out the tobacco leaves on a flat surface and cover with a damp towel. If any of the leaves aren’t pliable, give them a light spritz on both sides, pat off the excess with a paper towel, cover, and let sit for an hour or so. The wrapper and binder must be flexible; the fillers less so, as long as they bend without crumbling or cracking.
Next, carefully cut the center vein from each leaf, overlap the two halves, and set to one side with the tips pointing away. Now come the filler leaves, which pose one of the two most difficult steps in rolling a cigar. Learning how much to use in this “bunch” takes experimentation and practice. Getting the right feel is everything. Too little pressure and the cigar will be soft and burn fast. Too much and it will be hard to inhale.
Keep in mind that most cigars have a blend of Ligero, Seco, and Volado leaves. Ligero, which comes from the top of the plant, provides the most flavor (think bold); Seco is from the middle portion and imparts a mild flavor; while Volado, from the bottom of the plant, is essential so that the cigar burns properly — the other leaves don’t burn well on their own. Based on preference, the mixture of the three leaves determines the boldness, strength, and aroma of a cigar.
To proceed, cut the leaves in half crosswise and lay the bottom half on the top half. Starting with the strong, slow-burning Ligero, either fold it lengthwise into small accordion pleats or roll it lengthwise into small tubes — a difficult technique professionals call entubado — and hold it in your closed hand, squeezing gently.
Repeat with the Seco, adding it to the Ligero in your hand, then the Volado. The last two should be positioned around the Ligero. This is the “bunch.”
Give the bunch several firm squeezes. Lay the reserved binder at an angle with the tip to the left, and place the bottom end of the bunch crosswise on the end closest to you, parallel with the small veins in the binder leaf. Slowly start to roll it up the binder, holding the bunch together with the fingers of one hand and gently spreading the binder with the other.
Once near the tip of the binder, smear on a thin layer of cigar glue and finish rolling. The result will be a little raggedy, but will roughly resemble a cigar. Put it in the mold under a heavy weight and let it rest for about an hour. What comes out should be a smooth, attractive stogie.
Gently stretch an unflawed wrapper leaf and lay it dark side down, then repeat rolling the cigar in the same way as the binder. This is the other tricky step because the wrapper is the most delicate of the leaves used, and applying it is often left to specialists in cigar factories. Just be patient, and you’ll get better with each attempt.
Cut a cap from a scrap of the wrapper and glue it on the head of the cigar, smoothing and flattening until neat. Trim the foot straight across and place it in the mold for two or more hours. Remove the cigar and let it dry uncovered for about a week, followed by two weeks or more in a humidor (the longer the better).
If a cigar is to share with a preferred drink, aficionados recommend something sweet to soothe the buzz — a Dr. Pepper or a sugar-free Vernor’s Ginger Ale pair well — or any selection of beer, wine, or spirit. From there, clip the tip, light up, and savor the pleasure of blazing your own trail — because, simply put, that’s how you roll.
What it takes to roll a fine cigar:
Filler: This is a blend of three different tobacco leaves that provides 30 percent to 40 percent of the taste. The leaves come from different primings — the rows of leaves on a tobacco plant — and include Ligero, a slow-burning, dark, potently flavored leaf from the top priming, which gets the most sun; Seco, a milder tasting leaf from the middle primings; and Volado, an easy-burning leaf from the bottom of the plant. These are bunched together, with Ligero always folded into the center of the bunch.
Binder: This leaf holds the fillers together. Usually consisting of Volado from the lower primings, it must be both durable and pliable. Good binders have less developed veins to make a smooth base for the wrapper, but blemishes and small tears are acceptable because the wrapper hides them. Binders tend to have little flavor, but they do contribute aroma; the trick here is to use one or two that complement the fillers and wrapper. Guidance can be found online, and experimentation will reveal a tasty choice.
Wrapper: This is the most expensive leaf, and finishes the cigar as a thing of beauty while providing well over half of the flavor. Its large veins are removed and those left in place should be nearly invisible. The texture may be “toothy,” covered with tiny oil-filled denticles packed with flavor. Sometimes the tasty oils can be seen bubbling right behind the ash on a burning cigar. Wrapper colors range from greenish Candela to dark mahogany Maduro and nearly black Oscuro. A common misconception is that the darker the wrapper, the stronger the flavor. A dark Maduro usually adds a touch of sweetness to the taste, sometimes with notes of chocolate, caramel, espresso, and spice.
Head: The business end of the cigar, finished with a cap that’s snipped off or pierced before putting it in your mouth — larger cuts boost airflow.
Foot: The opposite end, which is lit. The richer tips of the leaves are positioned at the foot during rolling, for a big start to the smoking experience.