A Beginner’s Guide To Cigars
I can remember my earliest cigar days clearly. When I started on my path here at BCP with little knowledge and even less experience in the subject, I found the entire culture, tradition, and business of cigars to be fascinating. I also found it to be a bit overwhelming, and had a lot of questions. Like, A LOT of questions. In this article I’ll attempt to answer some of those questions for anyone who’s just getting into the rewarding and relaxing world of premium cigars. We’re going to do this crash course-style, so stay with me…..
The Mysterious Origins & History of Cigars
Though exact origins are a bit of a mystery, cigars are commonly thought to have been invented by the ancient Mayans, who wrapped the tobacco in either palm or plantain leaves. Many scholars point to an ancient Mayan pot from the 10th century depicting a Mayan man smoking a primitive cigar as proof of this. However, tobacco farms have been discovered in Mexico that date back to 1400 – 1000 BC, and a 2016 archaeological dig in Utah revealed an ancient cache of tobacco seeds indicating that prehistoric hunter-gatherers may have grown and used tobacco more than 12,000 years ago!
It’s widely noted that Christopher Columbus and his men were the first Westerners to encounter tobacco in recorded history. Local Indians introduced the tobacco plant to Columbus through trade, and as a result smoking caught on and became quite popular in Spain and Portugal.
While most European cigars were originally manufactured in Spain, it was not long before the Spanish found that the climate and soils of Cuba were ideal for growing tobacco, and Cuba quickly became the premier location for tobacco farming.
After the Cuban trade embargo enacted in 1962 forbid Cuban-made cigars from being exported to the U.S., many prominent cigar producers began to establish tobacco-growing and cigar-making operations in countries like the Dominican Republic, Honduras, & Nicaragua. These nations remain as some of the top cigar producers in the world today.
Anatomy of a Cigar
A completed cigar can be observed in four sections:
Cap – The circular piece of tobacco applied at the top of the head of a cigar to prevent unraveling.
Head – The top of the cigar that you cut before smoking
Body – The main part of the cigar; the length of the cigar between head and foot
Foot – The bottom of the cigar with inner tobaccos exposed; the part that you light
The physical make-up of every cigar contains three basic components – the center portion of filler tobacco leaves, a sturdy binder leaf that binds it all together, and the outer wrapper leaf.
Hand Rolled Cigars vs. Machine Made Cigars
Hand-rolled premium cigars contain full, high-quality tobacco leaves arranged as shown in the image above, and are crafted by experts who are highly skilled in producing smooth-smoking, even-burning cigars. These fine cigars are considered luxury products, and are sold mainly at cigar shops and lounges (and online cigar shops like us) that specialize in premium tobacco products.
Machine-made cigars are typically created from short-filler tobacco or “scraps”under generic binder and wrapper leaves. Machine made cigar brands like Backwoods and Dutch Masters are commonly found on your local convenience store shelves, as opposed to the specialized shops that carry premium handmade cigars. While not all machine-rolled cigars are inferior to a hand-rolled stogie, they commonly contain tobaccos of lesser quality.
When selecting your cigar, it’s the quality and characteristics of the tobaccos used that count the most, but the shape of the cigar (commonly known as the “vitola”) is an important factor as well. Though usually slight, the shape of a cigar can have some impact on your smoking experience.
As an example, torpedo-shaped cigars are tapered to a point at the head, creating a narrower channel for smoke to travel through before reaching the smoker’s lips. This added concentration can make the flavor of the cigar come across a bit richer or bolder than it might in a regular, straight cigar.
Another common shape variation is the “big-ring” cigar, which generally refers to cigars with a ring gauge of 60+. These larger cigars are wider in circumference and contain more filler tobacco than a traditional cigar, which sometimes translates to a easier draw or cooler burn, and will almost certainly increase burn time.
In addition, there are many “specialty” cigar vitolas with different variations on taper and shape known as “figurados.” The classic Double Perfecto vitola featuring a taper on both ends is one of the most popular figurado shapes.
If you are just starting out your best bet is to go with a classic straight cigar, or “parejo,” which will typically deliver the most “standardized” profile of any given cigar. For more on this topic, check out out complete guide to cigar sizes and shapes here.
Country of Origin
In many cases the country from which its tobacco is derived has a major impact on the overall character and flavor of a cigar. Here is a guide to some of the characteristics associated with the most common cigar countries of origin.
– Commonly medium to fuller-bodied with hearty flavor
– Great for blending with other countries
– Manufactures 20% of premium cigars
– Used in brands such as Punch, Hoyo de Monterrey and Camacho
– Commonly medium to fuller-bodied
– Rich volcanic soil makes for darker, oily, heavier flavors
– Manufactures 37% of premium cigars
– Used in brands such as Padron, Joya de Nicaragua and Perdomo
– Ranges from mellow to full in body
– Ranges diversely in flavors & strengths depending on factory
– Manufactures 40% of premium cigars
– Used in brands such as Romeo y Julieta, Macanudo and Cohiba
– Best known for producing quality wrapper leaves
– Connecticut Broadleaf and Pennsylvania Broadleaf are chief wrapper exports
– Manufactures less than 1% of premium cigars
Cigar Tasting & Flavors
While premium cigars are made using only natural tobaccos, during the course of the burn those tobaccos may give off “impressions” of flavors that remind you of wood, sweetness, and countless other familiar tastes. In fact, when describing the taste of a cigar, some aficionados tend to sound like wine drinkers, reporting their detection of hints of “leather” or “earthiness” in the smoke. If your palate picks up on distinct flavor notes such as these, it can add another level of enjoyment, but rest assured – savoring the flavor of a cigar doesn’t have to be complicated. Enjoying the flavor only requires one simple question – does it taste good? If it tastes good to you, you’ve got a good cigar on your hands. With some practice, you may be able to develop and train your palate to pick up on specific tasting notes. This handy infographic is a good place to start if you’re interested in honing your cigar tasting skills a bit further.
The Price Tag
When selecting a cigar, whether as a gift, or a treat for yourself, keep in mind that a heftier price tag doesn’t necessarily mean a better cigar. While premium cigars are generally more expensive (commonly up to $10-$20/stick), don’t be afraid to sample some mid-priced stogies (around $5/stick), or even some budget-priced smokes (under $5/stick) – you may be pleasantly surprised. Once again, the highly pleasurable ritual of savoring a cigar comes down to one simple thing – whether or not YOU enjoy it.
Cutting a Cigar
Every good smoke starts with a proper cut. There are many different ways to cut a cigar and types of cigar cutters out there, and, like most aspects of the cigar hobby, the right cut for you comes down to discovering your own personal preference. Straight cutters, punch cutters, v-cutters, & cigar scissors will all have an effect on your overall smoking experience. Lucky for you, we’ve taken the liberty of thoroughly outlining the most common types of cigar cutters and how to use them here.
Lighting a Cigar
A proper cut is a great start, but you will have a very difficult time drawing any smoke from your cigar if it is not lit. There are a few different styles of lighting a cigar, and while not incredibly complicated, getting a good, thorough light on your cigar is not as easy as you might think. While there are some traditionalists out there who light their cigars strictly with a good ol’ wooden match, most enthusiasts enjoy the convenience of a good cigar lighter.
There are two basic types of cigar lighters:
A soft flame lighter is the disposable type of lighter that can be found on convenience store counters, like a Bic or Zippo, though reputable brands like Xikar also make refillable soft flame lighters of higher quality. The flame from this type of lighter is considered a “soft flame,” like the kind naturally produced by a lit match or candle.
A Torch lighter has more powerful jet flames that are windproof, which can come in handy for outdoor use. In addition, a torch lighter often features multiple flames, providing an even more powerful and quicker light. Because of this, the torch lighter is the preferred method of lighting cigars. Torch lighters burn almost twice as hot as soft flame lighters on average. (avg. 1,500 °F vs. 2,800 °F)
Cigar Humidors – Humidification & The 70/70 Rule
In order to preserve your cigars’ flavor-giving natural oils and keep them in good smoking condition it is highly recommended that you keep them stored in a properly maintained, tight-sealing cigar humidor. Cigar humidors are available in many different styles and sizes, and inside a proper humidor your cigars will be exposed to the constant humidity in which they thrive.
While the conditions you choose to maintain in your humidor are somewhat personal preference, cigars generally perform best when kept at a temperature of 70°and humidity level of 70%. Here are some options for providing and maintaining humidity:
The quickest and cleanest way to provide humidity is with humidification packs, such as the Boveda packs that we carry. These packets can be placed inside your humidor and left to sit for up to 3 months, during which they will give off the humidity your cigars need.
A more traditional method of humidification is using distilled water inside a reusable humidifier unit (which are included with many humidors.) These units have absorbent foam or crystal beads inside that are “charged” when distilled water is applied. When humidity levels inside your humidor begin to wane, simply reapply distilled water to your humidifier and it should restore conditions.
Alternately you can use a Propylene glycol solution like our Cigar Swami P.G. Potion in humidification units instead of distilled water. Some prefer PG solution because of its ability to better regulate moisture inside your humidor – When your humidor becomes too dry, propylene glycol will release absorbed moisture into the area, and when there is too much humidity, propylene glycol actually absorbs the excess, preventing the growth of dreaded mold.
For those times when you want to take your cigars out of your humidor to bring with you with you during travel, our Transmidity Bags are a great way to go. These large, resealable bags come with a Cigar Swami humidification packet inside to provide that life-giving humidity to your smokes during transit. The humidification packet is reusable, so you can put your Transmidity Bag to work over and over again.
Aging + Long Term Cigar Storage
Some cigars have a tendency to develop new flavors and/or mellow out and become smoother when stored in humidification for a long period of time. This process is known as “aging” cigars, and can be very rewarding. We suggest trying this out with some different cigars for different periods of time and gauging the results. For example, you could take two of the exact same cigar, smoke one now, and put one away in your humidor for 6 months to a year, and then compare notes on how it smoked before and after undergoing the aging process.
Cello, Or No Cello? – That is the question.
One of the most commonly asked questions among cigar smokers both experienced and new is whether or not to remove the cellophane that a cigar comes in before storing it in your humidor. The answer is simple – it’s up to you!
Keeping the cello on will provide some extra protection for your cigar and may prevent damage to the wrapper in the event your cigars get shuffled around too roughly inside your humidor. Taking it off will expose your cigars more directly to humidification, though the cellophanes are breathable, and keeping them on will not prevent your cigars from getting the moisture they need. Either way, it shouldn’t make much difference, and is often a decision based on aesthetics.
Flavored Cigars vs. Regular – Keep ‘Em Separated
If you’re the type of smoker who enjoys flavored cigars from time to time, it’s probably a smart idea to keep them stored separately from your regular smokes. This is because flavored cigars are often seasoned with flavoring ingredients that will “leak” onto any other cigars they are stored with, tainting the non-flavored cigars natural taste and aroma. We suggest keeping a separate humidor for your flavored smokes.
Best Beginner Cigars
If you’re looking to dive in and get started in the cigar world but aren’t sure where to begin, you should probably start out with some easygoing, mellow-bodied cigars that won’t likely bowl you over with nicotine strength. A couple of our most popular mellow selections are the Macanudo Cafe series and the the Cuban-style sweet-tipped Baccarat cigars. You can also find some solid suggestions for beginner cigars here.
While this article is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of cigar knowledge, hopefully we’ve given you a decent grip on the basics. As you continue to try different cigars and converse with other “lovers of the leaf” you’ll likely learn more than you ever anticipated about the fun and relaxing cigar hobby. Before you know it you’ll be collecting the rare stuff and smoking like a true connoisseur!