For many of us, New Year’s is a day for resolutions; but for the infamous Fidel Castro, it marked the culmination of a long-awaited revolution. Sixty years ago on 1 Jan, Castro’s Communist revolution swept aside the ingrained hatred of the Batista regime. This change was bad news the U.S.; Castro’s regime (and the American attempts to eliminate it) prompted the Bay of Pigs debacle, closed of a country with a vibrant music culture, and – possibly the worst resolution – triggered a 46-year old trade embargo which denied Americans of Cuba’s most prized export; cigars.
Though Cuban cigars are perhaps the world’s most revered, the stogie probably didn’t originate on the beautiful island. Cigar smoking first took hold elsewhere in the Americas – the precise location and date remains uncertain.
A ceramic pot found in Guatemala that dates at least as far back as the 10th century depicts a Mayan puffing on tobacco leaves bound up with string. When Columbus stumbled upon the Americas in 1492, he was also shown tobacco; the New World’s natives smoked cylindrical bundles of twisted tobacco leaves wrapped in dried palm or corn husks.
Cuba’s fertile soil and favourable climate conditions allowed all three types of tobacco leaves used in cigars – wrapper, filler and binder – to be harvested on the island, this resulted in ships distributing Cuban tobacco from Europe to Asia. As Columbus had staked a claim on Cuba for Spain, the Spanish soon cornered the market on this lucrative industry and in the 17th century they mandated that all tobacco for export had to be registered in Seville. They then tightened their choke-hold on the market further by forbidding Cuban growers to sell the crop to anyone but them – this market monopoly persisted until 1817.
By this point, cigars were exploding in popularity the world over. The U.S. consumed some 300 million cigars by the mid-19th century, and many Cuban cigar-makers migrated to Florida, where Tampa became known as “Cigar City” by the early 20th century. Though the boom was partly lit by the cigar’s affordability, they soon became a must-have accessory for debonair gentlemen.
Cigars remain a fixture of pop-culture. An episode of Seinfeld centred around a box of Cubans, while the stogie’s famous champions include the likes of Winston Churchill, Michael Jordan, Rush Limbaugh and rapper Lil’ Wayne. Politicians have been known to dabble too, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a noted fan. Washington is the site of an infamous cigar moment; its use as a sexual prop by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.