Note: I had the privilege of attending Nick Melilo’s presentation at the PCA 2024 Convention & Trade Show. Despite my efforts to transcribe his speech and gather visuals from the slide show, I couldn’t acquire all of them. The images depicting Nicotiana Rustica and Nicotiana Tabacum are substitutes and not the exact originals showcased, however they communicate the content as the originals.

I really didn’t understand the importance of Connecticut in the cigar world until I moved to Esteli, Nicaragua in 2003. That was really, you know, speaking to many ex-Cuban pats, many Nicaraguan cigar makers, meeting them for the first time. “De donde eres?” “Where are you from?” “Connecticut.” That’s where I start to really see the reverence for Connecticut and Connecticut tobacco in the cigar world. Here I was, 24, in the north of Nicaragua amongst some of the most amazing legends in the cigar world, and the reverence and knowledge about Connecticut tobacco was really unprecedented. I’m gonna go through a very brief history of tobacco, and then we’re gonna get really focusing on the history of Connecticut and focusing on the three major seed varieties that are grown in Connecticut.

So just briefly, tobacco goes back 2.5 million years. That is a picture of the first fossilized tobacco found in Peru. Okay, this was found by a Dutch archaeologist who also discovered the saber-toothed tiger. He discovered fossilized tobacco. This is a very interesting period of time because it was the beginning of what we call the Pleistocene era. The Pleistocene era was the beginning of the ebb and flows of ice ages. So from 2.5 million years to about 15,000 years, ice ages ebbed and flowed over time, up to the last ice age about 15,000 years ago. We’re really learning about tobacco; we don’t know much about it between that period of time until the last ice age. Something very interesting happened recently this year; there was actually a site in Utah that found tobacco seeds on a site that dated 14,000 years ago.

You’re looking at a microscopic image of tobacco seeds. If anybody has seen tobacco seeds, they’re very small; they’re like a grain of sand. So those are actually the seeds that were found on that site, and this has changed our view of when tobacco was really used. About 14,000 years ago. Okay, so we don’t really understand exactly how tobacco really got to Connecticut or how long it’s been used in Connecticut. What we do know is this last ice age period. So Connecticut is a Mohegan word which means “the great tidal river,” and we’re gonna focus on that river because it’s because of this river which makes it one of the premier tobacco-growing black tobacco, cigar tobacco growing regions in the world. So Connecticut, named after the Connecticut River, which is about 410 miles long.

Okay, so this is an image of the Connecticut River today. We’re gonna go back about 15,000 years ago; this was an ice sheet. This ice sheet extended down to about Long Island, the shoreline extended another 50 miles. That’s the green line where you can see the blue; that’s the ocean was so heavy that it started to weigh on the central part of where the valley is today. As it began to recede, it began to leave what we know today as Lake Hitchcock, and you’ll be seeing that in a moment. So as the glacier recedes, you can see the lake being formed there, that is where the Connecticut River Valley is today. Okay, Lake Hitchcock about 15,000 years ago settled in about 30,000 acres in what we know as the Connecticut River Valley today. 

Okay, so that was Lake Hitchcock in Rocky Hill, it was actually plugged up for a few thousand years and then it broke free, it drained into the Long Island Sound and left the Connecticut River Delta. Isn’t that amazing? I get it, I get off on ice ages if you can tell. Okay, so here we have Lake Hitchcock. So what happened is the lake bed settled in this 30,000 acres and the lake bed left the perfect sandy loam soil for growing cigar tobacco. Okay, so we don’t know exactly the time period of when tobacco came into Connecticut. We think what happened was after the glacier receded that these seeds came up with indigenous tribes and came into the Connecticut region after the last ice age, but it’s unclear whether tobacco existed in the area you know back as far as 2 million years ago.

The strands that existed in Connecticut at the time were mainly strands called Nicotiana Rustica. Nicotiana Rustica is a wild tobacco plant that is the plant on the left, okay? What we consume as cigar smokers is the Nicotiana tobacco, which is on your right, okay? It’s a different plant structure, the Rustica is a much smaller plant, much smaller leaves, and the nicotine content in Nicotiana Rustica is about 10 to 12 times higher. Has anybody ever smoked Nicotiana Rustica in here? Oh my gosh. Okay, I smoked Nicotiana Rustica a few times. My first time was in Vietnam. I was heading to Hanoi, I stopped on the side of the road to use the restroom, and there was three gentlemen smoking a bamboo water pipe, and it didn’t smell like the lyrical chiba chiba, that other leaf, it smelled like tobacco. So I showed the interest, and the gentleman handed me the pipe, the bamboo water pipe, with a grin on their faces, and I proceeded to light it up, and I fell down on the back of my feet. I literally almost collapsed, and my head was spinning, and at that point, I kind of realized why the indigenous shaman used Rustica, right? The potency in the nicotine is what was used to really communicate with the spirit world. These strands were a bit too much for the Europeans that began to settle Connecticut in the 1600s. So early 1600s, Dutch traders navigate up to Connecticut River, a gentleman by the name of Adrian Block. Anyone familiar with Long Island Sound, Block Island is named after this gentleman. He began trading tobacco for the first time up and down the Connecticut River. This is where it really began. 

In the next installment, Nick Melilo dives into the differences between Connecticut Shade and Connecticut broadleaf, uncovering the beauty in these wonderful tobacco varietals. Stay tuned for Part Two!

Alex Mesrobian

Alex Mesrobian is a writer, stand-up comic and scratch DJ who resides in his birthplace, Los Angeles, CA. He has performed at colleges as well as several venues and festivals including the Comedy Store, Hollywood Improv, Ice House, Steve Allen Theater and others. He is currently a writer for the Emmy award-winning animation studio Klasky Csupo Inc.