The word cigar originated from the Spanish cigarro, which in turn probably derives from the Mayan sicar ("to smoke rolled tobacco leaves" – from si'c, "tobacco"). There is also a possible derivation, or at least an influence, from the Spanish cigarra ("cicada"), due to their similar shape. The English word came into general use in 1730.
A cigar is a tightly-rolled bundle of dried and fermented tobacco leaf, rolled in a series of types and sizes, that is ignited so that its smoke may be drawn into the mouth.
Cigar tobacco is grown in significant quantities in Brazil, Cameroon, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia, Mexico, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Canary Islands (Spain), Italy and the Eastern United States. The origins of cigar smoking are still unknown. In Guatemala, a ceramic pot dating back to the tenth century features a Mayan smoking tobacco leaves tied together with a string. Sikar, the term for smoking used by the Maya, may have inspired the name cigar.
Tobacco leaves are harvested and aged using a process that combines use of heat and shade to reduce sugar and water content without causing the large leaves to rot. This first part of the process, called curing, takes between 25 and 45 days and varies substantially based upon climatic conditions as well as the construction of sheds or barns used to store harvested tobacco. The curing process is manipulated based upon the type of tobacco, and the desired color of the leaf. The second part of the process, called fermentation, is carried out under conditions designed to help the leaf dry slowly. Temperature and humidity are controlled to ensure that the leaf continues to ferment, without rotting or disintegrating. This is where the flavor, burning, and aroma characteristics are primarily brought out in the leaf.
Once the leaves have aged properly, they are sorted for use as filler or wrapper based upon their appearance and overall quality. During this process, the leaves are continually moistened and handled carefully to ensure each leaf is best used according to its individual qualities. The leaf will continue to be baled, inspected, un-baled, re-inspected, and baled again repeatedly as it continues its aging cycle. When the leaf has matured according to the manufacturer's specifications, it will be used in the production of a cigar.
Quality cigars are still handmade. An experienced cigar-roller can produce hundreds of very good, nearly identical, cigars per day. The rollers keep the tobacco moist — especially the wrapper — and use specially designed crescent-shaped knives, called chavetas, to form the filler and wrapper leaves quickly and accurately. Once rolled, the cigars are stored in wooden forms as they dry, in which their uncapped ends are cut to a uniform size. From this stage, the cigar is a complete product that can be "laid down" and aged for decades if kept as close to 21 °C (70 °F), and 70% relative humidity, as the environment will allow. Once cigars have been purchased, proper storage is usually accomplished by keeping the cigars in a specialized wooden box, or humidor, where conditions can be carefully controlled for long periods of time. Even if a cigar becomes dry, it can be successfully re-humidified so long as it has not been handled carelessly and done so gradually. The loss of original tobacco oils, however, will greatly affect the taste.
Some cigars, especially premium brands, use different varieties of tobacco for the filler and the wrapper. Long filler cigars are a far higher quality of cigar, using long leaves throughout. These cigars also use a third variety of tobacco leaf, called a "binder", between the filler and the outer wrapper. This permits the makers to use more delicate and attractive leaves as a wrapper. These high-quality cigars almost always blend varieties of tobacco. Even Cuban long-filler cigars will combine tobaccos from different parts of the island to incorporate several different flavors.
In low-grade and machine-made cigars, chopped tobacco leaves are used for the filler, and long leaves or a type of "paper" made from tobacco pulp is used for the wrapper which binds the cigar together. This alters the burning characteristics of the cigar, causing handmade cigars to be sought-after.
Cigars are composed of three types of tobacco leaves, whose variations determine smoking and flavor characteristics.
Wrapper: A cigar's outermost layer, or wrapper (Spanish: capa), is the most expensive component of a cigar. The wrapper determines much of the cigar's character and flavor, and as such its color is often used to describe the cigar as a whole. Wrappers are frequently grown underneath huge canopies made of gauze so as to diffuse direct sunlight and are fermented separately from other rougher cigar components, with a view to the production of a thinly-veined, smooth, supple leaf.
Wrapper tobacco produced without the gauze canopies under which "shade grown" leaf is grown, generally more coarse in texture and stronger in flavor, is commonly known as "sun grown." A number of different countries are used for the production of wrapper tobacco, including Cuba, Ecuador, Indonesia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Brazil, Mexico, Cameroon, and the United States.
Binder: Beneath the wrapper is a small bunch of "filler" leaves bound together inside of a leaf called a "binder" (Spanish: capote). Binder leaf is typically sun grown leaf from the top part of a tobacco plant and is selected for its elasticity and durability in the rolling process. Unlike wrapper leaf, which must be uniform in appearance and smooth in texture, binder leaf may show evidence of physical blemishes or lack uniform coloration. Binder leaf is generally considerably thicker and more hardy than the wrapper leaf surrounding it.
Filler: The bulk of a cigar is "filler" — a bound bunch of tobacco leaves. These leaves are folded by hand to allow air passageways down the length of the cigar, through which smoke is drawn after the cigar is lit. A cigar rolled with insufficient air passage is referred to by a smoker as "too tight"; one with excessive airflow creating an excessively fast, hot burn is regarded as "too loose." Considerable skill and dexterity on the part of the cigar roller is needed to avoid these opposing pitfalls — a primary factor in the superiority of hand-rolled cigars over their machine-made counterparts.
By blending various varieties of filler tobacco, cigar makers create distinctive strength and flavor profiles for their various branded products. In general, fatter cigars hold more filler leaves, allowing a greater potential for the creation of complex flavors. In addition to the variety of tobacco employed, the country of origin can be one important determinant of taste, with different growing environments producing distinctive flavors. The fermentation and aging process adds to this variety, as does the particular part of the tobacco plant harvested, with bottom leaves (Spanish: volado) having a mild flavor and burning easily, middle leaves (Spanish: seco) having a somewhat stronger flavor, with potent and spicy ligero leaves taken from the sun-drenched top of the plant. When used, ligero is always folded into the middle of the filler bunch due to its slow-burning characteristics.
If full leaves are used as filler, a cigar is said to be composed of "long filler." Cigars made from smaller bits of leaf, including many machine-made cigars, are said to be made of "short filler.”