Cigars are a symbol of wealth, power, and capitalism (and, curiously, of communism, as well, at least in Cuba), which often makes for strange (albeit delectable) luxury-good bedfellows. They’re synonymous with the epicurean good life. Yet they’re decidedly not to everyone’s liking. However, if they speak to you and your personal taste, or simply pique your curiosity, then this guide to cigars is quite right for you.
Cigars are fundamentally simple — nothing more than rolled, fermented leaves. This is facile heresy to the ears of foliumphiles (cigar enthusiasts), of course, akin to telling oenophiles and gourmands that their wine is nothing more than fermented grape juice, their Alba truffles mere humble wild fungi, their caviar nothing more than fish roe — true as all that might actually be.
Yet scratch only lightly upon the surface of any of these subjects and things quickly get complex. Tackling any one of them at article length is more than a challenge; it’s a near impossibility. Indeed, full volumes (see “The Best Books About Cigars” near the end of this piece, and read our History of Cigars here) have been given over to the particulars. As such, we’ll cover only the fundamentals in our cigar guide.
The Artistry of the Cigar
When considering the craft of cigar making, the key to keep in mind is that it’s more analogous to the production of Cognac, whisky, and Champagne than to appellation-specific vintage wines (though there are many commonalities, as well). Cigars, Champagne, Cognac, and whiskies all must maintain blend consistency over long periods of time — years, decades, and, in some cases, even centuries. So although there are occasional examples of vintage-dated, single-source, or single-barrel releases, in most instances, all four of these consumable luxuries require a consistent flavor profile — not a “house style,” as with vintage wines, but a consistent repetition of a blend. The artistry, therefore, stems from blend maintenance.
Unlike the other three categories, in which many bottles come from a cask or barrel, every premium and ultra-premium cigar is made individually by hand. This makes the goal of continuity exponentially more difficult to achieve. Each cigar is a snowflake, yet one (to lightly mix metaphors for a moment) that needs to taste exactly like the ones that precede and follow it.
Over the years, many torcedores (master cigar rollers) have made a point of conveying that a blend is not a formula. It’s not static, and, as such, cigar artisans must continually adjust — contingent upon tobacco reserves, crop vintages, and other variables — to maintain the blend devotees rely on. This is the art of cigar making.
It explains why the most coveted cigars often come from the largest manufacturers with consistent, harmonious amalgamations. Even if a cigar is rolled in a special vitola, or has a vintage-dated wrapper, smaller cigar companies with boutique brands (especially those that serve the US market) typically lack substantial tobacco reserves and therefore find it difficult to maintain the cherished continuity that is the goal, year after year, of any cigar maker. This often results in limited-edition or limited-production releases from the smaller cigar makers, even if a certain cigar proves particularly popular. This is not always the case, of course, but it happens often enough to note.
Think of it this way: A Cuban Montecristo rolled in the 1960s should, all things considered, express the aroma and flavor profile of a Montecristo rolled in the ’80s, ’90s, or today, just as your favorite Scotch or Cognac ought to exhibit consistency in its blend as the decades pass. This doesn’t apply just to Cuban cigars; the same can be said for the famed Dominican puro Fuente Fuente OpusX, launched in 1995. The 2005 and 2015 releases should all possess the same attributes as the original.
Consistency of this kind, replicable over decades, comes from reserves, yes, but reserves of what? Good tobacco. And good tobacco comes from technique, and from terroir (a combination of climate, weather patterns, soil composition, soil, crop management, and more).
What Are Cigars?
More precisely: What are premium and ultra-premium cigars? (Machine-made cigars are a rather different creature.) Put simply, they are bunched, hand-rolled compresses of cured and fermented tobacco leaves, shaped in a wooden or plastic mold (or in newspaper) and closed with a dab of odorless, tasteless vegetable gum (gomma). Traditionally used was tragacanth gum, derived from the dried sap of several varieties of Middle Eastern legumes. It affixes the outer leaf (the wrapper) and the cap (the top portion of the wrapper, fashioned from a separate, flag-shaped piece of tobacco) to the core components (the binder and filler leaves). Contemporary gomma is commonly formulated from other vegetal ingredients.
More often than not, there is also a hand-applied paper or ribbon band placed around the cigar about two thirds of the way up. That’s it: just one primary ingredient. Well, three, if you include the gomma and band (which you do not ever smoke, unless accidentally, four martinis in — it happens, I assure you). In cigar parlance, these are all totalmente a mano, tripa larga, or “handmade, long-filler” cigars.
Where Do the Best Cigars Come From?
Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua are unquestionably the best-known premium cigar-producing countries. In wine terms, Cuba is analogous to old-world France; the DR to new-world California; and Nicaragua to Australia.
However, premium and ultra-premium hand-rolled cigars are also commercially made around the world. Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico, and the Bahamas all produce wonderful cigars. The United States also has many cigar makers worth seeking out, such as the historic (and recently restored) J.C. Newman El Reloj cigar factory in Tampa (since 1910) and the acclaimed boutique factory El Titan de Bronze in Miami. In addition, the Philippines produces excellent cigars. Its
tobacco industry dates to 1592, when the Spanish galleon San Clemente brought 50 kg of Cuban tobacco seeds to the country. The most famed Manila fabrica (factory) is Tabacalera Incorporada aka La Flor de la Isabela, founded in 1881.
In the Beginning
What ends in your humidor starts in the soil — not just any soil, of course. As with grapes cultivated for wine, the finest cigar tobacco relies on the aforementioned terroir. The most famed cigar terroirs are the Vuelta Abajo and Semi Vuelta in Cuba; the Yaque and Cibao Valles in the Dominican Republic; Nicaragua’s highlands and Isla de Ometepe; the Connecticut River Valley; and growing areas further afield (Cameroon, for one). Within these regions are identified microclimates and meso-climates where truly rare leaves are grown. These geographical differences exert an enormous influence on tobacco’s taste.
Cigar Storage and Aging
In much the same manner that oxygen and temperature influence a wine’s ability to open and express its bouquet and balance, moisture is the active element that determines how well a cigar will smoke. This is chiefly why maintaining a desirable level of humidity is so critical — and why every serious cigar smoker must own a suitable humidor.
Optimally, cigars should be stored at 70°F/21°C and 68 to 72 percent relative humidity. For long-term aging storage, both temperature and humidity should be dialed down. How much is often a matter of personal preference, and as with most things, some of this comes down to trial and error, which can be an expensive proposition if one errs often.
Many say aging cigars shouldn’t go below 65 percent relative humidity, while others feel 62 percent is fine. That said, any less and your cigars risk becoming dry and brittle. And in either case, the cigar must (slowly, over the course of days, sometimes weeks) be brought up to 70 percent relative humidity prior to smoking.
As for how long a cigar can age, opinions abound. First, not all cigars “age” — some just get older. That’s not merely a semantic distinction; some cigars simply do not benefit from long-term storage. My own preference is as follows: Once a cigar is deemed appropriate to age (which most, but not all, Cubans are): Smoke a freshly rolled cigar (from its first day to a few weeks old — no more) or lay it down and wait at least 12 to 18 months.
Even after a year and a half, those would be considered unaged cigars. The year-plus gap is to help you avoid smoking a cigar during its so-called “sick period,” when a cigar can be (but isn’t always) marked by the presence of a pungent ammonia-like odor. Afterward, the cigar begins its true maturation.
There follows its mature period (two to seven years), which yields substantial improvement and immediately noticeable maturities; its plateau (seven to 10 years), which yields subtler refinements; and finally its decline (10 or more years). That said, the plateau can be extended to stasis that can, with some cigars, last decades — there are so many variables.
How long can one store a cigar? It depends on the cigar and how well it is maintained. Presently, cigars from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s trade hands privately and at auction on a regular, almost daily basis. The oldest cigar I’ve personally smoked was from the 1920s. It was eminently smokable — not what I would consider great, but certainly interesting.
The Best Places to Buy Cigars
There was a time, not so long ago, when online cigar sales were certainly frowned upon, though not outright verboten. The commonly espoused wisdom was that gentlemen, or ladies, should personally select their own cigars at a reputable cigar merchant known to them. Those days are now gone, for the most part, though they remain to a degree in London, Geneva, Paris, and Hong Kong — and perhaps still in New York City, albeit significantly less so these days. The rest of the world most likely purchases its cigars with a click of a mouse or a swipe on a smartphone.
Without a doubt, the three most influential tobacconists of the twentieth century were Zino Davidoff (Geneva), Alfred Dunhill (London), and Nat Sherman (New York City). All three presided over eponymous emporiums. Alas, only Davidoff remains. It has locations around the world, including the illustrious (and personal favorite) Davidoff of London. Nat Sherman shuttered in 2020 after exactly 90 years, and Dunhill has segued into a men’s luxury apparel and accessories company within the Kering Group portfolio — a conglomerate that forfeited its tobacco heritage 20-some years ago, though it does still offer lighters and humidors.
That said, most major cities still have one or more prominent cigar merchants. Such a list would, like so much else covered here, require an entire article unto itself. Below are some personal favorites. Keep in mind the American tobacconists — the embargo’s ongoing legacy — do not offer Cuban cigars.
Mexico City: La Casa del Habano
New York: Davidoff of Geneva, Madison Avenue
Chicago: Jack Schwartz Importer
London: C.Gars St. James’s and James J. Fox & Robert Lewis,
Paris: À la Civette and Boutique 22
Amsterdam: P.G.C. Hajenius
Geneva: Gérard Père et Fils
Hong Kong: Cohiba Cigar Divan, Mandarin Oriental
Dubai: Churchill Club, Four Seasons
The Best Cigar Brands
Many will immediately blurt out: Cohiba. Montecristo. Davidoff. Fuente. Padrón. Here’s a simpler take, based on one of my favorite sayings (not my own): The best cigar in the world is always the one you’re currently smoking. There is great consolation in those words. Lots and lots of cigars are out there, from many countries, and the world is your humidor. Explore at will.
The Best Cigar Pairings
Cigars can be effectively paired with coffee, tea, mixed cocktails, whiskies, brandies, Champagne, and wine, albeit with varying degrees of difficulty. This is a subjective topic, and as with many things cigar related, it occasions great discourse. The fundamental objective, though, is simple: to achieve a personal preference pairing that creates an ideal balance of mouthfeel and flavor profile that helps you maximize the enjoyment of your cigar. So pick your drink and explore — that’s the fun of it all!
The Best Books About Cigars
Neophytes in the US should start with Richard Carleton Hacker’s The Ultimate Cigar Book, now in its fourth edition; on the other side of the Atlantic, many start with Londoner Nicholas Foulkes’ Cigars: A Guide. Both offer an exceptional entrée to the subject. Some would also include Playboy: The Book of Cigars, by Nick Kolakowski and me, as well — it is the only cigar book with a centerfold, so that’s nice.
On the other end of the spectrum, for connoisseurs, there’s An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Post-Revolution Havana Cigars by Min Ron Nee, an out-of-print yet highly collectible volume. It’s an invaluable resource for the serious — very serious — vintage Havana collector, though some of the editorialized pros are both circumspect and decidedly pro-Castro. Lastly, there’s my own solo effort, The Impossible Collection of Cigars, currently in its revised third printing from Assouline. Like the Nee book, it’s a monograph for the ardent cigar collector.
Cigar magazines (famously, Cigar Aficionado), blogs, and tasting videos abound. Some of these resources maintain a high level of editorial integrity and impartiality, while others are to be taken with a grain of salt. Explore and see what speaks to you.
One could go on and on, of course, but what would come next? Instead, I suggest you carefully select a cigar to your liking, plus a libation to go with it. Sit down, cut, light up. And please keep in mind this final thought I’ve previously espoused: Cigars seldom exist in isolation — they’re part of an epicurean life: a good meal, vintage wine, spirits, and cigars. Or, as Winston Churchill said, “My rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars, and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and the intervals between them.”
Cheers to that.
The Different Parts of a Cigar
Like all plants, Nicotiana tabacum — tobacco, to you and me — starts out as a seed. A very small seed, about the size of a grain of sand, in fact. The tobacco grows tall and on the stalk;, and there are leaves, of course. These leaves will go on to be cured, fermented, and rolled into cigars. Unsurprisingly, the foliage on the bottom of the stalk, which receives the least amount of sunlight, yields the mildest flavors. Conversely, those leaves higher up that receive the most sunshine, produce the fullest- bodied and boldest flavors.
These leaves are divided into a classification of primary “primings” sectors that from the bottom of the stalk up are: Volado, Seco, Viso, Ligero, and, at the top, la Corona (the crown). In reality, the leaves used in rolling premium cigars are the Seco, Viso, and Ligero — the Volado and Corona are typically not used. If you are familiar with spirits distillation, it’s quite analogous to discarding the heads and tails of distillate, and only keeping the desirable middle alcohols, the hearts.
In turn, the primary primings segments are subdivided into incremental secondary designation primings — subdivisions, if you will. Within Volado, one finds the “first priming” (closest to the ground), which is known as the Libra de pie. The primings rise up the stalk incrementally all the way to medio tiempo — a rare and highly coveted leaf. This is found only in very limited production cigars, such as the Cuban Cohiba Behike range, and the annually released La Palina Goldie cigars. The medio tiempo is not found on all tobacco stalks, but it is the uppermost priming within the Ligero sector, above even the Corona.
After curing and multiple fermentation (some tobaccos undergo additional special aging processes, sometimes for years), the tobacco is sorted. It is here that all leaves are designated as filler and binder. The wrapper leaf is, with the very rarest exception, almost always pre-identified earlier in the process, normally at the preliminary planting stage. But what exactly are the filler, binder, and wrapper?
The tobaccos bunched in the core of the cigar. With long-filler cigars, the bunch will contain anywhere from three to seven different tobaccos.
If the cigar is a puro, — a Spanish double entendre for “pure” — all of the cigar’s filler leaves, as well as the binder and wrapper, are all grown and fermented in the same country in which it’s rolled. Non-puros’ tripa may contain tobaccos from multiple countries of origin. This is all contingent on what the master blender wishes to achieve.
The leaf wrapped around the filler, beneath the wrapper, that binds the cigar together.
The outer leaf of a cigar. The wrapper not only determines the color, category designation, and aesthetic of the cigar, — it’s also a significant component of the cigar’s flavor and body. Opinions vary as to how much the capa contributes to the flavor, but, generally speaking, it runs somewhere in the 35 to 70 percent range. A large swath, to be sure; half is a safe bet.
Again, akin to wine grapes, there are multiple varietals of cigar-wrapper leaves. And, as in viticulture, the soil in which the plants are grown results in diverse flavors and aromas. Wrappers come from around the globe, but primarily from Cuba, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Mexico, Ecuador, and Cameroon — even the United States.
Of course, even casual observers know that cigars come in a vast array of shapes and sizes., These are known as vitolas, a term that conveys the overall size and shape of a given cigar, including its length and its girth (measured in ring gauges, or rg, a diameter expressed in increments of sixty-fourths of an inch). Vitolas are subdivided into two basic categories: parejos, the straight-sided classic cigars, such as the famed Churchill size (previously known as a Presidente), and figurados, irregular shapes such as a torpedo and/or perfecto.