The Connoisseur’s Book of the Cigar
The experienced, mature man who is able to reach out and advise the young is a fortunate man indeed. When I was twenty, I fell in love with the “plant tides,” the great Cuban tobacco plantations that rustle in the valleys of the island. I have never lost this passion of my youth. Today, I am able to say that my life has been destined for devotion to one thing above all else – the cigar.
The cigar has been my life. I owe it everything: my deepest pleasure and my anguish, the joys in my work as well as my leisure time, and, if I have acquired over the years some bit of knowledge and philosophical stance, again I am in debt to the cigar.
This may cause some to crack a smile. I don’t mind, because the cigar teaches one goodwill and, as time passes, brings deeper relaxation and calmer judgment.
At first I smoked like a glutton. My parents were in the cigar business back in Kiev. I remember my father’s small shop where the whole family made gold-tipped cigarettes by hand, with blond tobacco imported from Turkey. This was a store unlike any other. From time to time strange people who looked like conspirators would gather there. In fact, they were conspirators. And just as José Martí, the man who liberated Cuba, when exiled to Florida would send his followers messages rolled into cigars, so the Czar’s adversaries, in Kiev, would do their plotting behind a cloud of smoke. Soon it was we who were tracked down: I left Russia in a covered wagon. In Geneva my father landed a small workshop and started business over again. Other exiles like ourselves took to visiting us. They were feverishly preparing for the Revolution. One of them greatly impressed me. He had a thin face, brilliant eyes, and spoke loudly as he demanded his cardboard-tipped “papirosi.” His name was Vladimir Ulyanov – not until later was he known as Lenin.
I did not leave my father’s shop until, on his advice, I set out for America on a sort of fact-finding trip.
“I cannot give you much money,” my father said, “only a few letters of introduction to tobacco merchants. But if you know how to use them correctly and promote yourself these letters will be worth gold to you. In our business, friendship is not an empty word…”
Very soon, in fact, I experienced this friendship, that sense of community that unites all tobacco people – growers, merchants and devotees – wherever in the world they may be. I spent some time in Buenos Aires, where I was warmly welcomed. Then I went up to Brazil, where I discovered black tobacco – cigar tobacco. (In the East, leaves are too small, too fragile to be used for making cigars.) This was a revelation to me: I understood for the first time that the creme of our craft was there, in those broad, strong luxuriant leaves. For months I worked in Bahia, on plantations whose richness amazed me. Then, one day, an old Brazilian planter whose word I respected told me: “Son, you love tobacco! Go to Cuba, to the lands of red clay. There you’ll find the’puro’ – and you’ll never settle for anything else.”
I left for Cuba the way a young archeologist might for Greece or a seminarian for Rome. I spent two years there in a state of complete excitement. I worked on a “finca” – a farm – and was initiated into all aspects of manufacturing the “puro,” the cigar – from the cutting of the plant to packaging, through the stages of gathering the leaf, fermentation, drying, dividing and rolling. I was curious and excited about everything, and not satisfied until I knew everything there was to know about a Havana. I questioned the old workers who had been witnesses in their youth to the colonizers’ earliest efforts to market their product. I collected and assembled their experience. Very quickly I learned that, just as no two great wines are the same, no two cigars are either, even from the same location. I soon learned, thanks to the cigar-makers, how to distinguish between a cigar made with leaves from the top of the plant from a cigar made with leaves from other “levels,” and between cigars from different valleys or of different years. Soon I learned which were the best cigars in the world, and what made them so.
By the time I got back to Europe I had already decided to dedicate myself to this business. The Havana “puro” is not a cigar like any other. Even after it is packaged it goes on changing and living. It does require some special care, though, for being like a nobleman among tobacco products it should be treated in a way befitting its rank.
In Switzerland, shortly after my return, I installed my first temperature-controlled storage rooms and produced the first of my “humidors.” Then, to the great consternation of my family – who had never made such a fuss over tobacco from the East – I plunged all the way into my new business. I’ve never regretted it.
In 1969, then years after Fidel Castro came into power, the experts from Cubatabaco (the government body responsible for all of Cuba’s tobacco trade) offered to manufacture a line of cigars bearing my name.
This was a happy occasion for me, and there followed a series of lively discussions. They wanted to create three cigar types from the same light, but aromatic tobacco from the province of Pinar del Rio, in the center of the Vuelta Abajo: Davidoff No. 1 was to be a long, elegant cigar, with a slightly smaller diameter than that of a Corona; Davidoff No. 2 was to be of identical width, but 4 centimeters shorter; and the Davidoff Ambassadrice would be a small cigarillo that could be enjoyed by women as well as men.
Six months later I headed back to Havana to make the acquaintance of my namesake.
A new factory had been set up and the best workers were recruited. There, on a large table I saw a pile of beautifully wrapped boxes containing golden cigars, which gave off a marvelous aroma. I tasted them.
It would be impossible to express what that moment meant to me. The kindness of those people, and the honor they were bestowing on me, were the most precious gifts I could ever receive. The Davidoff label has been so successful because of the intrinsic quality of the wonderful tobacco nurtured by Cuban experts, as well as the care taken to preserve it. Whenever I picture all the cigar boxes bought since that time I feel happy in the knowledge that any person who had ever smoked even one of my cigars may be considered a friend of mine, since the experience of my lifetime is wrapped up in that one cigar. Some of the most famous people in the world have come to my store, as well as less illustrious cigar lovers who know the right question to ask: Mr. Davidoff, what are your best cigars at this time?
I’ve given kings, princes, and millionaires the opportunity to meditate blissfully on their fate and that of the world. Ladies have come into the back room to sample the latest shipment. I’ve had to show valets the door, because no proper gentleman sends a servant to pick out his cigars. When I open my order books I realize that there isn’t a man on earth who has among his clientele – and his friends – more kings, dukes, millionaires, adventurers or stars. They and I are linked by a common bond; the cigar draws people closer together. They say in Cuba that hatred cannot exist on plantation grounds.
While daydreaming I see the lands of black tobacco once again, viewed between swirls of blue smoke: Bahía, Alquizar, Candelaria, San Luis Padrón, Lorojo, Atoquía, Pinar del Río in the heart of the renowned Vuelta – the sacred square of ochre-red. The land of my birth, the lands I have adopted. I came from the East, from the cold, the plains battered by the winds from the steppes. I discovered the rich scent and sensual warmth of the tobacco lands as an adolescent discovers an ardent older woman who knows everything about which he is still ignorant.
Today, when I light a cigar at home, in Geneva, in the surroundings I have chosen for myself, I feel a wonderful sense of satisfaction. The same feeling, I imagine, is felt by those who haven’t tried to penetrate the mysteries of black tobacco, but who enjoy a fine Havana cigar in the evening, after a good meal in the company of true friends. Such precious moments! Sublime even, moments as fleeting as the smoke that rises from the steel-gray ash, but unforgettable all the same.
Stendhal – who smoked Italian Toscani cigars – wrote that those who have experienced perfect happiness five or six times in their lives should consider themselves fulfilled. A fine cigar brings one closer to that state of mind.
But this is not an obvious thing: there is something indefinable in the pleasure a cigar gives that has always left me puzzled. I’ve thought about it a great deal, and I think I’ve taken everything into consideration, including the promise of a barely mature leaf or a complicated mixture. Yet it is a matter that I continue to ponder, and no doubt will for a long time still. What is there in a cigar that intensifies and prolongs the pleasure of smoking, that gives it a special meaning that so many men value? What is the noble quality that the cigar brings to tobacco, to the mild intoxication of a dried plant?
How can one claim, and write, that the cigar – a mere object – has a soul?
I’ve looked to history for the answers: The history of tobacco began farther back than human memory can reach, and earlier than any chronicler’s interest in it. It seems that the plant made its appearance very long ago in the Mexican province of the Yucatán. It was already being smoked then centuries ago. How? No one knows. But it was in the form of the cigar that Columbus’ sailors discovered it much later: the Indians did not move about, one reads in Columbus’ journal, without “un tizón en la mano y yervas para tomar sus sahumerios que acostumbran” (a firebrand in their hand and herbs from which they taste the smoke).
In cigar form, use of the plant spread throughout Spain and Portugal. Curiously enough, use of the cigar did not extend beyond the borders of these two privileged kingdoms, leaving snuff-taking and pipe-smoking for the less favored countries. It was not until two centuries later that the ember of the Indians, perfected and enlarged into the “puro,” the pure cigar of the Spanish, would cross the Pyrenees.
The cigar was not for just anyone! Experts have told me that in the Yucatán it was reserved for kings and priests. Its magic smoke constituted, it was apparently thought, a private access to the invisible powers. This is also the opinion of the respected philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss. In his work Du Miel aux Cendres he explains that tobacco has always been an instrument of communication with the supernatural.
What is certain is that the cigar, once imported in Europe, became for a long time a privilege of the nobility in Spain and Portugal. It was only smoked in the Court, or else in the princely palaces, where gold from the Conquest was accumulated. More than a pleasure, it was a symbol. Only slowly did it lose its symbolic value.
Later it was a sign of the rich, who formed the new aristocracy, and also the illustrious. Franz Liszt, the musical genius, never left on a trip without his personal reserve of cigars: several triple-tiered boxes made of precious wood. At the beginning of this century, the world powers sent ambassadors to Cuba to select the very best tobacco leaves and to survey the rooms where from five to ten thousand pieces would be maturing.
To Cuba – because great smokers had discovered long before the virtues of the irreplaceable soil of this miracle island, its geology, winds, waters, and secret spirits. For them, as for us, the “puro” could be only Cuban. Only a Havana.
Everything else has changed; things quickly come to pass. But great cigars always have the same origin, even if their names change, and they still work the same magic. Great cigars will always come from the same precious lands, and will always keep their grandeur and nobility. Surviving every vicissitude, a good Havana with a gold and purple band, in its wooden box with cedar shavings, encased in its baroque splendor, will forever remain lord over all other cigars. It can never be cut off from its grand past or its obscure origins. Of noble lineage, it will never be a mere manufactured object.
It will not be treated like a cigarette; something about it commands respect. The cigar is made for all the senses, for every pleasure, for the nose, the palate, the fingers, the eyes. It even does something for the ear: when rolled between one’s fingers, the slight crackling sound has long been a sign of extra pleasure. (Today, slightly moist and supple cigars are preferred, for good reason.) A good cigar contains the promise of total bliss. “A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke,” wrote Kipling in “The Betrothed.” And George Sand: “The cigar numbs sorrow and fills the solitary hours with a million gracious images.” To know how to smoke is to recover certain forgotten rhythms, to re-establish communication with the self. If there is a secret to the cigar, it is to be found in the slow, dignified, measured gestures of the smoker, where I see more than a habit, a ceremony. “The ash of a cigar has always been sacred,” wrote Eugène Marsan. “It is disgraceful to ask for a light from someone who is lovingly contemplating the long ash of a Havana…. The conversation of cigar smoking should be slow and majestic…”
The cigar inspires writers and poets. I have no intention of adding to their odes. I will simply say that many are the artists who have felt everything that evaporates with the smoke from a Havana, and what mysterious assonances it evokes for the smoker. Such mysteries are doubtless unexplainable. I have no ambition to succeed where other, more inspired people than I, more familiar with transcendental problems and more adept in the art of communicating their feelings or dizzying moments, have partly failed. If tobacco is a lost cult, if the cigar is charged with some elusive meaning, we will just have to bow before this mystery. We will never know perfectly well why we smoke, but this does not make it any less imperative to smoke according to the rules. It is important to know how to smoke. “The cigar smoker,” wrote critic Marc Alyn, “like the perfect lover or the bagpipe player, is a calm man, slow and sure of his wind.” He is a man who knows happiness. He ought to know that a bit of etiquette and a bit of science will make his pleasures greater. “Any cigar smoker is a friend,” wrote Alfred de Musset in one of his letters, “because I know what he feels.”
So in formulating my ideas on how to smoke – the fruit of my experience – I feel as though I am embarking on a labor of friendship.
The Connoisseur’s Book of the Cigar
Zino Davidoff/Gilles Lambert
1967, Editions Robert Laffont, Paris
© English edition: 1969, McGraw Hill Book Company, USA