If I didn’t light one while killing communists, I wouldn’t have time to smoke at all. A seeming endless array of purple haired freaks just couldn’t stop dying for their cause. Ashes to ashes, from Marx to dust. Some historian somewhere will probably say this all started over dead presidents, either the green kind or the events months ago. Truth be told, nobody I know really cared why it started. But it doesn’t matter. Heh, I look at the dirty, lithe frames lounging in the shade watching the neighborhood burn itself out and I know the kids aren’t alright. Dead eyes and warm barrels…a post-graduate education in reality. There’s no telling how this began, but we are going to finish it. Brushing the ash off my stock, I didn’t let myself wonder if it came from the Punch Gran Puro or the remnants of yet another ivory tower sacked. I savored the small taste of civilization in an uncivil world. A good day.
– Diaries of a Carolina warlord
Cigars have experienced a resurgence in popularity in the last decade. The increasing demand for quality has led to a resurgence of old brands and an explosion in new ones. The mystique of Cuban cigars still exists among the general public, but one can find comparable sticks of superior construction originating in both Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. While each person has a distinct palate, the following may help you avoid the awkward green face and fumbling at fall barbecues and campfires.
Cigars begin as three or four deveined tobacco leaves grasped in a roller’s hand. To avoid confusion, this discussion is limited to what’s known as long filler cigars, and not short filler. Short filler is either shredded tobacco or scraps of leaves in a wrapper. A binder is wrapped around the filler, and the whole thing put in a mold to get the various shapes like corona or churchill. The outer leaf you see is known as the wrapper and either folded around the head of the cigar (the end you cut), or a separate piece is cut from another wrapper leaf and makes the cap on the head. It’s a common misconception that the wrapper is representative of the flavor of the cigar. This is in fact untrue, the wrapper is the part you see but can be entirely different from the filler blend. For instance the Perdomo Gran Cru uses aged Nicaraguan filler with a light Ecuadorian wrapper, Nick being every bit the cigar blender his grandfather Silvio was. As such, the cigar is much stronger than one would expect by simply inspecting the wrapper. That said, as a general rule you can assume that a darker color is much like a darker coffee roast, increasing complexity and stronger flavor.
So what’s the deal with the dark and light cigars? The cigars with a dark wrapper, likely Connecticut broadleaf, are barn cured and fermented. The fermentation process turns the starches of the leaf into sugars and the changes in the chemical composition of the leaf greatly reduce the impurities the longer it is fermented. The length of aging and temperature maintained during the aging process produce wildly differing results in tase and darkness. Generally maduro cigars will be blended with stronger fillers designed to complement the specific taste of that crop, not dissimilar to how blended scotch and barrel aged bourbon are selected to be bottled. While the color can further be subdivided into technical classes such as Claro or Oscuro, most cigars are almost universally classed into one of four categories. Connecticut, Corojo, Habano and Maduro are what you will see on virtually all labels, the latter being in order of darkness.
The physical size of a cigar is referred to by how many inches long at is and the diameter of the cigar, referred to by ring gauge (1/64th of an inch). Smaller cigars are not more mild than larger ones, and in fact are many times less nuanced because of the faster burn. There are a huge variety of sizes, but I will pick a few of my favorites. Corona’s are the standard and 5 1/2″ long, NOT 6″ for you fellow cigar lovers, and 44 ring gauge. Excellent flavor profile, not too much for a beginner, yet not finished too soon. Churchill, my personal favorite, is slightly larger and the accepted size is 7″ long and a 47 ring gauge. Robustos are a slightly larger ring gauge than a churchill, but run roughly two inches shorter. I admit I am a fan of the larger ring gauges, and find this the most palatable cigar to to enjoy a short smoke without the hot and fast burn of smaller gauge cigars. The last is a torpedo, tapered at the tip and often the same length as a churchill but thinner than a corona at 40 ring gauge. A side note, most torpedos in the American market are actually pyramids, but to avoid excess confusion I will lump anything with a tapered head as a torpedo and not just those with a tapered head and foot.
So, how do you get from stick to ash without looking too stupid? The majority of cigar cutters are guillotine. It sounds like what it is, and under no circumstances settle for a single blade cutter. A guillotine cuts the head of the cigar cleanly and can work well on virtually any type of cigar. The next most common in my experience is the punch. Essentially it works in the same way as a hole saw would, cutting a circular vent in the cap approximately the size of a pencil eraser. While it works well with traditional, round caps, it does not work well at all with torpedos. In my experience it also does not allow proper draw in larger ring gauges. Lastly, a wedge cutter slices a V-shaped wedge into the cigar. The opposite of a punch, it allow significant draw from the cigar, at the risk of being more difficult to use. The depth of the cut will create drastic differences in draw, and for someone inexperienced, using it can be a dicey proposition. Cigar torches are also universally butane and differ in price from reasonable to obscene. It is entirely possible to do with a Bic or matches, but the ease and availability of butane torches make them the only real option.
Putting all the information together, let’s walk through how to smoke a cigar like a pro. Using your guillotine cutter, I prefer anywhere from half to two-thirds of the surface area of the cap to be cut. For torpedos this translates into maybe 3/8″ or more down the point to a 1/4″ from the beginning of the cap on a churchill. Moisten your finger or the back of your hand and tap the head of the cigar on it to remove any excess tobacco strands. The foot should be cherry red when lit and either move the lighter or the cigar to get even coverage and to avoid an uneven burn or scorched wrapper. The ash should not be knocked off constantly, but rather left to build up to an inch or more to avoid a hot burn. Slow down. A cigar will go out, but a common mistake is hot boxing a cigar, creating too much heat and creating an acrid overtone. Expect the flavor profile to change. A cigar is like good bourbon. It tastes different at different temperatures. My experience and the general consensus is the first two inches of a churchill will be different from the middle and the last one or two inches will be different from that. While lumped into thirds, my experience has been more of a 20/50/30 split. I’ve found the lighter notes like cherry and floral tend to come out at first, oaky and leather added in the middle, with leather and coffee often presenting in maduros toward the end. The last part of the smoke tends to become stronger, less complex and generally dominated by a single flavor, while the middle half of the cigar represents the very best it has to offer. Every size will present itself differently, as will different blends. A Perdomo churchill is not a Kristoff churchill. A maduro from one brand is not the same as a maduro from another. Those looking for an excellent go to would be well served with a Patron 4000 maduro or natural, Oliva Serie V torpedo, or a Montecristo Afrique Jambo. All are quality cigars at different price points, albeit with a bias for maduros. Enjoy!