The Resurgence of Cigar Culture.
The loud-mouthed bastard damn near kicked down the door, apparently on his way to somewhere important. "Where's the Macs, kid?" he demanded. "No, wait, it's a big game, where's your Davidorfs?!" Thus was I introduced to the wonderful world of cigars, fetching them for this creep in a store that smelled like my grandfather's car and looked like the Godfather's living room. Working in a cigar store, you develop a thick skin for bourgeois ignoramuses, a cynical sense of self-assurance and a player's instinct for beating the crowd to the punch (no pun intended) that can serve as good lessons to seekers of the leaf everywhere. Thus armored, my first impressions of the great cigar rush of the early '90s were less than encouraging. Spurred by the magazine Cigar Aficionado, which put consumer and advertiser in the backseat of the same imaginary Jaguar roadster (premium cigar manufacturers, Rolex, single malt scotches, etc.) and gave them something to talk about, once-smelly cigars are now sexy indicators of prosperity and style. Published by Wine Spectator's Marvin Shanken, the magazine paints cigar smokers as a cultural elite. The finest in finery and lifestyle accouterments are peddled between its covers while its editorial content sweeps readers into the fantasy world of 1950s Havana mixed with Bondian Monte Carlo and a healthy dose of upper-middle-class America. Most important,Cigar Aficionado's cigar ratings by now have established its primacy such that it holds a guiding -- no, dominant -- position with the new breed of young, affluent cigar smokers. CA can make or break a new brand with one mediocre rating. It can sell so many of an established brand that the cigar becomes impossible to obtain and production is rushed. The upshot? Inferior cigars that aren't ready to be smoked and have little, if any resemblance to the product CA reviewed so glowingly. While providing an excellent general reference (components, country of origin, basic smoking characteristics), the ratings are little more than worthless back-patting. Couple the emergence of a cigar culture with widely practiced anti-cigarette activism and you've got yourself a boom, folks. Men and, more visibly, women around the country started lighting up the big sticks and enjoying them (or affecting enjoyment) to the Bacchanalian hilt. All sensory overload and subjective esoterica, cigars touched a nerve.Beyond the pomp, circumstance and utter stylishness of it all, there's a fine art to picking, plucking and puckering up to the right stogie. It's akin to wine, but not identical, an indicator of taste, economics, panache and, oh yeah, flavor and smell. A little tiny dance of the senses all wrapped up in a tightly wound bundle of humidified leaves which you cut open, stick in your mouth and light on fire. If you want to get beyond the flavorless banality of the Macanudo/Garcia Vega crowd (not that there's anything wrong with that), you have to know the ground rules. In one of the most subjective armchair arts, there are absolutes. The basic tools that help you avoid being a Cigar Aficionado sucker are the same ones that will push you into the vaunted echelon of cigar snob. Here's our ruthlessly opinionated guide:THE CIGAR STORE: We'll get down to brass tacks later. First and foremost, you must find someplace to buy your cigars. A reliable vendor is particularly difficult to find in the wake of the cigar boom. Many stores billing themselves as tobbaconists are hopeless charlatans who are only in business to sell Virginia Slims by the carton. As a rule, when you enter one of these chop joints, it will be bright (fluorescent light) and generic, sparsely populated by shiny new promo material (the bane of cigar shop decor). A home humidifier spits lamely in the humidor (which resembles a closet with a glass sliding door and prefab shelving), turning precious stock into flavorless kindling. About-face and leave this monstrosity to its own self-destruction. The tobacconist your weary pilgrim's bones eventually stumble into should be a tropical den of blue smoke and cedar. You should firmly believe you've just walked into a living stereotype. Dark-stained wood will house a diverse selection of uppity show cigars and cheapo, ugly, bundled beauties. Their stash should be maintained by one or more misting, self-regulating humidifier or, with smaller stocks, a sandstone slab, allowing the smokes to hover around 70 percent humidity. This allows the cigar to maintain both its functional smokability and the leaf oils that help determine the cigar's overall flavor. If you're lucky, the help will be more knowledgeable about cigars than they are willing to admit. With no uncertain arrogance they should tell you that a $10 cigar is not worth 50 cents and then tell you why. A decent smoke shop should cater to an inherent combination of insecurity and camaraderie in the customer. No matter how experienced a smoker you may be, a well-stocked walk-in will always baffle you, leave you momentarily reeling at the myriad tastes, touches and smells a couple Abe Lincolns can score (most premium cigars can be acquired for a pittance, anywhere from $2-$25). Let's not lose sight of the fact that cigar smoking is as much about sensory exploration as ostentatious consumption. THE CIGAR (AND WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT): We aren't dealing with machine-rolled Swishers and Phillies anymore, so get that idea right out of your head. The cigars that are moving by the truckload these days are designated "premium" and in some cases "super-premium." They are blended concoctions of aged tobacco leaf, grown under the watchful eyes of masters, and hand-rolled by singularly trained rollers (sometimes you can believe the hype machine). The history and tradition of cigars deserves a closer look and there is no shortage of books available at your finer tobacco dealers. Okay here's the deal. Barring that all-too-convenient border to Canada, you'll find smokes from three major cigar-producing countries: The Dominican Republic, Honduras and Mexico, which all produce consistent product. (Cuban cigars, legendary but notoriously inconsistent, are still verboten after that whole Castro/missle crisis thing, but do write your congressman. It's been 30 years.) The composition of each type is a variation on the filler, binder, wrapper formula that comprises all cigars designated as premium. The most quantifiable, objective characteristic of a cigar is its strength (the amount of spicy, or peppery, flavor) and its body (how "full" the smoke feels in your mouth). Speaking in pure generalities, Dominican cigars are mild and sweet, Hondurans are stronger and spicier with a more stout body. Mexicans are solid spice, heavy-bodied house-rockers. The wrapper leaf: After strength, there are several variables to play with that add to the challenge. The most visible of these is the wrapper. Rolled from a single leaf, the wrap dictates the taste you'll notice on your lips and tongue. Think of the various leaves as contributing ingredients, brand-name components of the whole. These can range from the innocuous, sweet taste of the Connecticut Shade (used in many of the cigars from the Dominican Republic: Davidoff, Macanudo, Avo, Por Larranaga, etc.) wrap, to the delicious, spicy/sweet flavor of the prized Cameroon (favored by Partagas, many of the Arturo Fuente cigars, Royal Jamaicans and H. Upmanns) to the pleasantly bitter flavor found on some Hondurans (Don Lino, Punch, Hoyo De Monterrey and others) and every flavor in between including nutty and chocolate. The one anomaly of wrapper leaf is the sweet, generally heavy Maduro (most lines produce a maduro-wrapped cigar) wrapper. Nearly black in appearance, it is the product of a longer curing process which essentially cooks the leaf in its own oils. The result is a unique flavor that can run the gamut from ordinary to chocolate. The binder leaf: The binder, while not crucial to the taste of your cigar, holds the tasty bundle together, bridging the gap between the filler and the wrapper. Cigar makers won't rock the flavor boat with the binder leaf. It's sort of like the nougat in a Snickers, you don't taste it, but the cigar would be a lumpy mess without it. The filler leaf: Aside from being the major contributor to the body characteristics of the stogie, the filler gives the smoke its complexity of flavor. When Cigar Aficionado says a certain cigar has "leathery flavor with nutmeg undertones," they're referring (however imaginatively) to the taste the filler imparts to the whole. These meandering and subjective evaluations of cigar flavors are not, no matter how adept the tastebuds, what you'll detect when first you puff. Look for simpler traits: Sweetness, spiciness, pleasant woody tones, some obviously nutty flavors and even straight-up smoke taste. The discovery and exploration of the flavor palette and the unlimited combinations of taste should keep you buying, trading and discussing cigars with friends, enemies and total strangers.You know what Freud said: The shape and size of the cigar determines, to a large degree, complexity of flavor and its smoking dynamics. Cigar shapes and their monikers ring with tradition and historical zest. Determined by ring gauge (the diameter of the cigar in sixty-fourths of an inch, the same measurement used for bullets), and length (in inches), the shape possibilities are limitless. RULE OF THUMB #1: The larger the cigar's ring gauge, the cooler and fuller it will smoke. A fatter cigar contains a greater variety and larger portions of each filler leaf, giving it a "fuller" taste. Likewise, thin cigars burn hotter and taste more plain Jane. Luck of the draw: The cigar's draw speaks volumes, not reams, about the cigar. My kingdom for a cigar with a smooth draw. If you've bought a cigar, cut it, lit it and can't figure out why the hell you're not spewing like a chimney, you've been had. Go back and ask for a refund. One of two things has happened, either your stogie is overhumidified or the roller wasn't quite as expertly trained as you thought. Conversely, if your cigar turns into a pillar of flame in your mouth (an extreme case, to be sure), this cigar is dry and useless to you, the smoker. RULE OF THUMB #2: When picking a cigar, squeeze it lightly around the middle between your thumb and forefinger. It should be resilient, not brittle, and soft, but not spongy.Clip it, burn it, and puff it (but don't inhale): Everything we've said up 'til now is useless bullshit if you don't smoke the cigar. The ritual that weeds out the junior executives lurking near the Licenciados from the bon vivants and piloto-philes gorging themselves on Fuentes, Paul Garmirians and Hoyo De Monterreys is the snip and the light. Like a drunk tipping his elbow, like a bus driver pulling fearlessly into oncoming traffic, an experienced and/or informed cigar smoker lights up. To avoid looking like an imbecile, which shouldn't be a primary concern your first few times around, you need to follow the basic procedure, and perhaps add a few stylish gestures. Crack the seal, if you will, on the cigar. Clip the end with no inside tobacco exposed, or the "cap." (This may sound elementary, but remember; smoking and drinking often walk hand-in-hand.) There are three basic ways to cut the cigar: The straight cut, a simple slice across the top of the cap of the cigar, exposing a cross-section of the inner tobacco; the "Wedge" or "V" cut, which cuts a slit down the entire middle of the mouth end; and any of a number of variations on the "pierce" cut, which just pokes a hole in the middle of the cap. This surgery will affect the way the cigar draws and holds together in the mouth once lit. The straight cut draws the fullest and gives the largest volume of smoke and flavor. It's generally preferred (judging by the sheer amount and simplicity of accessories) by the bigwigs we all want to be when we grow up. Most straight cuts are performed by a simple, specialized variation on the guillotine. The V-cut (only accomplished through an elaborate contraption of steel blades & springs) holds the cigar together a little longer for smokers who chew, chomp and otherwise disfigure their cigars. The last option, the pluck, maintains the cleanest end to stick in your mouth, no loose tobacco mess. The pluck allows very little, if any, draw. Many is the smoker who has turned blue in the face trying to smoke from a plucked and plugged cigar. Ahh, the joys of hubris! There's a entire sub-psychology coloring which cutting method a smoker chooses, but that is a story for another publication. A simple, refined method for clipping the cigar (the straight cut) may seem goofy, but try it, you'll like it. It can be performed with the cheapest of the el cheapo guillotines available for $2 at most tobacconists. Lay the tool open and flat on a hard smooth surface and place the cap end in the appropriate aperture (once you see the tool it will all become crystal clear). Hold the cigar in place with one hand while simultaneously closing the cutter's blade through the cigar with the other. If all has gone well, you'll have slivered just the right amount of cap off the cigar in order to light up and walk off into the sunset. This is where the real panache comes into play, lighting the cigar. If you whip out a Zippo in any self-respecting throng of hob-nobbers, you're likely as not to be ignored. The hardcore smokers light up the old-fashioned way, by striking a match (or two), preferably wooden. Put the cigar in your mouth (c'mon, we're at that part of the program, kiddies!), strike the match and hold the top of the flame in the middle of the end that's not in your mouth. Because cigars aren't those dainty cigarettes one can puff once and smoke away, you need patience. Rotate the cigar in your mouth or move the match around the end of the cigar to light the entire surface. Take short, strong puffs to draw the flame into the tobacco. Check to make sure the whole thing is aglow by blowing lightly on the lit end and bask in the red radiance you've just created! Puff deeply. Let it roll around on your tastebuds. Savor the smoke trickling up your nose. Blow it out slowly and watch the blue ghost disappear to the ceiling. Think about what you just tasted. Take a sip of your single malt scotch (or whatever is handy and complementary), ride the utter relaxation wave and let yourself linger in the wash. You're now smoking with the big boys 'n' girls, aspiring talent agents, actors, supermodels, motorcycle outlaws, chic students, grandfathers, building contractors, playwrights, bush pilots, bartenders and presidents of major corporations and superpower nations. There's a cult of allegiance, a secret handshake club where people are surprised to meet neighbor and co-worker. It's bigger than peer pressure, it's one part history and nostalgia, two parts hype, and 10 parts personal indulgence. But, more than any of those, it's the thing to do, and do well.