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Cigars Across America: U.S. Cigar Makers

Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

An intense August heat blows in through the narrow doorway of a dimly lit, hallway-shaped store in Union City, New Jersey. A few yellowing posters look as if they are melting into the stucco walls behind them. The air inside is thick with the aroma of cured tobacco and recently smoked cigars. On a tabletop blackened by oily wrapper leaf and scarred by thousands of tiny knife cuts, an old man's hands move with precise regularity, rolling a narrow, long panetela cigar while he talks with a fellow roller.

At the front of the store, a customer patiently leans on the wobbly, glass-fronted display case. Eventually a middle-aged woman gets up from her chair where she has been banding cigars and shows the customer a cigar-shape chart. No words are exchanged--they don't speak the same language--but the man points to the panetela cigar in the photo and holds up four fingers. "Quatro?" the woman asks. The customer nods, but when she pokes a hand into the case to grab four dried-out panetelas, the man says, "No, no!" and points wildly at the rolling table where three bundles of hour-old panetelas are resting. She slowly relents and retrieves four cigars from one of the bundles. The man hands the woman $4 and some change and lights up in a cloud of strong, rich smoke, which follows him out onto the boiling sidewalk.

At one time, a transaction like the one described above was common in large and small-town America. In 1905 there were 80,000 cigar-manufacturing businesses in the United States. Most of these were small drugstore-type shops where families sat and rolled cigars and sold them immediately.

Today, though buying a newly rolled cigar isn't as easy as it used to be, handmade, long-filler cigars can be purchased for about $1 each on certain streets in a few American cities. And the experience of smoking what was just rolled in front of you is something every cigar aficionado should try.

Finding a chinchal (a Cuban term meaning "sweatshop," though the connotation is less derogatory in the world of cigars) is only half the battle. In each city, the history of the cigar business invariably dictates both the kind and quality of cigars being made today. In three markets--Miami; Union City, New Jersey; and Tampa, Florida--the local production of cigars also is determined by the availability of tobacco, the vitality of the local smokers' market and the primary difficulty: hiring and keeping skilled cigar makers. But this is nothing new. As one roller put it, making cigars "is a life's work." That work is different in each city and, accordingly, in each chinchal, and the cigars reflect a distinctive character of place.

The hand-rolled cigar industry in Miami existed in one form or another for at least 100 years prior to the Revolution in Cuba. But it was Castro's rise to power that provided the impetus for making cigars in Miami. Beyond easy access to Central and South American tobacco, the South Florida location has given Miami first crack at fleeing Cuban cigar makers--still considered to be the most talented in the world.

As more Cubans left their homeland bound for Miami's Little Havana, the once dormant section of town became a dynamic center of economic and social vitality. The new arrivals smoked more cigars per capita than any other group of Americans and also preferred freshly rolled product. Those factors drove chinchal-production levels up.

The new arrivals also demanded something similar to what they had smoked back home: a strong, fast-burning cigar. Many of the blends commonly found in Miami's chinchal-produced cigars replicate that style, and explain the popularity of short-filler cigars, which are cheaper and pack a lot of smoke because they burn much faster.

Makers in Miami claim to use Dominican seed tobacco as filler, a Mexican binder and either Ecuador-grown Sumatra seed wrapper or Connecticut shade grown in the United States. These two blends, which are similar in almost every Miami chinchal, result in a relatively strong smoke, with some pleasant spiciness. However, most cigars made here lack a certain body in the smoke. In a cigar that hasn't been aged and cured for very long and in which the tobaccos have not had time to marry, nothing, it seems, can replace the sharp pungency of Honduran tobacco.

It should be noted that the chinchales listed below are a small sampling of what can be found in Miami. There are several more, some of them even well known to many cigar smokers. However, these owners were suspicious of the publicity or any possible critique and refused interviews or visits.

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