Getting started? Yeah, I'm talking to you! You say you don't know anything about cigars but you're interested in learning. Well, you are at the right place. Let's face it, everyone has to start somewhere, right? You say you have questions? Bring 'em on! Let's start with some basics. The cigar smoking experience begins with how one prepares for this most pleasurable of experiences. A fine cigar deserves fine etiquette and these pointers can be used by anyone, from the beginner to the most discerning of aficionados. Use these points as a guide, remembering to enjoy your cigar your way, as Sinatra would have said “I did it my way”.
ABOUT THE INGREDIENTS
Before getting into how to smoke a cigar, what goes into cigars? The answer to this question is the key to assessing the quality of a specific cigar. All but the thinnest cigars include three elements: (1) the filler tobacco at the center, (2) a binder leaf which holds the filler together and (3) the outer wrapper, which is rolled around the binder.
For beginning cigar smokers, it’s critical to identify the difference between handmade and machine-made cigars. Cigars which are made by hand generally use “long filler” tobacco: leaves which run the length of a cigar. In a handmade, the filler, binder and wrapper are combined manually to create a cigar.
Machine-made cigars utilize high-speed machinery to combine “short filler” tobacco - usually scraps or pieces of tobacco - with a binder and wrapper. Because of the tension placed on the tobacco by the machines, the binders and wrappers are often made of a homogenized tobacco product which is stronger than natural leaves and can be produced in a variety of flavors, strengths and textures.
A few brands combine machine-bunching (using long-filler tobacco) with hand-rolled wrappers; this practice has been very properly dubbed “hand-rolled” as opposed to handmade by cigar expert Rick Hacker in The Ultimate Cigar Book. And some larger cigars use “mixed” or “combination” filler of long-filler and short-filler tobaccos.
The quality of the tobaccos and more importantly, how they are blended, determines the quality of the smoking experience. In the filler, “ligero” leaves which provide power are blended with “seco” leaves with a milder flavor and “volado” which helps to ensure an even burn. These are combined with a binder and wrapper to provide a balanced flavor.
THE TASTE OF A CIGAR
Our first topic in Beginner's Corner is taste, since the taste of a cigar is probably the most important element of cigar smoking. After all, why would anyone smoke cigars if they didn't taste good?
First and foremost, what makes a cigar "good" or "bad" is whether or not you like it. Period. In our humble opinion, too much is written about the specifics of taste. Frequently, you hear the "experts" write of particular cigars having, for example, "baked bread flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg, with a slight leathery finish", or "some leather and floral notes, with a hint of chocolate."
Gimme a break!! I've NEVER smoked a cigar that hinted of Petunias or Lilacs! Does the cigar taste good or doesn't it? That's what I want to know. If I draw on it, let the smoke settle on my taste buds, and get a taste that is pleasurable and relaxing and like a morsel that I appreciate, the cigar is great. If it's harsh, bitter, or has a taste that is just not "me", it's a lousy cigar. It's that simple. And I don't want to taste my leather catcher's mitt, either. The bottom line is, don't get caught up in all the taste hype that you hear among those that think they are experts. This is not rocket science and we're not trying to be tasting judges for some fancy wine competition.
THE PRICE OF A CIGAR
We have always believed the old adage, "you get what you pay for." After all, there's a reason a Mercedes Benz costs more than a Saturn. But, as you know, "name brands" can also cost more than an off brand and not necessarily be any better. Are Ralph Lauren Polo shirts really better than JC Penney shirts? (Recent experience tells me no!) Well, the same is true for cigars. Don't be convinced that if a cigar doesn't have a hefty price or a well known label that you won't like it. Be willing to try moderately priced cigars in search of the one you'll really love, recognizing though, that you usually get what you pay for. The lesson? "MORE $$$ is not NECESSARILY better.
The object of the cut is to create an ample opening for smoking. This means cutting the head without damaging the cigar. Using guillotine cutters, pierce cutters and V cuts are all acceptable. With a guillotine remember to only cut approximately 1/16 of the cap so you won't damage the cigar, causing it to unravel. Using a Pierce cutter and V cutter are more than acceptable but many purists insist that they allow tars to build up on the small opening they create. It is worth investing in a quality cutter as a bad one will ruin a great cigar. A few ruined cigars will add up to the cost of an elegant cutter quickly.
When lighting one’s prized cigars, remember to keep the cigar above and near the flame, but don’t let them touch. Burning a cigar directly in a flame makes it too hot. Rotate the cigar so all parts of the tip are equally heated. Be patient until the complete foot of the cigar is glowing. Then raise the cigar to your mouth and take the first puff with a little further assistance from your lighter or match.
Most important rules for beginners
- The band is a colorful strip of paper applied around the cigar that identifies the manufacturer.
- If a cigar has a split wrapper, avoid it. The cigar has either been mishandled, or not stored in properly humidified conditions and will not smoke well.
- Do not keep cigars in the refrigerator. This was a common practice many years ago, as people believed it kept the cigars fresh. Refrigerators actually dry out a cigar.
- Don't put a partially smoked cigar back into your humidor. Use a cigar savor, or just toss the cigar.
- A puncture cutter is a type of cutter that, when inserted into the head of a cigar, removes a plug about ¼ inch across, creating an air hole, while still preserving the smooth rounded head of the cigar.
- The straight, or guillotine cut is the most common. It removes the head of a cigar in a straight, clean line, allowing air to be drawn through the cigar. These come with either one blade or two.
- A scissors cutter looks like a pair of scissors, but has special blades for cutting a cigar. It delivers a straight cut.
- Ideally, a wrapper should be one color and free of blemishes or a greenish tinge.
- Look for wrappers that have an oily sheen, which shows the cigar has been perfectly humidified and that the leaf is exceptional.
- Don't snuff out your cigar when finished. Leave your cigar in the ashtray and it will extinguish itself automatically, avoiding that foul odor.
- The thickness of a cigar is expressed in 64ths of an inch. This is called the ring gauge. A 64 ring gauge cigar would measure an inch in diameter. A 32 ring gauge cigar measures a ½ inch in diameter.
- The coolness of your smoke has more to do with the ring gauge than the length. The fatter the cigar, the greater the exposure to air and the cooler the smoke.
- Do not let the flame touch your cigar to light it. You can easily light your cigar by holding the flame ¼ to ½ inch from the cigar. By drawing in gentle, slow puffs of air, the cigar will heat up and light.
- Do not use paper matches or a fluid filled lighter to light your cigar. They can impart a chemical taste that will ruin your smoking experience. Wooden matches and gas-filled lighters work best.
- Wait 30-60 seconds in between puffs to give the cigar a chance to cool. It can become bitter if it gets too hot.
- Do select an appropriate drink to accompany your cigar. Select a drink that will not be overpowered by the flavor of your cigar.
- Drug store cigars are typically machine made, short filler cigars. Short filler is tobacco scraps that have been discarded by the premium cigar manufacturers.
- Some short filler cigars are flavored with glycerin based agents. The flavoring usually exists to cover up inferior tobacco.
- A dark wrapper does not always mean a strong cigar. Although it’s true that darker wrappers generally impart a fuller taste, they may be wrapped around a light, mild binder and filler.
Cigars for beginners
Here's a brief summary of some of the cigars we recommend for new smokers as well as smokers unfamiliar with the many brands, various sizes, shapes and regional characteristics of Cuban cigars.
Some General Points
Many people ask for milder to medium-body cigars. While very few cigars can be described as "mild", there are huge differences in body and strength among the many brands, ranging from lighter-coloured medium-bodied cigars to the high-end powerhouses which many big-name brands are famous for.
Keep in mind that it's usually difficult to determine exactly what a particular individual may be looking for in a cigar because of the huge variety of distinctive flavours and characteristics available. Tastes may vary and be influenced by many factors. Like wine tasting, usually one "acquire's" a basic pallette - the ability to distinguish and identify basic flavours - and with experience, is able to expand and vastly improve this ability, and hence the enjoyment of the cigar experience.
Generally, larger cigars have more elaborate blends and therefore have greater potential for flavour complexity, depth and aging. Often the larger the cigar is, the milder it is, but this is not always the case. A good starting point for beginners is often the medium sizes rather than the smaller ones, as smaller ones are often actually stronger and more intense, with less depth and flavour.
8 best cigars for beginners
1. Arturo Fuente Curly Head
An excellent value in a Dominican hand-made cigar for about $1.50 per stick. These cigars are a bit rustic, and do not even have bands. They are mild in flavor and have a consistent draw. Try it out
Brand has just been released, and it's reported to be the ultimate Cuban cigar for beginning smokers, or anyone who appreciates a very mild and light bodied cigar. Guantanamera’s originate from the Vuelta Arriba region and are very competitively priced. Try it out
3. Montecristo No. 4
the most popular cigar in the world, and is the standard by which other Cuban cigars are judged. They have a unique characteristic spicy flavour, and taste "like a Cuban cigar should". They cost just under $13 US each. Try it out
4. Jose L. Piedra
Another mild-to-medium and extremely popular brand. Originally made only for domestic consumption in Cuba. They are machine-bunched and hand-finished, and are very competitively priced. Try it out
5. Baccarat Luchadores
Baccarat cigars (buy direct) are very mild Honduran cigars, measuring 6 x 43. You will notice a sweet taste when starting to smoke this cigar, and the draw is really smooth. Try it out
6. Excalibur No. 5
This cigar is made by Hoyo de Monterreyin the Honduras. The cost per cigar is about $3.25, making it the second most expensive cigar in this list. Try it out
7. Punch Grand Cru Robusto
A mild-to-medium smoke measuring 5 ¼ x 50, with a price tag of about $3.50 apiece. These are Honduran cigars that contain a nice blend of tobaccos, and are very well constructed. Try it out
8. Baccarat Luchadores
Size = 6 x 43, made in Honduras, price is about $44 per box of 25. Very mild and sweet tasting, great choice for beginners and connoisseurs, alike. Try it out