One of the more confusing topics in cigars concerns the classification of tobacco primings. Not a lot of cigar smokers are able to talk in-depth about the leaves on a tobacco plant, how they are harvested, or which leaves on the stalk are used to make premium cigars. So you’ll be well equipped to lead the discussion the next time you’re at the cigar parlor enjoying a stogie with your fellow cigar aficionados after you read this article.
We get a lot of questions from cigar aficionados who are just starting out. This is why I wrote this comprehensive guide for newbies planning to learn how to smoke their first cigar.
Smoking a cigar is a timeless sign of class: Winston Churchill smoked cigars. So did Babe Ruth, Mark Twain, and King Edward VII. Modern celebrities and politicians who enjoy lighting up a stogie include David Letterman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill Clinton. If you want to look as classy as these gents when you are smoking your first cigar, though, you’re going to need to do some reading first. Fortunately for you, everything you need to know to get started is outlined below. Not only will reading this brief guide ensure that you won’t look like a fool when you light up, but you’ll also enjoy your first cigar if you don’t make common newbie mistakes!
Let’s get started!
Buying Your First Premium Cigar
The word “premium” may send you running for the hills if you’re new to the world of cigars, but don’t mistake “premium” for “expensive.” A lot of premium cigars are very reasonably priced, and you can buy a great beginner stogie for three to five bucks. Ignore that impulse to purchase your first cigar from the checkout counter at the liquor store. If you do that, I guarantee you will not enjoy it.
Go to a tobacconist, and pick a cigar out of a humidor which has been properly taken care of and kept at the right temperature and humidity. I suggest a cigar which is mild or medium; while some newbie smokers enjoy full-bodied cigars right off, many find the experience overwhelming. Don’t forget that a cigar is a slow, leisurely experience, very different from a cigarette. It will probably take you about an hour to smoke your cigar. Here are some recommendations for your first cigar:
Arturo Fuente Chateau Fuente. This is a medium-bodied cigar with a natural or maduro wrapper. Both are excellent, and retail for around $4.00.
Brickhouse. This cigar is also medium in body and has flavors of honey, nutmeg, and cedar. It retails for around $5.00.
Torano Master Series. This cigar sells for around $6.00, and is perfect for a dessert lover; flavors and aromas include butterscotch, gingerbread, dried fruit, and nuts.
Flor de Oliva. This cigar is very cheap, only about $2.50 per stick. The quality is excellent, with great construction and a simple, but pleasant flavor profile both woody and sweet.
I also suggest you ask the tobacconist for suggestions. Many tobacconists are very friendly, knowledgeable people, and your local tobacconist can probably provide you with some outstanding advice.
Parts of a Cigar
There’s no point trying to explain how to cut, light, and smoke your cigar until you know the basic terminology. The body of your cigar has three components. The outermost leaf is called the wrapper. It’s the part you see. Inside it are the binder and filler leaves. The binder, as you might guess, contains the filler leaves. All three contribute flavor (check out our cigar flavor wheel) to the cigar, and the quality of the binder usually determines how even the burn will be.
The body of the cigar is enclosed by the head at the top and the foot at the bottom. The foot is the part of the cigar where ash will form (it’s also where you light the cigar). The head is the part you smoke, and it will be covered by a cap when you buy it. The cap is a round piece of tobacco that has been attached to the head to keep the wrapper from falling apart. If you look closely, you will see a clear line here. Finally, the label which names the cigar company is called the band. You generally should remove this, but only if it will not damage the cigar (generally not a problem).
Cutting and Lighting Your First Cigar
Another thing you will have to buy before you smoke your first cigar is a cutter. There are a number of different types of cutters on the market, but I recommend you get a simple guillotine cutter. You’ll see a wide price range, but look at the lower end and you can get a perfectly efficient cutter for under $10. To use the cutter, put the cutter flat on a counter or table, and then insert the cigar vertically. The area you are aiming for is just before the cap, which you’ll find at the head of the cigar, not the foot:
If you overdo it, your cigar might start to fall apart. So if in doubt, be conservative at first. If you need to cut more, you can, but you can’t undo a cut you already have made. You want the head of the cigar to be open, but not loose. Note that cutting torpedo shaped cigars (the ones with the pointy ends) is more challenging than cutting standard parejo shaped cigars. So you may not want to purchase a torpedo on your first go. Another tip is to try wetting the cap with your lips before you cut. This usually makes the cap come right off with minimal effort, resulting in a cleaner cut.
At this point, you’re ready to light your first cigar! Avoid cigarette lighters, because the fluid can taint the flavors of the cigar, and you don’t want that. Some smokers use standard matches, while others opt for butane torch lighters. Do not try to light the cigar with the head in your mouth. You may eventually learn how to do this, but you won’t want to try on your first go. You’re bound to do an uneven job of it if you can’t see what you’re doing. There’s also a chance you’ll make the burn too hot. Hold up the cigar in front of you and pay attention to what you’re doing as you light the foot. Get the burn nice and even. You can do this by rotating the cigar.
Text & pictures not very clear? Watch Penthouse model Aria Giovanni light a cigar:
Smoking Your First Cigar Like a Pro
First-time cigar smokers often make mistakes while smoking because they assume that smoking a cigar is similar to smoking a cigarette. These mistakes include:
Smoking too fast. Your cigar was designed to provide a pleasant, relaxing experience. Many cigars take around an hour to smoke, and some take even longer. So don’t try to rush it. Otherwise, the cigar will end up burning hotter than it is meant to, and that will ruin the experience.
Smoking too slowly. Don’t overshoot and smoke too slowly, because this will cause your cigar to go out. If it does, don’t worry about it. Just relight and start again. You’ll get the hang of it.
Don’t inhale the cigar smoke! This is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Cigar smoke is potent, and if you inhale, you’ll feel like your lungs are on fire. The flavor and aroma of a cigar is meant to be enjoyed in the nose and mouth, not in the lungs. Many a newbie smoker who has inhaled by mistake has been put off of cigars—even though this was not the intended experience.
Now that you know the basics of how to smoke a cigar, here are some additional tips which you’ll find helpful as you explore the world of stogies:
When you finish your cigar, don’t put it out by squashing it in an ash tray. You may tap off your ash into the tray as you smoke, but this is simply not how you put out a cigar. If you just set it down in the tray, it will eventually go out. This is basic cigar etiquette, but not something a beginner would necessarily know.
Have a glass of water with you. You can choose another beverage, but beverages all impact the flavor profiles of cigars (and vice versa). So I recommend you go with something simple for your first cigar. Later you can learn all about pairing cigars with drinks.
Don’t expect to be smoking like a veteran cigar aficionado right from your first stogie, and if the experience suffers a few hiccups, try again and don’t get down about it. It takes most people at least several cigars to learn how to smoke comfortably and really get into the experience. Following these tips should get you off to a great start!
Smoking Cohiba Siglo IV and 2 out of 8 smokes had these white little granules appear from the ember of the foot and into the ash. Thus, the inch and a half ash would basically be covered in white dots, and I could watch them appear from the foot as I drew on the stick. It looks like vermiculite. Any ideas what I'm smoking?
You’re smoking a cigar, you look down at the ash, and you make a startling discovery. The ash has a number of small white dots on it, each of them roughly the size of the head of a pin. Your first reaction might be revulsion—you might think they look like eggs laid by tobacco beetles. There seems to be a couple of explanations for the appearance of these little white dots, however, neither of which includes insect eggs.
Tooth. This refers to the texture of the wrapper leaf. Some leaves are “toothier” than others, meaning they are rougher and naturally have these little bumps. If you rub the white dots and they don’t come off the wrapper leaf, it may be a “toothy” wrapper. You may also notice tooth on the wrapper before you smoke the cigar and check the ash.
Magnesium. It is also thought that these white dots can represent mineral deposits when tobacco is grown in soil which is particularly rich in magnesium. Magnesium deposits, like tooth, are harmless, and should not impact your smoking experience.
Other common culprits for white spots on a cigar include “bloom,” or “plume,” which is a crystallization of the oils in a cigar; this is also a harmless sign that a cigar has aged. One final possibility is mold, something you should always be alert for. Cigar mold usually has a fibrous or fuzzy appearance. You can still usually salvage moldy cigars as long as the mold hasn’t spread to the filler, simply by scraping the mold off. If you do have a mold problem, check your humidor’s settings to make sure the problem doesn’t spread. While your little white dots are most likely tooth or magnesium, it is easy to confuse all these different possibilities, so it is best to be aware of all of them.
UPDATE (May 6 2013) A lot of you asked for a cigar flavors wheel based on this article, so we went ahead and designed one for you! You can download it by clicking on the picture above. Feel free to print it out and share with your friends on social media!
UPDATE #2 (Jan 18 2014) We now have a high-res version of the flavors wheel, that can be printed out as a poster. You can order your poster here.
There are several core cigar flavor components used to describe flavors one can taste while enjoying a cigar (see my another article called How to taste a cigar). Most of the flavors are derived from a scale used to describe wines (popularized by Cigar Aficionado, whose owners also publish Wine Spectator), as they share a lot in common. I have parceled things up into core flavors and within the core flavors, there are certain specific flavors that I will try to describe in detail, including the type of cigar in which these flavors are generally found.
The Domestic cigar market uses standard measurements: inches for length and ring gauge for width. Ring gauge is measured in 1/64 of an inch. Therefore if a cigar has a ring gauge of 49, it is 49/64 of an inch in diameter.
Domestically the number of shapes and sizes is a lot simpler compared with the complex Cuban Size Chart. There are fewer shapes because there generally is an accepted range for each size. Manufacturers don’t always hold true to the sizes and shapes when they name their cigars. Often times a size called a Toro by the manufacturer may actually be a Grand Corona.
The table below is neat and simple. There are 21 shapes (vitolas) listed and unlike the Cuban shapes List, it includes a range of length and ring gauge for each size. I have seen some cigars fall outside of the ranges below, but this is a great generalized list. Source: Perelman’s CigarCyclopedia.
A lot of aficionados are confused when it comes to different Cuban cigar sizes, so I decided to post the "official" chart. The sizes listed below were pulled from the Habanos, SA website. Since they make the cigars, these ARE the correct sizes and names (I hope). Traditionally there have been fewer vitolas listed, but Habanos is now putting out a lot of different sizes. In fact, they have a vitola for every possible size, even if the differences are in just a millimeter or even the presence or absence of a pigtail cap.
I have separated the vitolas into two sections, parejos and figurados (shaped cigars) (link leqds to a general article about shapes and sizes). Habanos had all of the sizes arranged by ring gauge, but I am rearranging them by length.