The world of cigars can often be overwhelming and confusing to newcomers. There are many industry specific terms, hundreds of brands, a dozen different tobacco producing countries, and many different sizes, shapes, and colors. In these ways cigars are very similar to wine. Because taste is subjective, there are no universal truths concerning flavor. Try many different cigars and find what you like best. Find a local cigar shop, preferably one with a lounge. For many cigars are a social thing; enjoyed best with the company of other cigar smokers. The following is offered as a guide of sorts. Cigar terminology is Spanish in origin and can be very confusing for newbies. Don’t get frustrated. Cigars, like wetshaving, is about taking your time and enjoying yourself. It’s a whole new world to explore and learn all about.
One of the first things to consider when choosing a cigar is how it was made; the most preferred is handmade. There are also machine made cigars. Machine made cigars are often not kept in a humidor, but rather in shrink wrapped cardboard boxes offered for sale at convenience stores or gas stations. You should seek out handmade cigars that are properly stored in a humidor. Conventional wisdom is to keep your cigars at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and at 70% RH (relative humidity). At these levels cigars can be kept indefinitely. In fact aged cigars can often bring a higher price than new cigars. The reason is that aging changes the flavor of cigars, often for the better. Some prefer lower RH levels but anything between 60 and 70% should be fine. Avoid buying cigars, or keeping your own, at temperatures above 75 degrees or RH levels over 75%. This will cause mold growth. Another consideration is what type of filler a cigar is made with. There are two basic types; long and short filler. Short filler is ground tobacco. Long filler is leaves layered on top of one another which are bunched/rolled. Long filler is much preferred. Most but not all handmade cigars use long filler. All machine made cigars use short filler. There are a few very tasty cigars made with short filler, so do not discount them altogether. Handmade cigars are the focus of this post from here forward.
To help understand a little more about cigars it is helpful to know how they are put together. Cigars are made of filler, a binder, a wrapper, and a cap. The filler makes up the bulk of the cigar. The binder is an elastic leaf used to hold the filler into shape. Often cigars are bunched with the binder then pressed into a mold. Next the wrapper leaf is applied. A small amount of wrapper leaf is then used to cap the head of the cigar. Most handmade cigars have a capped head. You cut the head and light the foot.
Cigars can have filler, binder, and wrapper leaf originating from a single country or multiple countries. Each tobacco producing country has different regions; each of which has different soil, climate, and often different strains of tobacco. These can be combined or blended to give an endless number of flavor combinations. A few years ago Dominican cigars dominated the market. Recently Nicaraguan cigars have been the rage. Obviously Cuba is famous for its cigars. Unlike other countries, Cuba does not blend their tobacco. This means all Cuban cigars are puros, or 100% pure from a single country of origin. There are also Nicaraguan puros, Dominican puros, etc. Cuban cigars also have many rumors and legalities swirling around them. The fact is the USA has a standing embargo against Cuba. The law therefore prevents any American from purchasing, selling, importing, transporting, or consuming any Cuban goods. Due to this, they have a certain aura about them. Many Cuban cigars are exceptional. However, do not discount non-Cuban cigars. Also, do not seek the word Cuba or Cuban in any US based stores or websites. At best you’ll be deceived and at worst you could get yourself in trouble. Many non-Cuban cigars advertise themselves as “Cuban seed” or similar. While the leaf they grow may have originated in Cuba, it really makes little difference. Pay no attention to these often misleading claims. Don’t avoid these brands; just don’t lend a lot of credence to the Cuban labels or names attached to non-Cuban cigars.
This brings us to marcas (or brands). I’m sure you’ll notice there are a number of brands that exist in both Cuban and non-Cuban form. They have nothing to do with one another. They only thing they share in common is the name. There are hundreds of brands. Each brand often has a number of lines. Think General Motors as a brand and Chevy as a line. Each cigar within the line will be similar but not identical. The vitola (shape/size) will affect the flavor, body, and volume of smoke each cigar produces. While each vitola in a line will be blended similarly, they will each taste a little if not completely different.
There are many vitolas. There are two basic types of vitolas. Parejos are cigars shaped like a cylinder. Common parejos are: corona, robusto, churchill, toro, panatela, lonsdale, and lancero. The other basic type are known as Figurados. Figurados are not cylindrical. Common figurados include: torpedo, belicoso, pyramid, and perfecto. Each vitola has some basic range of ring gauge, length, and shape. Ring gauge is an important term. It is a measurement of the cigar’s diameter. It is measured in 64ths of an inch. So a 48 ring gauge cigar will have a diameter of 48/64 or 3/4 of an inch. Don’t assume bigger is better. Many of the best cigars are on the smaller side. Other benefits of small cigars are lower price and shorter smoke time. You don’t always have two hours to dedicate to a cigar. Sometimes a nice 45 minute smoke is preferred.
You can find a chart of vitolas and their approximate ring gauges and lengths here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cigar
Another thing you’ll notice about cigars is the wide variety of colors and wrappers. Some are grown under cheesecloth which blocks some of the sunlight. Others are grown in open sun. The common wrappers you’ll find are:
- Candela or Double Claro = very light brown to green. Rather rare.
- Claro = light brown or tan color. Usually shade grown and mild in flavor
- English Market Selection (EMS) = Anything between Claro and Maduro. Range from light to med brown. Can include shade or sun grown leaf.
- Maduro = Spanish word meaning ripe. Dark brown to black in color. Often a leaf that has fully fermented over a long period of time. Slightly sweet in taste.
- Double Maduro or Oscuro = Black in color. Often very veiny. This is due to the broad leaves required to withstand the aging/fermenting process.
There are a few other specialty wrappers to note; Cameroon, Sumatra, and Connecticut. They are named for the regions they are grown in. Similarly they can be shade or sun grown and they have their own color variations, textures, and flavor profiles. Many newcomers assume a darker wrapper means a stronger or bolder smoke. This is not the case. Sometimes a cigar blender (like a chef who writes the recipe for the rollers) will use a maduro wrapper on a full bodied smoke to temper it with some sweetness. Other times a dark wrapper is used on a mild bodied cigar to give it more flavor.
Flavor versus Body
Body is often confused with strength. Strength is usually related to the amount of nicotine one gets from a cigar. Body is more of a description of the boldness or intensity of a cigar. A full bodied cigar is more “in your face” so to speak. A cigar can be mild bodied but full flavor. This is often desired. Others prefer full flavor and full body. Many also prefer some complexity of flavor. Most people don’t like a one note song. The same is true of flavors. Obviously flavor is very subjective. Try as many different brands and lines you can. Don’t buy anything in bulk until you’ve been smoking for a few months. Your preferences will change, especially over the first year or two. Most start off preferring mild bodied, mild flavored cigars. They usually move toward more full bodied and full flavored, and end up preferring mild/medium bodied but full flavored cigars. These are broad generalizations. Don’t feel bad if you find your niche and stay there; just don’t be afraid to try something new. That’s one of the best parts about cigars. There’s no end to new brands/lines.
The Full Experience
The ritual of cutting and lighting a cigar is something you’ll probably take for granted at first. Take your time. Examine the head of the cigar. Don’t cut past the end of the cap or the wrapper will unravel. Draw on it before you light the cigar. This may offer a preview of what to expect. If it’s too tight of a draw, cut a little more. If still too tight, you may need a draw tool to open it up a little. There are many kinds of draw tools but they can be hard to find. Most resemble a small drill bit with some sort of handle. It’s much easier to use one before the cigar is lit. You may find you never need one but if you do, be careful. You don’t want to destroy the cigar by piercing the wrapper. Next, toast the foot of the cigar. Butane lighters or wooden matches are preferred. If using matches wait until the sulfur burns off then hold about one inch below the foot. Angle the foot toward the flame and rotate it to allow the foot to be evenly toasted. If using butane, be careful not to scorch the wrapper too far up from the foot. This can adversely affect flavor. Do not draw on the cigar right away. Wait until the foot starts to glow orange a bit. Some wait until the foot is completely orange before puffing. This helps avoid any bitterness when first lighting up. Once lit, most cigars will require two consecutive draws/puffs to get a sufficient volume of smoke. Keep the smoke in your mouth. Do not inhale it. Keep in mind not to draw on your cigar too often. If you do, it can cause it to burn too hot. This also can lead to bitterness. The best guideline is to let it rest for about one minute each time. Remember, smoking cigars is about slowing down, taking your time, and enjoying yourself.
If you wish, check out Cigar Asylum. Post an introduction thread and dive into the forum. It is an endless wealth of cigar information. There are no ads and no solicitations. What’s even better yet are the people. Check out the “herf” section for a local gathering. You just might make some lifelong friends. One thing for sure is you’ll find a generous group of people, of all ages, and from all walks of life. Like those into traditional shaving, cigar smokers are a different breed. Both have an appreciation for some simple pleasures that require you carve out a little time out of your otherwise hectic life.