If you’re interested in learning more about cigars, you might be wondering where to begin. Your best bet is to visit a quality cigar shop and speak with a tobacconist, someone who can guide you through the process of finding your favorites and teach you about the finer points of cigar production and enjoyment. A good tobacconist can save you the time (and expense) of trying every variety around by working with you to determine your personal preferences and by steering you towards or away from untried varieties based on past experiences. If you don’t have a proper cigar shop in your area, or if you just don’t want to sound like a complete newbie when you walk in, there are a few things that every aspiring cigar aficionado should know.
The first thing you’ll want to know is how cigars are sized. Cigars sizes are expressed in length and ring gauge, with a ring gauge of “1” being equal to 1/64th of an inch. So, a cigar that is labeled as a “7.5 x 50” is 7.5 inches long and 50/64ths of an inch in diameter. There are a dozen or so standard cigar sizes with names like corona, double corona, petit corona, churchill, robusto, and torpedo. Different cigar makers have different names for their versions of these sizes. You can think of this in terms of buying shoes: All athletic shoe manufacturers make size 10 running shoes, but they give their models different catchy names. Likewise, many cigar makers produce a 7.5 x 50 double corona, but they’ll all call it something different.
The next thing to understand is which leaves go into your favorite cigars. Most makers use some blend of the 4 parts of a tobacco plant. In order from the top of the plant, which is closest to the sun and therefore the strongest part, to the bottom, which is the mildest section: ligero, viso, seco, volado. A typical construct includes the strongest leaves in the middle surrounded by layers of the milder leaves. The strongest leaves do have the most flavor and burn the slowest, but are also the harshest, making them pretty unpleasant without the milder leaves as buffers.
When it comes to cutting cigars, you’ll need a sharp tool called a guillotine. Since the wrapper on the outside of the cigar is typically all one leaf, makers install a cap of sorts at the end of the cigar to keep this wrapper intact. Make sure that you always cut just the tip off, as cutting beyond the edge of the cap will cause your cigar to unravel.
We’ve all heard that Cuban cigars are the gold standard, right? While it’s true that the Cubans did set the early standard, the fact that their cigars are limited to tobacco leaves indigenous to Cuba means their flavor profiles are not as varied as, say, Dominican or Nicaraguan versions. In other words, don’t be fooled into following the “Cuban or Bust” mentality. Do yourself a favor and try as many as you can, as exposure to different varieties and makers can give you a greater appreciation of the different qualities, textures, tastes, and tones that make a good cigar. Remember, too, that taste is subjective, and finding your own favorites could be tons more rewarding than going with the crowd.