Back in the 80s there was a legendary ad campaign in the UK with the tagline “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet”. Well, forget Hamlet and I think they may be on to something.
I used to be a smoker, a proper smoker not a so-called social smoker; in fact I smoked around 15 cigarettes a day for 13-odd years, which means I got through 71,175 in my time. These days I only smoke cigars, twice a week, and am no more likely to call myself a “smoker” than someone who enjoys the odd glass of wine would call him or her self a “drinker”, with all the connotations that implies. Smoking cigars, for me, is nowhere near the slavish addiction I had to cigarettes but far closer to the rarefied pleasure of decanting a fine spirit into a polished glass as a reward, or consolation, for the day’s endeavours.
When people see me whip out a stogie many get curious; they want to know how cigars are properly smoked and why those that enjoy them seem to enjoy them so much. Most people who claim to have tried a cigar say that they didn’t like the taste or, worse, that it made them feel sick. And they’re probably right, for there are different grades of cigars and different ways of smoking them.
Most people’s first experience with a cigar is as an emerging adult; they are bought en masse to celebrate a graduation, a bachelor party, marriage or birth of a baby. They are bought because they are seen, in popular media, as an essential part of the celebration ritual much like champagne or presents. However, though most people know the name of a decent champagne and can easily acquire a bottle from the local Offie most people don’t know the name of a good cigar and buy only what’s available behind the counter, which more often than not is a Hamlet, a Henry Winterman or a Café Crème. These are to premium cigars as Babycham is to champagne, a woefully weak imitation.
Premium cigars are a different breed, constructed in three parts; the filler, the binder and the wrapper, from the finest hand-picked tobaccos grown, not just in Cuba, but also Brazil, Cameroon, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Canary Islands and the Eastern United States. I won’t go into the whole process, that’s what Wikipedia is for, but I will try to explain the unique pleasure I, and my cigar-smoking friends, get from this particular indulgence.
Just like wine (or whisky) there are scores of cigar manufacturers in different parts of the world producing dozens of blends and brands in a myriad of shapes, sizes and colours. Just as you may have a preferred wine maker or region that produces a particular grape blend or label you like the same can be said of cigars, meaning there is lots to learn, lots to try and lots to discuss. It is a subject with deep roots and innumerable branches and the more one knows the greater one’s pleasure.
Cigars aren’t smoked liked cigarettes and I don’t just mean the way you suck ‘em. I mean that you don’t absent mindedly extract one from a box of twenty identical sticks, spark it up and suck it down before the boss notices you’re gone then race back to your desk. You make time for a cigar; first you need to select the right one for the moment depending on the time you have, the mood you’re in and what you’re pairing it with. Then you have to prepare it by either cutting or punching the closed end or ‘cap’ before lighting it by gently rolling the open end or ‘foot’ over a blue flame being careful not to touch it but holding the tobacco close enough so that it naturally combusts.
To complete the ritual, you need the kit. First comes the humidor, an airtight lacquered box generally lined with Spanish cedar wood that keeps the cigars humid; after all there’s no smoke without water. (Case in point, if you want to send smoke signals from a campfire you need to cover it in moist leaves, not dry ones.) Cigars at the Off License are not kept in a humidor, neither are they hand-rolled or made from hand-selected tobacco for that matter. They’re actually made from tobacco scraps that are artificially flavoured, homogenized into sheets and rolled by machine. They are essentially the Chicken McNuggets of the tobacco world, which may explain the sickness.
Next is the punch or cutter, there are many different styles of cutter; the guillotine, double guillotine, scissors… They all achieve the same end but are similar to a bottle opener in the process of getting in to a cigar and can be a work of art in themselves.
Then there’s the lighter. Cigars burn hotter than cigarettes because they’re not infused with flammable chemicals therefore it’s best to invest in a butane lighter if you don’t want to relight every few minutes or rely on long matches in a stiff breeze.
Finally, there’s the actual smoking. The smoking of a cigar is not to be hurried. Unlike the humble cigarette a cigar is entirely organic and not pumped full of chemicals to enhance the nicotine or increase the pace and evenness of the burn. They burn very slowly and a single cigar rarely takes less than 15-minutes and can take up to an hour-and-a-half to get through depending on the size, the humidity and of course the smoker.
First you take the smoke into your mouth but you do not inhale. Like the grapes in wine, tobacco leaves take up the properties of the environment they are grown in. Typical flavours within the smoke include nuts, coffee, dark chocolate, red wine, vanilla, leather and herbs. Some are more ‘full bodied’ than others and the taste can even change depending on age and humidity. (Yes, cigars can be aged.)
Once you have had a satisfying hit of the flavor you slowly allow the smoke to escape your mouth and maybe inhale the last 10% just to get a little buzz going. Any more than that and the nausea of the inexperienced bachelor party smoker will kick in and spoil the moment.
For me cigars are natural, artisanal and feel authentic in world stocked with machine made, mass-produced mediocrity. They require care and consideration to smoke well. They’re a rare treat that helps slow life down and create moments of contemplation in an otherwise hectic schedule. If you’d like to try or learn more visit your local Cigar divan and ask them to make a recommendation or else check out the videos in Cigar Aficionado’s Newbie Corner. If you want a personal recommendation drop me a line, Nx.