The act of smoking tobacco leaves has been a part of North, Central, and South American culture for far longer than any European explorer can claim.
Indigenous tribes cultivated tobacco crops intending to use the plant as a form of communicating with the gods. Others found it to be more of a pleasurable experience. One best saved for after-dinner digestive purposes while sitting around the fire when it was storytime.
Modern man has taken the tradition of smoking tobacco leaves and turned it not only into a proven agricultural endeavor but a bona fide science.
Luckily, those of us who support the legacy that is cigar culture don’t need to have a botany degree to understand which parts of a tobacco plant make a boutique cigar so spectacular.
All you need to know is which parts of the tobacco plant are utilized, along with some basic stogie construction specs, and a cigar subscription to supply you with boutique cigars. The rest is up to Mother Nature, Father Time, and the cigar maker to decide, as we patiently wait for the next exclusive release to be announced.
Boutique Cigar Tobacco Explained
Broken down to its bare bones, the typical long-filler cigar consists of a wrapper, a binder, and filler. Regardless of whether it is a mild claro, an oily maduro, or something in between, the flavor, aroma, construction, combustibility, and strength of a cigar can all be derived from these core components. The use of the term “long-filler” is utilized because unlike products like cigarettes and pipe tobacco, boutique cigars utilize entire leaves, and are only trimmed to size once rolled.
Keep this in mind as we explore the following three sections of a cigar, all of which make smoking and understanding a certain cigar type so enjoyable.
Wrappers make the outer portion of a cigar, and being that they are what is perceived, tend to be of the highest quality, both in appearance and flavor, as well as texture. Anything that doesn’t make the cut is either repurposed as an internal ingredient or discarded in its entirety.
Since they must wrap around the other two types of leaves, a cigar wrapper must also be quite large and feature a certain level of structural rigidity that is balanced by elasticity. Much of a cigar’s initial aroma and flavor are housed within the cigar wrapper, both when it is lit and unlit.
Binders are usually of good quality, but come up short in the appearance department. This causes them to be repurposed as a second level of rolled tobacco leaf, one that keeps the filler in place and from a construction standpoint often determines the depth of the draw.
Binder tobacco leaves also regulate burn rates and promote even combustion and can be attributed to many of the more intense aspects of a cigar-smoking experience. Body, strength, flavor, finish, and binders play a helping hand in all of it and are crucial to how well a blend mixes with the flavors of the wrapper and filler.
Filler constructs the core of a cigar and serves as the bedrock upon which all of the other attributes of a boutique cigar rely. Long-filler tobacco utilizes the entire leaf and runs from the head to the foot of the cigar.
Filler tobacco may not be the most attractive or flavorful, but it plays a vital role in both the burn and aroma departments. Certain types of filler tobacco can impart spicy, earthy undertones as well, especially when they are of the sun-grown variety.
When it comes to combining various combinations of wrapper, binder, and filler, the options truly are endless. A boutique cigar blend must be balanced, well constructed, and offer a memorable smoking experience that can be consistently replicated.
While a fair deal of experimentation must be made on the master blender’s end, the type of seed being grown, shade coverage allowed (if any), region where the tobacco plant is being grown, and fermentation process all influence how a cigar is perceived.
Balance is key, and it all starts with using the appropriate part of the tobacco plant at particular points during its life cycle.
How Tobacco is Prepped for Harvest
From sheltered hothouse seedlings to freshly transplanted adolescent life outdoors, the first month of a tobacco plant’s life is filled with doting care. The decision to shade the plants with cheesecloth, or give them full sun plays a vital role as well, as the appearance and texture of the tobacco leaf itself are determined by how much sunlight it is allowed to absorb.
After close to 45 days of growth, a clump of pungently scented, five-petaled flowers emerges from the top of the tobacco plant stalk. Plantation workers walk down the row, snapping off the flowering stalks, thus sending the plant into shock. This process is called “topping,” which results in a ton of leafy offshoots emerging in other areas known as “suckers.”
These tiny suckers will need to be repeatedly removed, or “primed” by hand until the tobacco plant is forced to concentrate its energy elsewhere. Where might you ask? To the bigger and far more beautiful tobacco leaves already growing along the length of the stalk.
Tobacco Nerd Note: There are quite a few ways to prevent a tobacco plant from forming suckers. One of the most common is to use fatty alcohol to coat the lesions where the suckers are removed, which not only prevents disease but hampers the development of future suckers in that region.
The 4 Types of Tobacco Leaf
All tobacco plants feature four kinds of leaves, most of which can be turned into the components that make up the structure of a cigar. Despite being of the same shape, each leaf has its unique qualities. The location upon the stalk determines where the leaf is implemented within a cigar, along with any flavors or combustion benefits it might impart.
Furthermore, the leaves at the bottom of the plant tend to be the oldest, whereas those toward the top are always the youngest. As the tobacco plant grows, this causes a multi-tiered shading effect, where the older leaves toward the bottom become shielded from the sun by the new
Today, we’ll discuss each of these leaves in brief detail, and cover what their role plays in a cigar, and why. Let’s start at the bottom, shall we?
Tobacco Nerd Note: Once the flowers have been “topped,” the volado “sand leaves” have been discarded, and all of the suckers have been removed, a healthy tobacco plant is often left with anywhere between 15–21 leaves. These numbers will vary depending upon the environment in which the tobacco is cultivated, and the preferences set in place by the cigar manufacturer itself.
The more tobacco that is discarded in favor of prime foliage, the more potent and lush the remaining leaves will become. If you were a rancher you might call this process “culling the herd.” Here in the cigar arena, we prefer the term “selective cultivation.”
Beginning at the bottom of a tobacco plant brings you face-to-face with the volado leaf. Due to their proximity to the loamy soil beneath, this form of tobacco foliage is also referred to as “sand leaves.”
Even though it may bolster the burn rate and combustion of a cigar, many cigar manufacturers refuse to use volado leaves due to their proximity to the earth. Volado leaves are notorious for spending much of their lives draped in the soil, which can be a major problem if purity is a concern, and for good reason.
Tobacco leaves are sticky by nature, and therefore are prone to picking-up foreign contaminants, like pulverized soil for instance. Many plantations use topical fertilizer as well, something you do not want lingering on your long-filler when it comes time to fire up a cigar with a torch lighter.
Another issue with volado leaves is that they are prone to producing acrid off-flavors, either by organic design or from the impurities they pick up in the soil. Naturally, this is not always the case, especially when considering the wide array of seed types, and the varying environments in which tobacco plants are grown.
That being said, certain cigar brands still rely upon volado leaves for a portion of their filler. But this is done only after a thorough cleaning process and an additional inspection have been implemented.
Tobacco Nerd Note: Like any form of pruning, the act of “priming” controls where the nutrients and energy within a tobacco plant are funneled. This forces the plant to produce richer, thicker tobacco leaves, and a far more memorable smoking experience.
Seco leaf sits directly above the volado leaves on a tobacco plant and, due to receiving very little direct sun, is a very light green color. Wispy and aromatic, seco leaf is where a lot of those fine tobacco fragrances come from, with the upper levels of foliage being far more pungent than that which is further down the stalk.
After the first round of priming has been completed, with just a few leaves per plant being removed, a week-long waiting period is typically implemented. While not all plantations utilize this technique, this gap between harvesting is quite commonplace.
The reasoning behind this pruning methodology is that it allows the next layer of seco leaves to absorb the nutrients that would normally be sent to their neighbors underneath. Increased leaf size, superior elasticity, and more potent flavors have all been attributed to this technique, making it the preferred method for priming seco tobacco leaves in particular.
Viso leaf is the multitool of the tobacco world. Growing high enough on the plant where it can receive a fat dose of sunlight, yet not so far up that it gets leathery and overtly potent, viso truly is the ultimate all-in-one tobacco leaf.
Silky and stretchy, yet flavorful and fragrant, viso leaf can be used in virtually any part of a cigar. From binder and wrapper to filler and cap, there’s nothing that this tobacco leaf cannot do, with even combustion being one of its most mentionable fortes.
Closing things out is the tallest leaf on the tobacco plant, which coincidentally is also it's youngest, and last to be harvested. But don’t let their tender age fool you. Ligero leaves soak up more sunlight than any other portion of the plant, and therefore provide the most intense concentration of body, strength, and flavor within a cigar.
Harvested almost at a point where they appear to be wilting, ligero tobacco grows to massive proportions due to being the last of the plant to be primed. Sugars, oils, resins, and nicotine content are all in abundance within ligero leaf, making it a prized commodity for full-bodied cigar manufacturers.
As the plant strives to channel all of the nutrients within the soil to those remaining ligero leaves, a unique fermentation process begins. The chlorophyll has begun to break down, and as it does so, all of the sugars, oils, and resins housed within the blade begin to decompose inside of the leaf. This causes late-harvested ligero leaves to develop intense, earthy undertones, which lend themselves to being favored as a prime candidate for maduro cigar wrapper production.
Tobacco Nerd Note: Being that a cigar wrapper can impart various nuances depending upon where tobacco is grown in the world (Cameroon wrappers are named such for a reason), many cigars tend to offer an international experience. The only consistent exception to this rule is Cuban cigars, which are grown, harvested, cured, fermented, produced, and packaged exclusively on the island of Cuba.
All told, it typically takes just 90 days for a tobacco plant to go from freshly sprouted seedling to completely stripped stalk. Although certain tobacco strains can be harvested sooner or finish their life cycle a tad later, three months remains the norm for most forms of cigar tobacco. However, varied growing environments, inconsistent weather patterns, and plantation logistics can all affect these timeframes.
From a cigar production standpoint, having a bit of everything on hand is generally the best practice. Blending various primings from an array of different types of tobacco plants from a multitude of countries and regions can foster an extremely complex smoking experience. Adding further depth to the topic, are the different forms of fermentation that are commonly implemented, with different types of tobacco leaves receiving separate levels of care.
But that’s not to say that a single origin cigar is not going to rock your socks off. With the right seed variety planted in the perfect environment, then primed, cured, and fermented in appropriate fashion, a master blender can craft a bespoke smoking experience that utilizes much, if not all, of the leaves on a single tobacco plant.