Last installment, we spoke of the history and the manufacturing process of one of life’s little treasures; the cigar. Today we begin part two of our journey into the world of cigar smoking and we’ll continue right where we left off. For those who missed Part One, I would encourage you to read it before continuing with this installment.
Setting Up Your Humidor
Now that you’ve purchased a humidor for your collection, it’s imperative that you set it up properly. Despite what many novices claim to think, you can’t simply sit it on your mantle and start loading it with sticks. If that was the case, a shoebox would serve its purpose.
Setting up a humidor takes a certain level of patience and effort, but once it’s set to the proper humidity levels, your cigars will stay fresh and smell fantastic.
What the set up process does in a nutshell is re-humidifies the wood. Since your humidor has likely sat unattended in a warehouse or retail store for some time, the wood has dried out and so filling it with your fresh cigars will transfer all of the cigars moisture to the wood, thereby ruining the cigar. Regardless of where you purchased your humidor or how much you spent on it, every humidor must be set up before being used for the first time.
Re-humidifying your humidor will take anywhere from a few days to a month but the process itself is rather simple. There are many variations that can be found, but personally I’ve always followed the advice David Sabot who as we mentioned in Part One.
The first step is to properly calibrate your hygrometer. A hygrometer is a measuring instrument similar to a thermometer except that instead of measuring temperature, it charts humidity levels. A humidor should always maintain a consistent humidity level of right around 70%. While most cigar enthusiasts will recommend purchasing a digital hygrometer, the majority of new humidors come with either a built in or a separate less-expensive analog variant. I myself own four or five humidors and always replace the hygrometer it comes with with a better one. The reason you want to try and invest in a digital hygrometer is simply because the average analog one is off by approximately 10% which in the cigar world can be dangerous.
However, as a novice you’ll already be spending a fairly significant amount of money investing in a humidor and the necessary accessories, not to mention cigars, so it’s perfectly acceptable to use an analog hygrometer.
To calibrate it properly you’re to require table salt, a Ziplock style bag and a small container – I’ve always used the cap from a plastic soda bottle.
Place a teaspoon of salt in the container and add a few drops of water to it. You’re not trying to soak it or create a swimming pool, you just want to dampen it. Place the container of salt and your hygrometer inside the sealable bag and close it securely leaving air inside the bag. After 6-8 hours of letting it sit, take a look at the reading of your analog hygrometer. It should read exactly 75%.
If it doesn’t read 75% you want to look at the back or side for a small dial that will allow you to adjust the reading to 75%. In the event your hygrometer doesn’t feature an adjustment dial, you’ll have to remember the deviation either by memory or by writing it down.
The next step in setting up your humidor is to place some form of a clean container filled with distilled water in the humidor. For this purpose I’ve always used a shot glass. The reason you want to use distilled water in this step is that it won’t affect the taste or smell of your cigars by introducing any foreign toxins into the wood in the way that tap water would.
Many experts recommend wiping the wood down with a clean cloth that’s dampened with distilled water. For a well built humidor this will work fine, however, for a less expensive humidor there have been cases where the direct contact with the water has caused the wood to warp thereby deeming the humidor unusable. In most cases, the store you purchased it from will not accept the return since it was the end user who caused the warping of the cedar.
The third step is to charge your humidifier. Again, in many cases your humidor will come with a humidification device, however, in some cases you will need to purchase one aftermarket. Luckily, they’re typically not very expensive to buy. It’s a good idea in any case to buy a few extras to have on hand in the event yours is damaged.
To properly charge the humidifier you want to remove it from the humidor and dampen it in a solution of 50% distilled water and 50% propylene glycol. To save yourself the headache, most cigar stores usually sell bottled activator solution which is premixed for your immediate use. The goal is not to soak the humidifier but similar to that of the salt, to simply dampen it with a few drops or squirts of the solution. This charge will usually last a few months, however if you notice your cigars drying up or the humidity levels dropping, that’s an indication that your humidifier needs to be recharged. Again, it’s very important in this case especially to use distilled water and not tap or filtered water. The dissolved minerals contained in other types of water will eventually plug your humidifier and can also alter the taste or aroma of your fine cigars.
The reason we use a mixture of water and propylene glycol is relatively simple. The propylene glycol absorbs moisture from within the humidor whereas the distilled water will evaporate until the humidity level reaches the desired 70%. Once this occurs the propylene glycol will prevent any additional moisture from entering the humidor. Conversely, if there’s an over abundance of moisture, the propylene glycol will absorb the excess amounts bringing the humidity level down to 70%. Of course it is possible to maintain 70% humidity without the use of propylene glycol, however, it does require a more consistent level of attention.
Once the humidifier is charged, you want to place it back in the humidor. Now it’s time to play the waiting game. Waiting for your humidor to reach its desired humidity level of 70% can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks depending on your environment and the quality of your humidor. Anytime I’ve had to set up a humidor, I always wait an additional week or two before putting my cigars into the humidor. Once the hygrometer is consistently reading 70%, it is safe to store your cigars. Provided you recharge the humidifier once every few months, you should never have to repeat the set up process again.
If you’re storing different cigars in the same humidor, I strongly advise you to separate or confine each variation to its own area. The reason for this is to prevent the cigars from marrying each other and transferring flavor or fragrance to the other kinds. While many may think “what’s so wrong with that?” the best way to describe the outcome would be to compare it to mixing white and red wines together. If the master blender intended for the cigar to be mixed with another, it would be done before it ever reached your humidor, not while sitting in it.
How to Smoke a Cigar
Finally, the part everyone has been waiting for. As you may recall, I discussed my terrible experience smoking my first cigar in the introduction to this series. While many first timers often believe you can simply, cut – light – and smoke a cigar, there is a specific process that needs to be followed and a few tools you’ll need to acquire.
The first tool is obviously a cigar. Without it you wouldn’t be smoking. Since we’ve already touched briefly on how to select a cigar, the only thing I’ll remind you at this point is that you want to ensure it’s fresh and in good condition. To do this, you’ll want to smell the cigar, examine it with your eyes for any discoloration or disfigurement and roll its entire length between your fingers gently pressing to ensure it’s consistent the whole way through without knots or soft spots. The cigar should be firm but supply and squishy. It shouldn’t break or crack when you apply pressure and it should always return to its original form.
Once you’ve chosen the cigar and determined it’s fresh, you now need to employ the services of a Cutter.
A cutter isn’t a person, but a tool you’ll want to acquire. There are various types of cutters and we’ll briefly examine each kind.
This is my go-to cutter and while I own a few, I tend to use my Palio as it permits the larger 60 ring gauge cigars and looks beautiful as it effortlessly slices through the cigar.
A cutter can often be purchased for just a few dollars and in many cases is thrown in as a gift with the purchase of a cigars or large accessories. The two biggest things you want to ensure when using a guillotine cutter is that it’s sharp, clean and ideally, cuts from both sides.
The second type of cutter and one that I keep on my keychain is called the punch cutter. Unlike the guillotine it doesn’t slice the cap off, but instead punches a small hole into the cigar by twisting it gently back and forth into the middle of the cap and then pushing the button to eject the debris from the punch. There are really no hard and fast rules about which cutter to use and it’s quite frankly all about personal preference.
Cigar scissors are basically just that; scissors that cut the cap off the cigar. Really the biggest benefit to these are that when many guillotine cutters aren’t big enough to accommodate the largest ring gauges, the scissors can be opened wide enough to slice just about any kind of cigar, regardless of shape or size.
Once you’ve chosen a cigar cutter, you want to hold the cigar you’re planning to smoke at eye level. The reason you want to do this is to ensure you’re cutting a nice clean and straight line. Positioning the cutter at the tip of the cap you want to close it just enough that it can align the cigar and hold it in place. Then with one swift motion, you want to quickly slice through the cap giving you a clean end to draw smoke from. Keep in mind that a proper cut following these directions will ensure a quality draw that isn’t overly harsh.
The next step once you’ve cut the cap is to light your cigar. The biggest thing to remember in this case is NOT to use a standard Bic style lighter or sulfur matches. Don’t employ the use of your cars cigarette lighter, and if you light your cigar using the stove, a bbq lighter or a campfire, I will be very upset with you and may write you a very strong worded letter as I’m only 5’5″ and probably couldn’t beat up my 90 year old grandfather, let alone you.
There are three ways to properly light a cigar. One is using a torch lighter which is the easiest way, another is to use cedar strips which really don’t make much sense as they create a lot of smoke, are a fairly significant fire hazard and aren’t exactly easy to carry in your pocket. The third is to use proper wooden cigar matches.
I myself use a torch lighter. What differentiates a torch lighter from other lighters is that it uses butane. The easiest way to identify a torch lighter is that the flame will be bright blue instead of the standard yellow. The reason you only want to use one of these three lighting tools is because anything else – anything at all – will effect the taste and flavor of the cigar.
The way to light your cigar is slowly. This isn’t a cigarette that you’re going to pop in your mouth and sear with a sharp burn, this is a cigar. After you’ve ignited your heat source, take the cigar in your other hand and slowly bring it towards the flame. Using your fingers slowly rotate the cigar back and forth lightly toasting the tobacco. The key word here is toasting. You’re not looking to quickly burn it or the cigar will burn far to hot and incredibly harsh. When you toast it against the flame, try not to actually let the flame touch the tobacco but instead use its heat to simply warm it as you rotate it back and forth in your fingers. Place the other end of the cigar in your mouth and continue to toast the tobacco gently drawing in every few seconds. Once the cigar is lit, remove it from your mouth and examine it to ensure it’s burning evenly. If you notice that one end isn’t burning gently blow on it to help it ignite or wet your finger and touch the faster burning side to slow it down. If all else fails toast the slower burning end a little bit longer with your flame source.
J.A. Shapira’s Recommended Cutters & Lighters
$$$$$ – Davidoff Cigar Scissors
Note: One of the best brands to look into in addition to the aforementioned recommendations is Xikar which makes both lighters and cutters. They vary in price but come with a lifetime warranty.
Smoking the Cigar
Once you’ve properly cut and lit the cigar, it’s now time to finally enjoy it. Like a fine wine or Scotch a cigar is intended to be savored not smoked. Depending on the size of the cigar, you should allow anywhere between 45 minutes to 2 hours to properly appreciate and relax with it. This is not a race to the finish but a marathon. If you can only dedicate 20 minutes to the enjoyment of it, the cigar is better left for another time where you can appreciate its intricacies and developing flavors.
A cigar changes as its smoked and the flavors will transform as you get past certain points in the cigar. The cigar isn’t intended to be smoked consistently, but simply taking a draw once every minute will ensure it stays lit and provide you with the enjoyment that I have experienced over the last decade.
Cigar smoking is an experience and so I highly recommended prepping your “smoke area” before beginning the cigar. Since I have children, I only smoke outdoors, so I will generally pour myself a drink or two, set up my iPod and depending on the time of day, bring a book or light a bonfire. For me there is nothing more relaxing than savoring a fine cigar. It’s a love affair that grows each time you smoke and over time will become such a passion that I often find myself preferring to sit in solidarity with my cigar, rather than watching a favorite television show or movie on TV.
As you sit and puff away, try and focus on the little nuances of the cigars flavor profile. Enjoy the transformation of the smoke and remember that this fine cigar you’re smoking took hours and hours of hard work under the hot sun in order to create such an incredible smoke for you to cherish.
We hope you have enjoyed part two of our introduction to cigar smoking. By now, you should have a handle on how to select a cigar, buy and set up a humidor, light and cut the cigar, and of course, how to enjoy it.
Join us in our next installment where we’ll discuss cigar etiquette, feature some of my favorite smokes and online resources and provide some troubleshooting tips should you run into problems. After this initial introduction, you can expect to read many reviews, specific guides and ongoing primers as we help guide you through your journey and transform you into a knowledgable aficionado. For those who are already well versed on the topic of cigar smoking, rest assured that this weekly series will cover things you’ll enjoy to as I test new products, review cigars and publish exclusive interviews with experts from around the world.