Left to the aficionado, the question of whether Christopher Columbus's discovery of the New World or of the cigar was more significant might well be answered with a long pull on a fine Cuban Montecristo. Either way, the Italian explorer happened upon both events on October 28, 1492, when he reached the sandy shores of Cuba to discover the locals "drinking smoke" from an early version of a cigar, some of which were described as measuring two to three feet long! The natives had been smoking for centuries, apparently, sometimes rolling up constructions of green leaves from the plant they called cohiba, and wrapping them in palm leaves or maize before dipping in seawater.
As to the origin of the words tobacco and cigar, good theories abound. The best treat tobacco as a misnomer, likely coming from the words tabacos or tobago, depending on the source. These were aboriginal names for a hollow reed and a Y-shaped tube-like device, both used to inhale smoke from burning leaves. With the Y-shaped tube, the two ends of the fork were placed into each nostril and the tube into the smoking weed. Cigar is thought to come from a Mayan Indian word Ciq-Sigan -- or perhaps it's sik'ar -- which the Spanish turned into cigarro.
More Precious Then Gold
While the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Dutch all claim to have brought the habit to the Old World, by 1515, the Spanish definitely had a thriving business exporting tobacco from Cuba to Europe, and were soon earning more money from the bright leaf than they ever would from gold. Today, the Spanish, credited as the architects of the modern cigar's shape, remain as the world's largest importers of cigars.
News stories, myths and often controversy surrounding cigars waft around and through world history like a stream of gray-blue smoke. Cigar references figure in just about every war and political conflict of the last three centuries, from a loan on tobacco futures helping to finance the American Revolution to the Cuban trade embargo.
THERE'S JUST SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT A HAVANA
The backbone of many an economy, the cigar has been alternately praised and denounced by monarchs, Popes, presidents, sultans and the literati and glitterati. But cigars have always kept the most interesting of company. Romanced in writing, music and painting (and comic strips) for centuries, the pleasures of these cigars have been enjoyed by the famous and the infamous, from composer Franz Liszt and England's Edward VII to Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and Chicago gangster Al Capone.
English Prime Minister Winston Churchill is said to have smoked nearly a quarter of a million over his lifetime; while in 1963, before signing the document that would create the embargo, which is still in force, American President John Kennedy laid in a supply of 1,000 Cuban cigars-namely the H. Upmann No. 4!
Today, a cigar still evokes an image of sensuality as well as the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Entertainers Bruce Willis, Robert De Niro, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Tommy Lee Jones and Sylvester Stallone are all celebrity smokers known to light up a Cubanos now and again. (And, of course, so was the world's most famous Havana aficionado, Cuban President Fidel Castro, until he gave up smoking in 1985.). But you don't need to be a millionaire to enjoy a puff on a good cigar, which is currently enjoying a renaissance with more than just a cult following. Fueled by dedicated magazines, books and its own special brand of mystique, consumption is measured in the billions.
But is it just a mano y mano thing? Definitely not. Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie and Clyde) and screen immortal Marlene Dietrich were famous smokers. Super model Linda Evangelista admits to loving a good Cohiba robusto, as do Whoppi Goldberg, Bette Midler, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore and Madonna. Could he have predicted the popularity of cigars among the female set, 19th-century English writer and poet Rudyard Kipling might have considered rephrasing his oft-quoted quip: "A woman's just a woman, but a good cigar's a smoke."