There’s really nothing like walking into a cigar shop. Especially if you’re not an aficionado, the overwhelming sensation, and confusion by the myriad available options is like entering a beer bar when all that’s been on the docket as of late has been bud light. Strange origins, names, flavors, and styles that you’ve either never heard of or can’t pronounce. It’s a level of confusion and anxiety that could actually deter someone from enjoying the very finer things they’re out to discover by walking into a cigar shop in the first place. Ironic, isn’t it? It’s for these very reasons why some semblance of a step-by-step process in choosing a selective stogie makes sense.
And that we did. For it’s here where the storied tradition of the slow burn lives to tell the tale of the hands that rolled it, the tobacco inside it, and the country of origin. So much more than just an after-dinner digestif or cocktail hour aperitif, cigars are time portals — notetakers and geographical sponges of a specific region — as they’ve been for centuries. So if you’re interested in entering into this world, go ahead and take that first step into the time capsule that is the cigar shop. Here are some pointers to keep handy.
First Thing's First
Know Your Preferences
Just like different styles of beer and whiskey, cigars come in different shapes and sizes depending on the occasion, strength, and purpose. Some are rolled in a particular way to burn in a specific manner based on the tobacco filling of choice while others are more full-bodied for late night exploration as opposed to the mid-day smoke. Therefore, prior to even stepping foot inside the shop, it’s best to define the purpose behind the buy.
The Cigar Body
When referencing the “body,” we’re not speaking of the cigar aesthetic. No, rather we’re speaking of the mouthfeel and strength of the cigar — similar to how you’d describe a light body pale ale vs a full-bodied imperial stout. At the core, we’re referring to the same experience — that is, how the cigar holds up compared to your senses. Not sure what type of cigar body is for you? Well, studies have shown you can pair the either full, middle, or light body preference of a cigar to that of your preference for beer. An avid stout drinker? Go ahead and get that full-bodied stogie. More of pilsner guy? Maybe something a bit lighter is more your call.
The Cigar Shape
That now brings us to the cigar shape. Which, thankfully, can be pared down into two classes: figurados and parejos. And to keep things as simple as possible, it helps to associate the parejo shape with the word “practical.” Meaning, these are the classically-shaped cigars conjured up in your mind. The ones with an open end at the butt that requires cigar cutters to slice off the rounded tip which rests in the mouth.
Conversely, figurados are just as easy to decipher since a figurado shape is considered to be anything that’s not a parejo. The process of elimination sides with you in this realm since if it looks odd, different, or downright strange, it’s a figurado. Some experts say the deviation from the “standard” shape of a parejo allows for a more full-bodied experience but we’ll leave that up for you to decide.
The Cigar Size
Now we can move onward to the third characteristic of a cigar: the size. And while you may initially think that size equates to flavor, you’d be mistaken, for it’s what lies within the wrap that determines how a cigar tastes. This is also true for strength. Meaning that a larger cigar does not necessarily correlate with how strong it may be. Rather, size has to do with one thing really: time.
That’s right, time is really all size has to offer the stogie smoker. And a general rule of thumb, a six-inch cigar will generally last about one hour. Next, there’s the ring gauge (or thickness) to consider. For reference, as you get acquainted with the cigar, you’ll notice that most stogies fall within a 40-50 ring gauge. This isn’t by accident either. The reason is that the highest quality piece of tobacco is, in fact, the wrapper — so a smaller ring gauge allows for a better ratio of filler tobacco (what’s inside) to wrapper tobacco. Along a similar vein, a larger diameter (ring gauge) will result in more filler leaf in relation to the wrapper. So if you’re looking to purchase a cigar with a high ring gauge, best shell out some extra coin to ensure the quality is there.
The Buying Process Abridged
- Find a shape and size you like
- Examine the wrapper for gaps and tears
- Give it a good smell to determine the taste
- Look for uniform color and watch out for mold
- If it feels dry and starts to crack, don’t buy it
- Look for cigars with a slight sheen to them as this denotes care in their construction
- Make sure it’s well filled with tobacco.
Test for Quality
You Get What You Pay For
From here, knowing the key characteristics of a cigar only get you so far. If you’re unaware of how to test for quality, there’s no doubt you’ll either overspend or get duped into buying a cigar that just won’t make the cut. Luckily, this is a relatively simple process and testing formula, and most aficionados follow this step-by-step process so there’s no need to worry about coming off as a neophyte at the cigar shop.
Examine the wrapper: Once you have a potential candidate, take a look at the wrapper for any anomalies. We’re speaking, of course, about any tears or strange gaps in the leaf. The wrapper should also not be overly dry and cracking. The goal here is to find a cleanly-wrapped cigar that’s smooth and well rolled.
Give it a smell: We all understand the correlation between scent and taste. Knowing this, if you’re hesitant about how your prospective cigar will taste, hold it close to your nose and give is a whiff. Most shop managers will allow you to remove it from the plastic wrapper if it’s housed in one. Just don’t allow your nose to make direct contact with the cigar. The key here is that if it smells good to you, odds are you’re going to enjoy it.
Look for discoloration: On from smell into sight, here’s the opportunity to look for any additional abnormalities in the wrapper. Meaning, the tobacco leaf should not be spotted, look darker in some areas and lighter in others, or have any mold. The goal here is to find a healthy cigar that’s fresh, uniform in color, and smooth to the touch.
The Cuban Cigar: Fact or Fiction
It’s no secret that the U.S. and Cuba have had a bit of a sordid past. So unless you’re picking up some cigars in either Canada or Mexico, you’re not going to find legitimate Cubans in the shop. Of course, there’s always a caveat, but the odds you getting scammed vs. find the real deal here in the states is disproportionally favoring the former rather than the latter.
Which brings us to the main point here: are they really that much better? Well, considering how high the Cuban government holds them in regard to quality and regulation, yes, they are. Because of the strict regulatory practice, Cuban cigar rollers are some of the best in the world — often rolling their entire lives and learning via tricks of the trade passed down through familial generations. There’s also the tobacco to consider, which is noticeably fuller and smokier than the Nicaraguan or Dominican blends and can be quite overpowering at times. Needless to say, a bit of traveling never hurt anyone so they’re certainly worth exploring next time you’re outside the United States.
Feel for uniformity: Next up, feel for the filler to ensure the tobacco isn’t old or overly dry. As far as the roll is concerned, press your thumb and index finger gently on the cigar. It should give a little but not too much. If it doesn’t give at all, odds are it was rolled too tight and won’t burn evenly.
If it’s dry, don’t buy: Finally, as you’re testing the filler, if you happen to notice the cigar starting to crackle or feel dry overall, leave it be. For it’s not meant to be smoked. Odds are the stogie hasn’t been stored properly and we all know what happens when overly dry leaves are exposed to fire.
Given these short and simple, yet imperative steps in choosing a cigar, the odds of purchasing a “lemon” so to speak are greatly reduced. It’s easy, really. Understand what you’re looking for in terms of body, shape, and size (remember size equals time), test for quality, and you’ll be out the door and at the bachelor party, wedding, or dinner in no time — confident that cigar of choice in your coat pocket isn’t a mismanaged roll of despair but rather a fine work of art purposed to take you on a journey into the climate, land, and country from which it came.
Primer: How To Smoke A Cigar
Choosing them is just half the fun. Now, it’s time to burn one down. So if you’re curious about how to handle this like a pro, then be sure to check out our guide on how to smoke a cigar.