Feb. 27 is National Cigar Day in America, commemorating the invention of the cigar rolling machine by businessman Oscar Hammerstein. It is also a convenient excuse for me to write about one of my favorite activities in life-the pleasure of smoking a fine cigar. There are many misconceptions about cigars, including the obvious health risks of tobacco use-although I would argue that, unlike cigarettes, an occasional cigar can benefit your overall mental health. Like everything in life, the middle way of moderation is key. In this column, I hope to explain to you why I enjoy smoking cigars and possibly remove some of the negative stigmas associated with the hobby.
I tell people when they purchase a cigar (or several) that what they’re essentially doing is buying time to relax. Cigars can take between 45 minutes to 2 1/2 hours to smoke, depending on size. This can be a time of quiet reflection away from outside disturbances. It can also serve as a time to read a good book or as an excuse to enjoy doing nothing. My favorite spot to smoke depends largely on my mood. I’ll either be on my tiny back porch with a good book or at my local tobacconist in conversation with interesting folks. Many of us feel guilty taking moments for ourselves and quiet reflection. There’s always something to do-some project to complete or deadline approaching. The cigar smoker understands that, sometimes, in order to go anywhere, you first have to stop. Journalist Gay Talese wrote a now-famous piece for the premiere issue of Cigar Aficionado, called “Walking My Cigar.” In it, he describes the pleasures of smoking his “single daily cigar” while walking his dogs through the streets of New York City.
Many casual smokers are shocked to realize how much work goes into making a single smokeable cigar. This is a simple explanation for a complicated process with many variables, but essentially, this is how it works: It starts with the tobacco fields of Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and, of course, Cuba. The tobacco is harvested and cured. A cigar has three parts that all come together in the hand-rolling process: filler, binder and wrapper. The filler is the “bunched” tobacco inside the cigar. The filler can either be “short” or “long,” depending on the quality of the cigar. Premium cigars will always have long filler, meaning whole tobacco leaves that run from one end of the cigar to the other. Short filler is trimmed and smokes much faster than long filler. The binder is the glue that holds the cigar together. This is typically a single leaf. The wrapper is the most important component of a cigar, as it imparts the majority of the flavor to the cigar. The flavor of the cigar is created by a highly skilled “master blender.” His or her job is to bring harmony to the filler and wrapper of a cigar to make for a pleasant smoke. Once the blend is perfect, the rolling process begins. Between 250 and 500 hands will inspect your cigar before you smoke it. Quality is key.
Cigars are tasty. Ultimately, that’s why I enjoy smoking cigars. What would be the point if I didn’t enjoy the taste? And like the variations found in the flavors of wine, cigars can have a multitude of interesting notes and nuances as you smoke. If you’ve never smoked a cigar, my suggestion is to go with something mild. Cigars can be sneaky with the nicotine if you’re not careful. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to take baby steps toward the full-bodied, full-strength stogies. You want your first time to pleasant, right? Lucky for you, there are options.
As with any hobby, you’ll find people who “know” everything in the cigar world. You’ll find the complete newbies who are eager to learn and terrified of making a single mistake. And then there are the old-timers whose wise words are imparted with gentle kindness. The snobs are aplenty, and the women are few (though growing in number). But, across the board, most cigar smokers are hard-working individuals who look forward to relaxing with a good smoke. Personally, many of my most important conversations have taken place over a cigar. My first television job was offered to me at Chattanooga Billiard Club over a glass of whiskey and a smoke. I remember when my friend’s father died in 2006. The night after his funeral, we spent much of the evening silently smoking cigars in his honor. The Cigars for Warriors Project sends high-quality cigars to our troops in combat zones. In Chattanooga, the annual Tweet-Up features cigar smokers and industry celebrities coming together for several evenings of smoky debauchery. Good conversation, great causes and interesting people are aplenty in the world of cigars.
As a “cigar guy,” it’s hard for me to not completely nerd out when talking about cigars. There are a billion things I could talk about: the proper way to season a humidor, maduro versus oscuro, the reasons behind the different sizes of a cigar, what a “herf” is, etc. The world of cigars is just like anything else with a rich history and constantly changing industry. You can read every magazine, website or blog and still not feel like you’re on top of things. Not only do you have to be aware of emerging cigar trends, but you also need to know accessories: lighters, cutters, draw pokers, ashtrays, hygrometers and so on. But as the comic book is still meant to be read and enjoyed, the cigar is simply meant to be smoked. It really is that complex and that simple at the same time. Long ashes, my friends.