They say you can’t judge a book by its cover – but people absolutely judge cigars by their wrappers. The wrapper leaf is a prized possession on cigars, and is the way that many cigars are described – Connecticuts, Habanos, Maduros, etc. But just what is a cigar wrapper? What makes it so special?
Today we’re going to cover an introduction to all things cigar wrapper.
There’s a whole lot of information to learn about cigar wrappers. But even more importantly – there’s a lot of misinformation out there. From new smokers, to certified cigar lovers, to even some industry professionals, I’ve heard more myths and misquotes about cigar wrappers than you’d believe. Some people will tell you the wrapper is the most important part of the cigar and delivers all the flavor. Some will have you believe it’s nothing more than a pretty leaf to look at on the shelves. As always, the truth lies somewhere in between. So let’s jump in.
Cigar Wrapper Basics:
We’ll start with the simple definition: the cigar wrapper is the outermost leaf on any cigar. When you look at a cigar, that top leaf you’re viewing is the wrapper. Most cigars on the market have only one wrapper leaf (besides barber-pole style blends), and because this is the first visual impression you’re going to get, the wrapper is held to a very high standard.
As cigar makers are processing and buying tobacco, they’re going to inspect their crops to determine what leaf can be used as “wrapper.” There’s a few criteria a wrapper quality leaf will need to meet:
What Makes a Good Cigar Wrapper:
The leaf must be perfect, or almost perfect, in its visual quality. Cigar makers are going to be looking for no sunspots, tears, protruding veins, or anything else that might categorize the leaf as “ugly” or imperfect.
The leaf must be large enough to support whatever size cigar they want to make. Since the wrapper is just one leaf wrapped around the binder and filler a few times, it has to have enough length and width to support the format. Simply put, you can’t make a Churchill (traditionally a 7” size) with a small leaf.
The leaf should be uniform in color. This is another visual quality that cigar makers are going to be on the watch for – a cigar should appear the same shade from cap to foot. Because tobacco is a natural product, the colors can vary slightly. The best cigar makers will take an extra step of quality assurance to “color sort” their cigars once they are rolled. This ensures only cigars of the same exact shade and color go in the same box.
Elasticity. Properly grown and fermented tobacco needs enough give and pliability that the cigar roller will not tear the leaf when they wrap it around the outside of the tobacco. This can differ greatly on the type of wrapper used – a Connecticut Broadleaf has a very thick feel, while Connecticut Shade will be thinner, but slightly more brittle.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the blend, the wrapper needs to have the flavor and strength characteristics that the cigar maker has in mind for the final product. The wrapper is not the only source of flavor (more on that in a bit), but it contributes a lot to the final product. Traditionally cigar makers will roll up the wrapper leaf on its own and light it to taste the qualities of this single ingredient. You can compare this to making tomato sauce – you need good quality tomatoes, or everything else you add to the pot won’t make a difference.
Sound like a lot? You’re right. Most cigar tobacco will not make the cut for wrapper. Leaves with less aesthetic qualities might end up as binder. The rest will become filler tobacco. The good news for tobacco farmers here is that cigar wrapper can sell for five or more times what filler quality tobacco will cost. In general, cigar makers can expect to pay $25 - $50 per pound of wrapper quality tobacco, depending on the specifics.
How Important is a Cigar Wrapper?
From a purely visual perspective, they’re very important! As much as we may like to deny it, we buy with our eyes just as much as we buy with our brains. If all things were equal we’d certainly buy a nice looking cigar over one with a busted wrapper.
From a flavor perspective, it gets a little more complicated. You may have heard, 40, 50, or even 70%, of the flavor in a cigar comes from the wrapper leaf. Sure enough there are a ton of cigar makers and aficionados out there claiming a hard and fast rule around the wrapper’s contribution to the flavor. So, are any of these numbers true?
Here’s what we do know.
Mathematically, the wrapper leaf is going to contribute more flavor to thinner ring gauge cigars. This is just a simple ratio. The thicker a cigar is, the most filler leaves a blender will need to include. Thus, the more additional flavor and complexity those filler leaves can add. With a shape like a lancero or a corona, somewhere between a 38 and a 42-ring, there will be a high wrapper to filler ratio, and you should theoretically taste more of the wrapper. On a 60-ring Gordo, the wrapper to filler ratio would be lower, and you’d taste less of the wrapper.
So if we know the wrapper is the most expensive tobacco, and held to the highest quality standard, we’d probably want to smoke more thin RG cigars, right? Might as well experience the most of the wrapper as we can for our money. Well, it’s not quite that easy.
The other part of the equation here is the blend itself. Not all cigars are built equal – if we assume a blend has strong tobaccos in the filler, like high-priming Nicaraguan ligero, a master blender may choose a mellower wrapper leaf to help balance the profile. And surely some cigars are built the opposite way: smooth, flavorful filler tobaccos are made more intense by the addition of a strong Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper. In those cases, it’d be impossible to assume both cigars are gaining 60% of their flavor from their outer leaf.
The wrapper leaf is certainly an important contributor to the experience, but stating it adds up to 60% of the final flavor is a little oversimplified.
Exploring Cigar Wrappers
It’s easy to fall into a rut of only smoking cigars with very similar wrappers – many out there swear by loving Broadleaf the most, or never liking Connecticut wrapped blends, or anything similar. But if we’ve learned anything from our exploration of cigar wrappers, it should be that there are no hard and fast rules! The fun part about enjoying cigars is exploring new blends, styles, and brands – so be adventurous! Revisit a wrapper you don’t normally enjoy, or try something totally new. What you find might just surprise you.