“If heaven has no cigars, I shall not go there.”
Whether you regularly enjoy a cigar or do so only on special occasions, the realm of premium cigars can sometimes be confusing with its boundless choices and opinions offered as facts. It can be complex to navigate even for an experienced cigar smoker. Here I offer some useful information and advice to make it simple for any cigar buff, whether novice or seasoned. The intent of this piece is to provide you with just enough knowledge for you to truly enjoy a cigar and not to turn you into an expert. Do not complicate, keep it simple and enjoy.
WHAT ARE CIGARS?
Regardless of buzzwords, cigars are simple natural products made of only one thing – pure tobacco, with absolutely no chemical or artificial alterations. Any variations of colors –numerous hues of brown- or flavors –sweet, spicy etc.- are achieved through natural processes. That is the beauty of cigars. There is no use of chemicals to accelerate processes, no preservatives to increase shelf life, or no additions to alter taste. (Machine made cigars are not a part of this discussion.)
Rolling the perfect cigar is a craft that can take years to master. Melding tobacco is both an art and a science and requires one to work skillfully with an ingredient that is dependent on nature and can change from one year’s crop to another year’s. Like winemaking, cigar-makers do everything in their power to ensure that their product is consistent despite vagaries of the weather. However, like wine, there will always be minute variations from cigar to cigar – no two premium cigars are totally alike.
Each cigar is an expression of the soil where the tobacco was grown, the leaf that made it, and the artisan who crafted it.
THE PROCESS OF MAKING A CIGAR
Dozens of pairs of hands contribute to the making of a cigar before it ends up between your lips. A cigar’s journey starts as a tiny seed that is sowed in a tray and grown in a greenhouse until the plantlet is a few inches tall and can be transplanted in the field to thrive. Once mature, the leaves are harvested by hand and hung in a curing barn to dry.
The cured tobacco is then piled up for fermentation. Fermentation is a microbial process that breaks down the leaf organically through the use of water, pressure, and oxygen. It makes the tobacco taste better by making it less astringent and reducing its bitterness while bringing out its more floral, nutty, and sweeter flavors.
When fermentation is complete, the tobacco is laid on drying racks. Once dry, it is packed and stored for ageing. After a few years, the aged tobacco is unpacked, rehydrated in a special misting room and catalogued for color.
The outer layer leaves undergo destemming or despalillo to remove the thick central vein from the leaf. Quite often this process is also done completely by hand. For filler, a worker removes part of the stem, leaving the rest intact. Rolling process then involves workers to dole out appropriate quantities of aged tobacco to the rollers. The torcedor then carries the pile of leaves to their rolling table and crafts the cigar according to the cigar-maker’s blend, huddling and rolling each cigar by hand. Each blend is created by formulating precise proportions of specific tobaccos to convey a unique smoking experience. Finished cigars are sorted for color consistency and then sent to the ageing room.
Ageing tobacco plays an important role, both before and after the cigar is made. While fresh leaf is aged before it is rolled into a cigar, a newly completed cigar is also sent to an ageing room for the tobaccos to marry and the humidity levels of the cigar to stabilize.
The idea of further ageing is to bring a cigar to its absolute peak of flavor when it is at its most balanced and cohesive and undesirable qualities such as bitterness or harshness are completely absent. A great cigar can age for decades under right temperature and humidity throughout. (Over-ageing a cigar, however, can lead to a loss of flavor and body, making the cigar taste dull and dusty.)
Lastly, the cigars are banded up, boxed, and sent out.
This is a simple description of process involved in making a cigar, without getting into details. The point is how a hand-rolled cigar requires hands-on expertise at every step.
A CIGAR’S STRUCTURE
The composition of a cigar consists of its wrapper, binder, and filler. The wrapper is the visible outer layer leaf and is the most expense component of a cigar as it requires leaves that are best in appearance and fragrance. A leaf that is too veiny or is rough in texture cannot be used as a wrapper.
The binder is a wrapper leaf that just did not make the cut to form the visible surface. It is directly underneath the wrapper and holds the filler tobacco in place. A binder that burns well helps the filler to burn more evenly, especially if the filler comprises more oily tobaccos that do not burn easily.
The filler is where cigar making can be most inventive, using and blending a wide variety of tobaccos for desired flavor, strength, and complexity. Filler tobaccos are meant to burn slowly while offering a fine gustatory and aromatic experience.
In terms of its anatomy, the foot is the end of a cigar where filler is usually visible. The head is the top and is finished with a cap to hold the wrapper in place. The tidier and more symmetrical the head and cap, the better the skill of the roller.
Good construction of a cigar is vital. Regardless of the tobacco, a cigar that is not made properly will not draw or burn properly, significantly diminishing the taste and the experience.
CUTTING A CIGAR
In order to smoke a cigar, you have to cut its head and then light it. While serval methods –like bullet-cut or V-cut- are used to expose a cigar for smoking it, beheading a cigar remains by far the most practical and most used technique. Do not cut off too much of your cigar. If the wrapper of your cigar unravels after you chop off its head, you have cut down too far. Usually, there is a slight taper at the head of the cigar, known as the shoulder. Do not cut below the shoulder line.
In the case of torpedoes and piramides that taper steeply to a point, make sure you cut while leaving a part of the taper intact.
Cigars are designed by highly skilled rollers to fit snugly in your mouth and to look nice. Cutting off too much defeats the purpose, both gastronomically and aesthetically. On the other hand, not cutting off enough can result in a firm draw and a build-up of tar in the head that will leak into your mouth. However it is better to err on the side of cutting too little than too much—you can always cut more.
LIGHTING A CIGAR
Lighting a cigar should be done carefully, with minimal direct contact. Too much direct contact with the flame can make your cigar taste like char. Lighting a cigar in strong wind is not recommended as the breeze might cause you to balance by using too much flame to get a burn going and this will result in a charry aftertaste. Powerful torch lighters that burn at a much higher temperature than soft, natural flames are best suited to light camp fires and not cigars. If you use matches, wait for the Sulphur to burn off before baring the cigar to the flame. Use long matches as lighting a cigar can burn through a few.
Generally, lighting a cigar involves the following process:
- Prepare the cigar’s edges with the flame at close distance.
- Bring the flame closer and draw it in with your mouth.
- Keep rotating the cigar as you light it to avoid an uneven burn.
- Puff on the cigar against the flame to ignite it.
- Gently blow on cigar’s foot to ensure an even burn across it.
SMOKING A CIGAR
Cigars are not meant to be inhaled. Inhaling a cigar can be uncomfortable and is bad for your health. Unlike cigarettes or hookahs, you do not suck with your lungs, instead you draw with your tongue. Savor the smoke by letting it gently float across your palate and then let the smoke blow back out of your mouth.
No rush to puff too often, a cigar is about savoring the moment. Take your time and enjoy. Puffing too frequently will certainly overheat your cigar and cause it to become bitter.
A well-made cigar is constructed to burn slow and steady in order to offer its complete flavor. A normal cigar should last you at least one hour. Puffing every 60 to 90 seconds is a suitable speed.
Puffing too slowly will mean that you will have to relight the cigar time and again. A relight now and then in the course of smoking a cigar is normal, but constantly relighting a cigar might kindle unsavory flavors of char, carbon, sulfuric fumes, or bitterness.
Leave the ash on for as long as you can. The ash serves to regulate the temperature and reduces contact between the air and the lit tobacco, thus keeping it cooler. Good cigars are made of whole leaves that have structure and will hold an ash to an extent that can be surprising to a neophyte. The ideal length of ash is around an inch (2.5cm). To conserve this length, gently rest the cigar on the ashtray and either press it or carefully roll the end at an angle to remove some ash when needed. Do not jerk or press too hard as it may break off all the ash. If the ash resists, do not force, continue smoking it will come off later.
When to Stop: The question how far down to smoke a cigar begets a lot of faux advice. Some etiquette will tell you that you should only smoke a cigar halfway. Some other sources advise that you should smoke down to the band. Yet some protocols counsel you to stop when one-third of cigar is left. To me, smoking a cigar only half way is nonsensical because that means you will miss out on some of the cigar’s most delicate and intense flavors. Similarly bands come in different sizes and placements, can be removed, or may be missing altogether.
Do not bother too much about all this, smoke until you enjoy the cigar and are satisfied with the taste. What point you want to stop at is your choice. As you smoke the cigar down, you will see that its character changes and new flavors develop. Typically, a cigar becomes more robust in the final third with more pronounced aromas. Sometimes, it can get quite peppery and bitter near the end. If you do not enjoy this, stop. But if you are really enjoying your cigar, you can always smoke it down as long as you do not burn your fingers. With experience, you will know intuitively when to stop so that you not only enjoy to the end but the cigar leaves a good aftertaste in your mouth.
When you are done smoking your cigar, do not crush it like a cigarette. That will create unnecessary smoke. Also the aroma released by smashing it out in the ashtray will offend the experience other cigar smokers around you are enjoying. Instead, when you are done with it, just lay the cigar down in the ashtray and let it go out on its own. If you are smoking at home, throw away the stub and the ashes. Leaving them too long impregnates the room with a strong odor that takes time to disperse.
TASTING A CIGAR
Discerning the taste of a cigar engages your sense of smell as well your sense of taste. In order to notice a cigar’s nuances, make sure to cleanse your palate before you smoke. Stay hydrated, while you are smoking, to keep your palate sharp. Sip on water or a beverage.
A cigar’s tasting hues often shift from beginning to end. Talking about the taste of a cigar requires you to smoke it from beginning to end. Take longer, slower draws and smoke slowly to notice more flavors.
While you want to discover the taste of a cigar, you do not want your pleasure reduced to a chemical analysis of smoke and tobacco. Plus, taste is subjective. Do not complicate things beyond the effortlessness of your olfactory glands and your taste buds. Even if you only notice the taste of tobacco and smoke and like it, then enjoy – that is what matters.
At the same time, though a tasting of a cigar is a subjective experience, there are certain aromas and flavors that the blenders of the cigar have intended for you to savor, and are worth discovering. Try and smoke cigars of varying strengths depending on the occasion. Smoking very strong cigars all the time will make it more difficult for you to relish mild or medium cigars.
The key elements of experiencing a cigar are its flavor, balance, body, strength, aroma, and finish. Beware not to confuse flavor, strength, and body with one another, they are all different. A cigar can be mild in flavor but full in strength or vice versa.
Flavor: A wide range of culinary terms –like leather, chocolate, earth, cocoa, figs, coffee beans, espresso, dark chocolate, cedar, hickory, oak, metallic, floral, tangy, almonds, cashews, walnuts, nougat, toast, black pepper, mesquite, cayenne, molasses, maple, cinnamon and many more- are employed to label the tasting touches of a cigar. A flavor wheel like the one below can be a useful compass for identifying the range of tasting nuances of premium cigars.
Balance: Balance is intertwined with flavor. Broadly, the taste receptors on a human tongue have evolved to register five basic profiles: bitter, sour, salty, sweet, and umami. A balanced cigar’s flavor stimulates these tasting zones on our tongue alike. A cigar that centers on only one or two tasting zones is unbalanced. A well balanced cigar takes skillful blending of tobaccos by its maker.
Body: Body signifies the thickness of a cigar’s smoke. Full-bodied cigars infuse the palate thoroughly with heavy, rich smoke.
Strength: The strength of a cigar depends on its nicotine content. A cigar-maker mixes binder, filler, and wrapper tobaccos in a specific ratio for every cigar. Strong cigars use a blend with nicotine-dense leaves culled from the upper sections of the plant. Mild cigars rely on tobacco from lower parts of the plant that comprises less nicotine .Thus you get a higher “buzz” from stronger cigars.
How fast you smoke a cigar can also influence your perception of its strength. Smoke your cigar gradually to avoid feeling lightheaded.
Aroma: Aroma of a cigar is its room note, which is what you feel when someone else is smoking it near you as you can better isolate its aroma when you are not smoking the cigar. Aroma is more connected with memory than taste, when you remember something by the way it smells rather than tastes.
Finish: Depending on it how it lingers in your mouth, a cigar’s finish can be long or short. A long finish leaves a pronounced aftertaste on your tongue, whereas a short finish does not leave an enduring aftertaste.
BUYING A CIGAR
Buying cigars that best conform to your taste and your wallet is a skill that you can get better at with time. Inspect the cigars by touching them with vendor’s permission. Roll a cigar between your fingers and hear for a faint crackling sound. If the sound is too loud, the cigar may be too dry and if you cannot hear anything at all then it is too moist.
Strength: Cigar shops can offer a wide choice that can be overwhelming. A little bit of knowledge about the blend and strength is very helpful in buying cigars. A cigar’s strength level is the first thing you should know. Some knowledge about the blend will ensure that you do not buy a cigar that is too strong or too mild for your taste.
Strength and body denote the cigar’s inherent intensity. If you like medium or mild cigars that do not much affect your palate, you can still find a cigar that is full of flavor without being full-bodied or too strong.
Some folks like cigars that offer intense palate stimulation along with heavy flavors yielded by powerful tobacco. Often, a full-bodied, powerful cigar is made of ligero tobacco. These are the darkest, oiliest, and thickest leaves of the tobacco plant because of their direct exposure to the sun.
Leaves are likely to become less strong lower down the stalk of the plant. These lower-priming tobaccos, classified as visos and secos, are more subtle in flavor and have better combustion. A full-bodied blend will have more ligeros, a medium-bodied blend, more secos and visos.
You cannot always tell its strength just by looking at the cigar, as looks can be misleading, and need to have some background knowledge.
Cuban Vs. Others: There is always a vigorous debate about Cuban cigars vs. non-Cuban cigars. Some people remain committed Habana lovers, where others are more universal cigar fans. I too acquired a more universal taste after many years of exclusive allegiance to Cuban cigars and discovered that Cuban cigars are not alone in their greatness. The best Nicaraguan, Dominican and Honduran cigars can be as good as the finest Cubans. Like wines, the best cigars of all major cigar-producing nations are all marvelous in their own way. They represent agricultural and artisanal finesse of their respective countries.
Paying for Value: No doubt the best materials, finest construction, and stringent quality control will cost money. Not all tobacco is of equal quality, and better crops cost more. Some tobaccos also take more time to age and ferment for optimal performance, which increases their cost. However, price is not the sole determinant of quality. A cigar that costs $50 is not always better than a cigar that costs $30. Some inexpensive cigars score high in blind tastings.
Sometimes cigars made from a low-yielding varietal of tobacco can be more expensive than equally good cigars from larger crops – merely a function of supply and demand. Sometimes, a cigar is expensive for subjective or gimmicky reasons that have little to do with quality or even availability. But, generally, in the premium cigar industry, if a cigar is expensive, the cost is justified.
Learn to pay for what you truly savor and not for the band of the cigar. There is no guarantee that you will enjoy a cigar more just because it is expensive. Discover your own preference and standards of quality by paying close attention to appearance, combustion, aroma, and flavor of cigars you consume. Look for the flavor profile and strength level that best suit your taste. Stay with the best varieties you can find within your comfortable price range.
Warning Signs: As this is a natural and handmade product, cigars from even a fine brand can sometimes have some flaws. Some of the common defects are as follows:
Faint Hue: A dull color indicates improper cultivation or subsequent lack of humidity in storage.
Specks: If there are spots on the surface they usually point to flawed curing or fungus.
Mold: Storing in excessive humidity causes mold.
Cracks: Slits or slashes can be caused by mishandling, and thus innocuous, but may also suggest poor storage conditions.
Holes: Indicate bug infestation.
Varying Hardness: Implies improper rolling, which will burn unevenly.
Too Hard: If the cigar feels too hard without lacking humidity, then it was rolled too tight and will not draw well.
Bulges: A bulge suggests too much tobacco was packed in the roll.
Asymmetry in Shape: It shows that the cigar was unevenly rolled.