Editor’s note: Cigar smoking has been linked to several types of cancers. This article is not intended to promote tobacco use. It is intended to offer a tutorial for those readers who are old enough to smoke and who have considered the risks and would still like to try a fine cigar for the first time.
Written by Henry Culvyhouse and Aaron-Michael Fox.
There are few pleasures in life that rival smoking a perfectly balanced cigar in a comfortable chair at the end of a long day. If you imbibe, a glass of your favorite spirit will make it even better. Add in a hearty laugh with a friend, and you’ve got it made.
However, if you’ve never bought a cigar before, the prospect of purchasing and smoking one for the first time might make your head spin. There are so many options available with a whole new vocabulary to learn, making it seem daunting to the uninitiated. If this applies to you, then read on.
There is a first time for everything, and all cigar smokers had to start somewhere. Downtown Huntington doesn’t want you to make the mistake of starting with a plastic-tipped cigar from a gas station. To prevent this mistake from happening, we sat down with Bill Gleason, manager of La Fontaine’s Tobacco and Wine Shop located in the heart of downtown Huntington.
Before moving a block over to Tenth Street where he currently shares a storefront with Wellman O’Shea Jeweler, Gleason started as a tobacconist inside the Frederick Building in 1990. With 27 years in the biz, Gleason knows a few things about fine tobacco.
With cigars ranging from $5 to $27 at La Fontaine’s, figuring out what to buy can be daunting for a first-timer. Gleason recommends determining how much you would like to spend on each cigar in advance.
“Think about the occasion for the cigar. If you’re getting one for the birth of your child, you might want a more expensive cigar. But if you just want something to keep the bugs away while you’re cutting the grass, you might get something a little cheaper,” Gleason said.
The standard price range for a classic, full sized cigar is $5-to-$10, according to Gleason.
“That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with a cheaper cigar, like a Swisher Sweet or a White Owl going for $1.25,” Gleason said. “What’s wrong is when places try to sell them for $4. It’s kind of like how at a football game, they might sell beer for $6 a glass. It’s a captive audience.”
Downtown Huntington recommends that instead of buying a single cigar the first time, buy three. That should be an investment of about $15-$25 and is enough to get a fairly well-rounded cigar experience.
LOOK FOR FRESH
“If the cigar isn’t fresh, don’t bother with it,” Gleason said. “We work hard for our money, or at least we like to think we do. So when you’re paying good money for a cigar, you don’t want to buy an old, stale cigar. You want to make it worth it.”
A cracked and dried cigar won’t burn properly and will taste harsh. So Gleason recommended seeking establishments with a working humidor—a climate controlled container for cigars.
“The perfect temperature is 70 degrees with 70 percent humidity,” Gleason said. “If the cigars aren’t at least one of the top two selling items at a place, it probably doesn’t have a humidor. And I’ve heard it’s not uncommon to find a place with a humidor that doesn’t even work.”
Another word on humidors—many fine tobacconists, including La Fontaine’s, keep a walk-in humidor for the cigars. Remember to keep the door shut as much as possible. The regulars don’t like an open door and neither do the cigars.
Once you’ve made your choice, inspect the cigar by gently squeezing it. If it gives a little bit, Gleason said it’s good. However, many people are under the impression that it’s supposed to be like a “sponge cake,” Gleason said.
“That means it’s actually too moist,” Gleason said. “A wet cigar won’t burn well or evenly. And it’s more likely to go out, so you’ll have to keep relighting it.”
Cigars are like steak, according to Gleason. If stored improperly, a steak will spoil—so will a cigar. La Fontaine’s, like most tobacconists, offers cigar storage containers ranging from small tubes all the way up to specially ordered humidors designed specifically for smokers to keep their favorite sticks in.
If you don’t have your own humidor, the general rule of thumb is to smoke a cigar within 24-to-36 hours of purchase, Gleason suggested.
DON’T BE HARSH
Cigars come in four main types: mild, medium, full-bodied, and flavored. Common advice is to try a mild cigar the first time around, although black coffee drinkers and people who use other forms of tobacco might get more enjoyment out of a richer cigar.
The wrapper tells a lot, but not everything, Gleason said. Mild cigars usually have a light, cream colored wrapper, while a full-bodied cigar is generally darker, sometimes almost coal black. But that isn’t always the case.
“I’ve had some real dark cigars that taste fairly mild and underwhelming, while I’ve had mild cigars that produced a much more intense smoke,” Gleason said. “So the wrapper can only tell so much.”
Each type of cigar has different tones, notes and flavors, but each carries with it a potential shortfall. A mild cigar might have no flavor at all, while a full-bodied might be too harsh.
“You definitely want to avoid a harsh cigar,” Gleason said. “Whatever you settle on, you don’t want to have a bad experience.”
Veteran cigar smokers might write off flavored cigars, but Gleason said they have their place, too.
“Some of these mocha and java infused cigars go great with certain coffees,” Gleason said. “I tell people, there’s nothing wrong with a flavored cigar.”
Gleason recommends first-timers let a tobacconist know what he or she is looking for in a cigar, what experiences they’ve had with cigars and their price point to get matched with the cigar that is right for them.
SIZE DOES MATTER
Cigars come in a variety of sizes, from the short and fat robustos to the long and thick Churchills. A traditional “corona-sized” cigar generally measures about 5 ½ inches long and has a ring gauge (circumference) of 42 to 44. A ring-gauge is measured in 1/64th of an inch, meaning a 42 ring guage is a 42/64th of an inch in circumference. Gleason, an admitted traditionalist, said he likes to stick to cigars to that are somewhere between 42 and 52 ring gauges.
However, in recent years he says some cigar manufacturers have grown their smokes upwards to 80 ring gauge.
“Some guys like a huge cigar and it works for them,” he said. “It’s a personality thing.”
The size is important because it determines how long the cigar will burn. Of course, this also depends on how frequently one puffs their cigar. But for a smoker who takes his or her time, a Churchill, which measures 7 inches long—can last as long as a football game.
But size isn’t just about smoke time, says Gleason. Aesthetics also play a huge part. “A cigar should be pleasing to the eyes, to the hand, and to the mouth,” Gleason said. “If it doesn’t look and feel good, don’t buy it.”
Before putting a flame to your new purchase, there are a few things you should do. The first is cutting the tip, which is a delicate process. Too shallow of a cut, and you won’t get the proper draw from your smoke. Too deep and the cigar may begin to unravel.
Don’t bite off the end of the cigar. If you don’t own a cigar cutter, stores like La Fontaine’s usually have a cutter at the counter. If you feel uncomfortable cutting it yourself, ask the staff to cut it for you.
Once in a location where you’re ready to settle in with your cigar, use a match or a butane lighter to crown the edges of the cigar so it will burn evenly. Never use a disposable gas station lighter, or even a fancy WWII lighter your grandfather gave you. The fluids used in such lighters can taint the cigar’s flavor. While matches are considered the best, butane, which is odorless and tasteless, will work in a pinch.
After the cigar is sufficiently crowned, place it in your mouth and puff on it a few times to get it going. Be careful not to inhale—cigars are not cigarettes. Inhaling can make even the seasoned smoker cough and hack. Instead, draw the smoke into your mouth and let it out slowly.
Like everything about smoking a cigar, take your time. Sucking like a baby with a bottle can make you dizzy and sick. Take time to relax and watch the embers burn orange and red as you draw off of it.
And don’t forget to eat something! The richness of the cigar might make you a tad woozy if you don’t have some food in your stomach.
So potential cigar smokers out there, you now have the basic information to go out and try that first stogie. If you’re reading this in downtown Huntington, that new experience is right around the corner at La Fontaine’s. And if you’re not in downtown Huntington, La Fontaine’s is just another reason to schedule a visit.