Every lover of the leaf who has visited Cuba will tell you that cigars in Cuba just taste better than anywhere else in the world. The first few times i heard that claim, i dismissed it as travel hubris — “i’ve been to some place you haven’t, and i’m telling you it’s the best place in the world, sucks to be you”.
But over the years, it’s such a oft repeated phrase, and repeated by some very reputable people including the well-respected David Savona of Cigar Aficionado, then you can’t help but start to wonder whether there is any truth in the claim.
The only way forward is science. So what’s the scientific explanation for “cigars tasting better in Cuba”? My own theory is that it comes in two parts — the qualities of tobacco and the weather on the island of Cuba itself.
Tobacco is a hygroscopic material — meaning that it gives up (or absorbs) moisture easily relative to the moisture found in the surrounding environment. That’s why we’re told to keep our cigars in humidors, where the humidity (moisture in the air) can be controlled to pretty exacting measures. Too little moisture in the air, and you’ll find that your cigars give up all their moisture to compensate, thus resulting in dry cigars. Too dry, and the tobacco starts to lose the essential oils that give it its unique flavour, and the cigar is ruined. Too much moisture, and the cigar absorbs more than it can handle, thus resulting in a “wet” cigar that burns unevenly and delivers a very harsh bitter flavour. Given the nature of the tobacco, it goes to reason that there are optimum ranges in which the tobacco will “taste” the best and perform “properly”. My experience tells me that a cigar kept in about the 63% RH to the 68% RH (Relative Humidity) state tends to stay “truest” to the expected taste profile (your mileage may vary, unless you have the exact same taste buds as mine).
The second quality is the weather in Cuba. The cubaweather.org website tells us that Cuba’s year-long weather very closely resembles a huge natural humidor. Temperatures generally hover around the 20-25 degree Celcius mark, except for hotter summer months when 30-32 degrees is normal. The average of about 27 degrees is quite comfortable, and very suitable for the enjoyment of a good smoke. You don’t want to smoke in a cold climate, nor do you want to smoke in the blazing heat when the last thing on your mind is how the cigar tastes. So temperature wise, it’s ideal. But more important than that, i feel, is the relative humidity of the country. It has a generous rainfall, but not overwhelmingly so, such as what you’d find in a more tropical clime such as what i have here in Malaysia. 52 inches a year, averaged out over the year, put together with that natural temperature creates an outstandingly balanced humid state, about 65% RH to 72% RH is my math serves me correctly.
A cigar is incredibly sensitive to its environment, especially when it is being smoked simply because that’s when air is being drawn through the tobacco continuously. If there was any doubt in this, try doing this: wait for a particularly wet or humid day, or if you live in drier climes, try smoking in a humidified room (one with air humidifiers pumping). After about 20 minutes or so, assuming the humidity levels are about the 80%+ RH mark, your cigar will start degenerating into a sodden mess, and worse still, the flavour will go completely south. Burn problems will start to appear, severe canoeing in the wrapper, and if you’re unlucky, towards the end, the cigar will look more like a roll of chewing tobacco rather than a cigar. Pretty unsightly. How do i know? I made the mistake of smoking a cigar during a thunderstorm one day, and the cigar just soaked up so much of the ambient humidity, it was a complete disaster.
So, in a nutshell, that’s the mystique of the Cuban cigar tasting better in Cuba unravelled. If you’re able to replicate the Cuban weather in your home (not too difficult with the right combination of air humidifiers and air conditioners), you too can enjoy a “cigar in Cuba”. Generally, the weather in Malaysia is pretty good for smoking cigars, though we get a lot more rain than the Cubans do, and our average temperatures are higher. But i remember a weekend not too long ago when i went up to the highlands to catch some cool air, and pick strawberries, and i had a Partagas Lusitania with me. About 20 degrees Celcius, about 70% RH, and i smoked my cigar, with a light cool breeze swirling all around. It was heavenly. The closest i’ll get to smoking a cigar in Cuba without actually being in Cuba.