What Is Barrel-Aging Tobacco?
One thing we know from experience is that every cigar-maker has their own way of doing things. This is true when it comes to aging the tobacco that goes into their cigars. Among the methods gaining popularity these days is barrel-aging. What is barrel-aging of tobacco? Well, the answer is really in the question. Barrel-aging involves the tobacco leaves being put into barrels previously used for wine, or spirits like bourbon or rum. Some cigar-makers age only wrapper leaf in barrels, others only binder or filler. This happens after the tobacco has already undergone a preliminary aging step and, in the case of one very famous cigar, is the third fermentation of the tobacco.
Just to be clear, before tobacco is rolled into cigars, the leaves are fermented. That means they are aged. This process is used to remove impurities from the tobacco, mainly using heat and time. Also, the sugar levels increase. Putting the tobacco in barrels, usually up to 95°F for a period between five months and a year, helps mellow the tobacco. During this time, the leaves are moved around in the barrel so all the leaves are exposed to the walls of the barrel.
Charring The Barrel
One aspect of aging tobacco in barrels that enhances the fermentation is the charring of the inside of the barrels. This essentially creates a charcoal filter that makes the extraction of impurities more efficient.
As mentioned, the use of barrels is about removing impurities. The barrels do not transfer flavours of the bourbon or rum to the tobacco in any significant way, for example, that they held previously. It’s possible for the resins of the tobacco to mingle with the resins in the barrel lining and that can result in modifying the flavour of the tobacco, but usually only slightly.
Barrel-aging, like much of what happens in the cigar industry, originated in Cuba and was revitalized more widely in the 1980s. Barrel-aging is utilized in Cuba’s most famous cigar brand, Cohiba. While other Cuban cigars go through two fermentations, Cohiba undergoes a third in oak barrels. This is not unanimously agreed upon as useful or even beneficial. Many believe that the third fermentation could remove more than impurities from the leaves, affecting flavor. Others think there’s no need for the third phase. Still, Cohiba is among the premier cigars using barrel-aged tobacco.