Method for choosing, cutting and smoking a cigar.

At first glance, the cigar must be pleasing to the eye. After all, the wrapper (la capa) is the ultimate symbol of a cigar’s finesse and that of a Habano (purely Cuban cigar rolled in Havana) has made it through 50 different categories of classification with only the best having made the final cut. Whether it is a lighter shade (e.g. claro) or a darker one (maduro), the capa must be consistent, free from overt blemishes and preferably with a sheen on the surface to indicate it has been stored correctly.

Once in your hands, gently press all along the cigar to ensure that it is consistently packed and that it is “springy” to the touch, so that it will revert to its original shape after being pressed. There must not be any tight knots anywhere along the cigar, particularly at the head (la perilla) where it will be cut, as a struggle to cajole any smoke from it will continue to the end. If the cigar is too tightly packed, then not enough smoke will be delivered to the anticipating palate. A further catastrophe to avoid is if the cigar feels brittle, indicating it will be very dry. In that instance, the smoke would be stinging and uncomfortable for the mouth and irritation will certainly occur.

However, do not be tempted to go for a very soft cigar which may well be too moist and would be very difficult to keep lit. Moreover, it may well be underfilled (not enough long-filler leaves in the blend) which will mean that the smoke will travel too quickly along the length of the cigar, overheat the tobacco, great swathes of taste will be lost and the ash will fall off too easily.

Next, the cigar itself should have a pleasing aroma and not exhibit any harsh ammonia-like odours, for this will demonstrate that it has yet to benefit from aging for the naturally present bitterness of a very young cigar to dissipate under correct storage conditions of around 18°C and 70% relative humidity. It is for this reason that aged cigars (those older than 5 years since its production date, which is stamped on the bottom of each Habanos box since 1985) and in particular, vintage (older than 10 years) examples have such high credence among connoisseurs. The older a cigar (provided kept in stable and correct conditions), the more likely the bitterness has escaped to leave the true soul and character for the taster to savour.

The seemingly simple task of cutting the perilla of the cigar will make or break the smoking experience. Foremost, the head of the cigar should be cut using a cigar cutter and nothing else will suffice. The straight guillotine method is the one most would be familiar with having witnessed a cigar lover prepare this first part of the smoking ritual. This involves a sharp straight blade cutting through the tobacco on the cap of the cigar, making sure it is above the lowest horizontal line and the very top of the cigar. If one were to dare to cut below this line, the wrapper would be permanently damaged and the painstakingly crafted cigar will unravel to bring displeasure rather than enjoyment.

To light the cigar, non-sulphurous matches, a butane lighter or even a strip of cedar wood may be used as these will not distort the flavour of the cigar. This is stressed because it has been seen that a Zippo (petrol) lighter has been used to light a cigar which would undeniably ruin the taste of the precious tobacco. Petrol is neither odourless nor efficient as a flame source for cigars.

The Habano should be lit from underneath at close to a 30 degree inclination and only the tip of the flame should come into contact with the base of the cigar. This ensures that only the minimum of the tobacco is burnt so the filler and source of the flavour is not charred.

Granted, an even burn of the cigar cannot be achieved without practice, but as good things come to those who wait, the lighting process as with every other part of the cigar ritual, should not be rushed. To check an even burn, gently blow on the foot (la boquilla) of the cigar and proceed accordingly.

In order for the tobacco to retain its flavour, it should be savoured. Therefore “chain-puffing” should be avoided entirely as this will overheat the tobacco and precious flavours will be lost. Consequently, drawing the smoke around once per minute has proven the ideal balancing point between keeping the cigar lit whilst avoiding risk of overheating the tobacco.

Cigars are assessed in three stages. The first third is merely an introduction and only in the second stage will the true qualities and characteristics of the blend be apparent.

The final stage is where the true balance and overall quality of the cigar is revealed. If the final third lacks overt bitterness and is still enjoyable, then this is the mark of a great cigar.

Whilst enjoying the experience, you will have to gently brush the cigar against the ashtray after the length of the ash reaches more than an inch in length. A well-constructed cigar should be able to produce up to three or four inches of ash. If it disintegrates and spills without any sharp movement, then it is a poorly constructed cigar.

Finally, there is one point of cigar etiquette that in my view and those of cigar passionados who respect the art of cigar making, may not be ignored. This is the manner in which you end the experience. I suggest that one allows a cigar to “die with dignity”, whereby one caresses away any ash left on the cigar and places it length-ways upon the ashtray. It will extinguish on its own accord and does not require heartless eradication like that of a cigarette.

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