Cigars 101 - A Complete Guide to the Basics by Tales from the Lounge
Cigars 101: A Complete Understanding
Written by Tales From the Lounge
Author: Ron Hancock
So, you have been seeing stuff on the internet, movies, magazines, or even on the street with people smoking cigars and you think, “Ooooh how cool and mysterious. I would have to be famous or a rich oil tycoon to do that. I wonder what it would be like to be THAT COOL!” Well believe it or not, you don’t have to be any of those things to smoke cigars. All you need is a few bucks, a good tobacconist/cigar shop, and a sense of adventure.
“Cigars are the great equalizer”
Kicking back at your local cigar lounge is a great way to relax and enjoy your down time in a hassle and judgement free zone. As my favorite cigar lounge owner says, and I have found to be true is, “Cigars are the great equalizer” When you are in cigar lounge enjoying a smoke (and possibly a drink), everyone there is there for one reason; to enjoy their smoke and relax. It is a great way to meet new people, network, and engage in interesting conversation with those from all walks of life. There, it doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you make, what your political, or religious affiliation is. You are there for the cigars. That common thread alone builds friendships and families you would have never expected.
But you are still thinking to yourself “I don’t want to go in and look like a moron. I am afraid they will laugh at me. I don’t know anything about cigars and how to cut them, light them, cigar etiquette, or even smoke them.” You tell yourself it is just too scary and hard! Well believe it or not, everyone has been in that spot and we did get laughed at…but we also met some of the best people in the world and built relationships with others who enjoy cigars just like you. They don’t laugh at you, but laugh with you, and help you learn more about the great art of smoking cigars and cigar culture.
To help you out, here is a complete Cigar 101 on the basics of cigars, cigar culture and etiquette, and how to not only find a good cigar, but to smoke one.
Let’s start off with some do’s and don’ts of cigar etiquette. There are a lot of “etiquette” rules you can find and each shop may have their own, but if you follow these, the rest should come naturally.
Cigar Lounge Etiquette
1. Respect each other and the cigar.
This one may seem easy, but you always have “that guy” who is a bit annoying. Don’t be “that guy” and respect others enjoyment of their stick of choice. No matter what they are smoking, they like what they like and you like what you like. With cigars, the rule is smoke what you like, smoke what you can afford, and respect everyone else’s taste. These cigars are grown, aged, blended, and hand rolled. They take a lot of time and effort to produce and no one sets out to create a bad cigar on purpose (believe me, some companies you may think they do). To show respect for the work and artisanship in creating your hand rolled cigar, DO NOT stamp it out when done. Set it down in the ash tray and let it die an honorable death.
Remember respect and the old saying “If you can’t point out the asshole in the room, it might be because it is you”. So respect others and the cigar.
2. Support your local shop and/or the shop you are in.
When you go into a cigar lounge to smoke, do not bring in outside sticks without buying one from them first. They are like everyone else and trying to make a living and keep the doors open. Without your patronage, you would have only your porch on a cold rainy night because your wife won’t let you smoke in the house. Check the policy of the shop, but as long as you are buying cigars there, bringing an outside stick every once in a while should be no big deal. But show the shop the respect of supporting them so you have a place to go. Your wife will thank them. (Bonus tip. If you like cigars and frequent a lounge often, send the wife there for your birthday, anniversary, Father’s day, Christmas, etc.etc. If you go there often enough, they will know what you like and make sure she gets you the right gift every time.)
3. wait till it is cut to put it in your mouth or in your drink.
This might be a no brainer to some, but habits are habits. No one wants your spit/cooties on their cutter. Good shops not only offer to cut your cigar for you and get it started (lighting the cigar is coming up), or will have cutters available for you to use (cutting is coming too). Wait till after it has been cut to wet the cap or take a cold draw
4. Welcome those who join you.
When someone comes in, at least give them a nod of acknowledgment or say “Hi”. You will be surprised how easy it is and what a warm feeling you get when they nod back. This goes back to rule #1. Show them the respect of acknowledging their presence. You don’t have to strike up a conversation, but it lets them know you know they are there and respect their space.
5. The easiest ice breaker is “What are you smoking?”
Are you a bit shy? Socially a bit awkward? Well here you can easily start a conversation and learn from everyone around you. It all starts with a simple question. “What are you smoking?” That simple question will open you up to learn what others are smoking and learn why they like it. You might find a cigar you never knew about or something about one you hadn’t tried that helps with that decision. Cigar smokers LOVE talking about what they are smoking and what they like or dislike about it. Remember also rule #1. Respect their choice and if you don’t agree with their taste in sticks, the simple response is, “Cool. I may have to try that at some point. Thanks for the tip/info.”
(here is another list of good do’s and don’ts. http://www.inthehumidor.com/?p=5181 thanks guys.)
Now that we know some basic etiquette for our visit to the lounge lets look at some fun stuff…How the heck do you cut, light, smoke, and extinguish your cigar? I love this part. We get to watch some videos. Who doesn’t love videos? I mean YouTube is making billions on video.
(disclaimer: there are no cats in these videos)
Let’s CUT IT UP
Cutting your Cigar
There are several ways to cut a cigar along with several different tools to use. But let’s ask this question first; Why do we cut cigars? Well the easy answer to that is so we can draw air through the cigar to get the smoke and flavor to our taste buds and olfactory sensors. The more complex answer is only slightly more complex. Cigars have a “cap” (we will talk cigar make up next) that needs to be cut in order to let air travel from the part that is burning through the cigar into our mouths. The cap also keeps the cigar wrapper from unraveling. Th wrapper holds things together with the binder and the end is under the cap. Most cigar will have 2 caps and some will have 3. These caps help keep things together. So when you cut the cap, you want to make sure you only take a small part of the cap so the wrapper stays on. Believe me, before I learned this, I cut A LOT of cigars too far and had the wrapper coming off while I tried to smoke it. So lets look at some common and not so common cutters and techniques.
1. Straight Cut
Straight cut is exactly what it says. It cuts the cap in a straight line. You want to make sure you are just taking a small bit off the top of the cap. Enough for you to pull air through the cigar.
The advantage to a straight/guillotine cut is its simplicity. You line up on the shoulder of the cap and with a single slice take off the top of the cap. If you cut off too little, you can always take some more off. If you take too much, not only do you risk the wrapper unraveling, but too much air comes through the cigar making it hotter and changing/killing the taste. Also, if the blade is dull it would not cut but tear and make for a bad draw. These are also some of the cheapest cutters, so unless you paid a bunch for a limited edition/branded/ultra-special cutter, once it gets dull, chunk it and get another.
I personally like a V-Cut for a lot of cigars. The V-Cut takes a lot of the guess work out of the cutting and offers a unique draw to your cigar. The advantage is you place the cigar into the cutter and it cuts a wedge out of the cigar. It leave the cap intact for the most part and controls the draw so you can position it to get the best flavor from the cigar. The disadvantage is that it is a smaller cut than the straight cut. I have found that is still enough to get a good flow of air and smoke from the cigar.
The punch is a simple tool that takes a punch out of the cap. It takes a small chunk of the cap out and allows for the flow of air through the cigar. It leaves the cap intact for the most part but like the V-Cut is has a smaller draw on the cigar. Just like the V-Cut, though, that is plenty for some cigars.
4. Perfect Draw
Now let’s look at one of two new cigar tools on the market. The first is the “Perfect Draw”. This has gotten a lot of buzz on the cigar blogs and within the industry. Needless to say, I had to buy one. You use the special serrated end to “drill” into the cap and deep into the cigar to and then “rip” a tunnel into the cigar to get the needed draw from the cigar. It works great and removes very little tobacco from the cigar. The disadvantage is that you can get tar build up in the end of the cigar and on one of you draws, you get a mouth full of ultra-bitter tar. I found this out the hard way more than once before I found out what it was. I recommend if you want to use one, use it in conjunction with one of the above cuts to add a better draw to your cigar that has tight filler.
Here is the second of the new cutter tools. This is the new product from Brizard & Co. The Trilogy is a small serrated drill that you use to drill 3 small holes in the cap. What that does is allow the smoke and flavor to come out in different areas of your mouth and provide a different flavor because the smoke is cooled as it enters you mouth. I like it, but it takes practice to use. If you don’t go in at the right angel, or go too fast, you can tear the cap, making for a weird draw and bits of tobacco in you mouth as you take draws on the cigar. On larger cigars I will put as many as 5 drill holes in a cigar. I like the draw it gives me.
6. Slant/Bias Cut
This is less a cutter and more of a technique. On cigars that are “torpedoes” I like a slant/bias cut. What you do is us a straight cutter and cut the cap on about a 45% angle. It will help keep the cap in tact without restricting the draw on the cigar. It takes a bit of practice to get the angle right, but just start by snipping the end, on a slant. If you take too little, you can always trim a bit more off.
Given all these options for cutters and techniques I have one bit of advice…Use the one that works best for you. Like I mentioned, I like a V-Cut on almost everything and a slant on torpedoes. But if you like the straight or punch, by all means, run with it. The only time you are wrong in cutting is if you cut too deep and the wrapper unravels.
Lighting the cigar
Ok, we have this sucker cut, NOW what?? If you have seen Hell Boy, there is a scene where Hell Boy (Ron Pearlman) and Director Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) have a moment with lighting cigars. Tambor’s character states “You never, ever light a cigar that way. Use a wooden match. It preserves the flavor.”
While that is true, it is also impractical at times. There are torches designed to light cigars. I highly recommend them over your typical Bic lighter. Because the surface area of the foot of the cigar (coming soon) is larger than a typical cigarette, getting the whole foot ignited is important. So what you do, is “torch” the foot, getting it started, before you even put it in your mouth to draw and light. Once you have torched the foot and gotten is started a bit, you put the cigar in your mouth, the flame on the foot and draw air through the cigar to light it. When torching the foot, you want to try and avoid putting the flame straight on the foot, hold the flame back and ignite it from the heat of the flame. Check out this ultra-cool video by Brandon Frakes of Industrial Cigar Co.
You finally have your cigar cut and lit, but you are a bit confused what to do next…Smoke it and enjoy it. Here is the biggest secret to cigars that cigarette smokers won’t tell you..You DO NOT inhale a cigar. The tobacco is meant to be brought into the mouth and tasted then expelled. Unlike cigarettes, cigars are not inhaled.
At this stage, you should be kicked back with a drink in your hand in a nice comfy seat, and enjoying your cigar. Nothing else matters and this is your time. Relax and enjoy. Once you have gotten to the end, no matter how long it takes, drop the last bit into an ashtray and let it die. By all standards out there, you are a cigar smoker. No other thing is needed for validation. You don’t have to worry about what others are thinking, or what comes next…but hopefully it is another cigar in the near future. Striking up conversations with those around you, you should have some ideas on what you want to try next. And don’t be surprised if someone gives you one of their favorites to try. That is something you will run across in some lounges.
If you are new to cigars or to a lounge, it is not uncommon for established members to give you a cigar from their collection/stash to try. Those people will be your best friends and be the most helpful in your new journey. Just remember to thank them graciously. You don’t have to “swap” cigars in this instance, but when you meet someone new to cigars, don’t be shy about sharing something special you have found.
That is one of the great things about the cigar community. Not only do you meet great people, but they share their knowledge and occasionally their cigars with each other. I have on more than one occasion shared cigars I had with someone I barely know because I love the stick and want to share, or because the shop was out and I thought they needed to try it before the next batch came in.
CONSTRUCTION - What is a cigar?
Cigars are hand rolled tobacco made of 3 different parts, the filler, binder, and wrapper. Different tobaccos are combined to create unique flavor, by master blenders, just like a sous chef, a wine maker, or chocolatier. Depending on the tobacco used, the blender can create a cigar to appeal to different people’s flavor pallets. Each part of the cigar adds something to the flavor of a cigar just like different spices and ingredients change the taste of your favorite dish. Let’s take a look at each part and what they might offer.
The filler goes on the inside of the cigar and is folded/bunched to add flavor and strength to the cigar. Different tobaccos can be arranged in different densities and orders to blend the flavor the master blender is looking for. They can also be arranged to change the flavor as the cigar is smoked, adding complexities the blender is looking for.
The binder gives the cigar flavor, but also give the cigar structure and combustion. The binder holds the filler together and makes sure the cigar burns properly and evenly. The flavor of the binder can be smoother/softer flavor-wise to offset over powering strength of the filler if needed.
The wrapper can contribute to around 40% of a cigars flavor as well as adding aesthetics to the look of the cigar. A great wrapper can really make a cigar a hit out of the ball park, or a grounder to first base. The wrapper goes on last and is tied down with the cap mentioned earlier.
What is up with all the different shapes and sizes? (or what women keep telling me, “Size Matters”)
Cigars come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. I am not going to spend a lot of time here, because let’s be honest, some are just crazy. Here is a chart of a lot of sizes and shapes. There is a lot here, but I don’t think even this is a complete list. The reason for different sizes is about flavor and aesthetics, but mostly flavor. Changing the shape and size can drastically change a cigars flavor. It is all about changing the proportions of the different tobacco leaves in a cigar compared to the whole. Check out this crazy list.
As you can see there are a lot of shapes and sizes. Here is a short list of the most popular shapes.
Ring Gauge – Is this what I use to check the air in my tire?
Once you see the all the shapes, lets now look at “Ring Gauge”. Ring gauge is measured in 1/64th of an inch. Cigars range from a smaller 30 ring gauge to 60+. A 64-ring gauge cigar would be one inch in diameter. The smaller the ring gauge, the more flavorful it will be because it will get a lot of its flavor from the wrapper.
The larger the cigar is, the more it relies on filler and binder for its flavor and can offer more strength and a longer burn time. I have seen some crazy size cigars (novelty I am sure) that I would not take on.
Stop interrogating me!! Oh wait, you are just trying to help.
Do you drink coffee and if you do, how do you take it?
This might seem like a weird question, but the first time I heard it asked I understood what they were looking for. If you drink your coffee black, your palette is already ready for a stronger, bolder cigar. With cream and/or sugar, you might want something milder on the tongue. This will help the guys at the shop to gauge what you might like.
How long do you have to smoke/enjoy it? This will help them determine a size that would suit your time frame.
When and what are you going to be doing when you have the cigar?
They are not trying to be nosey about your home life, so don’t get defensive. What they are looking for are simple thing to help make sure you have a good experience with your smoke. Some examples would be “I am going to smoke it first thing in the morning with my first cup of coffee.” Then they might have in mind something that compliments a good cup of joe. “I am going to have it out on the golf course with my homies.” They might recommend a stick with more oil on the wrapper that will stay lit out on the windy course. Also, pay attention to what they recommend if you pick one out because you like the band or box label. I asked for a recommendation once and they recommended a very nice cigar. He advised, “Smoke that after a good meal or steak dinner. The strength and flavor will go good with it and might be a bit strong on an empty stomach.”
What is your budget?
This also isn’t a personal judgment question. Hand rolled cigars have a varying cost. They can range from a few bucks to the $10-$20 and even the $30+ depending on a lot of factors. Do not go in and say “Give me you BEST cigar!” You will look cool for about 2 seconds…then you will look silly. Start out with something for a few bucks till you get used to cutting, lighting, and smoking your cigars. Once you have the basics down, then go in and ask about a recommendation for a higher end stick. I often go in to my local shop and ask, “What am I smoking today?” They ask me a few questions about my time and mood and then recommend a solid smoke for the day. I want into my local shop one day and said my usual “What am I smoking today?” to one of the owners. Dave asked “What are you in the mood for.” I stated “Surprise me.” He smiled and said, “I am going to make you hate me…That is when I knew I was in trouble. He recommended a superb cigar. It was something a little pricier than my everyday smoke, but worth every dime. He stated it would be the cigars I compared all others too. And he was right. I hate you Dave. 😊 Buy something within your budget for normal smoking and treat yourself to something every once in a while to something special just like anything else.