The A-Z of Cigar tasting
Expert James Leavey provides the ultimate guide to smoking pleasure.
Tobacco was native to the Americas long before it was discovered by Christopher Columbus in Cuba in 1492, and transplanted around the world.
In their original arm-length form, Cuban cigars were rough and harsh to smoke. Until the Europeans, notably the Spaniards, successfully applied the processing techniques (double fermentation, constant watch over the second fermentation, ageing of the components, and the blending of different year’s harvests) that were also used to make fine wine, beer and, not least, whisky.
The result of all this is the world’s finest cigars, especially Havanas, which mature and improve long after their initial production, rather like the malt whiskies which some of us would argue are their perfect accompaniment.
Fine cigars are chosen not just for their taste, but also for their strength, which ranges from mild, mild to medium, medium to full-bodied, to very full-bodied. The flavour of the tobacco leaf itself is influenced enormously by the soil in which it is grown, the climate, and humidity. Even the same seed grown in different areas of a country will produce tobacco with different characteristics of taste.
Then there’s the colour of a cigar, which ranges from light green to darkest brown, that can also affect its taste. For example, darker wrappers indicate a concentration of sugars in the leaf and such cigars often taste sweeter – not bitter as you’d expect. Conversely, a light coloured wrapper usually offers a drier taste.
Most experts also agree that, in the case of Havanas at least, the bigger the cigar, the better its flavour. Smaller cigars can also be delightful, which is fortunate as there is currently a world shortage of the larger ring gauges.
So, having selected your cigar, which should be smooth, regular in shape, with an even girth that feels firm to the fingers, you’re now ready to cut and light it. Hopefully, you’ve taken that first sniff to get a sense of the cigar’s potential aroma.
As for when to light it, most aficionados prefer to start their day with a post-breakfast mild cigar such as a Petit Punch, Cuesta-Rey Aristocrat, or Romeo Y Julieta Tres Petit Corona. They then build up via a lunchtime medium smoke, such as an Arturo Fuenta Double Corona, H. Upmann Lonsdale, or Macanudo Portofino, to a fuller-bodied after-dinner smoke, such as a Bolivar Corona Gigantes, Montecristo No.2, or, not least, the superb Saint Luis Rey Churchill.
A century ago, cigars were enjoyed only at the end of a meal, usually in the study or smoking room, leaving the ladies to their own devices. There is now a growing vogue for male and female diners to meet over lunch or dinner where quite often a series of fine cigars are smoked between courses. Personally, I prefer to save my favourite cigars for later, as nothing completes a good meal better than a fine smoke.
If you’re at a party or reception and like to nibble while you smoke then go for light, simple snacks such as proscuitto, smoked almonds or grapes.
The ideal cigar is one that doesn’t overpower either the food or whatever you are drinking, so it’s sensible to start off with a smaller pre-dinner stogie, such as a demi-tasse, petit corona or one of the milder robustos.
In my experience, cigars don’t go well with desserts and are best smoked after you have refreshed your palate with a glass of water or your favourite malt. That said, lighter single malts go well with any type of cigar, as do blended Scotches. Peatier malts overpower mild cigars and are best appreciated with fuller-bodied smokes.
Finally, if you do not want to waste time eating, go straight to the cigar and the malts!
How to cut a fine cigar. Some smokers, especially the Cubans, bite the ends off the head (uncut end; the other end, which you light, is known as the foot) of their cigars. Others pinch off the cap or flag (the piece of tobacco which covers the head) with a fingernail.
Most cigar lovers use a sharp (preferably bevelled on both sides so it won’t matter which way round you use it) guillotine cutter, leaving a little of the cap to hold the end of the cigar together. It is important to ensure the hole is not too small and the filler is not compressed, as the cigar is liable to overheat. If the cut’s too big or uneven, the end of your cigar may unravel. You can also use a bullet cutter to remove a small section from the head of your cigar, but this is not recommended for the beginner.
A fairly fool-proof method to cut a cigar is to lay the guillotine flat on a table, place the head of your cigar in it like an upright pillar on a stand, and gently but firmly - snip! Unless the cigar band is loose it is best left on until the cigar has been lit and warmed up. It should then be carefully peeled rather than slid off to avoid damaging the wrapper.
How to light a fine cigar
First, resist all offers by others to light your cigar as this is one pleasant task that only you can do, thoroughly, and at your own pace.
The objective is to ignite the entire end. An unevenly lit cigar will draw less effectively, spoiling what should otherwise be a fine smoke.
A long cigar match is the preference of most serious cigar smokers (although a good gas lighter will do the job equally well), so select one from the box, strike it and allow the sulphur to burn off.
Next warm the foot to prepare it for lighting, taking care at all times not to char the wrapper. Then place the cigar in your mouth and keep the tip of it ever so slightly above the flame. Puff gently and the flame will leap on to the cigar. Rotate the cigar in your lips while you continue drawing on it, just above the flame, never in it. Then blow on the lit end of your cigar to see how much more ignition needs to take place and reapply the flame, if necessary.
Once they reach cruising temperature, cigars sometimes go out so immediately reapply the flame, as needed. If your cigar has been left unattended for a longish period, not more than an hour or so, first dislodge all the ash and charred bits of tobacco before relighting. Then puff through the cigar a couple of times to get rid of the staleness. Your revived cigar should then taste fine.
How to smoke a fine cigar
First choose the moment for a relaxed smoke. Cigars should never be inhaled deeply, just draw the smoke in lightly and let it roll around your palate while you concentrate on the aroma and taste.
You don’t have to constantly puff a cigar as it should remain alight if you take the occasional relaxed draw on it. Don’t worry if it goes out occasionally, especially as it gets near the last third, just relight it.
How quickly or slowly you smoke a fine cigar is up to you, just as long as you enjoy every moment of it. Some people go through large cigars in minutes, others stretch out the experience for an hour or more depending on the length and ring gauge of their cigar.
You don’t need to keep flicking ash off a cigar as it is not like a cigarette but how long you wait until you allow it to gently drop off into an ashtray is entirely up to you.
Some smokers prefer to discard the last third of their cigar as they feel the flavour tends to concentrate too much for their palate. Other, stronger palated smokers say this is the part of the cigar they really look forward to. It is all a matter of taste.
Never stub out a fine cigar as this will make a mess and release noxious fumes. The faithful companion that has given you so much pleasure should be allowed to die a dignified, natural death. If you rest it in an ashtray it will soon expire.