The aficionado’s judgment is therefore always influenced by previous experiences, whether they be positive or negative. This is true but not always rational, as cigars from the same brand always show quality fluctuations. The numerous quality controls during the production are aiming at the limitation of those variations, but as cigars are products of Mother Nature, which is uncontrollable and elaborated by humans who are not perfect, deltas may often occur.
Also, the confidence factor toward well-known cigars varies if they are to be selected from a controlled personal reserve (your humidor), or where they are unknown, like from a recently discovered cigar shop. Hence, an important aspect in the subjective choice of a cigar is determining whether you go for security or curiosity: are you in the mood to taste an established brand from your personal reserve or are your senses well-tuned enough to discover a new cigar from a manufacturer?
The cigar vs. the environment vs. the taster
This is a long story! The combination of the environment, the cigar smoker’s state of mind, and the cigar’s strength influence the appreciation of the tasting. Understanding this relationship is important to picking the right cigar for the right moment, including tasting it in the right environment!
For example, the same cigar will not please you the same way if it is to be smoked inside a cozy club or outside on the golf course. Moreover, to pick the right cigars for a friend’s dinner, we should know if it is to be tasted before or after the nice meal. Those relationships are highly subjective and personal, and regularly take some years of experience to approach and understand. Pairing cigars is not just only with food and beverage, but also with the taster’s mindset and tasting environment.
Now we are entering an easier zone of cigar appreciation, mainly physical, as choosing a cigar goes through visual, tactile, olfactory and auditory approaches. So what could be the right cigar from an objective standpoint?
Visual – A wrapper of character will be of even color, of glossy texture, with no tears or blotches. The veins will be discreet and of the same color as the tissue of the leaf. The leaf will be regularly stretched over the entire body of the cigar without showing any areas where it is lifting. This good tension depends on the elasticity of the wrapper and on the dexterity of the torcedor.
An essential element of the visual approach to a cigar is its color. Light or dark colored wrappers are a matter of personal preference, but are not an indication of the strength of the cigar. It is all of the leaves in a cigar, not only the wrapper, which make it a mild or full-bodied smoke.
Tactile – Satisfied by his visual inspection, the cigar-lover will be tempted to run his fingers lightly along the wrapper to gauge the physical quality and the moistness. This tactile analysis of the body of the cigar will aim to check the degree of compression and the homogeneity of the torcido and to detect the presence of any concavities (soft spots). It will thus lead to an estimation of the future draw.
Olfactory – The scents given off by the cigar woo the connoisseur’s olfactory papillae and will gratify his sense of smell by turning the cigar slowly beneath his nose to sniff in the most volatile part of the aromas of the wrapper leaf.
Stimulated by the suggestion of a known smell or the hint of a singular fragrance, the mind will wander off and drift towards an emotional past, a romantic experience, or a vivid memory. The appearance of a new “perfume” will, on the other hand, be a discovery leading to a fresh experience.
Auditory – Holding the cigar close to your ear (not against your ear), rotate it while pressing it gently between the fingers and the thumb. If the pressure exerted on the wrapper only produces a slight crackling sound, it indicates that it is supple and has a satisfactory level of humidity.
So before cutting and lighting the cigar, and thanks to both subjective and objective approaches, we can only have a preliminary perception of the quality of the cigar. We can say it seems great, average or poor, but giving any statement about the final quality at this point is a pure speculation. Picking is not judging; this comes after with the appreciation of the taste, the savor, the strength, and the combustion.
We can therefore draw the honest but slightly frustrating conclusion that it is impossible to pick the right cigar. With experience and feeling we can choose only what seems to be the right cigar. The right cigar can only really be determined by the actual tasting.
Whatever the method, to choose the right cigar is selecting the one that promises the best moment of pleasure and the most satisfying discovery. Therefore don’t think too much; let your experience and passion talk and pick with emotion and curiosity. Then taste and simply enjoy!
Didier Houvenaghel is a Belgian agricultural engineer who spent many years in Cuba studying tropical crops, specializing in black tobacco. His extensive research and knowledge of the tobacco growing and curing process led him to create Nicarao cigars, his own brand of Nicaraguan puros, now made in partnership with Rocky Patel. Didier is also the author of the book, The Cigar: From Soil to Soul.
(Above illustration by Gaëlle Houvenaghel)