Cigars 101 – How Do I Start?


On the surface, smoking premium cigars is like smoking regular or e-cigarettes or other things that aren’t exactly considered “PC” these days. However, those who take the plunge and take the time to learn discover that there’s a huge difference between buying a pack of smokes and enjoying a hand-rolled cigar made in the Southern Hemisphere.

Sadly, there’s quite a bit of bad advice out there, as well as a level of pretentiousness that puts off many interested beginners.

We’re here to dispense with that nonsense here and now.

If you’re reading this, you’re already interested, so let’s skip the “Why?”s and jump right in. Though you’ll undoubtedly want to learn more, here are the basics:

Premium Cigar

A hand-rolled (as opposed to machine made) cigar consisting of three parts: filler, binder, and wrapper – all tobacco. Unlike the brands you find at the convenience store or gas station, these cigars are meant to be savored, not just smoked (or used to smoke illicit substances).

Band

Many (but not all) cigars have a small paper band around their circumference, typically near the “cap.” The band always has the name of the brand and usually the particular cigar name. Bands can be rather fancy or plain but don’t affect the smoke in any way. Think of them as the labels on your jeans.

Cap

The end you smoke from is the cap end. There is usually a “cap” or piece of tobacco over the smoking end to protect the contents and prevent the wrapper from unrolling. When cutting a cigar to smoke it, you want to cut above the cap end to prevent the aforementioned unrolling. Caps can also be punched with a special cutting tool or even bitten off if need be. Most cigar fans, however, have a special cutter or punch.

Cubans

The most sought after cigars in the world are cigars from the island nation of Cuba. Embargoed by the United States since the 1960s, Cuba has been prevented from selling cigars to America. Additionally, US citizens are technically violating the law even if they have a Cuban cigar outside of the US, though extremely few outside of the US are ever prosecuted for doing so. Cuban cigars are sought after by Americans mostly on reputation alone, versus flavor or quality. There are many more cigars available in the US that are high quality and more reasonably priced.

Cutting

Exposing the tobacco inside of a cigar is needed to be able to smoke the cigar. As mentioned earlier, cutting above the cap line is essential to avoid ruining the experience. Whether you use a several hundred dollar cutter or a simple $3 one, the same rule applies: cut above the cap line. You can use the traditional “straight” cut (also known as a “guillotine” cut), the “v” or “notch” cut using a V Cutter, or a punch cut, which puts a hole in the center of the cap. There is some finesse required with a punch so you’ll want to go to a shop and ask before attempting on your own.

Lighting

There are many ways to light a cigar and most of them are “wrong,” according to so-called experts. They are not wrong because of any particular rule, but as a matter of preference. However, there are some things you DON’T want to do: don’t stick your cigar directly into a flame; why scorch your cigar before enjoying it? DO allow the heat of the tip of flame to “toast the foot,” which allows you to gain even lighting. DON’T use a Zippo-type lighter if you can help it; the fuel can affect the taste of your smoke. DO use a torch-type lighter. This allows for even, consistent and importantly, quick lighting.

ENJOYING

Unlike cigarettes, cigars are really not meant to be inhaled. Simply put, cigars are flavorful, and since your throat and windpipe don’t have taste buds, why waste the experience? True lovers of cigars learn a process known as “retrohaling,” which, for a cigarette smoker, is akin to holding the smoke prior to blowing it out your nose for a second then your mouth. If you retain the smoke for a moment in your mouth and let it seep into your nasal passages, you’ll gain all of the flavors in the cigar and even be able to discern different things you wouldn’t expect like coffee, chocolate, leather, and even hay. These are NOT added to your cigar per se, but they are a byproduct of the cigar making process – a topic for another time.

Lastly, we’re back to the unspoken question… which cigar do you pick from all of those beautiful boxes with the amazing-looking cigars of all shapes and sizes?

That is not as difficult as you think, but you need to know a few more things — but not so much about cigars as much as about yourself. Do you want something mind, medium or bold? (And what’s the difference?) How about “spicy?” What about “sweet?” Do you want something rather large or small? These are only a few of the questions you should be asking yourself even before speaking to the person working in the smoke shop.

Cigar smoking doesn’t need to be pretentious, though it IS considered by many to be a high end luxury… as it should be. THIS IS WHAT MAKES IT DIFFERENT. Like Tom Hanks said of baseball in A League of Their Own, “…the hard is what makes it great.” Well, the “premium” in cigars is what separates the hand-rolled from the folks who just want something in their mouths to look cool or simply replace or supplement cigarettes.

As we all take this journey, we will all learn more about this wonderful enjoyment of life known as the premium cigar.