If you’re very familiar with cigars at all, you probably know that a cigar is composed of a wrapper, a binder and a filler. The wrapper is the “skin” on the outside of the cigar, the binder is what holds the cigar’s filler together and the filler is the leafy tobacco on the inside. You can think of the binder as a cigar sleeve or cigar rolling paper, even though there’s no actual paper involved. Or, if you like, the wrapper is the bedspread, the binder is the sheet and the filler is…the person in the bed. What you might not know is how important the binder is to the cigar’s overall taste and character.
Anatomy of a Proper Cigar
A lot of thought and consideration goes into the filler and the wrapper of a cigar, especially for a higher-priced, premium hand-rolled cigar. The filler’s blend of tobaccos is really important, as well as the bunching of the filler leaves. The wrapper, on the other hand, is what you see when you pick a cigar up. It should be smooth and a little oily in appearance, consistent in color and with a flavor that complements the rest of the cigar.
But the binder tobacco seems to get left out of this equation.
The filler and wrapper do contribute about 60 percent of the flavor of a cigar, and have a lot to do with how it draws and its burning properties. The binder, while it may not be such a big thing to the average smoker, is pretty important indeed to the master cigar blender. It’s a specialized leaf that has to be strong enough to hold the cigar together and has to provide a surface for the wrapper to adhere to, yet it also has to blend with the flavors of the wrapper and filler.
Cigar makers refer to the binder as the capote, the Spanish word for “cloak” or “cape.” This makes sense when you consider that the binder holds the filler tobacco together, but it’s important to remember that the binder has to help the entire cigar keep burning at an even rate. Binder tobacco leaves are selected from the lower and middle “primings” of the tobacco plant. The plant’s leaves are graded according to their location on the plant itself, and the Seco and Volado primings used for binder leaves are less oily and are usually a little lighter in flavor and color. At the same time, these leaves from the middle and bottom of the plant have to be strong enough and elastic enough to hold all the filler leaves in place during the production process.
How Binder Leaves Are Harvested
The harvesting, curing and storage process has a lot to do with the final product of cigar leaves and binder leaves. When the leaves are harvested, they’re next sewn together with heavy thread and hung together in pairs to cure in the storage barn. Many pairs of leaves are hung on saltas, long wooden sticks mounted in the curing barn. Leaves often crack during this stage of the process, though, and the wrappers and better-quality binder leaves are not stitched together in pairs. Instead, they are hung out to dry on cujes, wooden sticks that are thicker and smoother than saltas. One leaf will hang on one side of the cuje, with the other on its opposite side. This protects the fragile wrapper leaves, but also prevents any holes or cracks from developing in the binder leaves. Imagine trying to drink through a straw that has a pinhole or a slit in it, and that’s the problem you’d have trying to draw smoke through a cigar that has a hole or crack in its binder layer.
So, could you have a cigar without a binder? Yes, but it wouldn’t be much of a cigar. It would be a cigar that wouldn’t burn properly or stay lit, and would never qualify as a premium cigar (whether hand-rolled or machine-made). When the binder is wrapped around the filler bunch in the manufacturing process, it needs to be done so that the finished cigar will be consistent, without hard spots, soft spots or loose filler areas. It also needs to be elastic enough that the wrapper can adhere evenly, and it should have a certain amount of porosity to be able to “breathe” and allow air and smoke to flow easily through the cigar’s length.
Every part of the cigar every leaf in the overall blend is important. But when you’re thinking about buying a good quality cigar, don’t forget the binder layer. It’s just as important as any other part of the cigar!