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Cigar Etiquette #1 - Choosing and Preparing a Cigar

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The Smoking Gun Cigar Review September 6, 2016

Cigar Etiquette #1

Choosing and Preparing a Cigar

I was sitting with a group of cigar-smoking friends the other day and the topic of cigar etiquette came up. Someone suggested that I write some educational information for the blog. So, here it is:

You’ll find these articles separated into three sections; I’ve kept it pretty short and focused. Maybe the best place to start is right at the beginning: how to choose a cigar. We can then move on to lighting and smoking, and then finishing a stick and storing unsmoked cigars.

I’ve worked in a cigar shop and have been asked a lot of questions. There are so many choices of size and shape, filler/wrapper/binder, country of origin, and flavor profile. How do you pick a cigar that’s right for you? Well, that’s a tough question. When a customer comes into a shop, (s)he should leave happy and have a great cigar to enjoy. If a customer takes something home, or even worse, smokes a stick in the store that (s)he doesn’t like, it should make the customer leery of the recommendations and knowledge of the tobacconist. I like to start with a few questions:

First, if you stop in a store that's unfamiliar to you and aren't greeted by whomever is working, you might want to reconsider where you shop. The cigar industry is “old school,” and you should always feel welcome and comfortable as soon as you walk in the door. There are brick and mortar owners (and employees) that treat their shop like it’s their private smoking club. Generally they don't want to be bothered by customers who aren't their pals. (You probably know some shops like that—we all do). Look for friendly, knowledgable staff who want to help you and make your experience a great one.

Next, if a tobacconist asks you if you need help finding anything, take him or her up on it. Tobacconists are there to help you. They should be educated and informed about what's going on in the industry, what new products are out, and be able to get you just what you're looking for. There may be a new size or blend of a cigar you have smoked and liked. Or, maybe there’s a new product that’s very similar to a cigar you’ve enjoyed in the past. Let them help you. And don’t forget to try new things!

Some good questions you may be asked: “What have you smoked in the past? What price range are you looking for? Do you like Nicaraguan, Dominican or Honduran blends? Is there a particular size you like?” When someone is picking out a gift for a friend I sometimes ask: How old is your friend? Where did your friend grow up? Do you know if (s)he likes particular flavor profiles, like dark chocolate, peaty scotches, spicy food?

When looking at cigars, you'll notice some are wrapped in cellophane and others aren't. If they aren't wrapped, they are often referred to as “naked.” If you’re interested in a naked stick, please don't pick it up, handle it, and then put it back. I admit, I'm a little bit of a germaphobe, but most people wouldn't want to smoke a cigar that has been in the hands of ten or twenty people. You don't know where their hands have been! But, seriously, handling an unwrapped cigar can and will cause damage to it. Also, if you're like me, you like to smell the cigar wrapper and foot before you smoke it. If you're not going to buy it...DON'T DO IT! If you want to pick it up, with your fingers on the band and take a brief sniff, that's OK, but don't touch your nose to it. I don't think I need to go into the reasons why; enough said.

So, now, you've picked out a cigar and you're ready to pay for it, and the tobacconist tells you that the cigar is quite a bit pricier than what the sticker showed. Well, that's where it gets complicated. Almost every state (with the exception of Florida) has some kind of tax on cigars. It ranges from a few cents to 75% of the wholesale price (thanks, Alaska). Sometimes it’s already added to the price shown on the cigar and sometimes it’s added at the register. Also, don’t forget the sales tax (which can vary by state, county and municipality). So, you may pick up a good smoke that was priced at $8.00, and end up paying over $10 at the register. Don't get mad. Let your local, state and, most especially, federal government officials know. And, by the way, if you don't know what the FDA is trying to do to the cigar industry, you should! Here's a link to read: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/prevent-fda-overreach-and-stop-them-their-attempts-regulate-premium-cigar-industry.

Its time to get that cigar ready to smoke. If it's in cellophane, pop the seal and take it off. The cigar might also be wrapped in a thin sleeve of cedar. Take it off. You don't want to smoke that. You could use it to light the cigar. We'll discuss that next time. (There is one possible exception that came up recently with a friend of mine. If you are smoking a torpedo shaped cigar and it is cello-wrapped, it is considered acceptable to cut the cigar while in the cellophane. I don't know the science behind it, but it is said you get a better cut through the cello and won't damage the cigar or cutter. I've tried it. It works. See what you think.)

Now is the time to sniff that cigar. Sniff it to your heart's content! You might notice some nice barn-like smells (hay, alfalfa, and grass). Those are all good things to smell... in a cigar. Sometimes you'll pick up some other notes like vanilla or leather. When you've had a good nose-full, switch to the foot of the cigar. You'll notice a very different set of aromas. The foot is the only place on an uncut cigar that the filler is exposed. It will usually smell very different than the wrapper. I always notice a sweetness and sometimes hints of cocoa, coffee or nuts. Although, there are many other aromas you might pick up.

The last think I want to talk about is the cut. It’s more important than you might think. You're not just chopping off the end that's going to go in your mouth, you're creating a portal to the great flavors that are present so that cigar's essence can dance across your pallet. (Wow. That was poetic!) As with all things cigar, you have choices.

There are three ways of cutting through the cap (the end that goes in your mouth) to get to the deliciousness inside. The first and most popular is a straight cut (you get this from a guillotine or scissor cutter). With this type of cut, you need to be very careful not to cut too far down the length of the cigar. Look for the distinctive three lines that make up the cap. You want to cut somewhere between the first and second line (looking down the length of the cigar). This will keep the cap from loosening and coming off in your mouth after it gets some saliva on it. A good cut will also keep the cigar from unraveling as you smoke. (I like a perfect cut, which means I cut along the very first line.) If the cigar is a torpedo (pointed end), you still want to use this method, but only cut about a quarter of an inch off. Cutting further down the cigar will not really improve the draw that much.

The second method is the notch or “V” cut. Using one of these cutters will remove a wedge shaped hole along the very top of the cigar. The “V” cut doesn't change the way a cigar smokes, but it can change the flavors you experience (because the smoke will be hitting your tongue in a different place). This cut really only works on closed-cap, domed or flat-capped cigars. I especially like to do this on box-pressed (square edge shaped) cigars.

The third cut is a punch. These cutters are small round, very sharp, punches that you place in the center of the cap of the cigar and slowly press and rotate until they have plunged into the cigar filler. It is an interesting cut and, like the “V” cut, will effect the taste of the cigar. I was at a Davidoff tasting event once where we all started a cigar with a punch cut and, after smoking through about an inch were asked to provide a flavor profile. We were then asked to use a straight cut and reevaluate the flavor profile. I can tell you from personal experience, it was very different. The way the smoke is funneled onto the center of your tongue keeps all of your taste receptors from getting the full flavor experience. I do, on occasion, use a punch—usually when I’m on the golf course and have forgotten my regular cutter (I always keep a punch cutter in my golf bag because it’s so small). Oh, one more thing: after you use a punch, remember to empty out the plug you've just made. Most of the punches I've owned or used have a clearing tool built into them. You don't want to leave that tobacco sitting around inside the punch.

Two more points of etiquette before we finish up: please, if you're using a shop cutter or one that doesn't belong to you, don't lick the the tip of the cigar or put it in your mouth before you cut it. That's just gross! Nobody wants your spit on his/her cigar the next time they use that cutter. Also, when you cut your cigar, do it over an ashtray or bin. The cap tips and little bits of tobacco that come off a cigar really make a mess, and someone's got to clean that up!

So, now you've cut your cigar and are ready to light it. In the next etiquette article, I'll cover how to properly light and smoke that wonderful stick.

So, that's it for this edition. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me through this page. I'm always happy to answer questions or tell you about what I've been smoking. Also, if you liked or appreciated this piece, or any of the reviews, let me know. I want to be a resource for the everyday cigar smoker. You don't have to be an expert, you just need an hour or so to enjoy a good cigar.

And, remember: don't let other people tell you what to smoke. If you like it, smoke it!

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