My first job in publishing required me to smoke cigars every day. I was the tasting coordinator of Cigar Aficionado magazine and it was just as bizarre and anachronistic as you would imagine. I left the job early enough to save my body from any lasting damage, but was there long enough to learn how to properly enjoy a $40+ wad of leaves.
Now, whenever I’m at a special occasion where men feel the need to celebrate with exotic tobacco, I cringe when I see them smoking the wrong way. I can’t help it. I’m not generally a snob, but it’s disconcerting to watch someone mangle an object that a craftsman from an equatorial country spent his entire career perfecting. So for your sake and mine I’d like to share a few tips on how to properly procure and smoke a cigar.
Don’t be afraid to ask the shop owner what he recommends. He’s an expert and you’re not. Beside, talking about cigars with others is one joy of this strange hobby, and even people who have been smoking cigars for years ask for advice on what’s new and good. Most shops have ratings from cigar publication under the cigars, but those scores might be old. If you really care about what cigars are currently rated well, pick up the latest issue of whatever cigar magazine is lying around the shop.
Beginners should go for a thin, long cigar, which is known as a corona. Thicker cigars (like robustos, which are shorter and thick, or Churchills which are the giant batons that the namesake was known for) produce more smoke that can cause coughing and nausea in a novice. Don’t worry: This does not mean that a thin, long cigar is a sign of a novice.
Inspect a cigar before purchasing. Check to see if any part of it is discolored or damaged. Gently squeeze it to make sure it’s not too hard or too soft.
Don’t buy a cigar unless you have a means of preserving it, like a humidor, or plan on smoking it that day. A Ziploc bag or Tupperware container will keep the cigar from spoiling for a day or two, but you’ll need some sort of humidor if you want to hang on to it for any longer than that.
Don’t be that guy who spent more than fifty bucks on cigars and couldn’t spring two dollars for a cheap cutter. Guillotines are designed to steady the blade, so you get a clean cut that allows for the best possible smoke. If you are that guy, then you can use a knife and make as swift of a chop as possible, but you’ll probably screw up the binding and compromise the cigar’s structure. If you’re out on a beach or on the golf course and have no access to a blade, then you can bite it, but know that your cigar will almost certainly unravel.
With force and fluidity, cut about 1/16th of an inch from the end, which is about where the curved shoulder straightens. Cigars have a cap (small piece of leaf) at the end. You should not cut off the entire cap, but rather leave some of it on to keep the wrapper (outer leaves) and filler (center bunch) together.
You might notice some people use a punch cutter or a v-cutter. A punch cutter pokes a little hole in the end. This prevents tobacco from falling out into your mouth, but might not allow enough draw. V-cutters chop a wedge into the tip, which provides more surface area and more draw. With a v-cut you risk too much draw, which can make the cigar burn too hot.
So stick with a regular guillotine cut. You’re a newb (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this). If you decide to become a full aficionado, then you can try out other cutting styles.
This is where most people fuck up the cigar. Hopefully you also grabbed some long wood matches at the cigar store, as those are ideal for lighting a cigar. A butane lighter is also acceptable if you want to invest in this new extracurricular. The chemicals and odors from small matches and other lighters can affect the taste of the tobacco.
First, toast the foot of the cigar. Don’t light—toast. Like a marshmallow. Hold it above the flame at a 45-degree angle and rotate it until there is a glowing ring, then blow on the ring so it forms a lip of ash. Then take the first puff. This method ensures your cigar does not burn too hot. A hot cigar burns unevenly and makes the tobacco taste bitter.
Puffing too fast will also make the cigar burn uneven and taste bitter. Take a puff every 30 to 60 seconds unless it looks like it’s going out. If one puff a minute sounds ridiculous then think about this: Cigarettes are to Bud Light what cigars are to a good brown liquor. You can chug cheap swill and huff cigs when you’re partying, but cigars are meant to be savored.
This should go without saying, but don’t inhale. When you take a puff, hold the smoke in your mouth for a few seconds. Think about the taste. Do you notice any aromas or flavors? Toast, coffee, chocolate, leather, fruit, pepper, wood—these are some common notes. You probably won’t pick up on much, as it takes a while to refine your palate, but you’ve got to start somewhere.
Avoid ashing. A quality, well-constructed cigar will hold a long ash. A bit of ash at the end also prevents the cigar from burning too hot. That being said, don’t embarrass yourself by waiting for a long rod of ash to fall onto your pants. A gentle tap every once in a while is fine—just don’t aggressively knock the top every few puffs.
FINISHING Most people smoke about two-thirds of a cigar, down to the band. Don’t snub the cigar. Just set it down in an ashtray or non-flammable service and it will burn out shortly. Snubbing can cause a stronger odor and more smoke, and will annoy everyone even more than you already have by smoking a cigar.