I have few passions in life. Aside from my obvious addiction to watches and penchant for fine spirits, I also adore cigars. My introduction to cigars began when my parents brought me home a Romeo Y Julieta 1875 from a trip to Cuba. Having always been fascinated by cigars, but having never tried it, I bought a cheap plastic lighter from the gas station, lit it up and went to take a puff… Nothing.
Why couldn’t I taste the cigar? Why was it like I was sucking on my thumb? No draw, no smoke, nothing. Just the taste of a cold and hard, yet sweetly pleasing wrapper. Puzzled, I googled cigar smoking and quickly realized I neglected to cut the cap. Since I didn’t own a cigar cutter, I figured a sharp knife would do. I lay the cigar down on the kitchen counter and with one swift chop, cut an inch or so off the end. I put it back up to my lips again, but still nothing. The cigar had extinguished itself. Desperate to finally try this cuban cigar I had seen the rich and powerful smoke so elegantly in old movies, I relit the end and took a deep draw, inhaling the smoke into my lungs. After I finished hacking ten minutes later, I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong. It turned out it was everything.
While it’s true that some cigars can sell individually for pennies on the dollar, there are also many cigars that sell for $50+. The last thing anyone wants to do when smoking an expensive cigar is waste it. In an effort to ensure that no one makes the same mistakes I did, we at Gentleman’s Gazette, proudly introduce my newest series all about cigars.
As with any column, we’re going to go back to basics to ensure every reader, both novice and expert, have the necessary information to be able to keep up once we begin getting into reviews and technical jargon. If you’re serious about cigars, then you’ve quickly come to realize that cigars are as much about collecting and caring for them, as they are about smoking. If you’re a novice and just enjoy the casual smoke every now and then, we’ll give you some tips on how to select your stick, store it, cut it, light it and smoke it.
The first thing that needs to clarified is why I said it’s about collecting. For those who plan on actually enjoying a cigar, there are a number of accessories and pieces of equipment required to ensure your cigars will smoke as they were intended. Simply put, doing what I did the first time I smoked a cigar will absolutely mutilate the stick. In the first part of this initial guide, we’ll focus on the history of cigars, selecting them and how to purchase a basic humidor. Next time, we’ll move forward into all of the necessary equipment, how to properly use it and how to enjoy a fine cigar.
History of Cigars
The actual origins of cigars are fairly undocumented. There are many myths and rumors that purport to explain the history behind the sticks, but none that are actually adopted industry wide as being factual. One of the earliest documented uses of a cigar-like smoke was back in the tenth century where a ceramic pot featured Mayan tobacco leaves that were tied together with some form of string. The name that was used for this was Sikar, meaning “to smoke rolled tobacco leaves”. From there the word Cigarro was used in Spain and eventually come 1730, the term Cigar was adopted into the English language.
Simply put, a cigar is a rolled bunch of dried and fermented tobacco that is ignited and drawn into the mouth. Of course, today Cuba is a significant importer of premium cigars, but for those in the United States who can’t legally acquire them, regions such as the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Brazil, Cameroon, Honduras, Indonesia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Phillipines, Spain and Italy also provide some really beautiful cigars.
The use of tobacco in Europe is typically credited to Christopher Columbus who was the first recorded person to introduce them. Three men by the name of Rodrigo de Jerez, Luis de Torres and Hector Fuentes worked on the crew of the 1492 voyage when they stumbled across tobacco on Hispaniola Island, now called the Dominican Republic. As the legend goes, they were given dried tobacco leaves as gifts by the natives which the men immediately realized possessed a unique aroma. Tobacco was quite prominent on all of the Caribbean islands and the men came across it multiple times in Cuba upon their settlement. There are some reports that the Taínos in Cuba smoked twisted tobacco leaves that were rolled in palm and plantain leaves. Due to these reports, sailors began to try these primitive cigars and they became quite popular in a very short period of time. Word quickly spread throughout Europe and pretty soon Spain, France and Portugal were manufacturing these cigars. As legend has it, the pastime spread through Italy and into America and Britain. By the mid 16th century, pipes became a new form of smoking in Britain and within the next 100 years, tobacco became commercially available in the United States.
By the early 19th century, the cigar industry was booming and factories around the world were employing workers who spent day and night hand rolling cigars. By the 1800s cigars were so popular that in a report it was detailed 127 private apartments in New York City alone were operating home-run cigar manufacturing businesses.
By the beginning of the 1900s, there were more than 80,000 cigar manufacturers in the US alone, the majority of them family run.
Today, most cigars are made by machine, but when it comes to the premium cigars that cost more than a shiny penny, they are still hand rolled as a distinguishing mark of old world craftsmanship and to pay homage to an industry that’s steeped heavily in tradition.
In Cuba, most of the cigars we hear about are still hand rolled and to advertise that quality, cigar boxes are stamped with the phrase “totalmente a mano” (totally by hand) or “hecho a mano” (made by hand). It is these cigars that we will mostly focus on in this column, not the small cigarillos and flavored sticks sold in packs at convenience stores and gas stations. Unfortunately, on a global scale there are very few regulations that stipulate the manufacturing process for cigars. As such, there has been a point of contention between quality cigar manufacturers and mass producers of inferior products that unfortunately also bear the name “cigar”.
The Making of a Cigar
Regardless of the shape or size of a cigar, like a human skeleton, cigars have an anatomy that binds the tobacco together, ensuring consistency and reliability industry-wide.
In addition to using premium tobacco, the construction of the cigar is inherent to a quality smoke. A poorly manufactured cigar can result in an insufficient draw, the complete fragmentation of the stick or loose tobacco slivers littering your tongue and ruining what would otherwise be a fantastic experience.
One of the most common questions I’m asked by visitors to my home, is “why would you spend so much money on just a cigar?”
It’s vital to understand that creating a single cigar is not a science. In fact, it’s an art. It’s a process that takes years from the initial planting of the seed to the final rolling.
Soil is expertly selected by hand by men who have dedicated their lives and careers to the field. When you take into consideration how much time a farmer spends in his potato or corn fields, remember that a single potato or cob of corn isn’t going to cost you $50 at the store.
Once the soil is finally selected, the seeds are planted and grown. While there are a number of seeds used worldwide, the two most common are the Corojo and the Criollo. Both have been used for centuries in cigar manufacturing and today, there are many hybrids used in an effort to perfect the process. The Corojo, is a Cuban tobacco plant that is grown under cheesecloth in an effort to diffuse light and typically used for cigar wrappers. From top to bottom leaf classifications: Coronas, Centro Gordo, Centro Fino, Centro Ligero, Uno Y Medio, and Libre de Pie. The Criollo is also a Cuban tobacco plant which is grown using direct sunlight and is primarily used for the filler and the binder. Criollo plants produce six or seven pairs of leaves: the Ligero, Seco, Volado, (all fillers) and Capotes (binders). Initially, they are closely monitored in individual beds or sometimes, in a temperature controlled green house. Once they’ve matured enough that they can be moved, the farmers will carefully pluck them from their resting place and replant them in an open tobacco field where the natural warmth of the sun can properly raise them. During the “raising”, tobacco farmers will repeatedly inspect them, carefully cutting the shoots and ensuring a stable growth. Relying on a keen eye of a master tobacconist, the harvest is expertly timed based on a variety of factors and the tobacco leaves are only brought into the barns under superlative conditions. Simple flaws such as a blemish, discoloration or cracks can immediately render the leaves unusable and only the most optimal leaves are chosen for construction. Once the leaves are picked from the fields by hand, a process that can often take an entire day, they are hand stitched together in groups of two and hung to dry for a couple of months where they transform from their fresh green to an almost oily brown.
Following a fermentation process where the leaves are constantly monitored and assessed in an effort to rid them of their natural toxins, the bales of tobacco are aged in large temperature controlled warehouses for at least two years. Only when they are finally ready, will the tobacco artists open the bales and “Case” them.
Casing is a process where the tobacco is showered by mist or placed in high humidity to moisten the dry leaves so they become pliable and don’t crack during the rolling process. Days later, the leaves are deveined where the stems are gently removed either by hand or machine. Then, the tobacco is separated based on strength and type.
Once all the tobacco is ready to be rolled, the Master Blender will prepare the leaves based on the required proportions each cigar recipe demands. The leaves are placed in cedar boxes on each Rollers workstation. At this time, the Roller is given a recipe for the cigar which details the exact specifications of the cigar they’re required to construct. In the majority of cigars, three or four different types of leaves are used in the blend and are pressed firmly together and folded until they form tubes with a small hole down the middle to draw smoke from. After the filler is constructed, the binder is constructed and rolled firmly around the blend of tobacco leaves which have already formed a cigar-like appearance.
In most cases, but not all, a single artist is responsible for rolling an entire cigar. At other times, there is a Roller as well as a Buncher who is responsible for making the filler and binder that the Roller than rolls into the casing or outer wrapper.
At this time the cigar is placed in a wooden mold where a hydraulic press condenses the bunches for half an hour to an hour. A special apparatus is inserted into the cigar which acts a vacuum to determine the quality of the draw.
After the cigar is pressed, the mold is opened and the cigar is taken out and placed in the outer wrapper leaf. A Master Roller will then hand roll the leaf around the cigar, continually checking for consistency throughout the cigar. It is then passed to a quality control specialist who examines the cigar before approving it for sale. Even the smallest defect will render the cigar unusable requiring the process to begin again from scratch.
Once the cigar has been approved, a Cap made of some pre-cut leaf is placed on the head of the cigar or the end is folded overtop as a flap. At this time, the cigar is inspected again first visually, before it is smelled and touched to ensure consistent quality. Then, if the cigar is not rejected, it is weighed in a bunch of 25 or 50 to see if there are any inconsistencies throughout the bunch. If just one cigar is off, the entire bunch will be rejected and the process will start again.
Once the cigars are finished the rolling process, they’re transferred into a temperature controlled room called the Aging Room where they rest anywhere from a month to a year or more. This process allows the tobacco to rest and marry similar to a fine wine or spirit. Finally, the cigars are placed on open workspaces where they’re sorted into Spanish cedar boxes of 25 based on color consistency amongst the sticks. The Sorter also acts as a final inspector ensuring none of the cigars have succumbed to disfigurement during the aging
Selecting a Cigar
A cigar is a love affair. It’s a couple of hours where nothing matters except the pure joy you’ll experience savoring the hand rolled cigar that was made just for you. Like any fine spirit, there is a vast array of flavors, aromas and experiences able to be found in the humidor at your local tobacconist. Therefore, it’s vitally important to take some time to properly select your perfect smoke.
For those who don’t regularly step into cigar stores, a humidor room can be quite overwhelming. There are usually thousands of cigars in varying shapes, colors and sizes, from many different brands and various parts of the world. Without knowing exactly what you’re looking for, it can be akin to selecting a fine wine without looking at the label.
Fortunately, like a bottle of wine, the box the cigars come in can relay a wealth of information. First, the box will detail exactly what cigar is in it, who it’s made by and what country it’s from. In the majority of humidors, most boxes will be open for viewing and under no circumstances, do you ever want to spend hundreds of dollars on a box of cigars, without first being allowed to smell and touch the cigars inside, or at least knowing a little bit about them.
The best piece of advice I can give is to utilize the wealth of experience that the staff at the store has. They know their humidor better than anyone and with some minimal information they should be able to help guide you towards the perfect smoke. The information you give them is very important though. Unfortunately, many men for whatever reason feel uncomfortable admitting they’re brand new to the world of cigar smoking and will try and lead the staff into believing that they’ve smoked before. This is a huge mistake, as it can often sour your first experience since you’ll most likely be led to a full bodied cigar rather than a light or medium bodied one. Be as upfront and honest as possible. Don’t be afraid to admit your lack of knowledge. Most tobacconists I’ve met are happy to spend countless hours talking about their love for cigars and sharing stories and advice with new patrons to their store. This is a prime opportunity to educate yourself.
The next step is to decide when you plan to smoke it. If this is a first time buy and you don’t own a humidor or the accessories to store the cigars, perhaps it’s best to just buy one and select one that’s matured and able to be smoked immediately. Most cigar stores have a smoking area and are happy to cut and light the cigar for you to smoke right away. If you do own a humidor and the proper accessories, try and determine when you’re likely to smoke it. If it’s after a heavy meal perhaps look at a more full bodied cigar, if you typically pair it with a light drink in the afternoon consider a milder one.
When selecting a cigar, you want to look at the various colors, sizes and shapes available. This is a very personal decision and can affect your experience significantly. If you only intend to spend a short time smoking the cigar, try choosing a smaller stick such as a Perfecto in lieu of the much longer Churchill. For a first time smoker, you may want to begin with a light bodied cigar in which case you’re most commonly going to want a Double Claro rather than choosing a Maduro or an Oscuro. Bear in mind however, that color doesn’t always represent strength so it’s important to ask the staff if you’re unfamiliar with the cigar. Usually simply asking for a “mild 45-minute smoke” is enough that the tobacconist can immediately show you a handful of options that will suit your palate.
Now that you’ve looked at the box and picked a cigar based on its color, shape and size; the time has come to actually touch it. Pick up the cigar gently and roll it back and forth between your finger tips. Squeeze it gently making sure to move down the entire length of the cigar. What you’re looking for is consistency to ensure there are no overly firm or soft spots on the cigar. A ready-to-smoke cigar should be consistent and firm, yet slightly springy to the touch. If the cigar is quite firm and doesn’t have a spongy characteristic to it, that proves as an indication that the cigar has dried out and will most likely be a very harsh smoke. That’s not to suggest by any means that it can’t be re-humidified, it simply means it shouldn’t be smoked immediately. Examine it closely with your eyes looking for veins, blemishes or any other deformity. It’s this test that is certain to weed out any cigar that may be inferior. Once you’ve determined you like the feel and sight of the cigar, smell the cigar. This doesn’t mean rubbing your nose down the stick, but placing it under your nose and breathing in its fragrant aroma to determine if it’s pleasing to you. This test will let you know if you find it overpowering, off-putting or absolutely divine.
Now that you’ve selected the cigar, you’re well on your way to smoking it.
One final tip is to either smoke it immediately out of the humidor, or if you take it home, let it rest in your humidor giving it a chance to fully mature. In my home, I typically let my cigars rest in a humidor for anywhere between 8-10 months before smoking them.
How to Buy a Humidor
Once you’ve made the leap and have fallen in love with the experience of smoking a fine cigar, you’ll soon begin to realize that it becomes much more about the experience of collecting rather than just smoking.
In order to properly store a cigar, one must acquire a humidor with the necessary accessories.
This can be rather costly, but if you’re going to spend your hard-earned money on a cigar, you don’t want it to go to waste. I often tell people, the difference between cigars and cigarettes are that cigarettes are an addition, whereas cigars are a passion.
Humidors can range significantly in price from as low as under $100 to as high as thousands. Regardless of your budget, there are a few factors that you want to focus on.
The first is ensuring that it’s a quality built humidor and is either lined, or built completely using Spanish cedar. Spanish cedar is the ideal wood for a humidor as it has the unique capability of maintaining very specific humidity levels without warping the wood. In addition, it doesn’t alter the taste or aroma of the tobacco and will last many years without significant maintenance.
Next, you want to ensure the humidor has a tight seal. The entire function of a humidor is to maintain a perfect humidity level for the cigars inside so one without a proper seal is sure to leak humidity and introduce outside air.
Finally, you want to select a humidor that’s appropriately sized for your collection. While a small five cigar travel humidor is fine for a first time buyer or corporate traveler, it is highly recommended by many experts to go with a larger humidor if you’re serious about furthering your collection.
One of my favorite tobacconists in the United States is this vendor. Of course, I could buy a humidor at amazon too but the proprietor David Sabot, who provides excellent service, always recommends purchasing a humidor that is twice as large as you think you will need. Inevitably as your love of the hobby increases, your collection will grow and you will run out of room. This is one of those times when bigger really is better and the cost difference to double the size is a fraction of what it would cost to purchase two separate humidors.
If you’re new to the hobby, I highly recommend visiting their website as in my opinion, they are the best tobacconist anywhere in North America for the newcomer or even the budding aficionado. I should mention that I’m not sponsored by them, I have no affiliation to them, nor are they an advertiser or promoter of Gentleman’s Gazette.
There are many other sites worth checking out, but I also highly recommend forging a relationship with a local tobacconist.
Obviously, due to the amount of information and content that can be shared about cigars, there was no way to confine it to a single article. While we hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to cigar smoking, it is just the beginning.
Stay tuned for Part Two where we’ll discuss how to properly calibrate your humidor, cut your cigar, light your cigar and smoke your cigar. Afterwards, we’ll continue the series with ongoing guides, reviews and primers that will help lead you through the vast and exceptional world of cigar smoking.
As always, if you have any questions, please post them in the comments and I will do my very best to answer them. If you enjoyed this piece, you should also take a look at our Pipe Smoking Guide.