For the past fifteen years or so, the market for this once-nearly-moribund luxury has been on an impressive rebound. From its height in the 1850s - when Cuba alone exported 356.6 million cigars - until the early 1990s, the cigar market had badly declined, falling victim to competition from cigarettes and then to declining American interest in smoking generally; by the 1980s, the industry's aging customer base seemed to promise ever-diminishing returns for cigar makers.
Then during the year 1992 - for reasons no one has ever completely explained - the market experienced four-percent growth, followed by a ten-percent rise in cigar imports the following year. The "cigar boom" (an industry term) had begun, and by 1996, the cigar industry was seeing 36 percent first-quarter growth, back orders of 55 million units, and the proliferation of neighborhood cigar bars, cigar-friendly restaurants, magazines, et. al.
Which brings us - most likely - to why you're reading a piece entitled "How To Smoke Cigars." You've noticed the new ubiquity of cigar smoking in the last fifteen years, its new importance as a bonding activity or relaxation ritual, and you're wondering how to get started. Specifically, you're wondering how to choose your first cigar, or your first box of cigars.
First - before you go to the cigar store or online retailer (not the nearby convenience store, for your own sake!), learn a bit of the lingo. Start by learning wrapper lingo, because the cigar's wrapper has everything to do with whether its taste is dry or sweet. The wrapper is the outer leaf of tobacco that gives the cigar its color. The color of the wrapper also indicates both the kind of tobacco used, and the cigar's flavor in general.
The general rule here is that the color of the wrapper means the opposite of what it would mean for beer taste: lighter, greenish-colored cigars tend to taste dry, while cigars wrapped in a darker, brownish or blackish leaf have a sweet tinge. The colors run from green to black, but here's a basic rundown:
Double Claro cigars, also known as "American Market Selection" (AMS) or "Candela" wrapper cigars, are green and dry-tasting; Claro wrappers are light tan and slightly less dry; Colorado Claro, medium brown; Colorado, reddish and still less dry. At Colorado Maduro, meanwhile, we're already dealing with a slightly dark, slightly sweet cigar, followed by Maduro wrappers (by now we're at the sweet-tasting end of the color spectrum), and finally the near-chocolatey-tasting and entirely black Oscuro wrappers.
There's also a whole lexicon devoted to cigar size and shape, including way too many gradations. For our purposes, though, cigars basically run a gamut from tiny cigarillos to panatelas (available in small, slim, short and long variations) to medium-sized coronas (ca. 6-7 inches long) to, at the larger end, popular Churchills (seven inches long and very thick), double coronas (slightly bigger than Churchills) and giants (nine inches long). The size has no relationship to taste; it does have implications for overall smoking experience. (Do you want a long, contemplative smoke, or a short smoke that enlivens the interstices of your day?)
As for cigar shape - well, you might not expect there to be much variation here. But specially-shaped premium cigars are a growing part of the market: Culebra (Spanish for "snake," so named because it's made of three small cigars twisted together into a snake shape), Perfecto (with two tapered ends), Torpedo (a fat straight cigar with a pointed head). For shorter, thicker cigars, the name Rothschild or (though this is a misspelling) Rothchild was used for many years, in honor of the famous German banking family, but increasingly cigar manufacturers are renaming these stubby cigars Robustos. Adding to the confusion, some manufacturers use both names, labeling 5 1/2 inch 50-ring models "Robustos" and slightly shorter, same-width cigars "Rothschild"!
What's the best cigar for a beginner? It totally depends on you - your interests, the tastes that sound most appealing, etc. One might think "sweet" cigars offer the least challenging taste experience to a cigar neophyte, but in fact many first-time smokers love the dry, complicated taste of Claros. Try smoking with an experienced friend, checking a cigar specialty magazine or website, or order a premium cigar sampler from a cigar shop or online service.
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