So, you've come here for a reason. Presumably, you're interested in taking up the fine habit of smoking cigars. Maybe you want to look like you're part of La Cosa Nostra
, or you've watched too many gangster movies
, but at any rate, you've come seeking information!
Cigar smoking can be a wonderful, relaxing, and social practice. Certainly, one does not quickly sneak outside on one's coffee break to light up a stogie. I like to sit around with friends, and take my time and enjoy the conversation, and the aroma and taste of the cigar. The experience is one to be savoured. Perhaps you'll find you even like to add a nice glass of port or cognac to your smoking experience. Some abhor this practice, but to each their own. Let us not descend into snobbery.
Cigar smoking is a bit like pipe smoking, in that a certain level of knowledge will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the activity. I'll try and walk through some of the important bits.
On Choosing A Cigar:
Obviously, people have different tastes when it comes to what sorts of things they like to put in their mouths and set aflame. Cigars come in a staggering variety of stengths, sizes, and shapes. The most general categorization is made by shape.
First off, a cigar falls into either of two categories - it is either a parejo or a figurado. A parejo is a cigar with straight sides, and a figuado is a cigar that is anything else, but usually tapers in some way.
I know you may be wondering why we are going to all this trouble to categorize cigars, but don't worry, you'll thank me for it in the end. Just bear with me here.
Anyway, you're thinking "Wow, this is great! we have parjeos and figurados, what is next?" Try and contain yourself!
Next, we have some very common sizes. The two dimensions we are concerned with are ring gauge and length. Ring guage is measured in 64ths of an inch. The larger the gauge, the more easily it will draw (usually) so you won't have a tough time pulling air through it. Incidentally, higher-gauge cigars are more difficult to make, and can be quite expensive. Length is measured in inches, and of course, is how long the cigar is.
Among the parejos, cigars can fall into 2 general size classifications - "Panatelas" which tend towards the skinny gauge, and "Coronas" which are thicker, more robust cigars. They can be as short as 5" in some cases, but do tend to be longer. In the corona family, we find my preferred cigar type, the "Churchill" which is indeed named after Winston Churchill, as they were the kind he was commonly seen to smoke. A Churchill measures 50/64ths by 7 inches.
Among the figurados, there is a seemingly-endless variety of different shapes. Many figurado cigars taper from the cap (the part that goes in your mouth) to the cut end. The most popular image of a cigar is the "torpedo", which is thick in the middle, and tapers at both ends. We can also find the "pyramid" among the figuardos - this cigar has a narrow cap and a broad head. Personally, I only have experience smoking parejos, so I cannot report much on the figurado family.
As a general point of advice to a new cigar smoker, choose a size that seems right to you. The larger the cigar, the longer you will be sitting around smoking it. You may feel you are unable to smoke quite that much tobacco in one sitting, or you may feel silly with a huge torpedo hanging out of your mouth. Choose a size that seems right to you. Don't forget to ask your tobacconist for advice here, they are an excellent resource, and are often quite friendly.
While I am thinking about it, price is worth considering, and leads us into a discussion about cigar construction and tobacco types. Cigars can become a very expensive habit. Certainly, one can purchase cheap cigars at the 7-11, but know this - you get what you pay for. In my experience, the barrier to entry is about $15 for a cigar that I enjoy. For my $15, I am getting a decent-sized cigar, constructed from full-leaf tobacco, and does not contain any non-tobacco filler material (like, say, newspaper, or sawdust) and the quality of the construction is good. This means the cigar will not be apt to fall apart as I smoke it. Mind you, it is very easy to spend $100 on one cigar. Perhaps sometimes it is good to contemplate smoking the money you are spending, and ask yourself "do I feel comfortable about smoking $n dollars away?" If the answer is "no" - don't buy that cigar.
Cigar construction, and how it applies to choosing your cigar:
A good cigar should be made of nothing but tobacco leaves (as mentioned that above.) If you are fortunate to live in a country that does not have a trade embargo on Cuban goods, then by all means purchase a Cuban. My favourite brand is Romeo y Julietta, but well-known brands are Cohiba, Partagas and Monte Cristo - which is certainly my second-favourite brand. Ernesto Che Guevara used to smoke Monte Cristo No.4, and let me tell you, this is a fabulous cigar. The Dominican Republic also produces excellent cigars, for those who cannot acquire the cuban stuff.
Cubans tend to be the strongest, richest tasting cigars. Cigars made in other Central American countries are usually smoother, and milder tasting.
So what are the parts of a cigar, you ask? Well, there are three distinct parts to a cigar. From the innermost out:
filler - this is where the "strength" of the cigar is. The filler is either "long filler" which is composed of full strips of tobacco leaf, that are unbroken for the entire length of the cigar, or "short filler" which is usually scraps of tobacco leaves. Long filler will tend to smoke more evenly, and results in a more pleasnt, smoother smoke, and is (as you may have guessed) of much higher quality than short filler.
binder - these are the tobacco leaves that encase the filler and hold it together compactly. They affect the favour and strength least of all.
wrapper - these are the outermost leaves of the cigar, and are the primary factor in determining the cigar's flavour. right about now, we should have a litte talk about the kinds of wrapper.
Wrapper types vary quite a bit, from lightest to darkest, and have different flavours.
Double Claro (also called Candela or American Market Select)- green to
greenish brown. The color is achieved by picking the leaf before it
reaches maturity, and then drying it rapidly. Very mild, almost bland with
very little oil.
Claro - light tan. Usually this is the color of shade grown tobacco.
Connecticut Shade wrappers are said to be some of the finest in the world.
Shade grown tobacco is grown under large canopies to protect the tobacco
from harsh sunlight. Neutral flavor and smooth smoking.
Natural - (also called English Market Select) light brown to brown. These
are most often sun grown, meaning they are not protected by canopies like
shade grown leaves. Fuller bodied flavor than shade grown leaves, but
still very smooth.
Maduro - dark brown to very dark brown. These usually have more texture
and veining than the lighter wrappers. They are often described as oily
looking, with stronger taste - sweet to some palates with a unique aroma.
Oscuro - very dark brown or almost black. They are the strongest tasting
of all wrappers. These wrappers tend to be from Nicaragua, Brazil, Mexico,
or Connecticut Broadleaf.
As you can see, darker wrappers tend to be stronger tasting, and more full bodied. However, thay can take some getting used to. When I first began smoking cigars, I smoked lighter, more neutral or even sweeter cigars. With time, I have started to appreciate the stronger, more complex flavours of darker cigars. It may be the same with you, or you may wish to dive in and try your luck. Pick something that won't seem too overwhelming at first, though, or you may find it to be disgusting.
Basically, the important things to know are - buy a cigar made of full-length leaves. Choose one with a wrapper that doesn't seem like it is going destroy your tastebuds.
Now, as for the technical parts of what to look for, another section entirely.
On how to inspect your chosen cigar:
So. You're in the tobacconist's store, and you've kept the above material in mind. You're looking at a nice cigar of a size you like, and made by a reputable company, and with a wrapper that is just what you're looking for. But how do you know if it is a "good" cigar or not? What separates a quality piece of merchandise, from something you wouldn't want to smoke even if I paid you? There are a few important things to look out for.
- Consistency: give the cigar a gentle squeeze. It should be firm, but not too firm, there should eb a slight amount of give. Pay attention, does it make a crackling noise? The cigar may be too dry, and will need to be properly stored to bring it to the right moisture content, lest it smoke too quickly. Moisture in a cigar is critical. Cigars that are too moist will swell up - they will draw poorly, and not burn well. Cigars that are too dry will burn far too quickly, and can carbonise. Both these situations result in a foul-tasting smoke.
- Wrapper: examine the wrapper. Does it seem cracked in any places? Is ther any looseness? Strange discolourations? The wrapper should be tight, and of an even consistency in colour. It shouldn't be overly veined, either.
- Tobacco: look at the exposed tobacco. are there any abrupt colour changes? The tobacco should have a uniform colour throughout. If it doesn't, maybe different leaves were used, and as a result your cigar may not burn very evenly.
If the cigar passes the above test, then congratulations! You're probably going to get a good smoke. Please do ask your tobacconist for help when choosing a cigar. Often, he or she will offer you the cigar to smell - this is a good indication of how the cigar will taste when smoking it. I find the best part of the cigar to smell is the exposed end, but some like to smell the wrapper too. Choose something that smells nice to you.
A word of caution : I mentioned earlier that humidity is very important to cigars. Do not purchase more cigars than you can smoke in a short amount of time. Often, this means 1 (one) cigar, unless you have proper cigar tubes or even better, a humidor to store your beauties in. Otherwise, you'll end up with some dried out cigars lying on your desk, and they will be almost worthless for smoking.
On the act of smoking itself:
So (finally) you've gone out and bought a good cigar that you like. What is involved in smoking it?
Smoking a cigar is not as tricky as one might think. In many ways, it is similar to smoking a pipe - the smoke is not inhaled, but is slowly tasted in the mouth. Smoking a cigar is a slow, langorous affair - when I smoke a Churchill, it takes me around an hour or so to finish it, maybe longer. A quality cigar will stay lit on its own for some time, at least a few minutes, perhaps as many as five. An occasional puff is all that is needed. If you are getting dizzy or nauseous, or the end in your mouth seems to be tarring up quite quickly, you are smoking too fast. However, that last inch or two will naturally be quite strong, due to the accumulated resdiue from the restof the cigar that passed through it. Some dislike this portion of the cigar, but I quite enjoy the natural progression of flavours the cigar goes through.
If the cigar seems to be going out, smoke faster. You may wish to keep an eye on the exposed, burning end of the cigar, to see that it is burning evenly, although this is more of a concern with larger diameter cigars. There is no shame in applying a bit of flame, and directing a well-aimed puff of air at your cigar to even out the burn.
It strikes me that, before even igniting the cigar, you may face a strange (at first) problem. "How can I smoke this cigar? Only one end of it is open!" - many good cigars have a "cap" of leaves over the end you smoke. You will need a way to remove this cap before smoking the cigar. A specialized cigar cutter (preferably a double-action guillotine) is ideal for this, but a sharp pair of scissors will do in a pinch. You want to cut the top 1/8 of an inch, or perhaps 2 millimetres of the cap off. If you cut too much off, the wrapper will start to fall apart, and that is no good.
As for lighting the cigar, there are some things to keep in mind. If you use a match to light a cigar, wait a second or two to burn off some of the initial chemicals like sulphur or phosphourous - you don't really want to coat your cigar in those, do you? A butane lighter is not subject to this concern. A zippo will probably be okay, but I have never used one to light a cigar, so I can offer no advice.
You will probably find that keeping the flame close to the exposed end, but not actually touching it, is a good way to initially "toast" the exposed tobacco. This will make it eaier to light. I keep the exposed end about 2 cm from the flame, and gently rotate the cigar at and angle, to get good coverage of the exposed area.
When it comes time to actually light the cigar, you'll want to have the cigar in your mouth. Draw slowly, but firmly, while applying the flame to the exposed surface. A bit of rotation on a large cigar may help your flame get even coverage. Once your satisfied the cigar is lit, extinguish your flame, and draw a few more times. At this point, I usually inspect the burning area and see if it is burning evenly. If not, just even it out a bit.
If you were overzealous with the application of flame, for the first centimetre or so, the cigar may taste a little pungent. This is alright, and will disappear shortly.
On the social aspects of cigars:
So, you have a nice, burning cigar. Excellent! Puff on it occasionally, enjoy the flavours, and by all means try out other cigars, and learn about what you do and don't like. here is where I talk a bit about cigar smoking related trivia.
If you're coming to cigars from smoking cigarettes, you may feel a compulsion to remove the ash from the cigar. Don't do this. Ash buildup is a normal part of smoking a cigar, and will help the cigar remain lit when you're not smoking it, as the burning tobacco is well insulated from the cooler air not encased in ash. Cigar ash is very dense, and stiff, and sometimes it can be interesting to see how much ash builds up before it falls off from its own weight. Personally, I've been able to keep up to three inches of ash hanging on! The colour of the ash can tell you a little bit about how the cigar is burning - ideally, it should be a light, consistent colour. If it is black or oily looking, there may be something wrong with your cigar, and most likely it is too dry.
Cigars are excellent for blowing smoke rings, if you know how, due to the thick, dense nature of their smoke.
Some people enjoy the smell of cigar smoke, but it is quite potent, and gets into everything, much like cigarette smoke (although more aromatic). For this reason, I typically only smoke outside. You may choose to do this, or may just say "fuck it" and befoul your own house.
My final piece of advice - smoke your cigars for the right reasons - take time to enjoy them! Like any tobacco product, they can be addictive, if consumed in high enough quantites. Admittedly, I smoke only a dozen or so a year, which is quite infrequent, but I find that this very infrequency makes smoking a cigar a more enjoyable occasion, rather than a mere chore. Enjoy your new cigars, and by all means, find a tobacconist who will be an aid to your vocation.