The Ultimate Beginner’s Cigar Guide

The culture, tradition, and business of cigars can be fascinating to newcomers, but a bit overwhelming as well. If you are just starting out, you likely have quite a few questions. In this article we’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, and we’re starting from the top, so buckle up.

The 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 understood 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 became quite popular in Spain and Portugal.

Portrait of Columbus with Cigar
Columbus Enjoying a Smoke

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. In a relatively short time, Cuba became the premier location for tobacco farming.

After the Cuban trade embargo enacted in 1962, Cuban-made cigars were forbidden from being exported to the U.S. This resulted in many prominent cigar producers establishing tobacco-growing and cigar-making operations in countries like the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and 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 tobacco exposed; the part that you light.

Cigar Parts
Parts of a Cigar

The physical make-up of every cigar contains three basic components: the center portion of filler tobacco leaves, the sturdy binder leaf that binds it all together, and the outer wrapper leaf.

Hand-Rolled Cigars vs. Machine-Made Cigars

Premium Cigar Guts
Long-filler Cigar Guts

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 ours) that specialize in premium tobacco products.

Machine-made Cigar Guts
Short-filler Cigar Guts

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 cigars. While not all machine-rolled cigars are inferior to a hand-rolled stogie, they commonly contain tobaccos of lesser quality.

Cigar Shapes

Cigar Vitolas
Different Cigar Shapes

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 still have some impact on your smoking experience.

As an example, torpedo-shaped cigars are tapered to a point at the head, creating a more narrow channel for smoke to travel through before reaching the smoker’s mouth. This added concentration can make the flavor of the cigar come across a bit richer or bolder than it would 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 an 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 our complete guide to cigar sizes and shapes.

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.

Countries of Origin for Cigars
Common Countries of Origin for Cigars

– 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

Dominican Republic:
– Ranges from mellow to full in body
– Ranges diversely in flavors and strengths depending on factory
– Manufactures 40% of premium cigars
– Used in brands such as Romeo y Julieta, Macanudo, and Cohiba

United States:
– Best known for producing quality wrapper leaves
– Connecticut 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 though, you may be able to develop and train your palate to pick up on specific tasting notes. This handy cigar flavor 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

Colibri Cigar Cutter
Colibri Cigar Cutter

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 already taken the liberty of thoroughly outlining the most common types of cigar cutters.

Lighting a Cigar

Cigar Lighter - Torch
Torch Lighter

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:

Soft Flame:

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.

Torch Lighter:

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 (1,500 °F vs. 2,800 °F).

Cigar Humidors – Humidification & The 70/70 Rule

Cigar Humidor
Orleans Humidor

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:

Humidification Packs

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.

Distilled Water

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.

PG Solution

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.

Transmidity Bag

Transmidity Bag for Cigars
Transmidity Bag

For those times when you want to take your cigars out of your humidor to bring 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 it 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.

Pros & Cons of Cellophane

One of the most commonly asked questions among both new and experienced cigar smokers 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 that cello on will provide some extra protection for your cigar and may even prevent damage to the wrapper in the event your cigars get shuffled around inside your humidor. On the other hand, taking it off will expose your cigars more directly to humidification. Still, cellophane is breathable, and keeping it 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. Non-Flavored – 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 bowl you over with nicotine strength. A couple of our most popular mellow selections are the Macanudo Cafe series and the Cuban-style sweet-tipped Baccarat cigars.

In Conclusion

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 hobby of cigars. Before you know it you’ll be collecting rare cigars and smoking like a true connoisseur!

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