"Cigar smoking knows no politics. It's about the pursuit of pleasure, taste, and aroma."
When I first started writing this I had no idea it would be so long or in-depth. This information here is knowledge gained from my own experiences, and the opinions of other cigar smoker I know. Enjoy.
Every once in a while the opportunity arises where you may be presented with a cigar. Perhaps this cigar was given to you at a wedding, or to celebrate a birth, or perhaps at a poker night. If this was your first cigar, perhaps it was a bit of a novelty, and you may not have had any idea what to do with it other than light it and put the other end in your mouth.
The purpose of this article is to present information to the novice to help with the basics of selecting, preparing, smoking, and handmade cigars. With this information you will be well on your way to enjoying a relaxing new hobby.
Types of cigars
With a couple exceptions cigars are created in one of two ways. Machine made cigars are cigars that use chopped up bits of tobacco as the filler and are then wrapped in homogenized tobacco leaf or tobacco paper. These make up most of the cigars sold today, and are the main type that can be purchased in convenience stores and pharmacies. These cigars do not require special storage and are generally not considered to be premium cigars, and will not be covered any further in this article.
Handmade cigars are cigars that are skillfully rolled completely by hand using tobacco leaves that run the full length of the cigar. Handmade cigars are generally considered to be higher quality than the machine made kind and usually require special storage conditions to keep them in prime smokeable condition. Handmades come in any number of shapes and sizes with multiple flavors and profiles, and are a great way to kick back and relax, or to celebrate an event.
Now the first thing we must do is procure those tasty smokes
Cigars can be purchased at any number of places, from specialty tobacconists, to grocery stores, gas stations, and club houses at golf courses, and in quantities ranging from a single cigar up to boxes of 50.
For someone who is just getting into cigars a local shop that specializes in cigars in the preferable place to start. If you have smoked cigars before you may have a brand that you know. Most employees at this shop will be able to assist you in choosing your cigars. Ask them what they would recommend for a newer smoker (there is no shame in admitting it).
A couple things to consider when choosing a cigar (in no particular order)
Strength - The strength of a cigar comes from the blend of tobaccos used in rolling the cigar. The strength can be categorized as Mild, Medium or Strong. For a new smoker it would be best to stick to the mild to medium cigars. Sometimes if a new smoker chooses something to strong for themselves they get the feeling of being nauseous, light headed or turning “green”, all of these can detract the experience.
Price - A cigar can range is price anywhere from $1 to over $100. There are many great cigars out there in the lower to moderate price range. Spending more than that in the beginning may not be worth it until you know a little more about the flavor profiles you enjoy. The price of cigars can vary greatly from state to state. Some states have no additional tax on cigars, while in others the taxes can double the price. If you are interested, this site, http://fujipub.com/cigartax.html lists the taxes that are imposed on handmade cigars.
Size - When starting out choose a size that you think will fit comfortably in your mouth and in your hand. Cigars are measured two ways. The length is measured in inches or millimeters, and the width is measured in Ring Gauge where 1 ring gauge is equal to 1/64th of an inch. This means that a cigar with a gauge of 48 is 3/4 of an inch wide. Most new smokes choose to stare with a Robusto sized cigar, this size usually has the dimensions of 5x50 or 5 inches long and a ring gauge of 50. This size can give the new smoker enough of a flavor profile, and a size that can be comfortable to hold, and kept from burning too hot while smoking.
Flavor – There are 3 parts to each handmade cigar. On the inside there is what is called the filler. These leaves make up the blend of the cigar and give the cigar some of its flavor and most of its strength. The binder is made up of wider leaves of the tobacco plant and is wrapped around the filler to give the cigar its shape. Outside of the binder is the wrapper, the leaves used as the wrapper are the same leaves used in the binder but are of a higher grade and should be without flaws such as holes, blemishes, and sunspots. Most of the flavors you taste come from the wrapper.
There are various types of wrappers used in rolling cigars. Often a cigar maker will make different cigars using the same blend for the filler and wrap the cigar in a different wrapper thus changing the flavor profile of the cigar. Some of the most common wrappers are;
Connecticut – A light colored leaf with a light flavor profile.
Natural – Lighter to Dark Brown with a fuller bodied taste
Maduro – A Dark Brown to Black leaf that can be very full and sweet tasting.
Other thing to consider when buying
Humidity – Cigars should be stored between 63% and 70% relative humidity. Some shops set their humidity to be higher to account for people opening and closing the door all day long. These cigars can benefit from resting for a couple days before smoking to let the humidity drop a little inside the cigar.
Construction - A cigar should feel firm with a slight give if gently squeezed in the middle. Check to make sure the foot (the open end) and the head (the closed end) are in good condition, if either appears to be cracked or unraveling select a different cigar.
So now you have the perfect cigar, and you are ready to smoke.
Cut the cap
One accessory that you will need is a cigar cutter to open up the head of the cigar and prepare it to be lit. Please see thirdeye’s article on the method and ways to cut a cigar.
Now that you have cut the cap you are ready to smoke.
Before lighting the cigar place in your mouth and suck in gently, this does two things,
1. It tests the draw to make sure it is not too tight. A cigar that is difficult to draw through will not burn properly and will not be enjoyable to smoke.
2. The prelight draw can enable to you pick up some of the flavors of the tobacco before it is lit. These flavors may stay or the may change as you progress through the cigar.
Lighting the cigar
To light the cigar you obviously will need a flame source of some sort. Matches can work, but can also be tricky, for a new smoker a butane gas lighter will work the best. You will want to start someplace where you will be out of the wind. Start by holding the cigar in your hand and hold the foot of the cigar above the flame of the lighter without touching the flame to the foot. Imagine you are toasting a marshmallow, keep rotating the cigar to evenly toast the entire foot. The purpose of this is to evenly light the entire cigar. Once the foot has turned black you are ready to fully light the cigar.
Hold the lighter in one hand and with the other hold the cigar between your lips. The foot of the cigar still should not touch the flame. Gently start drawing air in though the cigar and the flame will jump from the lighter towards the foot. The goal here is to light the foot of the cigar without scorching its sides. Rotate the cigar in your lips so that the entire foot is evenly lit. From toasting the foot, to having the cigar completely lit could take up to 30 seconds. Don’t rush this process; having the cigar properly lit is an important step to having an even burn through out the cigar. Avoid lighting a cigar like a cigarette where the foot is stuck into the middle of the flame and drawn through. This will char too much of the cigar and impart a harsh taste.
Now that you have the cigar lit sit back and relax. Smoking is an activity that uses most of the senses. Draw the smoke into you mouth but never inhale. Let it roll over your tongue, try to describe the flavor. Some common descriptors are
How does the cigar feel in your hand? Look at the burn, is it straight or is the burn uneven? A well constructed cigar will burn evenly throughout the smoke. Take a puff only a couple times a minute. If it starts to get harsh slow down your smoking. Try to notice if the flavors change as you progress through the cigar.
Smoke the cigar as long as you like. Some people stop at the band some people take the band off and keep smoking. Leave the ash on the cigar. This will help to keep the cigar burning cool. The ash can be removed once it get to ¾ or 1 inch in length, or before it falls off on your shirt. If the cigar goes out knock the ash off and blow through the cigar to remove any of the off tastes and then relight. When relighting you don’t have to toast the foot again just hold the foot near the flame a draw the smoke in.
If at any point you start to feel light headed or upset to your stomach stop smoking for a second, these are common effects of the nicotine. Try drinking a soda or eating some chocolate, the sugar will help those feeling pass.
If you enjoy smoking a couple times a week you may want to purchase multiple cigars to that you can smoke at your convenience without having to go to the cigar store every time you want to smoke. This brings up to the topic of properly storing those precious cigars.
Typically cigars are stored in a wooden box called a humidor; the purpose of this is to keep the cigars in an environment with a consistent humidity and temperature, however humidors can be expensive and there are other things that cigars can be successfully stored in. We cover these by starting small and moving onto larger storage solutions. Almost all smokers go through this progression.
Plastic bag – When you buy cigars the employee at the store should put them into a plastic zipper bag of some sort. This can be used to store your cigars fine for up to 1 weeks without humidification.
If you have cigars that you will not be smoking right away or have more than say 5 you will want something a sturdier than a bag.
Tupperware (Tupperdore) – Any clean odor free type of Rubbermaid or Tupperware container can be used to hold cigars. Lay them down inside the container. At this point if you are keeping a supply on hand you also will want to add a humidification device. (more on humidification later)
Humidor – Once you start having a supply of cigars on hand eventually you will want to keep them in a proper humidor. A small “desktop” humidor can hold up to 100 cigars. These can be purchase in cigar shops but can usually be had for a better value online. When shopping there are a couple things to keep in mind.
Aesthetics – you obviously want something that will be attractive
Size – Here’s a tip buy big, bigger than you think you will ever need. Ask anyone with a desktop humidor, eventually you will need more space.
The seal – Moisture is kept inside by the lid creating a seal with the bottom. This is not an airtight seal but should fit snugly. A good humidor will make a shoosh sound when it is allowed to close.
A humidor can be made out of many materials but the inside should be lined with Spanish Cedar. (Spanish Cedar is not the same as the Red Cedar that is used in cedar closets. Red Cedar is very aromatic and will ruin cigars.) Spanish Cedar absorbs and releases humidity and acts as a buffer to keep the cigars at a more stable humidity. Before using it a new humidor must be seasoned to ensure proper humidity. Once seasoned the cigars can be placed inside and left to live a happy life until they are ready to be enjoyed. Like the Tupperdor a humidification device is needed to ensure proper conditions inside the humidor.
Various devices are used to humidify humidors. Most come with some sort of foam device that you add cigar juice to which is a 50% / 50% mix of distilled water and propylene glycol. Gels can be purchased that you add water to and it is released slowly over a period of weeks. My preferred method is using humidity beads, which are silica beads that are set to a specific humidity E.g. (65% ) and they absorb moisture over that Relative Humidity and release it when the Humidity drops below that RH
Anything beyond this is past the scope of this article. Lots of information can be found on the internet and there are great forums similar to ours here dedicated to the discussion of all aspects of cigars.