Among all my interests, the most contentious has always been cigars (watches come in a close second). Primarily because cigars involve tobacco and smoking, both issues that have gained more prominence in recent decades. However, the consequences of prolonged tobacco use aside, cigars have always held a false reputation as being accessible only by Italian dons, men of power (à la Winston Churchill) or captains of industry. This is false and I can’t help but feel that mass media has brought us up to view regular cigar smokers as snobs and nefarious members of secretive cabals.
Before I jump into the why, how, and how much, I’d like to clear up my stance on the inevitable debate of the health effects of cigars/tobacco use. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a comprehensive scientific study on the long term effects of cigars. There seems to be general consensus that if cigars are consumed with a low frequency (a couple of times a week), they are significantly less harmful than cigarettes or chewing tobacco. However, I think it is foolish to deny that any form of tobacco use has negative effects in the long term, but the same can be said of several other popular vices.
I suspect to slower effects of cigar smoking are due to the fact that as a rule of thumb, one does not inhale cigar smoke into their lungs. On that rare occasion I make it this far into a conversation on why I smoke cigars, this is the other person’s cue to ask why I bother smoking a cigar if I don’t inhale it. After all, isn’t that the point of smoking? For nicotine to enter your bloodstream through your lungs. Short answer: that’s not why people smoke cigars. Read on for a more detailed explanation.
A premium, hand rolled cigar, regardless of whether it’s Cuban or non-Cuban is put together using various types of cured, aged tobacco leaf and some natural adhesive, usually vegetable gum or fruit pectin. During the curing and aging process, the flavor of the tobacco leaf changes and matures and like any organic substance, one batch is always different from the next. Similar to grapes, the conditions under which the plant grows significantly affects the flavor of the leaf. Therefore, a good cigar is a lot like fine wine, something that is enjoyed for it’s palate and flavor and not for the effects of alcohol or in this case, tobacco. And much like wine, cigars can have great or lousy years too.
A master cigar roller will carefully select, mix and match tobacco leave when rolling a cigar. This significantly affects the final flavor and strength of a cigar. I am personally biased to cigars that are fairly strong and have a palate that usually has notes of either fruit and spice, or espresso and dark chocolate. I’m sure at this point this sounds either very confusing or like a figment of my imagination. And I don’t blame you, it took many several cigars before my palate could go beyond the initial acrid taste of smoke and pick out the underlying flavors. (Remember it’s a lot like wine) So you really have to try it for yourself to taste and understand what I’m talking about.
If people can bear this far into a conversation on cigars with me, the next question is usually on the price of entry. Most people seem to assume that premium cigars cost hundreds of dollars, and while this isn’t entirely false, these sort of prices are rare and reserved for the rarest of cigars and generally only in countries where tobacco products are subject to heavy taxation.
Some of my favorite regulars are well within the $10/cigar range and the most expensive of my favorites is still less than $20/cigar. Beyond this, you quickly begin to experience diminishing returns and I can safely say that my palate is not advanced enough to appreciate any difference. Here in the US, and I suspect in most parts of the world, a couple of cigars is more economical than a weekend of drinking.
As before, I hope I’ve been able to successfully explain why this activity interests me and maybe even got you curious enough to try it for yourself (with an understanding for the risk it involves of course). In the meantime, I’d like to leave you with one last thought. I think the primary reason why cigars have stuck as an interest is because of the people.
I’ve met and shared cigars with come fantastic people. The best cigars I’ve had were always in the company of good friends and in all sorts of places (In fact I’ve never been in a cigar lounge to date). I find that a cigar serves as a prelude to great conversation or spurts of creativity. Some of my best photographs, including one memorable sunset, were shot over the course of smoking a cigar. I remember one particularly superb cigar (A Hoyo de Monterrey EL 2007 for the curious) that we ended up smoking while sitting on the side walk after the café closed for the day and kicked us out. In essence, this is an activity that I intrinsically enjoy and has lead to some fond memories and interesting experiences.