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Sunday, March 15, 2020

CIGARS 101.8: Selecting, Cutting, Lighting, Ashing & More...

Selecting cigars begins with a real life visit to a retail tobacconist - preferably a Certified Retail Tobacconist.  Partly because you can't really see, smell and touch cigars on the internet and also because real human interaction, including body language, verbal inflection and passion can only be communicated in a face-to-face environment.  Internet and mail order companies specialize in hyperbole, story telling, and discounting brands on the back end of their life cycle.  While retail tobacconists must be accountable to their customers in real life.  Retail tobacconists test and pioneer new products and get personal feedback from customers every single day.  This hands on experience is the difference between professional excellence and just pushing cigars. 

The average retail tobacconist store has between three to five hundred facings of cigars, all curated to serve their unique customer base.  If a retail tobacconist works full time and smokes two cigars a day, that means they are smoking five hundred cigars per year.  This means they would only get to smoke through their own inventory once per year - at best maybe they would get to smoke two of everything in their inventory!  At this rate it would seem impossible to become an expert on every cigar in the inventory; halfway into the year a professional tobacconist would have forgotten the details and nuances of what they smoked six months ago!  And of course a person would have to smoke multiples of a particular cigar to become well versed in its nuances and properties and then be able to communicate about it.  Fortunately, the retail environment has the benefit of creating a feedback loop where the tobacconist becomes a repository of information and impressions from customers.  Customers help educate tobacconists as much as tobacconists help to educate customers!  

Practically speaking, professional tobacconists are just passionate consumers with a little more experience and information.  Furthermore, tobacconists have the same preferences and biases as other consumers.   Rather than smoke every product in a store, they will tend to smoke cigars in the style and format that they prefer.  Some tobacconists will prefer large ring gauge Nicaraguan style cigars while others prefer lighter Dominican coronas.  

The process of finding the right tobacconist will involve getting to know them and understanding their strengths, preferences, and personal style.  Above all, a well educated and certified tobacconist will know their fundamentals and be able to educate you and point you in the right direction.  A great tobacconist will share their own knowledge and experience with you as well as all that they learn from their customers!  In summary, selecting the right tobacconist is the first step to selecting the right cigar(s).    

When you are in a walk-in humidor you will be surrounded by hundreds of cigars in varying sizes, shapes, and wrapper colors, with an astronomical variety of components and flavor profiles: it is simply overwhelming.

The first thing you should do is ask yourself, "what am I in the mood for?"  What ring gauge and length are you in the mood for?  What will feel comfortable in your hand and mouth?  How much time do you have/how long do you want the cigar to be?  This process will narrow your options significantly.  

The next step is to narrow your options even further.  Do you prefer a certain flavor profile?  Are you looking for full bodied? Spicy? Complexity? Or are you in the mood for a richer and sweeter maduro wrapper?  Are you in the mood for something like XXX which you smoked previously?  You are in charge of your mood and palate and your tobacconist can help guide you through the inventory with short descriptions and personal impressions and opinions.

Now, pick a cigar and smoke it.  Ultimately, there is no right or wrong selection, there is only experience!  You must smoke them to get to know them and you must smoke them to form your own opinions.  There is no substitute for the experience of smoking a particular cigar and there are no amount of adjectives or other people's opinions that will give you the experience of smoking a cigar.  

Cigar Inspection
In an ideal world, you are welcome to pick cigars up and feel them for consistency, proper humidification, etc... But best to check with your tobacconist first.  A well-conditioned cigar (70% humidity) will allow a little compression when gently squeezed and the wrapper will not crackle or crack.  If the cigar feels dry or hard, don't pick that one.  You are welcome to smell the foot of the cigar and the wrapper from a distance, but keep in mind not to touch the head of the cigar as that will end up in someone's mouth.  If the cigar is sealed in cellophane, ask your tobacconist if it can be removed if you want to smell it: don't bother smelling the cellophane because it smells like cellophane.

The X Factor
Everybody has personal preferences and biases, whether we are aware of them or not.  A beautiful oily wrapper in a certain color shade may strongly appeal to you while a beautiful band or box dress may attract another person.  We are all consciously and subconsciously influenced by many factors.  It is important to note our own biases or at least be aware that they exist.  We encourage you to get out of your comfort zone and make counter intuitive choices.  In the world of premium cigars things are not always as they seem and our own preconceived notions can limit our enjoyment.  There is very little black and white in the world of cigars.  For example, dark wrapper cigars are not necessarily stronger,  and lighter wrapper cigars are not always lighter in body.  Just because you did not enjoy a particular brand several months ago does not mean you will not enjoy it today.  Our tastes and preferences are always evolving and there are myriad things which influence our taste perceptions in real time.  Be open to new experiences and don't overthink your options.  Great luxury tobacco products are full of surprises so be open to the experiences and you will continue to enhance your appreciation.        

Premium cigars have a finished head that needs to be opened for the cigar to draw, light and smoke.  A good tobacconist will offer to cut the cigar for you so make sure not to put it in your mouth first.  Well conditioned cigars do not need to be slobbered on before they are cut.  While the straight cut provided by guillotines and scissors are the most popular way to cut a cigar, the punch, piercer or V-cut are also popular alternatives.  Pick a style that suits you as there is no right or wrong choice: there is only proper technique.

Cigar makers go to extraordinary lengths to create a strong and beautiful cigar head that will stand up to hours of smoking, saliva and teeth.  In the case of parejo and box pressed cigars, care must be taken to hold the cigar firmly around the shoulder so the wrapper will not shift or crack.  In addition, make sure not to remove too much of the cap: always leave a little shoulder on the cigar.  Cutting too much off can lead to the cigar unraveling and/or feeling untidy in the mouth.  Many figurados, due to the tapered head, will allow you to choose the size of your cut opening; so do what feels right for you.

After cutting the cigar you can test its construction and pre-light flavor by puffing air through it: this is called a cold draw.  If the cigar's draw is tight, try to cut a little more off the head and massage the body a little; this will usually open up the filler tobaccos.  If the cigar is plugged it is defective and you deserve a replacement.  After cutting and the cold draw test, you are ready to light.  

Evenly lighting the foot of a cigar is the most important part of cigar lighting.  If a cigar is not evenly lit, it will not burn or taste properly.  The best cigar lighting technique involves bringing the flame to the tobacco by gently drawing air through the cigar (a.k.a. puffing).  While puffing, rotate the cigar over the flame to ensure the foot lights evenly without getting charred.  Note, you can keep your match or lighter flame just below the foot of the cigar as the act of puffing/drawing will pull the flame gently to the tobacco. 

- Remove cellophane and any cedar, ribbons, or bands around the foot of the cigar.
- When using a match, allow the chemicals to burn off the match head before taking the flame to the tobacco.
- Hold the flame slightly off of the tobacco.  Traditional flame = 1/8"  while Torch = 1/2".
- Rotate the cigar to evenly light the foot.  
- Puff of the cigar in order to draw the flame to the foot.
- Touch Up the cigar if it starts to burn askew: some oily or dense wrappers may need correcting; its not a sign of poor quality, just a fact of life.

- Light or char the outside of the wrapper.
- Use a candle or liquid fuel lighter (ie. zippo type) to light the cigar.
- Light the head - it happens!

Other Lighting/Burning Issues: Click to learn more...
- Re-Lighting
- Uneven Light
- Inward Burn
- Canoeing
- Tight Draw
- Smoking Too Hot

Premium cigars are made with long filler (whole leaves), while machine made cigars are made with short filler - chopped up pieces of leaves.  Short filler cigars will produce a short flaky ash while premium cigars can produce a firm ash structure over an inch long.  The long ash can help keep the cigar ember cool and help the cigar burn slower.  The long ash of a premium cigar will naturally fall off when its ready - just gently tap the cigar body over an ashtray and it should fall off leaving behind a flat ember.  If the ember is pointy then the cigar is smoking too hot and you are not tasting the cigar as it is meant to be.

Some people have the habit of tapping their ash off more regularly and never letting the long ash form: it this works for you, so be it.  Once again, remember that cigar smoking is a personal pleasure and you are in charge of your process. 

Finally, the cigar's journey will come to an end when you are done smoking it.  You can smoke the cigar as long and far down as you want as long as it is pleasurable: if this means removing the band and nubbing the cigar, feel free to do so.  When you are done smoking a cigar, simply put it in the ashtray and let it go out on its own.  It is best not to crush the cigar and try to smother it as it will probably start to burn unevenly and create much more smoke than before.  When your'e done, just rest the cigar in an ashtray and enjoy the finish... 


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