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Nov 17, 2017

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Cigars: The Guts
by Cliff Whitman
Magazine Issue: AUS/NZ Issue Two

Unlike the other fuming, smoking, tobacco-filled hand held, Cigars have an element of distinction, of credibility. So then, aside from what usually wraps it's mouth around one, what's the difference? Everything explains Cliff Whitman who peels back the layers to reveal the truth about cigars.

A frequent cheap thrill in movies these days is the gruesome autopsy scene. A once beautiful stiff lies in the city morgue.

The camera pans across an orderly array of brutal instruments, but in the hands of the masked forensics guy is the one we dread the most. Cut to a close-up of his eyes that have literally seen it all. The only sound is the high pitched whine of the circular saw. Point of view stiff as he brings it down towards her face. Cut.

Our gumshoe hero is having a bad dream. As he writhes around in a cold sweat in his dishevelled single bed, the camera spirals in on his contorted face. In his dream he is chomping on an El Rey del Mundo robusto, his favourite case-solving cigar. But every time he puts it down, the autopsy guy starts carving it up.

His fetid mind races in an REM frenzy. How did the femme get so fatale? Would there be enough time to collar the killer before he struck again? And why the hell was the autopsy guy dissecting not the stiff but the stogie?

See, cheap thrills.

The thought of taking to an El Rey with a saw is thankfully merely the stuff of torpid dreams. There are other ways, far more merciful, of discerning what's in a cigar. Read on.

Hand-made cigars are constructed in three parts -- filler, binder and wrapper. Each of these consists of single leaves from various parts of different purpose grown tobacco plants.

The filler provides most of the flavour of the cigar and is generally a combination of three different types of leaf -- ligero, seco and volado. Exact blends are a closely guarded secret as they lend the cigar its characteristic flavours. Cured leaves have their central vein removed and are laid in the same direction for rolling. The tip of the leaf is milder in flavour and where the leaf meets the stem of the plant the flavour will be stronger. This ensures that the cigar will gradually increase in strength when it is smoked. Filler leaves are concertina folded and held in place by a binder leaf. The rough looking binder leaf does not add markedly to the flavour and is used solely to keep the cigar together. Bound cigars are pressed into molds for 24 hours or more. This ensures their shape is uniform and does not require gluing as in machine made cigars.

Next comes the all-important wrapper. In Cuba this leaf comes from Corojo plants which are often grown under vast sheets of muslin. This method keeps the leaves out of direct sunlight and ensures delicacy and ultra-fine quality. The wrapper on a good cigar is truly a thing of beauty. Silky smooth, slightly oily and exotically aromatic, it is the signature of the torcedor's (hand-roller's) art. All stages of premium cigar manufacture are labour intensive. From the planting of the seed, to the trimming of the plant and harvesting only two or three leaves at a time, to curing and fermenting the tobacco leaves, to colour-grading and hand-rolling, to applying the cap and distinctive band with a single drop of vegetable gum. Traditions are passed along like folktales. Little wonder then that so much myth is attached to such a fabled product.

One myth that needs a thorough de-bunk is that old "rolled on the thighs of Cuban virgins under a full moon" chestnut. Alas, for all you would-be patriarchal domineers, this one is definitely a furphy. That large Cohiba Siglo V you're sucking on is more likely the product of the leathery old hands of a male torcedor 40 years in the business.

The only tool used in fine cigar manufacture, other than those hands, is the flat bladed chaveta knife. This is used to trim leaves and to help roll the cigar to the desired uniform shape. Larger cigars and non-parallel shapes are made only by skilled artisans who are paid commensurately more. Thus the big price tag for that nine-inch torpedo.

There's a lot to say about cigars but one thing that should be mentioned is that they are completely organic and consist of only natural ingredients.

Accelerants, artificial flavour enhancers, or that little drop of something in a cigarette that keeps you coming back for more, have no place in the hand-made cigar.

The thing about cigars is that you don't have to smoke 'em every minute of every day. But they can become a glorious obsession. And like any worthwhile compulsion, it pays to know a little about what you're getting into.

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