An Introduction to Cigars

Cigar smoking is a lifestyle. The savory aromas, spiced flavors and charcoal vapors all help to create a very unique experience for your palate. Most cigar smokers enjoy filling the couple of hours it takes to finish a good cigar with friendly conversation or reflective contemplation. Cigars are relaxing, and their slow burn gives cigar smoking an air of sophistication and luxury.

Celebrations are often the first time a person smokes a cigar. A wedding, birth, graduation or anniversary are all wonderful times to share a smoke with family and friends. Nothing marks a significant occasion better than a cigar. The ritual of cutting, toasting, lighting and puffing a cigar can be symbolic, and as you complete the process, you’ll often realize that your mind is engaging with the significance of the occasion at a deeper level.

Part of what draws people into cigars is the artistic skill and craft it takes to create a good cigar. From the careful selection of tobacco leafs, to the binder and wrapper, each choice creates a specific smoking experience that reflects the region where the tobacco was grown, the personality of the roller, and the style of the producer.

However, with all of the wonderful things a good cigar can provide, entering the world of cigars can be intimidating. Like any other specialty endeavour like red wine or microbrewery beer, cigars come with their own language, techniques and style.

Here’s a summary of everything you need to know to smoke your first cigar the right way.

Cigar Production

The tobacco growing season takes around 18 weeks. The most prominent farming regions include Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, USA (primarily Connecticut and Pennsylvania) Central African Republic, and Indonesia. It usually takes between 2 to 3 years to go from seed to cigar.

Parts of a Cigar

A cigar can be divided into 4 basic parts: the cap (or tip); the head; the body, and the foot. The foot is the part you light and the cap is the part you cut off. A cigar is made up of three components: the filler; the binder and the wrapper. The filler is the “stuffing.” There are two general kinds of filler.

  • Low-end filler. Lower-end cigars contain bits of tobacco leaf, known as short-filler, which are crammed together and shaped to fit a specific cigar size. The process is a lot like making hot dogs. In the same way a hot dog contains left over bits, short-filler cigars are made from scraps of premium fillers or sometimes rejected inferior leaves.
  • High-end filler. Higher-end cigars use long-filler tobaccos. This is where the inner leaves are rolled into a tube and run the entire length of the cigar. A cigar maker will blend different filler leaves together to create unique tastes and flavors, much like a winemaker crafts wine. Whether a cigar is made of short or long-filler tobaccos, the filler leaves are always secured within a leaf called the binder, which sits just beneath the wrapper. The tobacco is put into a wooden mold and pressed into shape for about an hour. All premium cigars – both short or long-filler – are labeled “hecho a mano,” which means made by hand.
  • Wrapper. Next, the roller wraps the bunch in a wrapper leaf which is supple, very elastic and visibly pleasing. The cigar is then capped and trimmed to uniform size. The finished product is aged at the very least 21 days and many factories age the finished cigars up to 24 months. A well-made cigar is one that’s firm but not tight and allows you to draw the smoke easily and consistently. The wrapper is what you see on the outside of the cigar. The wrapper is the most important element of the cigar, as it gives a cigar not only its appearance and smell, but provides much of the taste as well. When you look at a cigar and run it under your nose, the wrapper is what you’re appreciating.

Brands

Like any other product, good brands suggest quality. Some of the well-known cigar brands include Punch, Partagas, Macanudo, Montecristo and Davidoff (just to name a few). You’ll find these names wrapped around the cigar band, which is generally wrapped around the “head” or the closed end of the cigar.

Color

Color refers to the shade of the outer wrapper leaf. Each color represents a unique flavor blend. Today, there are 6 major color grades.

  • Claro Claro: light green and often called candela. The leaves are cured with heat to fix the chlorophyll in the leaf. They often taste slightly sweet. Claro claro is not as popular today, although at one time a majority of American market cigars came with a light-green wrapper.
  • Claro: a light tan color, usually grown under shade tents. Prized for its neutral flavor qualities.
  • Colorado: brown to reddish-brown. It is also usually shade-grown and has rich flavor and a subtle aroma.
  • Natural: light brown, and is often sun-grown.
  • Maduro: From the Spanish word for “ripe”, it refers to the extra length of time needed to produce a rich, dark-brown wrapper. A maduro should be silky and oily, with a rich, strong flavor and mild aroma.

Size & Shape

You would think that determining the size and shape of a cigar would be simple. However, years of different manufacturers choosing their own naming and size conventions has resulted with some confusion for even seasoned cigar smokers.

Here, we’ll stick to the basics, which are actually pretty straight forward. There are two measurements for a cigar, it’s length and its girth. The length will be listed in inches or centimeters, and the girth or diameter, often referred to as the “ring gauge”, is in 64ths of an inch, or millimeters.  As an example, a classic “Corona” size cigar is a 6 by 42, which means it is 6 inches long, and 42/64ths of an inch thick.

The shape of a cigar can be broken into 2 general categories: parejos, also known as straight sides, and figurados, or irregular shapes. While there are some figurado shapes that are popular like the Torpedo and Perfecto, the vast majority of premium cigars are parejos.

  • Parejos. There are 5 basic groups within this category:
    • Coronas. A corona (the classic size is 6 inches by 42 ring gauge) has traditionally been the manufacturers’ benchmark against which all other cigars are measured. Coronas have an open “foot” (the end you light) and a closed “head” (the end you smoke); the head is most often rounded. A double corona is 7 1/2 inches by 49 ring gauge.
    • Panetelas. Panetelas (a standard size is usually 7 inches by 38 ring gauge) are usually longer than coronas, but they are dramatically thinner. They also have an open foot and closed head.
    • Lonsdales. Lonsdales (6 3/4 inches by 42 ring gauge) are thicker than panetelas, but slimmer and longer than coronas.
    • Churchill. A Churchill measures 7 inches by 47 ring gauge.
    • Robusto. A robusto is 5 inches by 50 ring gauge
  • Figurados. The following 6 types are the major types of figurados. Figurados include every type of cigar that isn’t a parejos, and there is sometimes variation between manufacturers within each of these major types.
    • Pyramid. It has a pointed, closed head and widens to an open foot.
    • Belicoso. A small pyramid-shaped cigar with a rounded head rather than a point.
    • Torpedo. A shape with a pointed head, a closed foot and a bulge in the middle.
    • Perfecto. These look like the cigar in cartoons with two closed rounded ends and a bulge in the middle.
    • Culebras. Three panetelas braided together.
    • Diademas. A giant cigar 8 inches or longer. Most often it has an open foot, but occasionally it will come with a perfecto tip, or closed foot.

Cigar Accessories

Cigar Cutters. The most common type of cigar accessory is a cigar cutter. Cutters are used to create openings at the head of the cigar, which allows air and smoke to pass through. Some enthusiasts will insist that a certain type of cut is best. However, most cigar smokers enjoy whatever is convenient. Here’s a list of the most popular cigar cutting methods:

  • Guillotine – Guillotines, including both double and single-bladed versions, are designed to make a cut across the end of the cigar. These are generally the best options. Of the guillotines, the double-blade is the better choice if you want a cleaner cut. There is less chance that the cigar wrapper will be torn as it’s pushed against the dull inside of the blade chamber. The best technique is to rest the cigar against a blade before clicking the cutter shut.
  • V-Cut – A V-cut makes a notched hole in the end of the cigar. The advantage is that it can offer you more surface area without exposing your tongue to loose tobacco, and it allows you to draw more air through the cigar. This is a good choice for small ring gauge cigars. However, you’ll want to be careful not penetrate the V-cutter too deeply into the cigar, as often the draw can be too good, and the cigar will smoke too hot.
  • Punch – A punch cutter is simply a circular, razor sharp blade that you push gently into the head of a cigar, which cores out an opening. This is an excellent choice if you smoke mixed filler cigars, as it minimizes the chance of bits of tobacco ending up in your mouth. Punch cutters are not a good choice for torpedos, or small ring gauge cigars.
  • Scissors – Cigar scissors are specifically manufactured for the purpose of snipping cigars. A high-quality cigar scissor will guarantee you swift, precision cuts. However, be careful, because dull, lower-quality scissors will cause more harm than good, potentially smushing the ends and damaging the cigar’s construction.
  • Bite Method – This is definitely the method of last resort. Unless you have vampire teeth, chomping at the head of a cigar will rip the wrapper and result with bits of tobacco getting into your mouth. Generally, biting the cigar will also result with an uneven smoke. But If you’re really in a bind, carefully look for the seam where the cap is located and use your fingernail to gently pry away the cap. Not the most suave method, but it’s fairly effective in a pinch.

Cigar Lighters. Many cigar smokers consider fire to be fire, and they don’t really care if the flame lighting up their cigar comes from a high-end lighter or a book of matches. A simple $1.00 pocket lighter is fully capable of providing a great light to a cigar. However, it’s also undeniable that butane lighters produce a more consistent and hotter flame, which will light your cigar quicker and with a more uniform burn. If you opt for butane, be sure to refill your lighter with at least triple-refined butane or better, as lower quality butane can clog valves and cause problems with your lighter.

Cases. Cigar cases are generally categorized by how many cigars it can hold, with the number being referred to as a “finger”. For example, a 3-finger cigar case can hold 3 cigars. Before you decide on a case, be sure to check for ring-gauge accommodations, as a case will hold less the thicker the cigar, and vice versa. Besides quantity, you’ll also want to consider how much durability you need.

Smoking Your First Cigar

Buying. Cigars need to be maintained at a certain temperature and humidity. Needless to say, those cheap cigars you see next cash registers are no good. When you’re ready to try a real cigar, it’s time to stop by your local tobacco shop, which should have a large walk-in humidor where all the quality cigars are stored. Good tobacco shops will have employees who can offer some advice on buying your first cigar. As a first-timer, you should avoid the full-strength cigar. Something mild or medium-bodied is best for your first cigar.

Cutting. Your first cigar cutter should be a budget single or double guillotine cutter. These are inexpensive, easy to use, and will get the job done. Moderation is key when cutting a cigar. You want to cut off enough to get a good craw, but no too much that causes tobacco to fall out. With a guillotine cutter, you can usually place the cutter flat on the table and place the cigar into it vertically for cutting. This will give you the right positioning to make the best cut in most cases.

Lighting. While any flame will light a cigar, the type of flame that will produce the truest cigar flavor comes from wooden matches or butane lighters. If you’re lighting the cigar while it’s in your mouth, you’ll want to inhale smoothly while rotating the cigar to get an even light. If you’re using a butane lighter, some purests will hold their cigar away from them so they can see what they’re doing to ensure an even light.
Smoking. Do not inhale. Do not inhale. Do not inhale. This cannot be stressed more for cigar-first-timers. If you inhale the smoke, you will be overwhelmed. No one inhales cigar smoke. Also, you don’t want to smoke it too fast. Cigars are designed to burn slowly, and are intended to be smoked while you unwind and enjoy yourself. Your smoking pace should be slow, but deliberate. Smoking too quickly causes cigars to burn too hot. However, you also don’t want to smoke too slowly, which often results with your cigar burning out. After a few minutes of smoking, you’ll find your own unique preferred pace. When you’re done smoking, you shouldn’t crush it like a cheap cigarette. Instead, you should simply leave it on the edge of the ash tray and let it go out by itself.

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