Issue 30

Smoking 101

Smoking 101

Last issue I wrote about some of the basics of cigar etiquette including cutting, lighting, ashing and extinguishing your cigar. Now that we’ve gotten the actual smoking component out of the way we can go back to the beginning – finding a smoke shop and choosing a cigar that you’ll truly enjoy.

Many a person has had a bad experience with cigars simply for the fact of smoking something not in their flavor or strength range or buying a smoke that has been improperly cared for. This article will help you make an educated decision next time you get a hankering for a nice relaxing cigar.

The first thing to consider is, of course, where to buy your smoke. You can’t just roll down to the gas station and ask for a Romeo y Julieta like you would a pack of heaters. For cigars to smoke to their potential they need to be kept in a controlled environment. Just remember, ideally, cigars should be kept at 70% humidity and 70° Fahrenheit.  Any less humid and your cigar will dry up, crack, and smoke hot. Any more than 70% and it will become hard to draw and go out on you while you smoke. Keep it at less than 70° for extended periods and this will also contribute to cracking, hotter than 70° and you risk the onset of tobacco beetles. All of this just means that wherever you make your purchase, it is important that they take care to provide you with a quality, well managed product. Unfortunately the only places you can usually count on to provide you with consistently well cared for cigars are an actual smoke shop. Discount cigarette stores, bars, and golf courses can all carry a token collection of cigars, but very few put much stock in keeping their small humidors functioning properly, not to mention charging up to double the normal retail price. So, just be wary of the plastic countertop humidor – you’re likely to get an inferior product sold to you by someone who’s never even tried any of the cigars they sell.

So make your way to one of the fine cigar shops in town, and cruise on into the walk in humidor. The smell is fantastic; moist cedar and well aged tobacco. It’s the type of experience you just can’t get out of a cabinet humidor.  But oh so many choices. Well, to whittle that selection down to a manageable number you need to decide on what you’re in the mood for. Is it something sweet and flavored or aromatic? Or perhaps you’d like it smooth and mild, no wait, bold and spicy. There’s a broad range of flavor characteristics that a cigar can encompass. If you’re new to smoking I’d recommend starting with a flavored cigar or something on the mild side then working your way up to the stronger cigars. A good metaphor would be that if the only type of beer you ever drink is an American style light lager then you might struggle making the jump to a Russian Imperial stout. The same holds true with cigars. If you’re palate isn’t used to smoking a strong bold Nicaraguan or Honduran corojo, then you’ll probably have a hard time enjoying it. You need to work your way up to the hefty stuff just like you might take logical steps to get from Bud Light to Guinness Extra Stout.

So, you ask, “Well John, how the hell do I know which cigars will singe my mouth with spicy goodness and which ones will taste like buttery silk?” Unfortunately there are no precise rules to live by but you can usually get a good idea by looking at the color of the wrapper on your cigar. The lighter the color, generally will be more mild and vice versa the darker the wrapper, the stronger the smoke. That being said, there are exceptions. Some very dark maduros can have a rich and full bodied smoke, but without the spicy burn. Alternatively there are cigars that fall in the middle of the pack color wise that are some of the strongest of them all. When in doubt, experience counts. So either smoke more, or ask your tobacconist.

Another generalization you can make when purchasing a cigar is the country of origin of the tobacco itself. Different countries tend to grow tobaccos with certain characteristics. Dominican, Connecticut, and Cameroon tobaccos tend to be milder and are often used together by many of the old guard cigar manufacturers.  Honduran, Nicaraguan, and Cuban growers usually harvest a leaf that will impart stronger spicier flavors. Newer companies such as CAO and Rocky Patel have made hay by putting out full bodied smokes from these countries.

Master blenders will take tobaccos from many regions or countries and combine them as part of the filler in the first of three main components of the cigar. The filler is meat in your cigar sandwich. It is the base element and is usually comprised of 3 whole tobacco leaves rolled together that will meld together after aging to form a harmonious flavor. The binder is typically a lower grade leaf that is wrapped around the filler holding everything together. Normally the binder won’t impart too much flavor on the final product. Last, but certainly not least, is the decorative and flavorful outer leaf which is called the wrapper. This leaf will give the cigar its color as well as lending itself greatly to the overall taste of the smoke. So pay attention to where certain cigars are manufactured as well as where the individual tobaccos are from to get a better idea on strength and flavor.

Having worked in the cigar business for almost a decade I’ve seen all sorts of rookie mistakes made in the humidor. The one that probably bugs me the most involves the aroma of the cigar. People always want to get a good whiff of the cigar they’re holding and I can’t blame them; I love the smell of a fresh cigar as much as anyone. The problem is that most of them come wrapped in cellophane. So unless you have enhanced super senses you won’t be able to smell jack through that protective plastic wrapper. Please do not try to unwrap the cellophane to smell the cigar then attempt to put it back. It doesn’t work and it’s bad form. So how do you know if you like the smell of the cigar you’re about to spend $8 on? Unfortunately you won’t until you buy it. Fact of the matter is that, in my experience, the smell of a fresh unlit cigar correlates little to the flavor and aroma of said cigar once it’s burning. Once you’ve paid for your cigar you can rub it up, down, or in your nose for all I care, but for you to caress your beak with that smoke then put it back in the box is being quite inconsiderate to the guy who’s actually going to put it in his mouth.

Finally a good visual inspection is paramount to making sure you get a quality product and not a lemon. First make sure there aren’t any visible cracks in the wrapper. Cracks are a sign of dry humidor conditions and will make the whole cigar unravel soon after lighting. Look for oils on the wrapper. Good tobacco leaves should have an oily sheen to them and usually the shinier the better no matter the color or type of leaf.  Examine to see that the wrapper doesn’t have large veins protruding from the surface. Discoloration is another problem that is to be avoided as well.

The best way to figure out what you do or don’t like in a cigar is to get out there and smoke them. Ask your tobacconist for suggestions and try something new each time you go to the smoke shop for a while. Explore the range of tastes, aromas, and flavors offered by today’s cigar manufacturers.  You’ll soon find that you’re apt to like more than one country, one brand, or one style. Like they say, variety is the spice of life.

John Larkin

John Larkin

John Larkin is co-owner of Jake’s Cigars & Spirits in both Omaha and Lincoln. He’s been smoking and selling cigars for close to 15 years, having begun his career as a tobacconist right out of high school in Salt Lake City. John moved to Lincoln in 2002 to run Jake’s for longtime friend Alex Roskelley. After serving a tour in Iraq with the Army Reserve. he came home and bought into the original Jake’s in downtown Lincoln. In August 2006 John and Alex opened a new shop in downtown Benson, where he now resides with his wife. John spends much of his time in business meetings (golfing), smoking cigars, and questing after the best beers bourbons and wines he can get his hands on.


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