How To Choose the Perfect Cigar
It can be very difficult to choose the right cigar for a particular occasion, especially if you don't smoke with great frequency. The matter of cigars is complicated; cigars are composed from three cuts of tobacco, each of which might come from its own unique location. They come in dozens of shapes and sizes -- hundreds, on both counts, if you include the really obscure figurado sorts. They have different colors, wrapper textures, cap leaves, scents -- even the date that the cigar left the factory is of essential importance to judging it. What I am going to attempt to do is node for all of you an authoritative (if not definitive) guide to picking the perfect cigar.
The Bare Basics
First things first: This node shall not regard paper-wrapped nor mass-produced cigars at all, and only certain information will be applicable to machine-rolled cigars (which can actually be of fairly high quality if produced by a careful manufacturer). I know hand-rolled and quality boutique cigars very well, but what I have to say here probably won't help he who seeks a cigar that costs less than $3. In my opinion -- and, of course, my opinion will be reflected by the construction of this node -- if it doesn't come out of a box, a tube or a humidor, don't smoke it.
Also, I won't touch on cigar brands in the body of this node. There is a list of my favorite brands at the end, but it strictly expresses my personal dispositions, and in no way specifies a standard of quality. Keep in mind: While buying brand names might give cigar consumers a sense of control over what they smoke, even the most reputable Cuban companies (i.e. Cohiba, Partagas, Romeo y Julieta) can produce, and have produced, mediocre and sub-par cigars. Don't worry about the names just yet; wait until your a seasoned aficionado.
Where you cigar comes from isn't so important. That's why I'm starting with this topic. As I stated in the introduction of this node, every individual component of a cigar can have its own country of origin -- Hell, it could have its own continent. However, most cigars are constructed and boxed in a handful of places, and you should probably stick to buying your fine rolled tobacco from one of them. They are, pretty certainly, the USA, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua (and other Central American countries), Mexico, and, if applicable to your circumstances, Cuba. There are many Europe-based boutique cigar manufacturers; they're not all bad, but they tend to severely overprice their products, so you are best off staying away from them.
Shape and Size
The shape and size of a cigar have less to do with its quality than how it burns. Really, the size and shape of your perfect cigar depend on your preferences and circumstances. There are far too many of them for me to cover here, but let a few rules of thumb suffice:
--The longer the cigar, the longer it lasts.
--The broader the cigar, the more intense the smoke.
--The more irregular the cigar's gauge, the more irregular the draw and the evenness of the burn. Cigars with irregular gauges tend to be handmade, and, at that, very difficult to craft. Some people believe that this indicates the superior general quality of a cigar. While obviously there is no immediate correlation between gauge irregularity and the quality of the cigar, it should be noted that they are often equated -- wisely or unwisely.
The size and shape of a cigar are its two most sensational attributes. They will be considered in the selection of your cigar. But don't let the them hijack your decision. They are important when accounting for how and when you are going to smoke; if you are looking for a dessert cigar, you might look to a robusto, which is short (usually between four and five inches in length), but thick (with a ring gauge close to 50), minimizing the time invested in it while producing a bold, flavorful smoke; similarly, if you are looking for an easy, relaxed smoke, maybe for the last four holes of your golf game, a good lonsdale would be best, as they tend to be slightly longer than your standard corona, but comparatively narrow, and smooth. So, if you're buying a cigar for a special occasion, its shape and size might be the first things you have to think about -- but once they're figured out, stop thinking about them! They are practically important characteristics of a cigar, but they don't matter unless the cigar has a specific purpose.
To The Eyes
The way a cigar looks counts for a lot. The first thing that one must take into account is the texture of a cigar's wrapper. If it is easy to make out the lines between the layers of wrapping, the cigar you're looking at probably isn't a great one. In similar form, the cap leaf (the bit of leaf at the end of the cigar from which you smoke) should attach to the rest of the cigar pretty seamlessly; if it looks like it was just stuck on there just before it was packed into the box, it probably was. There shouldn't be any loose wrapper leaf hanging off the cigar, or any filler hanging out of the cigar. Basically, the cigar as a whole should look as if it had been carved from a single piece of wood, sand-blasted and all.
The color or the wrapper is important as well, although less to general quality and more to... you guessed it, preference. Basically, a cigar gets most of its flavor from the wrapper, and its texture from the filler; so the color of the wrapper says a lot about the way a cigar is going to taste. Darker cigars tend to be smokier and spicier, and tend to have more tar and carbon overtones than lighter cigars; those lighter cigars, on the other hand, tend to be lighter and slightly acidic -- which some people demand for their voucher, and others can't stand. Personally, I like lighter cigars for a general smoke, but prefer a darker cigar if I am also enjoying a whiskey, brandy or cordial.
And one last thing: Look out for veiny wrappers. While some like the crispier flavor that veiny wrappers impart to a cigar's overall taste, most do not, and consider it a definite turn-off. The most common position is that the smoother the wrapper, the better.
To the Hands and Nose
This section might be shorter than you'd think, because there isn't really a huge amount to know about how a cigar should feel or smell. Basically, a healthy cigar should have an oily wrapper leaf, and a firm, even construction. If the wrapper isn't slightly oily to the touch (and when I type oily, I mean like adult-skin-oily, not extra-virgin-olive oily), it is probably dried out, and therefore too harsh to smoke; if the cigar is lumpy or the filler feels loose, the burn will be uneven, and the draw too heavy or too light. Stay away from inconsistent cigars -- consistency is key, even with those irregularly shaped figurados.
On to smell. Well, cigars have a reputation for smelling bad. Which is ridiculous. Because stogies -- machine-rolled, mass-produced, processed-tobacco cigars smell bad -- not quality cigars. A good cigar should have an pungent, earthy aroma, which should only be detectable within an inch of the cigar -- until you light it up, that is. There is little variation in cigar scents, but you can generally determine the most outstanding flavors in a cigar by the way it smells -- whether, say, it will be chocolatey or acidic, or have coffee or ash overtones. You might need to have a sharp sense of smell about you, but such things can be figured.
Cigars are like fine wine, and no, I'm not making some tacky romantic simile. They really do get "better" with age. Basically, tobacco ferments as it sits still in a warm, moist environment, and as it ferments, its distinct flavors become more obvious, and its harshness tends to mellow. Cigar filler tobacco is fermented before it is even put into the cigars, but it continues to do so after it has been boxed and shipped. So cigars that have been well-kept in a humidor for a few years can be mighty good, far superior, in most minds, to those that have just left the factory. Most cigar retailers keep their stock in a large humidor, and keep it there until it is sold off. They'll also usually leave a few boxes unopened in there for those who want to buy them as they came. When buying a cigar, or a full box, go for the ones that have been in the humidor mellowing out for a few years. A new cigar can be a great cigar -- but if you have an option, vintage is the way to go.
My Favorite Brands
Remember, brand preference is very subjective. Don't take these selections too seriously.
Romeo y Julieta, Cuba/Dominican Republic; always a strong, flavorful smoke, without those nasty aftertastes; moderate to expensive in price.
Rocky Patel, USA/Honduras; the 1990 Vintage torpedo was the best cigar I have ever smoked; moderate to expensive in price.
Partagas, Cuba/Dominican Republic; always a pleasant surprise from a Partagas cigar of any vitola; moderate to expensive in price.
Oliva, Cuba/Dominican Republic; naturally sweet, mellow cigars for any occasion; inexpensively to moderately priced.
Royal Jamaica , Nicaragua; thick, strong and spicy cigars with great construction; inexpensively to moderately priced.