Somebody once told us that hand-rolling a cigar was like massaging the back of someone who you care for deeply. Too gentle of a touch and the whole experience falls apart. Take too firm of an approach, and things get even more uptight.
Balance is what transforms a premium cigar blend from a clump of random tobacco leaves into an experience that is both memorable and flavorful. It’s also what makes the construction, combustion, and curb appeal of the cigar possible in the first place.
Yet despite it being common knowledge that the world’s best boutique cigars are hand-rolled the old-fashioned way, very seldomly do people stop to think about what this process entails.
Being the tobacco nerds that we are, it behooved us to dig into the details and scrounge up as much information about the long-filler cigar rolling process as we could. And hot damn did we unearth a ton of information.
Below, you will find a streamlined account of the information sourced directly from some of the finest names in boutique cigar blending and manufacturing. With insider info from Rocky Patel, Perdomo Cigars, Padrón, and My Father Cigars Inc. being but a few of the brands that have provided today’s hand-rolled cigar cheat sheet.
You Gotta Know What You Grow Before You Roll
Once harvesting, curing, and fermentation processes are complete, premium cigar blend tobacco embarks upon a baled aging process. Massive breathable burlap tarps and hulking wooden storage containers are both commonly used, and a temperature-controlled building houses everything. Aging can last anywhere from a couple of years to a few decades depending upon the type of tobacco and desired finished product.
As the leaves are removed and rejuvenated with water, mist, steam, or some form of humidification device (a process called "casing"), their elasticity bounces back. A day later, the cigar tobacco is ready for deveining, which in traditional form requires skilled hands to pull the stem down the center of the leaf blade until it has been removed completely.
The leaves are then separated by tobacco style and/or cigar smoking strength, and a series of “prototype models” are crafted by a master blender until one particular smoke stands out as best. Everything from the cigar’s size, shape, leaf ratio, and type of tobacco are determined by this highly trained master blender.
Once a particular style and blend have been chosen, the master blender (who is typically a veteran roller with a hefty promotion or two on their resume) instructs the rolling factory’s supervisors on what proportions should be for each cigar type.
They then go about allocating the appropriate amount of tobacco to produce a set amount of cigars for the blend on deck for that particular day or week. The next day, after a brief morning presentation going over what will be made, predetermined boxes filled with tobacco are either handed out to each roller or placed on desks for production.
Tobacco Nerd Note: A premium cigar blend will often contain an array of leaves from different parts of the tobacco plant. While the ligero leaf toward the top will be the boldest and richest in color due to the amount of sunlight it receives, the centrally located seco and viso leaves toward the center tend to be lighter and milder.
Where these tobacco leaves end up in a cigar is really at the discretion of the master blender, for it is they who hold the keys to the perfect premium cigar blend. The mixture of these leaves determines the flavor, strength, and body of a cigar, and therefore must be carefully calculated and tested before giving the go-ahead for mass production.
Teamwork Makes the Boutique Cigar Dream Work
Tobacco selected and deveined, the rollers review their instructions regarding how much of each leaf to press into the cigars they are making that day, and get to bunching filler leaves together.
Although certain factories insist upon one person crafting a boutique cigar from start to finish, it is far more commonplace to pair one or two bunchers with one skilled roller. As the bunchers form the cigar’s internal filler and binder combo, the roller meticulously applies a cigar wrapper across the circumference of the barrel. Then, depending on what cigar type is desired, the roller either affixes a cap or tapers the pointed end into a torpedo tip.
This technique provides the roller with ample amounts of bunched tobacco and has been linked to more consistent cigar quality due to each employee having a dedicated task that they specialize in. Naturally, production numbers also increase exponentially, as the old saying that “light hands make light work” rings especially true within the confines of a cigar rolling factory.
Pullquote: “Making cigars is a labor-intensive, complicated process. So many things can go wrong, and any slip can affect the quality down the line… go for layers of flavors, so the cigar is not one-dimensional.” -Jorge Padrón
Hand-Rolled Cigars Require the Right Gear and a Skilled Set of Hands
Traditionally, cigars are rolled on wooden or stone surfaces, with skilled hands and a handful of tools making the magic happen atop. This kind of cigar manufacturer is commonly referred to as a “tobacco wrestler,” or torcedor. This may sound like a strange title, but if you’ve ever attempted to roll your own long-filler cigar it will make complete sense. And while there are a lot of men who go on to become highly skilled torcedores, a vast majority of cigar artisans have been and continue to be women.
As for the tools used to manufacture cigars, flavorless forms of natural glue have long been the product of choice when it comes to construction. Tree sap, water, and fruit pectin are all common forms of tobacco glue, with many cigar manufacturers having their own proprietary blends.
A spray bottle is also a common tool, as it allows the roller to refresh any tobacco leaves that may be appearing a bit brittle with a quick spritz. These rejuvenated tobacco leaves are then sliced with a crude piece of steel or iron that has been shaped into a curved form and then sharpened to a razor’s edge. This dangerous tool is called la chaveta, and its curved edge allows clean cuts to be made due to not needing to be lifted or drawn across the tobacco leaf’s surface.
Finally, there is the wet towel, which workers will often use at intervals to keep any tobacco leaves from drying out during lunch breaks and whatnot. While elasticity is vital when it comes to applying a wrapper and binder, the filler must merely stay together and not crumble easily, which is where that spray bottle comes in handy.
The Art of Hand-Rolling a Long-Filler Cigar
After each leaf is inspected one last time to make sure that the center vein has been removed in its entirety, the two halves are overlapped and set aside. Tobacco sectioned out and ready to roll, the filler leaves are pulled from their respective bins in carefully measured amounts and handed out in increments to each torcedor’s station.
Tobacco leaves sliced in half crosswise, the torcedor or buncher selects the assigned amount of filler, and folds the foliage back and forth lasagna-style, leaving just enough of a gap in the center to guarantee a good draw. Another method involves the act of rolling the filler tobacco together until it resembles a set of clumped tubes. This tobacco bunching technique is called entubado, and it is without question one of the most difficult and skilled ways of forming a cigar filler bunch.
While there is still some debate as to whether the entubado approach yields finer construction and a more even draw, the fact that it relies heavily upon feel alone cannot be denied. Applying the appropriate amount of pressure via the squeeze of the hand is no easy task, and requires years of practice before it can be mastered. Not enough pressure and the cigar may combust entirely too quickly, burn unevenly, or worse yet, fall apart midway. Bunch it all up too tight, and your cigar’s draw will feel like you are sucking a marble through a straw.
Tobacco filler bunched, it is then time to take the binder and roll the contents of the cigar up inside. Here, an angled approach provides the best result, with the bunch running across the center of the binder. To aid combustion and construction, the filler should always run the same direction as the veins in the binder leaf. As the tobacco bunch is rolled up, one hand holds it tight, while the other keeps the binder evenly distributed on the desk and wrinkle-free.
Another method for forming bunches involves placing the preselected bunch of tobacco in a wooden or iron mold. This slotted template guarantees that each cigar type is of the same circumference and shape. It is here that the ever-popular “box-pressed” cigar gets its unique squared shape. The help of a manual hydraulic press guarantees the perfect cigar filler every time, as bunches of filler are pressed from anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes.
After the press, the second team member takes the tobacco out of the mold and puts on the cigar wrapper leaf. It is here that the aforementioned natural glue-like substances are used, and additional care is made to guarantee that the wrapper leaf is both supple and tight. Wrapping process complete, a paddle-like tool with a hole on one end called a cepo is used to measure the different cigars size or ring gauges that day. Anything too slim or bulbous gets rerolled or tossed in a bin for use as a bonus incentive for employees who accomplish certain preset weekly goals.
As for the cap itself, it is common for rollers to use a scrap of the cigar wrapper, or pull from a bin of appropriately sized matching caps. The finishing touch is then glued onto the head of the cigar. To prevent unraveling, this is often repeated multiple times, thus creating double, or even triple-capped cigars. For cigars with pointed tips, like torpedos/figurados, the roller takes a longer end of the wrapper leaf, called a flap or flag, and forms a tightly bound cylindrical cap.
After that, it’s time to trim the foot with a guillotine that’s been calibrated to the desired length, at which point you can quote Mel Brooks from Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and “nip the tip!”
Rolled Up, Ready to Relax, and Under Audit
Boutique cigar rolled and ready, a band (or two) is placed around its circumference, along with any cedar tube that has been selected for appearance and protective purposes. It is at this point that a supervisor will inspect the quality of the products.
These factory managers are often skilled former rollers and/or bunchers, and therefore have one of the most discerning eyes for quality control in the cigar biz. Even the slightest flaw can be cause for rejection, which in a factory that is producing thousands of cigars a day can mean a lot of wasted time and tobacco if even a few employees are off their game.
Post-rolling care varies depending upon the cigar manufacturer and what cigar types are being produced that particular day. Certain brands prefer to plop stogies into dedicated molds for a few hours to guarantee they don’t contort.
Other boutique cigar manufacturers prefern their cigars to be aged in tightly bound bundles in controlled aging rooms. This additional aging process can last anywhere from months to years. It is here that many of the subtler nuances of a premium cigar blend are allowed to bloom and marry with the other tobacco.
Aging process out of the way, all of the cigars are removed from storage and sectioned out onto tables for inspection. Being that tobacco is an organic substance, variations in color and texture are inevitable. This is why sorting cigars requires setting them aside in different sections based on color and rejecting anything with discoloration, cracks, blemishes, or other aesthetic flaws.
After that, it’s off to boxing and shipping, with cigar counts running anywhere from 8 sticks per box up to 100 in larger crates like Rocky Patel’s Edge Series.
Tobacco Nerd Note: The credit for creating this most special cigar went to a pair of torcedores, or cigar rollers, who in 1961 opened El Laguito, a small factory in western Havana; its origin stemmed from a cigar-rolling school for women.
So as you pop a handful of stogies into that slick Case Elegance travel humidor for a weekend getaway, don’t forget to give the torcedores around the world a hand, for their hands have already given us so much in return.
Crafting a premium cigar blend the old-fashioned way is not something that is mastered in a day. It takes years of practice, plenty of patience, loads of mentorship, and countless rejected cigars before a cigar roller or buncher can be deemed worthy enough to handle the world’s finest boutique cigar tobaccos.
What comes out is a career that many consider the noblest artisan occupation. A skill that is often passed down from parent to offspring, with entire generations of torcedores often being seen working beside one another in a factory.
While this may no longer be an occupation found here in America, the sweat equity and acute attention to detail that goes into every cigar we enjoy deserve both recognition and respect. For without the hands that roll the world’s best premium cigar blends, there would not be a cigar culture, and that is indeed a very depressing thought.