Whenever cigar smokers gather, a frequent debate is whether the United States can grow cigar tobacco. End the argument now; the answer is yes. In fact, the mild Connecticut Shade wrapper leaf thrives only in the New England state in much the same way some Cuban tobaccos reach excellence only when they are grown on Cuban soil.
First planted in the early 1900s in Connecticut—hence the name—the tobacco has been grown since the 1970s in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and other Latin American countries. However, none of those countries has been able to produce a leaf with the same mild and spicy taste, floral aroma, rich color, and silky elasticity (it must be pliable enough to be worked by the cigar roller) as Connecticut-grown Connecticut Shade.
The soul of Connecticut Shade lies in a 2-mile-wide strip of rich topsoil that stretches through the Connecticut River Valley from Hartford to West Suffield. This ribbon of land is resplendent with leafy tobacco plants growing under the gauzelike ceilings of synthetic cheesecloth that furnish the shade from which the tobacco derives the second half of its name. Connecticut Shade is a blend of Sumatran and Cuban seed tobaccos, and filtering out 30 percent of the sunlight re-creates the conditions of Sumatra’s perpetually cloudy skies.
Joseph Cullman Jr. created the Connecticut Shade variety almost 100 years ago, and today his son, Edgar Sr., and grandson, Edgar Jr., are chairman and president/ CEO of General Cigar Co., one of the largest growers of Connecticut Shade. General Cigar and its affiliates own 8,000 acres in Connecticut, and Connecticut Shade is planted on 1,000 acres of the finest soil. The loamy earth is rich in minerals, giving Connecticut Shade its medium-to-fast burning characteristics and distinctive gray-white ash.
Soil is one reason for the flavor, but the aging process is just as important. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cullmans moved their tobaccos from Havana to their Connecticut warehouses for winter storage. The cigars that were made from those bales of tobacco presented a much deeper aroma and a more pronounced taste than those made from tobacco stored in the Caribbean. A few leftover bales spent a second winter in the warehouse, and these tobaccos had even more depth. Successive winters added to the complexity of the taste, and thus was born General Cigar’s exclusive winter sweats process.
General Cigar, like most companies with Caribbean factories, ships its Connecticut Shade wrappers to Santiago in the Dominican Republic for sorting and fermentation after they have been harvested and cured. The next step, however, sets General Cigar’s Connecticut Shade apart from the rest. Only General Cigar ships its wrappers back to the United States for a winter aging. The dry and intense cold in Hatfield, Mass., saps half of the tobacco’s humidity, bringing it to about 8 percent. In the spring, the tobacco is returned to the Dominican Republic, where the tropical climate rehumidifies the wrapper, opening the tobacco’s pores and creating a mellow taste. Then, layered with a new harvest, the tobacco is fermented to combine the best properties of both crops. After fermentation, the tobaccos are separated, and the winterized tobacco is shipped back for a second winter sweat. It is then returned to Santiago for a final aging before it is rolled into cigars. The winter sweat process is time-consuming and costly, but the technique reduces tar and nicotine and gives the wrapper an underlying creamy sweetness. Of the 251 million premium cigars imported into the United States in 2001, 50 million were wrapped with winter sweat Connecticut Shade.
“Being able to produce a good wrapper is paramount to being able to produce a good cigar,” says Edgar Cullman Jr. “Connecticut Shade is our heritage.”