“They had no good cigars there, my lord; and I left the place in disgust.”
–Alfred Lord Tennyson, returning from Venice
“If I cannot smoke cigars in heaven, I shall not go!”
‐‐ Mark Twain
In the interest of spreading quality vice, and my continuing efforts to be on a checklist with every department of our favorite government agency that should be a convenience store, I’d like to speak for a moment about one of life’s more pleasant indulgences, the cigar. Granted, prices on such luxuries are about to go through the roof thanks to our beloved nanny government reaching the conclusion that the best way to pay for the health care of other people’s kids is to tax the ever-loving holy shit out of a habit already in declining popularity (see more on this wonderful hopenchange here), but regardless of the established idiocy of government, cigars are still tasty and enjoyable. Besides, if they tax it too high we’ll just send Michael Phelps 90 miles south of Miami on a grocery run. Good luck catching that
mule dolphin, coasties!
I’m not going to go into tremendous depth about much of anything here, so much as I intend to provide the general gist of things with broad strokes. Get two cigar nuts in a locked room with nothing else to talk about, and the 1911 vs. GLOCK debates that keep bouncing around the internet look downright friendly and about as tricky as 2+2 in comparison. I’m not going to do the Cigar Aficionado reviews with way too much complexity and so forth. I prefer to actually enjoy my smokes.
Now for the casual smoker, there isn’t too much to keep in mind. If you only get one or two every now and then, concerns like storage and aging are moot, so for that audience, only a few key points are necessary.
Starting with the basics, cigars are measured by length and ring gauge. One gauge is 1/64th of an inch in diameter, so a 64ga. cigar will be a rather large customer. There are roughly five thousand different names for the various size combinations, but the only one I’ve seen even remotely close to qualifying as “agreed upon” is the Robusto, which is 5″ long with a ring gauge of 50, and even that isn’t 100% ironclad. Of all the various petite robustos, torobustos, lonsdales, churchills, and so forth, the best bet is simply to get the smoke’s actual measurements. It’s sort of the same situation as with women and labels. One man’s “curvy” may be 36-24-36 while “voluptuous” starts around 42-32-40, while someone else might think voluptuous starts at 36-24-36. Just get the numbers, it’s less headache. If anybody gives you grief about this approach, just say something along the lines of “Well if you’re smoking that I’d want to add complexity to things too!” Or just punch him in the neck. Whatever works.
Now you’re probably thinking that the bigger the cigar, the bigger the punch. This is true after a fashion, but not a particularly linear fashion. Much as how coffee grown in different regions tastes different, or Scotch made in different areas of Scotland does, where the tobacco in your cigar was grown has as much of an impact on the capacity for making you woozy as the size of the thing overall does. Once, for instance, I smoked an 18″ long 72 ring gauge monster on a bet for laughs. Even though it took damn near seven hours to finish, I felt fine the whole way through (though the flavor by the end was akin to licking the local highway crew’s asphalt melting tank). Compare that baseball bat of a cigar to something like an Excalibur Royal Sterling, at a modest 6″ by 48ga, but packed full of Honduran tobacco, and I was on my ass and turning green before I was halfway finished. Tasty though. I can’t say what region of the world will be your particular quick trip to queasyville if you opt to try cigars, or if any region in particular will produce such a response, but it’s worth keeping in mind that size doesn’t always matter.
That said, a reasonably safe rule of them is that darker tobacco is stronger and has bigger flavors. Maduro wrappers usually bring bigger flavor than others. Usually, but not always. If you’re a casual smoker, just ask the tobacconist about potency. Speaking of the tobacconist, if you enjoy tobacco at all, this person should be one of your go-to resources. The casual stogie-puffer can walk in and say “I’m in the mood for something along these lines, in this price range” and any shopkeep worth a tin turd in a gold mine should be able to point you pretty accurately in the direction you’re looking for. If you’re buying a sampler online, my suggestion is to find someone who already indulges, and pick his or her brain. There are vast volumes dedicated to explaining and cataloging the various flavor profiles of the myriad tobacco combinations, and having someone with a touch of experience in the matter helps considerably.
Ok, so by hook or by crook you’ve now somehow wound up with a cigar, and wish to smoke it. First thing is you’ve got to open up the head (the round or pointy end what goes in your mouth). The two main schools of thought here are punching, in which a small sharpened metal cylinder is pushed through the cap to open a fairly narrow hole, or cutting, in which a blade – most often an opposing pair of blades called a guillotine cutter- slices through part of the cap. Punches usually leave smaller holes, which leads to a tighter draw and more concentrated flavor. Towards the end of the smoke there can be tar buildup around the hole, however. Cutters usually produce an easier draw, and don’t suffer the buildup problems as much. Plus, if you don’t open the cigar up enough on your first cut, you can cut a little deeper, but it’s largely a matter of preference. Most places, online as well as brick & mortar, will toss in an el cheapo cutter if you spend more than a few bucks. If you’re only buying one cigar for the evening, I’d be hard pressed to think of a shop that wouldn’t either cut it for you (to teach you how) or at least loan you a cutter for one snip. If you’re punching, it’s hard to screw up. If you’re cutting though, be careful. If you cut too far from the end of the cigar, you can clip past the little cap that keeps everything raveled up, and your cigar will start to unwind as you smoke, mostly by way of leaving flaps of the wrapper hanging in the breeze or stuck to your lips. The easiest way I’ve found to get a cut that’s consistantly deep enough without being too deep (most of the time – cigars vary, of course) is to open up the cutter and set it flat on a table or countertop. Stand the cigar on end in there, and just let the height of the blade(s) above the table measure for you. Don’t dally when making the cut, be quick and decisive about it. Now we’re ready to light.
Just so we’re all clear, you light the end you didn’t just cut. Don’t ask why I feel it necessary to point this out. Anyway, for one subject the “Hellboy” movie was realistic about, put down that Zippo, and step away from the stogie! Burning petroleum distilations will add flavors to the whole damn smoke, and they aren’t good. Likewise with paper matches, which have chemicals in them to modulate the burn rate. Wooden matches or butane lighters are your best bet (and the torch lighters are slightly superior to the dimestore Bics). Paper currency doesn’t bring anything tasty to the table, and besides, it burns poorly. Regardless of your flame choice, there are two main lines of thinking on lighting. One holds that so long as you aren’t polluting the cigar with a Zippo, it’s all good. Blaze it up with big flames like you see in the movies if that’s your thing. The other holds that doing it that way wrecks flavors and causes uneven burn rates, and all sorts of other badness (ok, mostly it just makes the cigar more likely to swell and crack), and that you should toast the foot (the end you didn’t cut) with your flame a bit away and alternate gentle flame application and blowing lightly on the foot until an even glow is achieved. There’s plenty of videos on Youtube, one even featuring Aria Giovanni and some horrible puns involving her main line of work. Once you get the thing lit, let the ash worry about itself. That’s not a cigarette, and you don’t need to tap it down constantly. Worry when it starts to threaten to fall off, with around an inch and a half or so hanging off the end.
One more thing some folks occasionally need telling: don’t inhale when you settle in to smoke. Some people grasp this intuitively. Others grasp it after prayer at the porcelain alter. Just throwing that out there in case you were headed to be in the second category.
Say, that was pretty tasty, wasn’t it? Now you’re thinking you might want to get a little humidor and keep a few on hand? One of those nice little mahogany-lookin’ desktop models? Well don’t. Since you’re thinking along those lines, you probably already realize that cigars need to stay in an environment around 65-70% relative humidity, and below 80 degrees Farhenheit. Those attractive looking desktop models generally don’t have a seal much tighter than your average screen door, so keeping even a small number of cigars in good shape becomes a damn difficult proposition. If you’re in this boat and you want one for show to have on your expansive desk when your enemies come to grovel before you, that’s all well and good, but for pete’s sake, don’t keep the things in there longer than you have to. Instead what you want is a short list of three inexpensive items. First, get an igloo cooler, or whatever the cheap off-brand at Wally World is this week. Next, pick up a digital hygrometer from Radio Shack. So far the running total is $35 if you get a small cooler that will hold maybe a single box of cigars. The only other thing you need is jar of humidor crystals. I’m pretty sure these are basically the same thing suburban housewives put in flower pots to keep the flowers fresh. Once doused with a shot of distilled water (distilled only, please – regular water will wreck the crystals, and the minerals and such in there will be bad for the cigars) in a humidor (or coolerdor), they release moisture into the air when the humidity falls below 70%, and to a degree absorb it when it’s above 70%. If you go this route and find your hygrometer regularly reporting much higher than 75% RH, there’s tinkering to be done, but I suspect if you’ve gone this far, the tinkering will be part of the appeal. It’s not too tricky.
So that’s the gist of it. If anything caught your eye and you’re looking for online sources, I’ve nothing but praise for JR Cigar, who have absolutely top notch customer service even though they operate at a scale that usually indicates “outsource that crap to India”, and Cigars International, with a great selection even though the “international” part isn’t inter with the nation most smokers would like it to be. Now everybody go string up their nearest congresscritter for levying taxes on this hobby at a level that makes the rates that turned Boston Harbor into the Bay of Caffeinated Fish seem downright modest, and celebrate with a nice big smoke.
Minor Update: I wanted this on the main post for those of you who don’t check comments. Sigivald inquired there whether Thompson Cigar was any good or not. The answer is a resounding and overwhelming NO!! Thompson Cigar is made of a marketing department and several large buckets of suck and fail. Once, I ordered one of their sampler packs since it was full of things I knew I liked, and at a decent price. When it got here, they had packed it with dessicant, and the cigars were effectively ruined, being drier than the Sahara in a heat wave. Their customer service, when I called to complain, essentially said “Lol, that sucks. Bye.” Any offers from them, email or print, go straight to the round file in this house.