How To Become a Cigar Cognoscente
Anyone who knows me, knows how much I love good cigars. I often wonder about the genius who thought of taking a tobacco leaf to make a cigar. Not only that, but the whole process that goes along with making premium handmade cigars today. You can learn to be a cigar cognoscente in no time. First, you have the cultivating of the crops, then curing for months and years of fermentation; then there’s the rolling process, which according to my five- year-old daughter, ends up looking something like “a stick.” She often questions me on it: “Daddy, why do you light those sticks on fire and put it in your mouth?” My usually response is to change the subject and fast before her mother hears and echoes the same question to me in a slightly different tone. It did however get me to think of why do we actually smoke cigars? More on that in a minute.
Beyond the production process you have the smoking process. For example, after you have selected your cigar, you inspect it. Then there’s the toasting & lighting process, which leads to appraising the flavors and aromas in the cigar. After a few puffs, you reflect on the flavors noted and begin evaluating even further. Yes, that man was a genius. Now before any feminists out there jump on me because I said “man,” think about it. OK, now that you’ve thought about it and agree I’m right, let’s move on.
When I was legally old enough to purchase cigars, my knowledge grew. I found myself sitting around campfires with my friends and brothers smoking cigars while swapping stories and talking about what might lie ahead for us in life. It was a time to bond and dream as thick clouds of blue-tinted smoke drifted up into the moonlit sky.
The history of smoking cigars through the centuries is rather strange. Some say they were invented by the Romans back in 18 BC; some say ancient Caribbean Indian cultures, but bear with me on the Roman angle. As the story goes, after the Romans conquered France for the second time, they rejoiced by rolling tobacco leaves and smoking them. The Romans called their cigars immaculius magnus and used them as a means of celebration. This tradition of celebration continues today, like when a baby is born, or you get that big job promotion or bonus. Frankly, I can think of thousands of excuses to celebrate if it gives me a good reason to light up a cigar, but conquering France doesn’t seem like all that big of an accomplishment. I can only assume they smoked cigarillos for that occasion. My apologies to all my French amis. I’m now going to celebrate my apology by smoking a cigar and drinking a glass of French Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux out of a glass mason jar.
In any event, there are a number of steps for enjoying premium cigars to their fullest: First, it is essential that you pick the right cigar for you based on its shape, size, blend, and strength. Now, cut the cap of the cigar, toast and light the foot, then sit back and celebrate whatever it is you want to celebrate.
Cutting a cigar might seem simple, but there are several methods you can use to properly pare the head of one’s cigar. There are the standard guillotine cutters, cigar scissors, and cigar punches that come in several shapes. My friend Bob, a real cowboy wannabe type, prefers to employ a method I call “cowboying it.” For me, it all depends on the situation, but under no circumstances do I recommend biting-off the cap of your cigar. Sorry, Bob.
If you’re a seasoned cigar connoisseur you may prefer to light your cigar with cedar spills (sticks made from the cedar dividers that come in many cigar boxes. Others will only use long wooden cedar matches. Yet most cigar smokers prefer the butane jet lighter. As for me, my only criteria is that I have a flame.
Let’s get back to size and shape. Most often, the choice of stick is based on how long you want the smoking experience to last and what ring gauge, or width, feels right in the hand and mouth. Another factor to consider is the brand of cigar you plan on smoking. Several of my favorites include Perdomo, La Aroma de Cuba, Arturo Fuente cigars, Casa Magna, Davidoff smokes, and several other boutique brands such as Falto and La Palina cigars.
Another way to consider your options is through something I call the “Pack Rat Method.” The average pack rat is drawn to shiny, glittery objects. This is generally the method most preferred by cigar-smoking newbies and occasionally by those who know better. Upon walking into a cigar shop and entering the humidor, an unsuspecting novice can become completely mesmerized by the fancy cigar bands that are freshly cellophane wrapped and perched at perfect eye level. These cigars call out to newbies like the Sirens who lured ancient sailors to their death, which is why it bears repeating the familiar old adage that I’ve amended: “Do not judge a book by its cover, or a cigar by its band!” While smoking your new found treasure (which may likely be a good cigar), you’ll be compelled to exclaim how grand it is, knowing full well that hefty price you paid was really more for the decorative packaging. As with many things in life, when it comes to cigars it’s what’s on the inside that counts, so don’t be a pack rat!
The third method is for those who have a better idea of what they like and what will meld well with their individual palate. This comes with years of trial and error experience. Entering the humidor at this stage will be easier, since you’ve conquered the temptation of reaching for the all attractive, shiny cigar bands, the latest crazes and fads, and instead you’ll reach for a particular cigar rolled in your favorite wrapper leaf, like Cameroon or Connecticut Shade, for instance. Then there are the flavors you enjoy from particular types of tobacco such as Estelí Ligero, or Dominican Habano. At this stage, you are on your way to the final method of choosing a cigar.
When you reach the final stage, what I call the “Cognoscenti” stage, you know what you like. You’ve smoked your way around the block. Of course, by this time, you may be decrepit and half-blind with one foot in the grave (just kidding), but this stage really is the best. No more rummaging through walk-in humidors trying to find something good to smoke. You are greeted with a wave of cheers and welcoming high-fives at your favorite smoke shop or lounge because you’re a veteran regular. You can chat with some of the younger smokers around you about different blends and brands-even if they do only smoke ACID cigars.
Finally, and most importantly, if someday you find yourself swapping stories and enjoying the camaraderie of your closest friends over a good cigar, that’s all you really need.