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Among all the luxury industries and hobbies out there, cigars are the most heavily steeped in mystique. Almost every premium cigar is imported, with every aspect of the manufacturing process taking place thousands of miles away from where they are enjoyed. Because most cigar fans will never see the manufacturing process up-close, because cigars have been around for several hundred years, and because manufacturing and storage methods are constantly being improved and modernized, myths and misinformation are rampant. We’re here to set the record straight. Let’s look at a couple expert tips as well as dispel some falsehoods.
Walk into a cigar shop any given day and within minutes you’re guaranteed to see at least one customer with a cigar to his nostrils, sniffing the foot. This is a common practice used by most cigar enthusiasts. What exactly is he looking for, and can you really determine anything just by smelling the foot? In many cases, yes. By smelling the foot, one can quickly determine several characteristics which could sway your purchase. Here’s a short list of some of the most common trigger-scents:
Ammonia - Let this baby sleep! An ammonia-like scent is usually a red flag signaling that a cigar is young and needs further aging prior to being enjoyed.
Barnyard - Ironically, if your cigar smells like a fresh barnyard, you’ve got yourself a properly aged smoke that should prove to be incredibly tasty and well-balanced. Savor it!
Spice - A spicy or peppery scent is usually caused by ligero, the strongest leaf on a tobacco plant. Ligero is the black tobacco often found in the foot of full-bodied cigars.
Two important tips regarding smelling the cigar:
Please do not shove the cigar in your nose unless you have purchased it. If you are going to try and smell it before purchasing, keep it far enough away that your nose does not touch the cigar.
Prior to taking a whiff, remove the cellophane from the cigar. You will not pick up any notes through the cellophane.
From day one, we’re all told that 70% is the optimum relative humidity for storing cigars. While this may be true, keeping your cigars at 70% is not a life-or-death situation for your precious handmades. I’ll explain. Take a maduro cigar. The maduro wrapper is a thick, durable leaf that’s usually loaded with oily goodness. Naturally, these oils can result in an uneven burn, or even cause a cigar to go out from time to time. Normally, this is nothing your trusty torch lighter can’t solve. However, it can be rather cumbersome. One way to minimize occurrences such as these is to store your cigars at a lower humidity, causing the tobaccos within your cigars to hold less moisture. Many knowledgeable connoisseurs store their collection between 65 and 67 percent, and notice a significant increase in even, consistent burns. The moral of the story? While 70% is the rule of thumb it may not always be best. The true test for your humidor is your cigars' performance while burning.
There is a common misconception floating around the cigar world that a good cigar is denoted by a solid, white ash. While a solid ash does signify a well-made cigar, the latter does not. The color of a cigar’s ash is a product of the soil in which the tobacco was grown, and more specifically, the amount of magnesium within the soil itself. For example, Nicaraguan soils are high in magnesium. Because of this, most Nicaraguan cigars burn to create a bright white ash. On the other hand, the soils of Honduras and Cuba are very low in magnesium, resulting in cigars that produce a dark gray or black ash. So, the next time your buddy that “only smokes Cubans” brags about the solid white ash his pricy Canadian-bought Cuban counterfeit produces, put him in his place with your newfound knowledge.
Seeing white spots form on some of your cigars? Before resorting to drastic measures, take a deep breath, count to 10 and take a closer look. Your handmades may have developed plume (or bloom), a natural phenomenon in the cigar aging process that occurs when the oils exude from the wrapper leaf. This is a sign of proper aging and will not happen with every cigar. It’s quite rare, and as a result, enthusiasts often chalk this up to the more serious problem of mold, and erroneously trash them. So how does plume differ from mold? Plume is a white powdery substance that can be brushed away. Mold is usually bluish or greenish in color and cannot be brushed off your cigars without staining the leaf. Just like that tricky barnyard scent, plume is good, so enjoy!
Dipping cigars in whisky: Decades ago, before advancements in cigar humidification made storage consistent and practical, it was tough to find a properly stored cigar. In order to cut the cap without the whole thing cracking and unraveling, the head had to be moistened, and a quick dip in a glass of hard liquor was the easiest way. Today, in the era of proper cigar storage, this is unnecessary, and will mask the true flavors of your cigar.
Storing Cigars in the Refrigerator: A few years ago, I gifted my uncle a few of my favorite cigars. Next time I saw him and suggested we have a cigar together, he said “Sure! Just let me pull one out of the fridge!” Not surprisingly, his first cut sent a crack halfway down the cigar and the wrapper promptly unraveled. Your cigars should be stored at roughly 70°F, and between 65 & 70% humidity. Refrigerators dehumidify, and since they hold temps in the 30-40° range, this is clearly not an ideal way to store your premium handmades.
Dark means strong: Most beginners, during their first forays into their local cigar shop, will lean towards lighter shade wrappers based on the assumption that darker cigars are stronger. Coffee shares this phenomenon, as it is widely assumed that dark roast coffee contains more caffeine. In both cases, the opposite is true. Light-roast coffee contains more caffeine than dark because the roasting process removes more of the caffeine from the finished product. With cigars, achieving a dark wrapper requires longer fermentation, which reduces ammonia and converts nicotine into sugars. This results in a sweeter leaf with rich, deep flavors, which may look imposing (and could be strong depending on the filler blend) but can be more pleasant to a beginner’s palate.
A hard cigar means it won’t draw: The amount of give your cigar will have is dependent on several different factors. When selecting a cigar, don’t make assumptions on the construction based on squeezing it. Firstly, squeeze too hard and you could end up damaging the cigar. Secondly, there is no way to truly tell if your draw will be too tight until you cut it. A properly bunched cigar can be stuffed full and very tightly rolled, but still exhibit a perfect draw. A more important factor to look for is whether the cigar feels overly spongy, and this will be apparent without squeezing very hard. Too much give can mean the cigar is either underfilled or over humidified. If underfilled, the draw will be far too loose and the burn too hot. Over humidified require constant relights, and usually taste “off”.
Higher cost = Better Cigar: This may come as a shock to some, to others, common sense. Price point alone doesn’t determine the quality of a cigar. Higher pricing means higher expectations, and consumers are often disappointed because their $50 cigar doesn’t taste or perform better than their favorite $10 cigar. That doesn’t mean no expensive cigar is worth ponying up for, but it’s important to ignore the hype and choose your favorite cigars based on taste rather than price.
Aging makes cigars better: While this is true in some cases, it’s not a universal fact. Most cigars on the market have been aged before leaving the factory and are intended to be enjoyed soon after being purchased. If you enjoy the flavor you get from a cigar, aging won’t do much to improve it. If a cigar is a bit too strong or shows some rough edges, however, aging will help the flavors mellow and marry together a bit. But if you have a humidor, you don’t have to take our word for this. Grab a box of something you like, put it away to age, and light one up every year. Take notes on the flavor differences and decide for yourself!
Now go forth and spread your knowledge to all your herfin’ buddies! If you enjoyed this article, check out some more of our other Cigar 101 pieces like pairing cigars and alcohol, the art of cigar wrappers, and more.