From Amateur to Aficionado – The Basics of Cigars
By Anthony Welsch
There’s nothing quite like a cigar to unwind after a long day or make the most of your leisure time. Humans have been puffing on tobacco for centuries and when you puff on the right premium cigar, it’s easy to see why.
Cigars can be tricky but they don’t have to be. There are a ton of different shapes, or vitolas, as well as hundreds of manufacturers ranging from multinational companies like General Cigar, the owners/producers of big brands like Macanudo cigars to boutique brands that might only be available at cigar shops in a particular region.
While the cigar world is mostly an approachable and welcoming bunch but much like the wine world, there are a number of snobs to keep an eye out for. With a few basic concepts in mind, you won’t need much help finding the cigar that matches your taste.
Before we dive in and discuss a little bit about cigars and how to pick out a stick you’re sure to love, there’s one thing you should remember: it doesn’t matter what anybody tells you. If you find a $5 cigar that makes you happy then that’s the best cigar in the world.
If you find a $20 cigar that tastes that trash, it’s not worth $20.
To start to understand how to select a cigar consistent with your taste you first need to understand the parts of the cigar and how cigars get their flavor.
Basic cigar construction is composed of three major parts: the wrapper, the filler tobacco and the binder. All three can play a distinct role in the cigar experience and have been cultivated for generations to contribute specific traits to the overall experience you get from a cigar that’s available today.
It’s generally accepted in the cigar world that the wrapper of your cigar is going to play a huge role in the cigar’s overall flavor. If you’re new to cigars, the fact that the wrapper is so vital is a good thing because it is the part of the cigar that you can see the most of. It is just what its name suggests; it’s the wrapper on the outside of the stick.
The general rule of thumb is that the darker the wrapper, the more full-bodied the flavor. Of course, there are exceptions but this is a good guide to go by if you’re not sure what you should pick up.
There are four major types of cigar wrappers, Claro/Candela, Colorado, Natural and Maduro.
Claro/Candela wrappers are a green wrapper. That color comes from a very rapid heat-treating process to the tobacco leaf. The wrapper is green or has a green hue because it was heated so quickly the chlorophyll was literally trapped inside and remains in the leaf. In terms of flavor, expect these to be fairly mild that can have some sweetness on occasion along with a complementary bitter herbal tone as well.
Arturo Fuente’s 8-5-8 Candela Corona is a good example of these green-shaded sticks.
Colorado wrappers also go by the name Rosado or Colorado Maduro. These leafs are medium to reddish brown and in a lot of cases will have a good amount of spicy flavor. This leaf is much more sturdy than the Candela or Natural.
Natural or English Claro are usually tan or a light brown color. These wrappers tend to be pretty thin and delicate and give off a leathery, woody, or nutty flavor.
Finally Maduro or Spanish Market Selection wrappers are the dark brown to almost tar-colored wrapper that gives a strong, bold and full-bodied flavor. You might pick up some sweetness with these cigars but these are generally the most complex in terms of flavor profile.
Inside the cigar, you’ll find the filler tobacco, another very important part that you’ll want to consider when looking at sticks at an online tobacco shop or in person. Filler tobacco is the tobacco that burns inside and gives the cigar a complementary flavor to the wrapper.
Some cigar aficionados say the filler is the most important part of the cigar. In terms of composition, it makes up about 98% of the cigar itself so there’s it definitely is an important component of the stick.
Generally, Dominican tobacco is considered the highest quality you can get in the United States. When Cuba turned to Fidel Castro and socialism, many of the most respected tobacco growers fled the island and took up shop in the Dominican Republic where the climate and soil conditions in some areas are very similar to Cuba.
Of course, the opinion that Dominican tobacco is the best is just that, an opinion. There are well-respected tobacco crops coming from a number of countries, including Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and others.
You can get long filler tobacco or short filler tobacco. Generally, think of long filler tobacco as whole tobacco and short filler as chopped tobacco. Most high-end cigars use nothing but long filler tobacco. Short fillers are primarily used in less-expensive machine-pressed cigars that don’t command the same sort of price as hand-rolled sticks.
Common Types of Filler Tobacco and Their Flavor Profiles:
Corojo: This tobacco has Cuban roots and is very temperamental. Some Corojo tobacco is smooth and creamy while other blends can be spicy and full bodied. This can be a wild card but if you find the right stick, it’s worth the gamble.
Criollo: Another Cuban strain of tobacco that is similar to the Corojo in that it can smoke very smooth and mild or be a little bold and wild.
Connecticut Shade: Light colored and a little bit dainty. This is one of the most popular tobacco leaves to use in mild cigars. Like its name suggests, many of these leaves are still grown in the Connecticut Valley.
Connecticut Broadleaf: A thick tobacco leaf that’s typically used for a wrapper as part of a Maduro cigar but can occasionally be used for filler tobacco. Expect earthy flavors with this leaf.
Where the leaves sit on a tobacco plant can also have a huge impact on the experience and flavor you draw from the cigar those leaves become a part of:
Ligero: Generally considered the boldest and strongest you can buy. These leaves sit on the very top of the tobacco plant and get a ton of sunlight. These leaves are frequently a part of filler tobacco but are also very common to be used in wrappers.
Seco: This tobacco comes from the middle part of the tobacco plant and is generally pretty flavorful because of it gets plenty of nourishment in the heart of the tobacco plant.
Volado: These tobacco leaves sit closer to the ground and generally don’t get a ton of sun or nourishment so this tobacco tends to be very calm and mild.
Finally, you have the binder. This is the leaf that’s rough, tough, and sits just inside the wrapper, holding everything together. The binder does the dirty work and generally doesn’t play a huge role in the flavor profile. Because of that, it’s typically not a major consideration for most cigar fans when they’re selecting sticks.
Cigar Shapes and Sizes
Finally, there are dozens of custom shaped cigars ranging from the Gran Corona, a 9.25-inch cigar to the Cigarillo, which can be little more than 3-inches. In terms of usable knowledge, there are really just two numbers you need to know, the length and the ring gauge.
The length is obvious, that’s just how long the cigar is in inches. You can generally expect every inch of a cigar to take about 10 minutes to smoke.
The ring gauge is a little tougher to comprehend and visualize.
Ring gauge is a measure of the diameter of a cigar. Each point on the ring gauge scale equals 1/64th of an inch. So, a cigar with a ring gauge of 32 is basically a cigar that is ½ inch in diameter. To see some at-scale examples, Tobacconist University has a great .pdf guide that’s worth a look.
The smallest cigarillo (think Swisher Sweets) can be as small as a 16-ring gauge while some of the largest premium cigars can be as hefty as a 64-ring gauge.
Don’t automatically think that bigger is better. Even big guys, with big mouths can be quickly over-matched by a huge cigar that leads to an unpleasant draw. If it’s not fun and you don’t get a good draw, what’s the point?
Of course price matters. If you’re picking out a box to bring to the in-laws you’re probably going to spend a little bit more than if you’re looking for something to puff on at the shooting range. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that a higher priced cigar is automatically better. Tobacco, like any commodity, has to live by the rules of supply and demand.
If you legitimately enjoy a cigar that’s mass-produced and relatively cheap, consider yourself lucky and don’t be afraid to stock up! There’s nothing wrong a $3-$4 stick. In fact, you can find some dynamite hand-rolled cigars in that price range.
Smoking a Cigar
Often, new cigar smokers will really milk a cigar and puff incessantly on it. I don’t want to say that’s “wrong”, but a decent pace is one draw every 30-seconds to one-minute.
There a couple reasons for that. First, if you are drawing non-stop from a cigar, the tobacco inside will burn very quickly and very hot. That takes away from the natural flavor of the tobacco inside so you’re not going to notice the complexities of a good cigar. The second reason is that with an especially strong cigar, you might find yourself feeling bit of a buzz or lightheadedness if you draw too quickly. While you might be aiming for that, nobody wants to get sick from a cigar.
But before you light up, you need to cut the cap on the cigar. Generally, you don’t need to take more than ¼-inch off the stick to allow yourself ample room for a decent draw. Don’t use your teeth or a scissors. Odds are, you’ll fray the head of the cigar and lead yourself to drawing a mouthful of loose tobacco for the next 45-minutes.
There are a number of quality cigar cutters available out there, many of them sell for less than $20. You don’t need the highest dollar cutter, especially if you’re just starting out but a $20 cutter will give you a lot better experience than using an old pair of sewing shears.
When you go to light the cigar, careful not to overheat the footer. Many cigar pros don’t even touch the flame to the stick itself. Sure, it’ll take longer but you want to get a nice, even toast going. There’s no reason to char the footer, as you’ll run into overheating issues throughout the stick.
Finally, store your cigars in a relatively controlled environment. Specifically, you want your cigars kept between 68-72% humidity. You don’t need a humidor to do this, a Ziploc bag, Tupperware container or anything like that with a humidification packet will do just fine. A dried out cigar takes away from the flavor and will burn very quickly. On the other hand, an overly humidified stick will be mushy and can run the risk of growing mold, which you definitely don’t want to smoke.
Cigars are a great way to kick back and with just a few minutes of research along with a bit of explorer’s attitude, there’s nothing to fear. If all else fails, most online cigar shops as well as the guys at the brick and mortar shops are more than happy to help so don’t ever be afraid to ask.