How Castro's Favorite Cigar Conquered the World

A tobacco worker labels a Cohiba cigar in the Partagas cigar factory in Havana, Cuba on February 24, 2011. Cohiba is Cuba's premier cigar brand, counting its president, Fidel Castro, among its most famous smokers. Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty

Havana is the destination of the moment. In the past couple of months, Barack Obama, the Rolling Stones and even the Kardashians have made pilgrimages to the Cuban capital—along with Karl Lagerfeld and the world's fashionistas attending Chanel's first Latin American show.

And so it was following in the wake of such greatness that I found myself in Havana's former country club district in the humid heat of late May to deliver a speech on the lawns of El Laguito, a flamboyant building from the early 20th century that cannot quite decide whether it wants to be a tropical Petit Trianon or a large, marble wedding cake. El Laguito is the Vatican of the cigar, housing the factory where Cohiba cigars are made.

I was speaking at one of the events celebrating the luxury marque's 50th anniversary, after the Swiss watch company Zenith announced it was making a watch as a tribute to the semicentennial of the world's most prestigious cigar brand. Since I have spent much of my working life visiting cigar and watch factories, Zenith asked me to say a few words about the two cultures. I made the point that the cigar and the watch appeared in Europe at roughly the same time in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Tobacco and timepieces have been a part of our lives ever since.

Cohiba may officially be 50, but its roots run deep into the past—at least as far back as October 1492. Flushed with success after the recent defeat of Granada's Saracens in Andalucía, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain prepared to back a young Genoese mariner called Christopher Columbus in his search for a western route to the riches of the East Indies. He was sent off with instructions to establish a deal pertaining to gold mining and spice trading with the relevant king there upon his arrival.

Instead, he arrived at one of the islands in the Bahamas, a picturesque place with naked inhabitants but not much in the way of gold or spices. In his journal, Columbus wrote that "the natives brought fruit, wooden spears, and certain dried leaves which gave off a distinctive fragrance." The Europeans ate the fruit, threw the leaves overboard and then—hearing of a large island farther along the coast called Colba, which Columbus renamed Cuba—set sail once more. Again, precious little gold, just some small figurines, but Columbus was rewarded with the sight of the local inhabitants, the Taínos, walking around with what looked like trumpet-size bundles of burning leaves in their mouths, the same ones that he and his crew had discarded in the Bahamas. Rodrigo de Jerez, one of the Spanish crewmen who joined Columbus on the voyage, is thought to be the first European smoker; he remarked that the leaves were twisted like a paper musket, giving off a fragrant smoke. They called these smoldering bundles tabacos and the tobacco leaves were referred to as cohiba, cojiba or cohoba.

More than 470 years later, Fidel Castro's bodyguard began sharing cigars made by a local man named Eduardo Ribera with El Comandante himself; Castro loved them so much that a private production brand was established in 1966—seven years after the Cuban revolution—to exclusively supply Castro and top officials with the cigars. When casting about for a name that didn't have imperialist connotations, the old Taíno word was revived and put into service. In 2006, the ultra-expensive, limited-edition Cohiba Behike was created to celebrate the brand's 40th anniversary; its logo of a Taíno head in profile once again emphasized this image of the proud Cuban.

The original Cohiba, a long, thin cigar called the Lancero with a twisted pigtail of tobacco at its head, was based on the cigar smoked by Castro's bodyguard. Castro decided to make this cigar an ambassador for the country, often sending Cohiba cigars as diplomatic gifts to statesmen abroad.

Much has changed in half a century. Castro, now 89, no longer smokes cigars, and Cohiba has become globally renowned as one of the better things that life has to offer. (The cigar became commercially available in 1982.) There is an irony to the fact that a state founded on revolutionary socialist ideals now makes one of the world's most recognizable status symbols, but anyone who sees Cohiba as a mere status-conferring luxury product is missing the point. As well as being the best cigar that Cuba makes, a Cohiba is also a cultural object.

Cohiba tobacco grows in just five Vegas Finas de Primera, the best plantations in the Vuelta Abajo, Cuba's legendary tobacco-growing region. Unlike the tobacco in other cigars, Cohiba tobacco undergoes an additional fermentation and matures for longer before the best blenders and most dexterous rollers on the island make the famous cigars with their black-and-yellow band. And from the original cigar an entire world of cigars has sprung.

I tend to be wary of brand extension and expansion because of the risk that quality will be compromised and exclusivity diminished. But Cuba is, in so many ways, a country of surprises; even amid economic woes and the general global trend to reduce tobacco use, Cohiba has flourished. It is now made in dozens of different shapes and sizes, showcasing innovations such as the reintroduction of medio tiempo, a rare type of tobacco leaf that comes from the two upper leaves of the plant and had disappeared from Cuban cigar making. Cohiba has also proved itself adept at responding to smoking restrictions with this year's launch of a medio siglo (half-century), a sawn-off cigar that offers an espresso-like interpretation of the rounded Cohiba flavor, delivered in a shorter time, about 30 minutes.

Cohiba may be making cigars for the time-pressed smoker, but it has hardly abandoned the heights of exclusivity. Instead, it has ascended to new peaks that seemed unimaginable back in 1966. In March this year, the first of 50 special humidors, containing 50 Cohiba 50th anniversary cigars, fetched more than $350,000 at auction, equating to over $7,000 a cigar. The only sadness is that these 50 Aniversario cigars are unlikely to be smoked but will probably remain intact as collectors' items.

Perhaps that is a good thing: At a time of change for the island, they will go down in history as proof that the revolution produced a cigar superior to those made during the period of dictators and imperialists. Maybe that's a better legacy than going up in smoke.