Choosing A Cigar

Jul

29

by at 10:19 pm No Comments Cigars 101


So hopefully you’re here because you’ve read Anatomy of a Cigar. If I’ve done my job, you’re now smelling feet, inspecting caps, and just can’t stop saying ‘ligero’ simply because it sounds slick. Knowing how a cigar is constructed is great, but if you’re like many newer cigar smokers, each time you visit a cigar shop, you’re still confronted with a wall of smokes and aren’t sure where to begin.

With Choosing a Cigar, the second installment of Cigars 101, I’m hoping to lend a little clarity to the often confusing or overwhelming process of finding a cigar. While I won’t be telling you what to buy, I hope to arm you with the basics of what you need to know, and what to avoid when making your selection.

THE CIGAR STORE:

Selection really begins with the store. There are a few basic, but very important questions you should be asking yourself when deciding if a certain cigar shop is worth spending your hard earned dollars at: are the staff knowledgeable and do they store their cigars properly. For me, cigar storage trumps everything, but knowledgeable staff often go hand in hand with this.

1. Does the person working at the cigar shop actually smoke cigars?

If you visit a shop and see the employees happily puffing away, disregard this question. If you’re like me, and many other smokers who live in areas where smoking inside a business is prohibited, this is a question you’ll want to ask. Why is this important? Would you buy a car from someone who’s never driven one? Don’t feel shy about asking an employee if they smoke…remember, you’re in a cigar shop! Knowledgeable smokers love to talk about what they are currently smoking! There are plenty of things to know about storing and smoking cigars, as well as an understanding of the character and strength of cigars, which come only through smoking and experience. If you’re asking for a recommendation from a nonsmoker, you’re likely going to wind up with whatever brand name makes them the most money. Alternatively, you may end up with a cigar, Cuban or otherwise, which bears an expensive name. If you have no option but to purchase cigars from a shop where nobody actually smokes them, it’s not the end of the world, just don’t bother asking for advice, and pay close attention to the storage criteria below. Failing that, feel free to email me!

2. Are the cigars being stored properly?

Cigars must be stored in an environment where both the temperature and relative humidity (RH) are controlled and consistent. Both the temperature and RH must remain within this range to preserve both the physical condition and flavor of cigars. If cigars are stored too far outside of this range, any number of problems can arise, including mold, split wrappers, dried out cigars, or tobacco beetles.

RH-Temp

While there are a select few shops out there which are fully humidified and climate controlled, the easiest way for most merchants to maintain the environment I’ve described is by storing their cigars in a humidor. If you’re wondering what a commercial humidor looks like, they can be as small as a countertop display case, or as large ‘walk-in’ setup. Most shops have humidors somewhere between wall cabinets and walk in humidors, or some combination. (see the Cigar Travel section for visuals).

What you want to look for are the thermometer / hygrometer units that display the temperature and RH within the humidor or shop itself. If you don’t see some form of climate control or anything letting you know what the temperature / RH are, just ask the staff. If you get anything other than a friendly explanation which includes a temperature and RH pairing somewhere between 65-70°f and 65-70% RH, you might want to consider shopping elsewhere. Hopefully it goes without saying that if you visit a shop which is storing cigars in the open air without climate control – save your time and money and locate the nearest exit!

Some final thoughts on the cigar shop itself…Despite finding a good store, you can’t always count on personal attention (good ones are usually busy!) Further, flawed cigars sometimes slip through the cracks, or storage issues pop up in an otherwise good shop. This is why the next step is to look at the size, shape, and overall appearance of the individual cigars.

CIGAR SIZE (because it matters, kind of)

Cigars come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. I’m going to tell you right now that the size of a cigar has absolutely no relation to how good a cigar is, or how strong the cigar is. It’s all about the construction of a cigar, and the blending and quality of the tobacco within a cigar that matter. A bigger cigar does not mean a better cigar.

While nearly everyone will ultimately find a certain size they prefer to smoke, the biggest consideration when looking at the size of a cigar is often how much time you want to spend smoking it. Planning on a shorter smoke, or generally new to cigars? Consider smaller ring gauges and lengths. Looking for a longer smoke, or curious about trying a blend you already like in a larger size to see how the flavor balance can change? Go larger. In recent years, larger ring gauges, and larger cigars in general have become increasingly popular, especially in parts of the United States.

There’s no right or wrong to smaller or larger sizes, just remember that the wrapper / binder / filler balance changes slightly with size, and that the length and ring gauge of a cigar may also influence how hot the cigar burns.  A cigar that you really liked smoking in a Petit Corona size (4.5 x 42 ish) might taste notably different in a Toro size such as 6.5 x 50 or a Double Toro at a 60 ring gauge. Smaller ring gauge cigars may burn a little warmer, but also allow the flavor of the wrapper to show through a little more. Larger ring gauge cigars may burn slightly cooler, but with very large rings (56+) they may burn a little more unevenly.

CIGAR APPEARANCE (because let’s face it, looks are important)

When you gaze longingly at a freshly opened box of cigars while standing inside the humidor at your local shop, your eyes are feasting mostly on the wrapper layer of the cigars. The wrapper is the outermost layer of tobacco used in the construction of a cigar, and has more influence on how a cigar looks than any other part of the cigar. As with many things in life, a pretty exterior is great, but there’s a lot more going on under the hood, er, wrapper, which you’ll want to consider before you make your pick.

The only conclusion you can make from the colour of a cigar wrapper, is what colour it is. A darker wrapper simply means the tobacco is of a different type, and / or has been cured differently. Don’t let anyone tell you that a darker wrapper means the cigar is fearsomely strong, that a lighter wrapper means a smooth cigar, or any combination of the above. I could devote pages to discussing various types of wrappers, but that’s not what this is about. Instead I’m going to provide a few pointers on what to look for when inspecting the outer layer of a cigar.

  • Regardless of the size or shape of a cigar, the wrapper on a cigar should be relatively smooth in appearance, and evenly applied from cap to foot.
  • If a wrapper is visibly uneven, looks baggy, has lifted in spots, or has other defects, choose another cigar.
  • If you see a small spot on a cigar wrapper with a faint greenish tinge, it’s likely a water spot which occurred during curing of the wrapper. This isn’t a big deal, and is not to be confused with cigar mold.

Water Spot

  • Cigar mold is whitish-grey in colour, fuzzy looking, and usually begins at the foot of a cigar. If you see a cigar with mold, avoid it and notify someone at the shop. Mold is usually the end result of cigars being stored in a climate above 70/70 for a prolonged period. While a moldy cigar may still be smokeable, you don’t want to bring one home and contaminate your collection.

Cigar Mold

  • A wrapper should not be split, cracked or peeling anywhere on the cigar.

Split Wrapper

  • And lastly, the cap of the cigar should be cleanly finished, or neatly pigtailed. Yes, it’s true, you will be cutting part of the cap off, but a poorly finished cap might spell trouble for your cigar once you begin smoking and things warm up.

CIGAR FEEL (the final level of inspection)

This one’s easy. Once you’ve zeroed in on a cigar that you’re intent on purchasing, you’ll want to pick it up and gently test the construction of the cigar with your fingers. If you’re not planning to buy a specific cigar, don’t pick it up and play with it. Be respectful of the fact that cigars should be handled as little as possible before smoking them, and that if you change your mind, someone else will ultimately be putting that cigar in their mouth. This is the final test for a cigar that you’ve already green lighted using some of the criteria above. Here’s the quick how to on testing the construction of your cigar by touch:

1)   Using your thumb and forefinger, pick up the cigar by the band, if possible;

2)   Apply a slow, gentle pressure between your fingers. I won’t even call it a pinch, but rather just enough pressure to see how the cigar feels;

3)   If the cigar feels hard, or actually seems dry and crackly, it’s not likely to smoke well, and is possibly under humidified. Avoid it;

4)   If the cigar feels soft or spongy, it’s poorly made, not likely to burn well, and possibly over humidified, avoid it; and

5)   If there’s just a little bit of give to the cigar, that’s good. Try the same amount of pressure in one or two other spots. If the cigar is consistently firm, you’ve just chosen yourself a cigar!

And so Choosing a Cigar draws to a close. With the basic pointers I’ve set out above, I hope that anyone reading this will feel comfortable walking into a cigar shop and picking out a cigar. Just remember that like any handmade product, cigars which you’ve carefully inspected might still have undetectable issues which pop up during smoking or long term storage. For most of us though, the enjoyment of a fine smoke outweighs the risk of the occasional dud cigar. If you’re reading this and have further questions about choosing a cigar, by all means email me and I’ll do my best to help out.

 

Rock out,

Matt

 


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