Relax, lovers of the leaf. Despite a firestorm of Draconian laws that all but make the mention of the word "see-gar" a federal offense in some states, cigar sales nationwide are smokin'. More than 300 million premium, handmade stogies were imported last year. That's a lot of puffing pleasure. So to help you appreciate a fine cigar, here's a guide to what makes a good stick tick—its components, the etiquette of lighting and cutting, hot brands to look for, how to store your stash, what wines and spirits go well with what cigars and more. Light up!
A premium cigar comprises four elements: a filler, a binder, a wrapper and a cap. In the hands of a seasoned roller, long filler tobacco leaves are transformed into what hopefully will be a perfect smoke. The filler and binder are what you don't see when firing up a cheroot. The wrapper and cap you do. The wrapper comes in a variety of colors determined by a number of factors, including the type of leaf it is and the amount of sunlight it's exposed to. Claro (a light tan color), colorado (medium to reddish brown) and maduro (dark brown to almost black) are three of the most popular wrapper shades—claro often being mildest and maduro more full-flavored.
Ring a Ding
The diameter of a cigar is measured in ring gauges (RG) and, yes, size does matter. Think of it this way: A ring gauge is one sixty-fourth of an inch. A one-inch-in-diameter cigar, therefore, has a 64-ring gauge. Nobody but a porn star (female we hope) would choose a cigar this size, and very few are made. The RG combined with the length of a cigar helps determine the overall flavor.
The lore and lure of what famous person smoked what shape and size of cigar has had a strong influence in the various names of cigar sizes. A churchill (usually a 7" x 48 RG) is named after the large stogie often wedged in Sir Winston's face. A 4 1/2" x 50 RG rothschild (also called a robusto) is what Baron Rothschild preferred. These are more cigar size savvy (manufacturers do vary the sizes slightly): corona, 5 1/2" x 42 RG; corona gorda, 5 3/4" x 46 RG; double corona, 7 1/2" x 50 RG; petite corona, 4 1/2" x 40 RG; lonsdale, 6 3/4" x 42 RG; panatela, 6" x 38 RG.
A Cut Above
Once you've selected a fine smoke, rolling it between your fingers to determine that it's not too dry or soggy and checking for rips, worm holes, mold or other imperfections, it's time to trim the cigar's cap. Duels have been fought over which tool does the job best. A double-blade cutter is probably the most popular choice for average-size cigars. (Make your cut a tiny trim at just the place where the curve of the cigar cap starts to straighten out.) Piercers or punches, cigar scissors, V-cutters, desktop lever-action machines and even a miniature model of a French guillotine are also on the market.
Fire When Ready
Lighting a cigar is the moment of truth, and the way it's done differentiates a king from a klutz. First, choose either a butane lighter or a wooden match, and rotate the cigar over the flame being careful not to let the flame actually touch the cigar. Then, once the cigar is toasted, take a puff while rotating the fire below the cigar. If your smoking stars are in alignment, the fire will leap to the cigar creating a glowing halo. Enjoy!
Stashing Your Stogies
You can store your surplus cigars in everything from a Tupperware canister to a $100,000 camel bone humidor. (Gurkha cigars made five of them and all have been sold.) No matter what you pick, you'll want a tight seal on your storage choice and a device that keeps your cigars at a humidity of about 71 percent. To determine the humidity, you'll need a hygrometer (many humidors come with one) and tobacconists carry a variety of inexpensive models. Too high humidity turns cigars into soggy sticks that won't draw well or remain lit. Cigars that are too dry crumble like the last leaves of summer—and taste like them, too.
Cuba, of course, is the Holy Land to many cigar lovers. But since you can't legally get Cubans in this country and we don't see our 1962 boycott on Cuban sticks being lifted any time soon, here's a checklist of other places in the world where fine cigars are rolled and/or fine tobaccos grown: Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico, Connecticut, Central African Republic (Cameroon), Indonesia and the Philippines.
Light Up and Have a Drink
Port with cigars has been the classic after-dinner pairing ever since King Edward VII proclaimed "Gentlemen, you may smoke." The woodiness of a tawny port marries beautifully with a Connecticut-shade-wrappered churchill as does a Scotch aged in sherry casks. Cognac, of course, is a classic alternative—especially one that's a VSOP or an XO. Try it with a maduro-wrappered robusto. Bourbon, dark rum and especially rye (the comeback kid in the spirits world) also belong adjacent to your humidor, ready for your choice of smokes—perhaps a flavorful Flor Dominicana, a mellow Arturo Fuente Hemingway, a rich Padron 1926 Anniversary or even a full-bodied Playboy cigar by Don Diego.