What follows is a review of The Cuban Cigar Handbook, a well written and beautifully designed book on the Cuban cigar industry.
I love cigars.
Few things are as relaxing as spending an hour smoking a good cigar, particularly in good company. There’s something mysteriously enjoyable about the experience.
For me, therefore, The Cuban Cigar Handbook was a delightfully educational read.
My History with Cigars
I have loved cigars since my first smoke. I was a nineteen-year-old college freshman. A friend offered me a poorly stored, dried out La Finca. I smoked it to the nub.
I can’t remember ever having been so nauseated.
But I was hooked.
I was training to be a minister at the time. My friends and I considered ourselves intellectuals. Somehow smoking cigars and talking theology made us feel like C.S. Lewis. The tobacco gave us a sense of authority. The pregnant pauses to puff on our cigars between statements somehow drove our points home.
Or, so we thought.
Looking back, I’m sure we looked ridiculous. Yet, even as a matured beyond the typical immature pretentiousness of a college kid, the intrigue of cigars stayed with me. Even as my friends gave up the habit, I hung on.
For the thirteen years since then, I have maintained my love of cigars.
The Cuban Cigar Handbook
My love of cigars has translated into a love of learning about cigars. From a subscription to Cigar Aficionado to books such as The Cuban Cigar Handbook, I enjoy the opportunity to learn more about something I love.
Yet, no matter how much I read on the subject, I still find cigar reviews particularly mystifying.
Notes of Leather, Deep Flavors of Mahogany
I must confess my ignorance on the finer points of cigar smoking. I know that I like cigars, but not much more than that. The cigar reviews I frequently read remind me of my obliviousness on the subject. (The Cuban Cigar Handbook is full of them.)
When I read about how the “floral notes of the cigar quickly give way to leather and a hint of nuttiness,” I am left scratching my head. This seems more like a line from Anchor Man than a description of burning tobacco.
Like most cigar lovers, I love pulling in a big sniff of a fresh, unlit cigar. I run the stick under my nose and enjoy its intoxicating aroma.
Yet, that intoxicating aroma doesn’t smell like nuts or leather or whatever.
It smells like tobacco.
I know what flowers smell like. I know what tobacco smells like. My cigars smell like tobacco.
When I draw in that first puff, it is heaven. But the smoke tastes like, well, smoke.
I’m not a complete philistine on the subject. I understand that some smokes are heavy. Some are smooth. Others are somewhere in-between. I know that not all cigars are the same.
Still, I have never been able to distinguish hints of various flavors that seem to be more appropriate descriptions of garnishes than tobacco. (Concerning notes of leather, I’m not sure what leather tastes like. I don’t know if I would recognize the taste in a smoke, even if I could distinguish it.)
Regardless, I still enjoy reading reviews and descriptions from those who know much more about cigars than I do. I can wade through the seeming pretention that fills these reviews because, even if I can’t articulate why, I know that there are some cigars that I like more than others.
Reading cigar reviews helps me learn how to articulate my tastes. I’d like to be able to describe cigars beyond mere expressions of, “I like it,” or “I don’t.” If I can learn to express why I like what I like, perhaps I can more easily find cigars that I enjoy.
The cigar world has its own language. I hope to become fluent in it so that I can start making my way around it with ease.
The Cuban Cigar Handbook helps me take a step in that direction. It provides an apt description of cigars in general. It also offers a wealth of information on Cuban cigars in particular.
Given the limited availability of Cuban cigars within the United States, this limits its practicality. Nonetheless, The Cuban Cigar Handbook helps teach the language of cigars. That skill is just as applicable when speaking about Dominicans as when talking about Cubans.
Cuban Cigars and Me
I have had the opportunity to smoke only a few Cuban cigars. I am confident that most of those have been counterfeits. When the law began allowing Americans to bring Cuban cigars back to the United States, I was able to purchase a box of Montecristo Number 3s in Grand Cayman.
These are probably the only authentic Cubans I have ever smoked.
My knowledge on the subject is, therefore, pretty limited. The Cuban Cigar Handbook, however, stokes the hopes that eventually the United States will lift the embargo. Perhaps, I will soon be able to have Cuban cigars delivered to my door.
(I currently have non-Cubans regularly delivered to my door. This is a service I would recommend.)
The Cuban Cigar Handbook and Its Presentation
The first thing you notice about The Cuban Cigar Handbook is its cover. It appears designed to appeal to higher-end consumers. The book has a hardcover that resembles and feels like wood. The pages are heavy and highly glossed.
It’s quite simply a beautiful book and a decorative piece in its own right.
The Contents of The Cuban Cigar Handbook
The book’s contents provide a wealth of knowledge. It covers such diverse topics as the history of the Cuban cigar industry and the property way to light a cigar. The book is light and uplifting. There are, for example, only brief mentions of the nationalization of the Cuban cigar industry. (The author provides no commentary or in-depth discussion of this.)
The Cuban Cigar Handbook mentions Castro benignly and only in relation to cigars. The book contains no further description of the man whose oppressive shadow, even in death, has loomed large over Cuba for almost sixty years.
The book has several sections on the smoking habits of famous men throughout history. For example, the book contains Joseph Kipling’s poem on cigars. There are also sections on Mark Twain’s love of (bad) cigars, Ernest Hemingway’s life in Cuba, and John F. Kennedy’s purchase of more than 1,000 H. Upmann on the eve of the Cuban embargo.
And, of course, no cigar book would be complete without a section dedicated to Winston Churchill.
The Cuban Cigar Handbook also provides a high-level view of the cigar-making process. The book follows the process from planting, to harvesting, to curing, to rolling. It further describes the particular method of producing each of the three main parts of the cigar—capa (outer layer), capote (binder), and fortaleza (filler). The descriptions are of sufficient detail to satisfy curiosity, but not so in-depth as to distract from the book’s comfortable style.The Cuban Cigar Handbook also describes the tobacco aging process. The book left me with the impression that the production of fine, handmade cigars is remarkably similar to that of good Scotch.
The Cuban Cigar Handbook also provides an excellent overview of cigar culture in general. Accomplished rollers are celebrated as celebrities, an idea I had never before considered.
I witnessed the celebration of great names in the cigar industry—such as Angel Oliva, Jorge Padrón, and, more recently, Rocky Patel. The Cuban Cigar Handbook, however, celebrates the workers on the floor, those doing the actual labor of rolling cigars day in and day out.
This level of appreciation for the workhorses of the industry was both surprising and refreshing. It left me with a greater appreciation for the craft and the process. The book even calls these individuals “artists,” demonstrating just how seriously many people take their cigars.
The Cuban Cigar Handbook speaks of cigars the way you might expect a more highbrow society to speak of fine wine. (The book left me with the impression that it could easily have been written by Frasier Crane.)
Cuban Cigar Handbook’s Practical Tips
The Cuban Cigar Handbook also provides useful tips for those just getting started with cigars. For example, there is a chapter on selecting your first humidor.
The book provides a mixture of novelty and practicality, transcending its stated focus on Cuban cigars and providing useful guidance for those who are unlikely to have easy access to Cubans. (Proper humidor selection is just as beneficial to an American as a Canadian.)
Fake Cuban Cigars
I found the chapter on spotting fakes particularly interesting. I have long heard about the prevalence of counterfeit Cuban cigars. They often appear in tourist traps in the Caribbean where Americans are particularly vulnerable.
I have been to the Caribbean several times over the years. I have always encountered “Cuban” cigars for sale where large numbers of tourists transverse. Panhandlers sell them for ridiculously low prices on the beach. I have purchased a few, and most of them have been subpar.
As I have become more aware of the prevalence of counterfeits, however, I have grown more careful. I now eschew vendors right off the ship and instead seek out reputable shops.
The tips in this book are extremely helpful in understanding what to look for. Just a basic knowledge of the proper packaging of Cuban cigars can help you avoid fakes.
The Cuban Cigar Handbook also contains a section on how to light a cigar properly. (A proper light ensures a proper burn.)
The book also provides tips for correcting burn issues, such as canoeing, tunneling, coning, and runners. Anyone who smokes cigar regularly will be familiar with these problems, even if not with the terms.
You don’t have to possess the ability to discuss cigars in flowery language to understand that a bad burn makes for an unpleasant smoke. You, therefore, do not have to be an aficionado to implement the practical tips The Cuban Cigar Handbook provides.
The section on Cuban rum was surprisingly enjoyable. I learned a lot about rum. I have long appreciated a good Scotch, Cognac, and Bourbon. My frame of reference for Rum, however, has always been the giant bottles of clear Bacardi you can buy for $20 at any liquor store.
After reading this section, it felt as though I was learning about Glenmorangie 18 year after having only ever been previously aware of Johnny Walker Red. I look forward to sampling high-quality cask-aged rum, maybe paired with a good cigar.
Catalog of Cuban Cigars
The last 150 pages of this roughly 300-page book are reserved for descriptions of the most famous Cuban cigar brands. Most descriptions precede an accompanying in-depth review of one cigar in the brand’s portfolio. Specifically, The Cuban Cigar Handbook contains detailed discussions on of the history, philosophy, and inventory of:
- El Rey Del Mundo
- H. Upmann
- Hoyo De Monterrey
- Jose L. Piedra
- Juan Lopez
- La Flor De Cano
- La Gloria Cubana
- Por Larrañaga
- Quai D’Orsay
- Rafael Gonzalez
- Ramón Allones
- Romeo Y Julieta
This section left me with a greater appreciation for the diversity of the Cuban cigar industry and the philosophy surrounding each brand.
Not All Cohibas Are Cohibas
I felt, however, that a discussion of the rival cigar companies sharing the same name would have served this section well. The Cuban Cigar Handbook fails even to acknowledge the existence of Cohiba, H. Upmann, and Montecristo brands independently owned and manufactured outside of Cuba. This is unfortunate given the popularity of these brands in the United States—not to mention Romeo y Julieta and Punch.
A short section providing a history of the establishment of these brands—as Cigar Aficionado recently provided—and how their cigars contrast with their Cuban counterparts would have been extremely useful.
I understand that this is The Cuban Cigar Handbook and not merely The Cigar Handbook. By failing to acknowledge these other brands, however, the novice American reader may expect that the flavor profiles the book provides for Partagás, for example, will match what he finds at his local cigar shop.
And this is where the book is at its weakest for American audiences.
Cuban Cigar Handbook In Sum
My in-laws gave me The Cuban Cigar Handbook for Christmas last year.
I loved it.
The level of knowledge it provides combined with the ascetically pleasing quality of the book design make it a must-have for anyone who appreciates good cigars.
The book serves as a handy reference guide, providing a quick resource on most Cuban cigars. It is not just a mere reference book, however. It is an easy read from start to finish.
I highly recommend picking up a copy. You’ll be glad you did.