From Cuban to Toscano. Cigars in Italy from the nineties to the present

9 gennaio 2023

The association between good drinking and slow smoking is a time-honored, deeply rooted tradition among lovers of the leaf. One of the leading players in the rum market, it is no coincidence that Velier played a key role in the history of cigars, which saw a real revolution in Italy starting from the 1990s. 

To tell you all about it we met Stefano Fanticelli, president of the “Maledetto Toscano” club and an old acquaintance at Velier. 

Cuban cigars in Italy, Velier’s role

The history of Cuban cigars in Italy is marked by a real turning point connected to Velier. 

It all started back in the nineties, when the nightlife scene was dominated by rum. Those years saw the emergence of a real cultural phenomenon, with a whole generation of young people discovering the rum universe as well as taking a keen interest in the culture, music and dances of the Caribbean countries. The same period also saw a boom in Italian tourism to the Caribbean, especially Cuba. In this climate of increasing interest in Cuban culture across the Italian peninsula, associating rum and cigars was inevitable. 

This in turn led to Velier’s active involvement in the world of slow smoking. 

On the score of this growing interest, during the nineties a large number of events were held across Italy featuring rum and cigar tastings. Given its constant search for innovation in the rum industry, it was only natural for Velier to participate. 

One of the cigar lovers Velier president Luca Gargano met over those years was Andrea Vincenzi, a young wine and food enthusiast who eventually involved Velier in a number of tastings with Cuban cigars – exclusive events often taking place in fashionable places. 

Thus introduced to a small niche of Italian cigar enthusiasts, Luca Gargano and Velier made the acquaintance of leading Italian cigar experts like Lauda Air CEO Andrea Molinari and future president of the “Maledetto Toscano” club Stefano Fanticelli. 

However, at the time Cuban cigar imports into Italy were rather small. Italy was in fact the last European country to end the tobacco State Monopoly at the urging of the EU, and even after the Monopoly was abolished and the establishment of the ETI, the Italian Tobacco Authority, there was no real change. As a result, the availability of Cuban cigars on the Italian market continued to be as limited as it had been under the Monopoly. As recently as 1999, only very few Habanos vitolas were imported. 

For this reason, during the nineties, despite the growing popularity of Caribbean tobacco, die-hard fans had to buy their cigars in France, Switzerland, Spain or directly from Cuba. Even tasting organizers obtained “specimens” only by personally acquiring them on foreign markets. 

In order to import cigars directly into Italy, Lauda Air CEO Andrea Molinari started negotiations with the Cuban government and proposed Velier as a distributor, provided an agreement could be reached. 

However, negotiations were far from easy as Italian institutions made it difficult to import tobacco products outside the Monopoly. It would take almost two years and many trips to Cuba before finally reaching the goal. 

At the institutional level meetings took place with Fidel Castro himself as well as with Don Alejandro Robaina, a name most lovers of the leaf are familiar with. As Luca Gargano tells in his memoir, “Don Alejandro is an eighty-year-old with a wrinkle-furrowed face and a young boy’s bright eyes. He has owned tobacco plantations since before Fidel Castro’s government, and when Fidel took power he was one of the few who was allowed to stay on his property and continue working, even though he has effectively become an employee with a state salary. He’s the only one whom Castro has granted the honor of having a cigar brand named after him.”

Despite immediately reaching an understanding, countless complications would drag negotiations on into the new millennium, when the cigar import business finally started. 

On March 12, 2000 a company called Diadema was established at Via Byron 14, Genoa, on the upper floor of what were then Velier’s headquarters, with Andrea Vincenzi as president. 

Velier became the general distributor of Cuban cigars in Italy, leading to a renewed interest in slow smoking across the country with the involvement of a number of cigar experts and the goal of educating people and promoting premium cigars previously unknown in the country. 

Italian excellence, the world of Toscano

In this context, Velier’s path came to cross that of many Cuban and other cigar enthusiasts like the abovementioned Stefano Fanticelli, who would soon shift his attention to the Italian cigar par excellence – the Toscano. “We got the idea of focusing almost entirely on Toscano cigars about two years after meeting Andrea Molinari, who had founded Cigar in Milan in May 1997,” says Stefano.

And that was how, just a few months before the Diadema company was established, the “Maledetto Toscano” club was founded in Foiano della Chiana, with Stefano as the current president. 

Founded by Roberto Fanticelli and Aroldo Marconi, “Maledetto Toscano” is the first club dedicated to the Toscano cigar – and much more. “Over the years, we’ve started exploring the tobacco culture with a 360-degree view, including in the world of art,” explains Stefano. For example, the club holds live concerts of Ennio Morricone’s music, calling to mind the cigars Clint Eastwood smokes in Sergio Leone’s Western films for which Morricone produced the soundtracks. In addition, the club’s interests reach beyond a direct association with cigars and touch on many aspects of Italian, and especially Tuscan, culture as a whole. Some examples are the operatic music of Puccini, Verdi and Mascagni; the pictorial art of Franz Borghese and Antonio Possenti; but most of all, frequent readings of the Divine Comedy, paying homage to “the maledetto par excellence – Dante Alighieri,” explains Fanticelli, “who also appears in our club’s logo with the devil lighting his cigar.”

The location of the club’s headquarters is no coincidence. Kentucky tobacco has been grown in Val di Chiana for over a hundred years. It’s quite a romantic tradition, as it begins with the story of a cigar officially “created by mistake” in 1815.

The story of how Toscano cigars originated is well known. It all began when a batch of tobacco that had accidentally got wet during a downpour in the summer of 1815 was left out to dry, with the idea of using it to produce low-cost cigars. However, against all expectations, the cigars immediately met with favor among smokers, giving rise to a very distinctive product.

As Stefano Fanticelli explains, the first experiments growing Kentucky tobacco in Val di Chiana only date back to 1876, and it wasn’t before the late nineteenth century that tobacco became a regular crop, both in Val di Chiana and Val Tiberina. 

This in turn created the need for a facility where the valuable leaves could be stored. And so in 1901 the Tobacco Farming agency was established in Foiano della Chiana, opening in 1903.

Today, in a thriving tobacco market, Toscano cigars are still a premium all-Italian product exported all over the world. For example, just last September Antico Toscano was named “Best cigar other countries” at the Cigar trophy award 2022 organized by international magazine Cigar Journal. 

A one-of-a-kind cigar

The growing and processing methods of Toscano cigars have remained the same as when it was first created. Once harvested and dried, the tobacco is delivered to Foiano della Chiana, then directed to two production facilities – one in Lucca where the long pieces are made, a small percentage of which by hand, and one in Cava dei Tirreni in the Campania region which produces Toscanelli, including ammezzati (pre-cut in half) and flavored cigars.

Nothing has changed over the decades. The problems that have recently arisen have to do with climate and – consequently – the crops: “Over the last fifteen years, climatic conditions have been severely affecting crops,” explains Fanticelli. “In tobacco, the climate mainly affects combustibility, which is the plant’s chief quality in cigar production.” 

To preserve and protect this valuable product, the headquarters of the “Maledetto Toscano” club have recently seen the addition of a real vault, where the club has decided to store the most valuable pieces, vintage specimens, limited and handmade editions. 

As Fanticelli explains, “Our collection of unique pieces, including limited editions of the finest Toscano cigars and much more, which we now keep in our new vault, began in the late 1990s. That means it goes back over 25 years. In total, today the vault houses about 8,000 pieces, of which about 800 Moro. The finest are obviously handmade, like Originale – a cigar you can of course find in any tobacco store, but which we’ve been ageing for twenty years. Other examples are Selected, different vintages of Millennium and Toscano Magnum, with the most valuable piece coming from a production line started in 1999 by a single cigar maker by the name of Liliana Bucci. It was released in 2000 in 2,300 pieces. We have collected samples from both the 2021 and 2022 vintage, with production rising to over 10,000 units in the last year. Our collection allows us to have vertical tastings of this excellent cigar and appreciate its evolution over the years and the innumerable nuances a cigar can have.

What to drink during a slow smoke

When we asked him to tell us about pairing cigars and drinks, Stefano Fanticelli’s answer was cautious. “This is a very complex topic. For me it has been, and still is, a very long journey I’ve devoted over thirty years of my life to.” 

But he was also keen to add that “I don’t like the word ‘pairing’. It makes me think of matching furniture or the color of your clothes. There are many variables when it comes to taste and smell, not just in terms of the endless possibilities offered by slow smoking and whatever we choose to drink with it. It’s also about your background, personal taste and, let’s admit it, your wallet, because things like spirits, wine and cigars often have an extremely wide price range.” 

We could start by generally grouping cigars into broad categories, as Stefano Fanticelli himself often holds tastings where cigars are paired with drinks of different kinds and origins, including chinotto and beer. 

As he himself emphasizes, it’s always worthwhile to go beyond common pairing notions. 

For example, we know that, when it comes to spirits, both premium American bourbons and Scottish single malts have a great depth of taste which, depending on the flavoring and smoking process, is well-known to pair perfectly with a good slow smoke. But it’s equally well known that both culturally and historically, the first spirit that comes to mind in association with slow smoking is rum. 

The pairing of cigars and rum is a celebrated, time-honored tradition. After all, rum and cigars, particularly Habanos, come from the same geographical area, so it’s only natural to associate them. Our imagination immediately goes to Cuba and Ernest Hemingway’s literary atmospheres, as well as to the Caribbean people’s simple popular custom of sitting in the evening in the company of friends and family, drinking rum and smoking a good cigar in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere.

After all, historically many cigar producers also made rum, and a glass of rum and a cigar are a mainstay of the Caribbean culture and palate in all layers of society. 

As a general rule, when pairing cigars and spirits, particularly rum or whisky, the spirit’s structure and body should match those of the cigar. 

The president of the “Maledetto Toscano” club, however, rejects this categorizing, simplistic concept and again stresses, “I avoid the term ‘pairing’ because I have a very distinctive approach. I like to consider each case, each bottle, just as I do with each cigar. I have no preconceptions and I approach each different cigar in relation to each different glass.” 

In this regard, Fanticelli warns us against those who suggest - or worse, impose - overly specific pairings. “I don’t like to say, ‘that cigar goes with that bottle’. These recommended combinations are usually a stretch, often for promotional purposes. Each glass has its own dignity and, in addition to the personal preferences I spoke about earlier, we should also consider that everyone simply goes through different stages in life. For example, I started with rum for historical and cultural reasons, but lately I’ve been more interested in whisky. These days I’m also very fond of Calvados, though it’s not very well-known and doesn’t have a large market in Italy.”

Unsurprisingly, Fanticelli goes on to point out that, aside from wines and spirits, when it comes to enhancing the pleasure of a slow smoke much less obvious pairings should not be discounted – like craft beer. “Some of them are amazing. They’re dubbed ‘couch beers’ or ‘meditation beers’.”

This may sound rather vague, but it’s actually just the opposite - vagueness is not taking into account the endless possible variables in each tasting, considering that each drink and each cigar has its own specificities and bringing them together multiplies these variables exponentially. 

“We should always keep in mind that talking about cigars is a bit like talking about wine and winemaking. There are many factors coming into play - production year, ageing, place of origin…”

So a lot depends not just on personal taste or different life stages, but also on one’s current state of mind. 

“So, for example, I personally don't like over-sweet rum. I prefer agricultural rum of the French school, to use the old historical classification, that is, the one before Luca Gargano’s. Also, as I’ve stressed several times, I don't like white or red wine with my cigar. Instead, it would be worthwhile to explore that amazing Italian heritage that is the amaro, infusions with macerations, and the world of cocktails, which also offers endless opportunities to experiment. Clearly, when it comes to drinking spirits together with a good cigar, we can literally travel the world!”

In conclusion, we could say that the first and foremost piece of advice we got from the president of the “Maledetto Toscano” club is to always be wary of all cliches. “Even journalists often wax poetical or talk about fixed rules and paths, whereas I always say that it’s best to be very eclectic. When they say, ‘This is the road you must follow,’ I answer that I prefer to be like Magellan and seek my own road. Blaze new trails. That’s why our tastings now even include mezcal…”