Cigars 101: What Every Guy Must Know Before Lighting Up

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by  William Barton | Last Updated: 

What’s more relaxing than pouring a glass of the fine stuff and lighting a special stogie?

Maybe that mountain monkey hot spring in Japan, but besides that, not much else. 

You may be a beginner in the world of cigars, but with this field guide, you’ll have all the basics covered to enjoy a good smoke and appreciate the subtle nuances of a fine cigar. 

How to Smoke Cigars

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There’s a lot more to smoking a cigar than just lighting the tip on fire and puffing away. 

I was 21 once, so I don’t say that with any judgement. I just want you to have a more enjoyable experience than my first few cigars.

The most important aspect of a good smoke is getting your cigar lit properly. If your burn is uneven, you risk trying to even out the ash, burning too hot, and not getting a moment to sit back and relax. 

It’s kind of like getting a melty ice cream cone. If you’re playing catch-up the whole time, you’re not enjoying the experience. 

Why don’t you inhale cigars?

Cigars have substantially more tobacco than cigarettes. If you were to inhale your cigar, you’d very likely feel sick and have a terrible experience. 

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But before we get into how to light your cigar for an even burn, we have to take a step back and cover how to properly cut the dang thing

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How to Cut a Cigar

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Nearly all cigars come with one “open” end (the foot), and one closed end (the head). 

There’s a special tool, unsurprisingly called a cigar cutter, that does the most precise job of cutting the head off of your cigar. 

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Please don’t be like my friend Seth who spent 10 futile minutes wondering why he couldn’t draw any smoke, only for us all to troubleshoot and find that he never clipped his stogie (he’ll never live it down—not while I’m alive). 

Most cigars have a rounded head. You should never cut off the entire head (leaving the head and the foot basically indistinguishable). 

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Instead, leave a bit of taper by cutting about a centimeter of the head off. It’s important that you avoid cutting at an angle so that you’re drawing air evenly through the body of the cigar. 

There are a few styles of cigar cutter—the guillotine style with blades at both ends, or the scissor-type. I actually use a super sharp pocket knife. But avoid anything that isn’t razor sharp. 

If the blade is even slightly dull, you run the risk of leaving the cut ragged, which can cause the cigar to unravel and give you a mouth full of tobacco as you smoke. And that puts a damper on the experience, too. 

How to Cut a Cigar without a Cutter

La Aurora cigar cut with knife

If you don’t have a cutter, you can do what I do and use a super sharp pocket knife. Again, it’s important that the knife is as sharp as possible to avoid making the edge ragged. 

But if you don’t own a good pocket knife (i.e. razor sharp—most pocket knives won’t do well), another option is to try your sharpest chef’s knife. Never “saw” through the end of the cigar. Aim for a fluid movement from the top to bottom. If your knife isn’t sharp enough to cut cleanly in a fluid motion, it’s not sharp enough to do the job well, and you’re better off not smoking. 

How long does it take to smoke a cigar?

It depends on the size, but most popular sizes of cigar usually take 60-90 minutes to smoke. Smoking much faster than that can cause the cigar to burn too hot and ruin the delicate flavors, and

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You can also loosen the end cap with your thumbnail as the wrapper should be quite easy to pierce. Go slowly and press through in a circular motion to ensure you’re removing material evenly. 

And if you’re not ready for that challenge, you can also poke a hole in the head of the cigar with something sharp like a toothpick or matchstick. You’ll likely need to poke several holes to get a sufficient draw.

How to Light a Cigar

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Old timers like to stick with the classic matchstick method, but a lot of aficionados use a jet lighter. 

Truthfully, it doesn’t matter much what tool you use to light your cigar—it’s all about getting the first few draws evenly so the cigar lights evenly across the foot. 

One of the main reasons to buy a fine cigar rather than a bargain barrel stogie is because the tobacco is expertly packed, which makes it easier to evenly light. 

Regardless of whether you’re using matches or a lighter, start by holding the flame about an inch and a half below the cigar foot. Twist the end of the cigar so the flame equally toasts the foot. This process removes moisture from the foot and prepares it for the main lighting. 

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When you’re ready to jump in, twist the cigar in your mouth as you bring the flame to the foot. Begin to puff on the cigar, drawing smoke in quickly and releasing it. 

You shouldn’t have your fire so close to the cigar foot that the end is actually releasing a flame when you stop pulling air in. That means you’re applying too much fire and you’re almost certainly going to get an uneven burn. 

Continue to rotate the cigar and take puffs until you draw thick white smoke. Once you’ve developed that thick white smoke, push air through the foot of the cigar to remove any undesirable vapors that worked their way into the cigar through the lighting process.

Now your cigar should be evenly lit and ready to smoke. 

Cigar Shapes and Sizes

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You’ve no doubt noticed that cigars come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. 

Often the type of cigar will denote both the shape and the size. For instance, a Churchill (one of the most popular styles) is a 7” cigar with a 48 ring gauge width. 

The most common cigar type is a Robusto, which is cylindrical with a fairly flat cap. It has a 50 ring gauge width and is 5” in length. This should provide a good 60-90 minute smoke. 

But if you’re after a longer smoke, say 120-150 minutes, something larger like the 7”, 52 gauge Toro Grande is the way to go. 

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In general, smaller ring gauges are easier to smoke because they fit a little more neatly into your mouth. But larger gauges can provide more subtle and dynamic flavors. 

As for length, that really determines how long your session will be. I prefer shorter cigars (5” and under) because I rarely have the patience to spend more than an hour. But many guys I know love to draw their cigar out over several hours as they sit and relax and ponder over their future plans. 

Before committing to any one shape or size, try a few to find which you like the best. Then you can buy a set with confidence. 

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How to Store Cigars

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If you want the most flavor from your cigars, they should always be stored in a humidor, which is a sealed chamber that locks humidity in and keeps the tobacco fresh. 

You might now own a humidor, and that’s ok. Some cigars come in humidor packages already, like the La Aurora 1903 Preferidos Sampler. This thick plastic pouch does a really nice job of sealing the cigars against the elements, and when you finish your cigars, you can continue to use the bag for new cigars. 

However, if you’re planning on investing a little in this hobby, you’ll eventually want to upgrade to a full wooden humidor. 

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It’s quite easy to find a humidor for under $50 that can store up to 50 cigars. If you’re not sure how serious you are about picking up cigars, but want to take the humidor step anyway, try a 10-cigar size humidor—you can often find these under $20. 

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Of course, there’s basically no limit to how fancy you can get with your humidor. If you want to dive in the deep end, you can start off with a $2,000+ cabinet with capacity for over 3,000 cigars. But that’s quite the leap. 

For me, I like to keep a small humidor that has a few good aged cigars in it for moments of celebration. A 10-capacity is perfect for me. And if I want a different type of smoke that I don’t have on hand, I’m happy to go to the local shop as they’re very precise and strict with their humidor.

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One reason you might want a larger humidor (100 or more) is if you’re interested in aging cigars. 

Like wine, cigars can become more dynamic with age. If they’re stored properly. 

If that’s something you’re interested in, then getting a larger humidor is handy so you have space to age a few dozen for several years while still keeping newer stogies on hand and at the ready.

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What Humidity is Best?

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70% humidity is the industry standard for proper cigar care. You’ll also want to monitor the temperature, which should hover near 70 degrees Fahrenheit (or 21 centigrade). 

Try to store your cigars in the dark (a covered humidor will take care of this for you). Light can also oxidize the wrapper, giving off a flat, cardboard type flavor: not exactly what you’re looking for.

You don’t need to be super strict about the humidity for your cigars—a range between 65 and 75% is fine. Try to keep desiccant on hand if you live in a very humid climate, and possibly get a humidifier if you live in a dry climate. 

How Long do Cigars Last in a Humidor?

If you’re able to nail the humidity, your cigar will continue to age and develop complex flavors at least for a year or two. 

Many aficionados will buy certain cigars and age them for up to four or five years. 

How can I store cigars without a humidor?

If you don’t have a humidor, you can still safely store your cigars for several days and preserve their freshness. The easiest way to store a cigar without a humidor is to place it in a small zip lock bag. That will keep it fresh for three or four days. 

You can also use a small section of sponge and place it in a tupperware along with your cigar for longer storage. These are both temporary methods, but if you’re looking to start a cigar hobby, a humidor is a must.

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So really, a cigar will continue to cure, age, and develop dynamic flavors for years and years. But don’t go overboard (storing for 15 years). At a certain point, there’s diminishing returns and your cigar can go flat. 

A Brief History of Cigars

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No one knows when the very first cigar was rolled, but we do know that they were around in the 1400s.

Tobacco was one of the first things Columbus took note of when he landed in Cuba in 1492, and the plant quickly took off in Europe. 

The export of tobacco became one of the driving forces of colonization in the New World (alongside sugar), and even England got in on the act by growing tobacco in the 1640s in Windsor, Connecticut. 

But it wasn’t until the English seized Havana from Spain that the art of cigar making really took off. 

During those nine months of English occupation, the world was introduced to the Cuban cigar.

Why are Cuban Cigars Illegal in the USA?

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Since the 1960s, Cuban cigars have been illegal in the United States because of a trade embargo. If you were caught bringing in a Cuban, at one point you could be fined up to $55,000. 

But there’s good news.

In 2016, President Obama lifted major aspects of that trade embargo, so you can now bring back as many Cuban cigars (and rum) as you’d like. But you’re still not going to find a Cuban cigar on display at your local shop because you can only bring back Cuban stogies for personal use. 

So that means companies can’t formally import Cuban cigars. But you can absolutely take a trip to the Caribbean and bring back a suitcase packed full of these fine smokes.  

What do Cigars Taste Like?

La Aurora smoke

There are six main categories of flavors you’ll learn to detect as you try more and more cigars. These flavors are: herb and spice, coffee, nutty, sweet, wood and vegetal, and leather and earth.

Different wrappers and filler blends have varying flavors, so I recommend you write notes in a small notebook if you’re interested in developing a palate for cigars. 

You may find that your first few smokes all “taste like tobacco.” Like with wine enthusiasts, it takes a fairly wide amount of tasting before you can start to discern the differences. 

Start with a sampler pack like the La Aurora 1903 Preferidos pack. That’ll give you three very different cigars, all made with the same quality standards, so you can truly tell which is your favorite and you can start to pin down why. 

La Aurora 1903 Edition Sampler Pack

Diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires: the 1903 Preferidos sampler is a great way to jump into La Aurora's finest hand-rolled cigars.

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Light It Up

This is just the beginning. If you’re committed, you’re about to fall down a fun and exciting rabbit hole. 

As a casual cigar smoker myself, there’s a limit to how far I can take you. There are true aficionados all over the web that can take you to the next step. 

But now that you’re armed with the basics, there’s only one thing left to do: pick a stogie and pick a time and place.

Ready to draw the fragrance of sweet relaxation?

FAQs

What drinks go with cigars?

The most popular drink to pair with a cigar is brandy. I’m a fan of pairing a bourbon or scotch, as those are my liquors of choice, though many folks also pair with beer, wine, and coffee as well.

Can you dip your cigar in liquor?

Dipping your cigar in liquor isn’t recommended. It doesn’t add flavor to the cigar and you run the risk of damaging its integrity and diminishing your enjoyment. It’s better to enjoy the drink alongside the smoke.

Are darker cigars stronger?

Darker cigars aren’t necessarily stronger than lighter cigars. But they do often feature more vegetal and leathery flavors due to the aging process.

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