Tech Notes 1 - Characterization of Cuban Cigar Tobaccos


Hi everyone and welcome to this, the first installment of an ongoing series of posts that seek to bring the technical world of cigars and tobacco to the average smoker. As enthusiasts and aficionados, we live in the sensual world. The language we use when talking about our hobby is descriptive, colorful and can even approach the poetic. But on the other side of the leaf, there are people to whom tobacco is a job. These people are the makers of tobacco products, scientists interested in tobacco husbandry and members of government agencies charged with preserving tobacco products tax income. These people are intensely concerned with aspects of tobacco that we might never become aware of even after a lifetime of smoking. Still, their work can often indirectly affect our enjoyment of cigars. So, pull up a chair, pour a tall one, and spark up your favorite stick and join me as I guide you through the mysterious underworld and backwaters of tobacco science.

The first article up for analysis is one that some of you might have heard about in the popular press. It concerns an issue that is near and dear to us; the authentication of Cuban cigars. However, while we're concerned with insuring that the cigars we purchase are the real deal, there are others to whom the issue of authentication is much more weighty. In this case, it is the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency and the concern is with tax revenues. For those who have traveled to the Great White North and purchased cigars there as I have, you're well acquainted with the rapacious taxes on Cuban cigars. It is in the government's interest to insure that every purchase of a Habanos product involves authentic goods imported by Havana House (the authorized distributor of Cuban cigars in Canada) precisely because these taxes are collected.

Without further ado, let's get on with the exposé. Since this is the first installment, the format may evolve as the approach gets refined. So please bear with me as we learn together the best way to present this type of information.

Original Citation
"Characterization of Cigar Tobaccos by Gas Chromatographic/Mass Spectrometric Analysis of Nonvolatile Organic Acids: Application to the Authentication of Cuban Cigars"
by: Lay-Keow Ng, Michel Hupé, Micheline Vanier, and Dennis Moccia
in: Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2001, volume 49, pages 1132-1138

From the introduction:
"Cuban cigars are acknowledged as among the finest in the world. Illegal sales of smuggled or counterfeit Cuban cigars have sprung up in recent years to meet the high demand for the commodity...such activities result in the loss of millions of dollars in national revenues."

Problems statement:
Develop a quick and reliable method to differentiate cigars of Cuban origin from cigars using tobacco from other countries.

Theoretical Basis:
Tobacco contains two signature chemical compounds (nicotine and solanone) in addition to a potpourri of other biochemicals. By turning leaf into cigars this mash of "stuff" undergoes a transformation into a characteristic chemical "profile" that reflects:
1. the genetics of the tobacco plant
2. the agricultural conditions and processes experienced by the plant (soil, fertilization, weather)
3. the processing conditions and history experienced by the tobacco (curing and fermenting techniques)

Why should this work for Cuban cigars?
1. The Cubans tightly control their seed and tobacco strain resources. As one of their largest revenue sources (behind sugar and tourism) and as a result of historical disasters due to Blue Mold, they conduct ongoing research into developing varieties of tobacco with disease resistance and yield in mind. Nobody can just plant seeds and grow leaf. Farmers are given live seedlings by the Station of Tobacco and they are not allowed to let plants go to seed. As a result, the genetics of Cuban tobacco are highly uniform.

2. Much has been said about the contribution of the Cuban climatic conditions and the legendary Vuelta Abajo soil to the quintessential character of the Havana cigar. From the smoker's perspective, this debate has no resolution. However, for the purposes of this analytical technique, this isolation and high degree of control over the husbandry (processes of growing and cultivation) of tobacco provides the consistency that is critical for success.

3. The processing of tobacco, though carried out in relatively primitive conditions, is precisely monitored and well practiced after decades of refinement. Curing, fermenting, and aging are managed with great consistency of technique. This lends yet another dimension of regularity that is essential for this analysis.

The Target:
The authors of this study selected a group of organic acids around which to develop a fingerprint profile. These were compounds such as glyceric and malic acids and bear no relation to nasty inorganic acids like hydrochloric and sulfuric. I won't go into the reasons why this class of chemicals were selected other than to say that the relative amounts of these have been used by other researchers to identify other types of tobacco.

The Technique:
They selected the technique of gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry or GC/MS. This is a common and powerful technique that can do two things critical to solving this particular challenge.
1. GC is able to separate the various organic acids in the leaf extract.
2. MS is able to identify those separated components.

In essence, they obtained cigars, disassembled them, ground up the leaves and extracted the target chemicals for analysis and then subjected them to GC/MS for separation and identification.

18 different Cuban cigars provided by Havana House
31 different non-Cuban manufactured cigars (10 from Honduras, 6 from the Dominican Republic, 5 each from the U.S. and Nicaragua, 2 from Mexico and 1 each from Brazil, Jamaica, and Aruba)

They fully acknowledged that cigars made in a non-Cuban country could contain tobacco from a number of different national origins and they simply grouped all the NC cigars together as "non-Cuban." While they did separate the wrapper from the filler and the binder, it is unclear whether they tested binder at all or whether they grouped it in with the wrapper or filler. Their results only identified wrapper and filler testing.

The Data Analysis:
I won't go into the details of the GC/MS tests. It would be constructive only to say that this test did in fact yield chemical profiles that were distinctive of Cuban and non-Cuban tobacco. These profiles consisted of eleven chemicals found in all tobaccos but at specific and varying ratios.

By using the statistical data reduction technique of principal components analysis (PCA) the investigators were able to identify two aspects of these profiles which accounted for an astonishing 98% of the explanatory power of the analytical technique. This is an incredibly high number which means that the ability and reliability of this test to differentiate Cuban and non-Cuban tobacco is very robust.

The Results:
Filler tobaccos - With the exception of a single specimen, ALL the Cuban cigars clustered in one group completely apart from the cluster of non-Cubans. I cannot reproduce the PCA chart without permission but it was very clear that Cuban and non-Cuban filler tobaccos were clearly and distinctly separate groupings.

Wrapper tobaccos - Unlike the stunning results of the filler tests, the wrapper samples showed no discernible natural grouping. In other words, Cuban and non-Cuban wrapper tobaccos were indistinguishable from each other.

1. It appears that these researchers have indeed developed a quick and reliable analytical method that is capable of distinguishing Cuban from non-Cuban tobacco and thus presumably authentic from counterfeit Cuban cigars. While this may prove effective in detecting counterfeits of non-Cuban origin, the same factors that render the Cuban fingerprint so reliable may make the detection of Cuban-made counterfeits impossible with this method.

2. Why did the test work wonderfully with the filler tobaccos yet fail with the wrapper tobacco? Although the authors made no mention of this, as smokers, we are well acquainted with the sales tagline "Cuban seed" tobacco. I think that if any significant number of these wrappers were made from Cuban-seed tobacco, then they might well carry a genetic component that is very similar to Cuban-grown leaf. If this is the case, then one of the three factors identified above as contributing to the development of a characteristic fingerprint profile is wiped out.

Additionally, since most references state that (aside from maduro) natural wrappers are always processed at gentler temperatures than filler and binder tobaccos, this means that there may be a lower degree of transformation of chemical components as a result of the processing. This would mean the specific contribution of a second fingerprint factor would be reduced.

These two issues may well have contributed to the failure of this technique with wrappers. I'm presuming that the investigators were not avid cigar smokers or students of tobacco science. As a result, they would not be aware of these mitigating issues.

3. As far as any practical results of this work, for us, there is none. This is not a test that we could do in our kitchens. And, since there is an embargo of Cuban goods, this is not an issue for those U.S. organizations concerned with tax revenue. However, the BATF Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is presently conducting very similar tests on tobacco discrimination and could well adopt this method if and when Cuban cigars become available and taxable.

Feel free to post questions or requests for clarification.


Whew! Whatta book. It may not be perfect, but it's a starting point. I'm looking to you guys to give me some guidance as to what you liked and what you might like to see done differently.

I have many other interesting articles ready to go. Here are some potential topics for upcoming installments:

- Expert opinion and Cuban cigar brand reputation effects on cigar ratings
- Relationship between price and quality in premium cigars
- The curing of cigar tobacco and chemical changes
- Fermentation of cigar-type tobaccos
- Identification of components of cigar-smoker's breath
- History of Labor in the Cuban cigar industry 1860-1958
- Cigars and cigarettes as image makers
- Teenagers and cigars/blunts


Edit: Clarify terminology

Edit: I was under the mistaken impression that sugar continues to be a major export for Cuba. Upon further research, I've found that this is not the case. Based on an Economist Intelligence Unit country report on Cuba, 2006, I've learned that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's sugar industry has contracted significantly since 1990. At present, tourism leads the income stream at $2.58B (2005) with minerals (mainly nickel), sugar, and tobacco at $1.02B, $271M, and $217M, respectively (2004).

This post has been edited by Ginseng: Jun 16 2006, 04:47 PM


Stop it! That tickles!
Wow, nice Wilkey thanks. I actually understood...thanks for taking it down to my level.

I like these two potential topics...
- Relationship between price and quality in premium cigars
- The curing of cigar tobacco and chemical changes



J.C. Newman owes me royalties.
Great stuff Wilkey. What a good read. I can tell I'll be learning a lot from these installments.

Of all the topics the most interesting to me is:

- Relationship between price and quality in premium cigars

But all of them would be good to find out some more info on.


Self-Proclaimed Everyman's Man
I'd like to see a serious, technical discussion on the last option: 'Teenagers and cigars/blunts'.

Can it be done with all the hippies on this board?


'From man's sweat and God's love, beer came to be.
great read,WILKEY, thanks for the effort. cigars and cigarettes as image makers sounds interesting. just why cigars are identified with manly men and not cigarettes. interesting indeed! :cool:


Cigar Ambassador
Wow, Wilkey...thanks so much. That is really interesting.
I would love to read about and dicuss
- Expert opinion and Cuban cigar brand reputation effects on cigar ratings
- Relationship between price and quality in premium cigars
- Teenagers and cigars/blunts (though I must add that any similarities between these "cigars" let alone blunts, and the hobby that we enjoy are so nominal as to barely merit discussion on this board. Of course, the public's PERCEPTION of similarities may well be a matter worthy of discussion)

Thanks again, I look forward to more!


Das Bruce
How long will it be before those damned ORGANIC CHEMISTS begin using these empircal methods to "fingerprint" all cigars? I find it odd that they weren't able to get their hands around compounds of various NC tobaccos.


If it ain't's crap!
That's our Wilkey, with a nice short answer!
all kidding aside, very nice piece of work.


Daddy still loves Padrón!
I feel like an idiot after reading this post. My head hurts. Wilkey, you're a huge cigar-geek. :sign:

Other topics that I think might be interesting would be:

- Expert opinion and Cuban cigar brand reputation effects on cigar ratings
- Fermentation of cigar-type tobaccos
- History of Labor in the Cuban cigar industry 1860-1958
- Cigars and cigarettes as image makers


That is an interesting bit about the wrappers being indistinguishable. Though wrapper leaf is grown and processed differently, it is still a tobacco leaf and should therefore be either coban or non-cuban, and identifiable through this test like any other tobacco. I can only think of two possible reasons why their test would fail:

1. The chemicals upon which these tests are predicated are somehow destroyed in the wrapper leaf growing/curing process, or
2. Habanos S.A. is using non-Cuban leaf for their wrappers.

Can anybody think of any other reasons this test would fail on wrapper leaf?



To boldly troll where no Troll has trolled before
Very interesting although one thing that did catch my eye quite quickly was the mention of the discerning of the wrappers and the Cuban seed origin. Might one presume that if a cigar that is constructed of entirely Cuban seed (filler, binder, and wrapper) it maybe be indiscernible from a Cuban cigar based on this type of fingerprinting?



Rare Stamp & Coin Dealer
Great article, would like to read about:
- Expert opinion and Cuban cigar brand reputation effects on cigar ratings
- Relationship between price and quality in premium cigars


Sleeping not so peacefully
Gin- "Min Ron" -seng,

Excellent work! You really should compile your articles into a book for publication.


Meat is murder! Tasty, tasty murder.
This is just outstanding!

I love this kind of stuff and don't get to read nearly as much technical and analytical material now as I did in college. I'd love to see any of the other topics discussed.

Thank you, Wilkey, for putting this together.


BBQn, Smokin & Ridin
Fantastic writeup, I can't wait for the next one. I found the section about the wrapper particularly interesting.


My other hobby
Very nice. I learned I had to stop and look up "rapacious" (grasping, extortionate, predatory).