The following text began as a response to a new smoker on the newsgroup alt.smokers.cigars. As I saw more and more new smokers asking for advice about one or another of the aspects of cigar smoking, it seemed as if an introductory guide would be a useful thing to have available. To that end:
Choosing the Cigar
Two cigars I have often recommended successfully to new smokers are listed below. There is nothing magical about these cigars, just that I've found them to be compatible with the new smoker's palate. That is, relatively affordable and commonly available at most tobacco shops. If you have difficulty finding these cigars, ask your tobacconist for a recommendation for a another high-quality handmade cigar. What you're looking for is a relatively mild cigar but flavorful enough to be interesting.
Either of these cigars should cost between US$2-4, with the Fuente being on the lower side of the range and the Macanudo being on the higher side. The Macanudo is the milder of these two cigars.
Arturo Fuente cigars are manufactured in the Dominican Republic. Macanudo is a brand of cigar made in both Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, depending on the type and size. Both are reputable companies which make many different sizes and shapes of hand-rolled cigars. Incidentally, handmade cigars often state this fact right on the box or cigar band, though sometimes with the Spanish phrase Hecho A Mano.
The Macanudo Baron de Rothschild is made in the Dominican Republic. Its size is 6.5" by 42 ring gauge. The ring gauge is a measure of the diameter of the cigar in 1/64ths of an inch. For instance, a cigar with a ring gauge size of 48 would be 0.75" in diameter. The Arturo Fuente Flor Fina 8-5-8 is 6" by 47 ring, making it slightly shorter but thicker than the Macanudo.
If this naming convention weren't already confusing enough, the same brand and shape of cigar also can have different shades of wrapper leaf. (See below for more info on wrappers.) The most common shades for wrappers are Claro (or Cafe as in the Macanudo above) which is a light creamy brown color, Natural (also known as EMS or Colorado Claro) which is a medium to dark brown and Maduro which is very dark brown or black. Generally speaking in a given cigar of a given manufacturer, the darker the wrapper the heavier and stronger the flavor. There are other color naming variations but they tend to be less common than these three. There are no standards for these colors and each manufacture seems to use slightly different terminology in describing the color of their wrappers.
A handmade cigar is composed of three layers of tobacco. The outer layer, which is visible is called the wrapper. It is made from large and (hopefully) attractive looking leaves. Good wrapper leaves contribute to the proper burning and, depending on their color, the flavor of the cigar. The middle layer is called the binder and is what physically holds the bulk of the cigar together. It tends to be made of rougher leaf than the wrapper since it plays little part in how the cigar looks. The center is called the filler. High quality cigars use long-filler which means the filler leaf is not broken up as in the short-filler in lower quality and machine-made cigars. The filler in cigars can be made up of different types of tobacco to give the cigar its complex flavor. This is called blending. In some cigars, especially longer, larger ring gauge ones the blend is varied along the length of the cigar to compensate for the fact that cigars begin to taste stronger as they are smoked.
In addition to allowing more complex blending, the size of the cigar governs several other aspects of how it smokes. The first and the most obvious of these is how long the cigar will last. Both of the cigars listed above are considered medium-sized and will probably burn for 30-50 minutes. A large cigar, say 7.5" by 50 ring, can burn for upwards of 90-120 minutes. Lighting a big cigar demands a certain commitment of time; depending on the circumstances this can be very pleasant or very frustrating.
Another effect of the cigar's size is the taste and heat with which it smokes. It is ironic that some beginners tend to be intimidated by large ring gauge cigars, when in fact these fat cigars usually smoke cooler and easier than thin cigars.
Even though a cigar might be made in one country, it doesn't mean that the wrapper, binder and filler tobaccos necessarily came from there. Often the tobaccos come from such far-flung places as Sumatra, Camaroon, Mexico, Connecticut and so on. Cigars which are made from all local tobaccos are called puros. Cuban cigars tend to be puros, as well as some Mexican and Honduran cigars. The word puro literally means pure in Spanish, but has a very specific meaning when applied to cigars.
Between the time the cigar is manufactured and when it is sold, there is often a period of aging. This aging allows the flavors of the different tobaccos within individual cigars, as well as all the cigars within a box, to marry or become more consistent. Ideally this aging takes place within Spanish Cedar boxes. This imparts an additional subtle woody, resinous taste to the cigars.
Properly stored cigars should be firm, yet resilient. When gently squeezed a cigar should make almost no sound, any significant crackling means the cigar is too dry. The generally accepted ideal conditions for cigar storage are 70F and 70-73% RH. Variation from these conditions can cause dryness, mold growth, bug infestation, split wrappers, and any number of other serious problems.
A cigar should be close to the same firmness over its entire length. Hard or soft spots mean the cigar is filled inconsistently. Also, make sure the outside of the cigar is free of damage. Before manually inspecting cigars, be sure that your tobacconist doesn't mind patrons handling the cigars. If you are allowed to handle the cigars, be respectful of the tobacconist's property. Remember, someone else will be buying it even if you don't.
There are some places (notably the U.K., it seems) where it considered improper to smoke a cigar with the band on. I have heard it compared to wearing clothing with the price tags still on.
However, in the U.S. it appears to be a matter of personal choice. If you're going to remove it, some say it is best to do so after lighting the cigar since the warmth will tend to soften things up and make removal less likely to damage the wrapper. You can also leave it on, but if you smoke the cigar down far enough you will eventually be forced to remove it or smoke the band too! In any case, if and when you remove the band be careful not to damage the wrapper. This can cause the cigar to draw improperly and/or unravel.
If you don't have a humidor (a container to maintain proper temperature and humidity) then leave any cellophane wrapping on to prevent moisture loss. Lacking proper storage it would be best to smoke the cigar within 12-24 hours of purchase. If the cigar is in a sealed tube then this period could be extended to several days, weeks, or even longer if you trust the seal on the tube.
For more information on humidors, see the Humidor FAQ.
Except for a couple special shapes, one end of cigar will probably be closed with a little cap over it. This end of cigar is called the head and will be the end you will be putting in your mouth. The open end of the cigar is called the foot and this is the end you will be lighting.
If you're going to smoke the cigar immediately after purchase, have the tobacconist shoulder, or cut the cap off of, the cigar for you. If you're going to do it yourself later, have him or her show you the appropriate place to make the cut. Cutting too far into the cigar can break the connection between the wrapper and binder causing it to unravel. Cutting too shallow can make the cigar difficult to pull air through. A very sharp knife and a steady hand are all that's required, but buying a $1-2 guillotine cutter is probably worth your money if you ever think you'll smoke more than a few cigars.
Several other types of cutters are also employed. The double-bladed guillotine and scissor-style cutters are variations on one theme. The expensive and often recommended Zino cutter is of the double-bladed style. So called "cat eye" cutters have have V-shaped blade which cuts a trough in the head of the cigar. When done properly with a high-quality cutter this is a nice cut, but in my experience it sometimes leads to uneven burning. Another favorite of many people is the ring-bladed cutter which when pressed against the head of the cigar and turned gently removes the cap with very little possibility of damage to the cigar. Cutters of this style are sometimes called "bullet" cutters because the ring-shaped blade is mounted in an empty .44 magnum cartridge casing.
The last of the tools regularly employed for shouldering cigars is the simple knife or razor blade. Personally I use a knife because of the control it gives once one is familiar with cigar anatomy. I always carry a pocket knife anyway, so it's fairly convenient. If you choose to use a knife then it should be kept very, very sharp.
Here's the method I use. Hold the knife in one fist and the cigar in the other hand. The knife should be parallel to the plane of the floor, edge of the blade facing towards you. The long axis of the cigar should be perpendicular to the floor, cap facing up. Lay the knife on or near the cap of the cigar at the spot where you would position the blade of a guillotine cutter. At this point you should be in a position similar to that used for peeling an apple. However, instead of pulling the knife towards you as you would with an apple, turn the cigar on its long axis one complete rotation while keeping the knife and cigar very steady. After a full rotation the cap of the cigar should come free with almost no effort. The thumb of the knife hand can be used for stabilization on the near side of the cigar, though be careful not to put it so high that a slip could cut it. Any clean-up of rough edges can be done by continuing the rotation or by resorting to your teeth.
Incidentally, there is nothing really wrong with biting the cap off the cigar in the first place. The key seems to be getting the tip of the cigar quite moist before nipping at it, being gentle and not taking too much off. In fact, I believe I remember hearing that Carlos Fuente Sr. (Arturo's son) scoffs at using anything but one's teeth to shoulder a cigar. He may have a point.
A Cautionary Interlude
Before lighting that cigar, we should have a little talk about what you're getting into here. Cigar smoking can be a very enjoyable activity, however some forethought must go into the process. Cigars, like any natural tobacco product, contain nicotine. For the vast majority of cigar smokers the nicotine is not the sole attraction. However it is there and if not managed properly can cause unpleasant effects, especially in the new cigar smoker.
Smoking a cigar is best done after a reasonable sized meal that is "sitting well" with you. Never smoke a cigar on an empty stomach unless you know what you're doing and are familiar with the cigar in question. Beverages such as port, brandy, scotch, bourbon, strong ale, espresso and Dr. Pepper are good accompaniment for a cigar, however they are no substitute for a comfortably full stomach.
Some people salivate when they smoke cigars. If you find yourself salivating, by all means try to spit most of it out as opposed to swallowing it. I believe one reason the full stomach helps is that the food in it soaks up the saliva which you do end-up swallowing. This spreads the absorption out over a longer duration thus helping to avoid the problems noted below.
A note on puffing a cigar: Do not use your lungs! Lungs are meant for breathing air, not concentrated cigar smoke. The use of your cheeks, jaw, tongue, palate, etc. is mandatory. Failure to puff properly may result in coughing, dizziness, nausea and a Bad Cigar Experience(tm).
Lighting the Cigar
Any flame will light a cigar, except the ones on Usenet. Some say to stay away from Zippo lighters because of fuel residue affecting taste, but I'm not going to say that because there seems to be a lot of disagreement on the matter. I have heard that if you're using a Zippo it is best to keep the cigar above the flame. In my opinion, if you do not detect that your lighting method is impacting the taste of your cigar, then it is not impacting the taste of your cigar. Personally, I use a butane lighter or wooden matches because I can taste the Zippo fuel at least for the first few puffs. In the wind, however, there is no substitute for a Zippo.
Before you light it, smell the cigar, note the character of the tobacco. Put the end of the cigar you have just cut in your mouth, taste the wrapper. Take a couple puffs through the unlit cigar to appreciate the taste and smell of the unlit tobacco. This practice also assures that it's drawing properly.
When lighting the cigar, try to get out of any wind or drafty areas. Hold the flame slightly off center on the face of the foot of the cigar. Many people hold the flame just below the tobacco, not allowing the flame itself to come into contact with the cigar. This seems to produce a less burned taste. While holding the flame as described above, rotate the cigar with your fingers while taking very short puffs on the cigar. Make 1-2 rotations and then look at the end of the cigar to see if it is evenly lit, it probably won't be. Rotate the cigar so that an unlit portion is on the side. While again lightly puffing the cigar, wave the flame under the unlit portion so that it will light. Repeat this process until the cigar is evenly smoldering across its entire face, including the edges of the wrapper.
A variation on the above method is to not puff at all through the cigar while the flame is waved under the face of the angled cigar. After the whole face of the cigar appears to be smoldering gently puff out once through the cigar. Now try puffing normally on the cigar. Make sure at this point that the cigar is fully lit. If it is not, hold the flame under the portion which is not burning. This "puffless" method can produce a wonderfully unburned initial taste but requires some practice, a steady hand and very still air. As a last resort regular puffing can be used if one section just won't light.
Whatever method you use, don't allow the cigar to catch on fire like a torch. If allowed to burn in this manner it can char the wrapper prematurely.
Smoking the Cigar
Congratulations! You now have a lit cigar in your hand. Allow it to cool down a little bit after the initial lighting, say for about a minute. After this take a puff every 30-90 seconds depending on how the cigar is burning. Puffing too often can cause the cigar to overheat and give it a harsh flavor. Puffing too infrequently will allow the cigar to go out.
I think that tipping the ash of a cigar should be done only when it is necessary, as opposed to nearly every puff as you see some people doing it. A well-made hand rolled cigar can easily sport an ash of 0.5" and often times well over 1" before it needs to be tipped. I've found that the best way to tip the ash off of a cigar is to take two nice long puffs which heat the end up, wait about 5 seconds and lightly tap the cigar. Ideally this will cause the ash to break cleanly right at the boundary of the burning material leaving you with a perfect glowing orange cone at the end of the cigar. If the ash doesn't fall off with a light but sharp tap or two, it's not ready to be tipped. Forcing the ash to fall off, in my experience, can cause part of the glowing ember to come out of the cigar along with the ash leading to all sorts of problems including the cigar going out, uneven burning, lack of smoke and harshness. Give the cigar a little extra cool-down time after tipping, since the above double long puff method heats it up a little more than usual.
If the cigar starts to burn unevenly, orient the edge of the cigar which is burning the slowest towards the bottom when holding it or setting it in the ashtray. This may seem counter-intuitive, but there is more fresh oxygen at the bottom of the cigar than at the top where all the burn products are coming out. If this fails to rectify the situation, hold a flame very briefly to the edge of the cigar which is burning slower. This gets the recalcitrant part of the wrapper smoldering again, causing the burn to even back out.
If you have to let a cigar go out, blow through it before it goes out to remove the smoke inside the cigar before it has a chance to become stale. This can greatly improve the taste of the relit cigar. However this mostly depends on the cigar and your tastes, rather than some magical procedure. It is my opinion that you should, if possible, avoid letting cigars go out.
If your cigar does go out, for whatever reason, relight it slowly. Knock most of the ash off the end and gently blow through the cigar to get the stale smoke and fumes out of the cigar. Hold the remaining ash and partially charred tobacco in the flame for a few seconds while turning it before drawing on the cigar. When lighting the cigar start at the edges of the wrapper and work in a little. You'll probably find that by the time you have the edges lit, the whole cigar will be burning again.
Smoke the cigar until it either becomes too strong or it's burning your fingers, whichever comes first. If you're the curious sort, you can disassemble the cigar butt to see just how the layers are constructed. Wait until the cigar is out before attempting this.
Also, be a conscientious and safe cigar smoking citizen; make sure any cigar you put into a trash receptacle is fully extinguished. A smoldering cigar butt contains a lot of heat and can definitely cause fires.
Author's noteI have to admit that I have only been smoking cigars for about 1.5 years as of the writing of this document. I suppose that makes me part of the both loved and hated new wave of cigar smokers. Sure, the new surge of people enjoying handmade cigars has created a temporary shortage, but that will pass as the market reaches a new equilibrium. I believe that this new group of smokers will carry the tradition of cigar smoking into the next millennium.
If you wish to use this document in a cigar webpage, all that I ask is that you use it without any modification and that you drop me a line and let me know so I can send updates as I make them.
To send me comments, suggestions or criticisms regarding this document please send electronic mail to firstname.lastname@example.org (or click here).
Thanks and enjoy,
David J. Fred
31 August 1995, Version 1.32