From revolutionary tyros like Fidel Castro to democratic icons like John F Kennedy (who made sure to get a thousand H Upmann Petits out of Cuba ahead of the Bay of Pigs invasion), cigars have long been symbols of power. And potentially more, if you ask some psychoanalysts.
No surprise, then, that Mao Zedong was a fan too. The Chinese leader first took a puff one afternoon in 1956, during a chat with He Long, one of the generals that helped found the People’s Republic in 1949. The military man had praised the rich flavour of the cigar he was smoking. Mao – until then a devotee of Zhonghua cigarettes – asked to try one and he was soon hooked. From that point on Mao sent staff to Sichuan each month to bring back fresh boxes of the brand in question, called Great Wall Cigar.
Great Wall remains extraordinarily popular today, a reflection of an economy with plenty of businessmen keen to celebrate success with a stogie or two. New Weekly reports that the Great Wall factory has ramped up production from 126 million sticks in 2003 to 2.37 billion last year. Its new factory is actually capable of upping the total significantly again, making it by far the largest producer in Asia.
The facility – which makes everything from the deluxe hand-rolled variety favoured by Mao to cheaper machine-made types – is in Shifang, a city near Chengdu. The area has produced tobacco since the late Ming Dynasty. “The significance of cigars to Shifang is on a par with that of baijiu (white liquor) to Guizhou, rice wine to Shaoxing and red wine to Bordeaux,” comments New Weekly, noting that Shifang benefits from a climate that’s mild all year long.
The city produced its first cigar in 1895, but didn’t go into higher volume production until 1918. By 1940 it was producing 100 million sticks before it fell into state ownership after the revolution, and was renamed the Sichuan Wenjiang Yichuang Tobacco Factory.
Locals put the quality of Shifang’s tobacco down to the region’s soil. There is also a theory that Shifang’s position – at latitude 30 degrees north – is especially propitious. The same latitude has produced four ancient civilisations, New Weekly reckons. Probably more relevant for Shifang’s marketing pitch: it is also a similar latitude to Havana, home to some of the world’s most respected smokes.
For its finest cigars, Great Wall processes the tobacco leaves through three steps: adding liquor and steaming; soaking in premium scented water; then adding cinammon wine and leaving to dry. This elaborate method is supposed to reduce tar content by 30% and is said to make the cigars less irritating to the throat – apparently a key reason why Mao liked them so much.
Thanks to an agreement with Altadis and Royal Dutch Agio Cigars, the Great Wall brand is now set to go on sale in Europe and North America too. So cigar aficionados will be able to taste for themselves if they match up to Cubans…
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