A friend recently gave me a Cuban cigar for no reason. A genuine Cuban Cohiba that said “Habanos” right on the cigar ring (as opposed to the very expensive but entirely bogus Cohiba you can find in American tobacco shops). I’d thought the giver was an acquaintance, but anyone who gives you a Cuban Cohiba for no reason has promoted himself into the friend zone.
I’ve smoked a Cuban once before, years ago, while visiting Paris. I was not impressed. But in fairness to the cigar, it was far from home and probably not very fresh, and my family was in a rush to get somewhere (the Louvre, if I remember correctly) and I had to fast-smoke it in an alley. Not the most bucolic scenery and definitely not the way to enjoy a good cigar.
But this time would be different. This time I would be able to focus and enjoy it. This time I would smoke the cigar while mowing.
I have a large yard, with varied inclines and landscaping which I try to keep groomed via a riding mower. I find the whole thing to be very zen: one must be thoroughly anchored in the present to do it well. I strive to find the most efficient path while monitoring to ensure that nothing is missed, backing and forthing as necessary to encompass various obstacles, all while listening to the hum of the engine, an internal-combustion-driven song of efficiency, fluttering and bogging when the grass is too long, or too wet, or too heavy, informing me when an adjustment in throttle speed or deck height is necessary.
When I am doing it right, the mower becomes part of me in a weird way, me and my machine, working together, forming artistic rows and patterns (or at least so I tell myself), achieving lawn conformance in a manner that will please the eye but still complete the task in minimal time.
I don’t look forward to mowing, it is after all a chore, and I am at heart a lazy man. I’d rather be gaming. But I don’t mind it as much as I do many other chores. It gives me time to think. And it is the perfect time to enjoy a cigar.
Cigars are not new to me, but for most of my life I had no idea how to enjoy them properly. There were Swisher Sweets when I was a kid, I no longer recall why, probably a combination of rebellion, wanting to seem cool, and a profound lack of taste. As an adult, there was the occasional victory cigar after a Denver Broncos win, or other cigar-related social occasion.
Somewhere I started to enjoy them more. Maybe that is when I learned to stop inhaling the smoke? I don’t recall a specific incident or a special cigar, I can only say that I went from being someone that was not afraid of cigars to someone who was curious about them and finally, to someone who actively sought them out.
My first wife and I were both smokers; adding cigars to the mix was not a big deal. Later, when I quit cigarettes, I decided that cigars were still okay, but not as a crutch or replacement. I would only continue with the cigars as long as I was smoking them for their own sake, and only so long as they did not trigger any sort of yen for a cigarette; quitting cigarettes was hard and I was not going to risk having to do it again.
Experimentation was needed to determine how many cigars I could smoke under these strict conditions; one every few days seemed okay until I had three one weekend and woke up Monday wanting a cigarette. Now I am at one per month, occasionally two; a pace that encourages anticipation but does not trigger my old Marlboro habit. A pace which is low enough to allow me to feel good about it. Even my doctor says this is probably not that bad for me, if it is at all. My Gamer Girl disagrees, but her protestations are based on smell and taste and not on health.
And for what it’s worth, I’ve had zero cigarettes in the last nine years. So there’s that.
There are two keys to cigar smoking. The most obvious part is to avoid inhaling past your mouth; they are not like cigarettes and are too harsh and strong to take into your lungs. Even if you succeed in inhaling without a coughing fit, you won’t enjoy it. Too harsh.
It is more like a sip than a swallow. Inhale just enough to fill your mouth, with your throat closed. Keep it in for a few moments, savoring the taste and texture. Then release.
Someone had to tell me the other key, and it changed everything, because I was doing it wrong: put the cigar down for awhile between smokes. If you are a cigarette smoker, this will seem counter-intuitive; letting a cigarette burn in the ashtray does nothing but waste the cigarette. But cigars are not cigarettes, and you will enjoy it more if you spread it out.
I was told that one should always smoke a cigar while they are doing something else. If one is only smoking, one tends to keep it in their hand and try to smoke it too rapidly.
One can smoke a cigarette in a few minutes. Smoking a good cigar may take half an hour or even longer. The whole point of the cigar is to slow down and enjoy.
You would think that paying more for a cigar means you will like it more. That works for liquor, but does not seem to hold for cigars. With one exception: the very cheapest cigars will not be enjoyable. This eliminates anything you can buy in a gas station or grocery store. Once you get past that point, price is no longer a reliable indicator. At least not for me. I’ve had super-expensive cigars that completely lived up to their price, and I’ve had some that were a chore to smoke.
Tobacconists and cigar stores are full of people that want to give you advice about cigar brands. Most of that advice is bad, or to be fair I should say that it did not work out well for me. In particular, I went to two different stores in the Emerson’s Cigars chain and was advised by people in each one to focus on product from Rocky Patel. Knowing no better, I did that for about a year, buying a variety of different Rocky Patel cigars from a variety of different stores.
And they were often bad. I rarely got a good burn, often had issues with the outer wrapper, often had issues getting a good draw. I don’t mean to indite Rocky Patel; perhaps I was just unlucky. But I eventually swore off them altogether.
Then my Awesome Daughter bought me a guide book, with hundreds of cigar ratings. I tried many, in order of their rating. One in particular appealed to me; Punch. The writer indicated “you will never go wrong with a Punch”. And so it seems, I’ve been buying Punch ever since, in lieu of much more expensive brands, and have in fact never gone wrong. Every one has been excellent.
Maybe I should drill down a little on the terms I am using, which I have totally made up and therefore may not exist anywhere outside of this article:
- The Burn – as you smoke a cigar, you expect the ash to remain uniform, and to proceed down the cigar evenly on all sides. Sometimes the ash will burn faster on one side of the cigar than the other, or in another uneven pattern that causes the cigar to burn too quickly and too hot and which adds harshness to the taste
- The Draw – it should be possible to smoke the cigar without straining. If the cigar is too tightly packed, it will be hard to draw; imagine drinking a thick milkshake through a small straw
- The Wrap – you don’t want the cigar to unravel in your mouth while you are smoking it. A well-wrapped cigar stays together even as you smoke it down
Most importantly, you should enjoy the cigar. If it is too much work to keep lit, or to smoke, or is too harsh, or is in any way flawed such that you are not enjoying it, it is a bad cigar. No matter how much it cost.
Conversely, if you like the taste and are enjoying the experience, then you’ve got a winner.
Cutting, Lighting, and Storing: Fact vs. Fiction
There are protips for lighting cigars – you are supposed to use wooden matches, hold the cigar at a 45-degree angle, and roll it over the flame until it catches evenly, all the way around. You are not supposed to draw it while lighting it. And butane is supposed to add a bad taste, meaning you can’t use a regular lighter.
In fact, I find it almost impossible to get a cigar to light as described above, I always need to draw on it. And I use paper matches as often as wooden ones. I do avoid using a lighter, I doubt that I am enough of a connoisseur to be able to tell the difference, but matches are easy enough to come by so why take the chance?
Cutting a cigar requires a special cigar cutter, or a very sharp razor blade. One is supposed to take off as little of the end as possible. And in fact that is correct, when I’ve cut too much I have trouble keeping the cigar properly wrapped and end up with unwanted bits of tobacco in my mouth.
If you are using a cutter, lay the cutter on a flat surface. Insert the cigar upright on the flat surface, between the cutter blades. Clip. The gap between the flat surface and the cutter blades will be perfect.
Storing cigars is beyond me. I’ve bought a humidor but I never remember to add water (or the special and expensive moisturizing liquid) and the humidor goes dry. Which is bad, if your cigars completely dry they will burn too fast and taste too harsh.
Fortunately for me, I live in a humid climate, and as long as I buy one cigar at a time, and smoke it within a week or two of buying it, I can store the cigar in my car and be just fine.
The Cuban lit well, and the first draw was amazing! Such a rich and complex taste! Somehow it tasted of leather and maple syrup and manliness, all at once. Just awesome. Everything good about smoking cigars, in thirty seconds of smoking.
But it didn’t progress well. The burn went haywire, maybe I should have done the whole 45-degree lighting thing? I don’t know, but I ended up with this crazy roundabout ash that burned the top and bottom of the cigar but left an isthmus of unburnt tobacco spiraling around the last inch towards the tip. Weird. But … it’s a Cuban. Maybe patience is in order.
The wrap is coming loose now too. I carefully pried off the offending leaf. The remainder felt weird in my mouth, but at least now no parts were actively coming apart. And … it’s a Cuban Cohiba. Maybe a lot of patience is in order.
And then, once it had burned down about 1/3 of the way, all of that patience paid off. Suddenly it was amazing again. So good.
I stayed with it almost all the way, smoking it down further than usual, I didn’t want it to end. It was that good. A symmetric burn. An easy draw. A wonderful taste, a perfect temperature, a smooth texture. Perfect.
This is why I smoke cigars.
Even though my Gamer Girl hates them.
🙂 😀 🙂