What do I look for when I smoke a cigar? How do I evaluate it?
I have had some questions recently as to how I rate or evaluate the cigars that I smoke, and overall, what I look for in a puro. There are lots and lots of resources out there that can tell you what cigars ought to be evaluated on. There are some very impressive charts and graphs that smokers are encouraged to fill out every time they light up a cigar. Just as there are wine snobs and beer snobs, there are, indeed, cigar snobs too. I do evaluate the cigars I smoke. This post, however, isn’t about all the intricacies that go into rating a smoke, or putting a score to it. This is more about what I look for when I am simply enjoying one.
First I look at the appearance and feel of the wrapper. Is it smooth? Ridged? Oily? Dry? Does it have a soft give when you squeeze it, or does it crack? Good cigars should be tight, but still soft, and with a bit of a give. If you hear cracking when you squeeze it, then it might be a bit dry. I like mine a little oily to the touch, but this is by no means a must.
The pre-light aroma can tell you a lot about the cigar. This is the actual aroma of the tobacco leaves. Once it is lit, that’s where the magic happens, and the artisan blends really come together to give off a luxurious smoke, but before hand, that is when you get the real feel of the growing, the curing, and the aging. Soft leathers, hints of coffee or tea, woody or oak aromas, these all come out before a cigar is lit, and they are what I look for.
When lighting a cigar I look to make sure that it lights quickly and without much effort or puffing, but yet doesn’t flare or start to burn immediately. I toast the end before I start to draw in, making sure that the tobacco is hot enough to take the flame and begin to smolder. The first, initial draws, can be hit or miss, and I generally ignore the nuances of the smoke when I am still lighting it. They can come off as harsh or too hot, and I don’t find them to be a good indication of the rest of the cigar.
Many smokers tend to divide a cigar into thirds as they smoke it – subconsciously if nothing else. This rule is a good general base, but sometimes I find the pieces and parts to be a bit more complex than simply well-defined thirds. Like a wine that gets better as it breaths, you can see the nuances and complexities of a cigar change and open as it goes on. Please do not take this to mean that the best part of a cigar is in the end – indeed, there is typically a sweet spot in any smoke, where the flavor and enjoyment hits a peak and then begins to drift away. Keep smoking until you no longer enjoy the experience – more often than not, this will lead you right past the wrapper.
The first third of a cigar is typically where it opens up. This will give you sharp, clear, distinct flavors that really bring your senses into play. In this third you will start to look at the way the cigar burns. Even if it was poorly lit, the burn should start to even itself out and balance itself. This is the mark of a well-made cigar, and the burn line should stay somewhat level all the way towards the end.
As you smoke it down more towards the middle, the flavors will start to mellow, smooth out, and mix together. This is where a lot of the complexities and nuances come in, so you’ll want to pay attention to what you’re smoking. The second third, I have found, is typically where the sweet spot is located. This is the point where I find the most enjoyment and the richest, smoothest flavors.
Be careful around this point not to let your cigar go out. Tradition says, and this may very well be the Irishman in me, that if your cigar burns out, then you’re talking too much and not listening enough. I hate having to relight a smoke. The taste is typically bitter and rough, and while it can mellow itself out and return to a state of bliss somewhat quickly, I never enjoy the experience of bringing it back around. Take a break from your part in the conversation and relish your cigar. This is where the very best smoke comes from. Savor the velvet.
You’ll also want to pay attention to the construction of the cigar. Don’t knock off the ash, but rather, let it fall off on its own. This is one of the big differences you will see between experienced cigar smokers and those who just puff occasionally, as an expensive substitute for the inferior tobacco that is a cigarette. A long, firm, grey/white ash is the mark of a well-made cigar. If it starts to fray or deteriorate quickly, then there may be an issue with the filler, binder, or any other aspect of the construction.
The last third of the cigar should be the finishing touches – like coming down from the climax of a good book. It should tie all the flavors together and slowly wind you down into a satisfied state of relaxation, not end abruptly and leave you wanting more.
Rudyard Kipling – one of my favorite poets, also penned some of my favorite lines when describing cigars in his poem “The Betrothed”:
…Thought in the early morning, solace in time of woes,
Peace in the hush of the twilight, balm ere my eyelids close”
That is what I look for when I light up, and how I enjoy a cigar. Drop me a line if you’d like, and let me know what you think, and how you smoke. I hope you got something out of this, and enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.