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CIGARS - smoking for pleasure

Sublime tobacco ……………glorious in a pipe
When tipped with amber, mellow, rich and ripe;
Like other charmers, wooing the caress
More dazzlingly when daring in full dress:
Yet thy true lovers more admire by far
Thy naked beauties - Give me a cigar!

Byron "The Island"

The decisions to make are about: Flavour (and how much of it); Degree of Smoothness; Strength; Size/shape.

As with all tobacco, the soil in which the seed is grown contributes substantially to the flavour of the leaf.
In fact, the same seed grown in 2 different areas, even those similar in latitude and climatic conditions, will normally produce 2 tobaccos with very different taste characteristics.
Cigar tobacco is grown in most tropical regions eg. the Caribbean (Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica), the Americas (Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Brazil), the East Indies (Indonesia, Phillipines), West Africa (Cameroon). However it is not necessarily rolled only in these countries. Holland, for example, through connections with the former Dutch East Indies has a large cigar manufacturing industry which covers a wide range of cigars from a modest cigarillo to really fine varieties in many sizes. Some other such countries sending cigars to South Africa are Switzerland, Germany, USA.
Cuba: The richest and most sought after cigar leaf comes from a particular seed grown in the Vuelta Abajo area of Cuba. The cigars are named "Havanas" (spelt Habana in Spanish) after the capital of Cuba. A true Havana cigar is rolled in Cuba from leaf grown entirely in Cuba, and has a magnificent, distinctive, spicy flavour which has to be tried. Havana leaf is exported, and may be used to add flavour to cigars manufactured in other countries. These cigars have the distinctive Havana flavour, slightly diluted so they may be less rich. The fine leaf grown in the Caribbean and Americas is not quite as rich as the Cuban leaf, but this fact may be considered an advantage by the many who find Havanas too heavy for most occasions. We are lucky in South Africa in that we are getting some of the best of these non-Cuban cigars, technically superb and beautifully smooth to smoke.

Dominican Republic: The leaf grown in Dominican soil is slow burning and mellow and naturally lighter than Cuban. The flavour of Dominican cigars may be enhanced by a Java, Cameroon or Maduro wrapper, but they are not as heavy as Cuban or Nicaraguan/Honduran. The latest trend is towards more full-flavoured "Cubanesque" cigars.

Honduras/Nicaragua: These countries share a common border, and the topography is similar - well forested (nearly 50% of the land), with hot humid coastal areas and cooler mountain regions with fertile valleys. Filler, binder and wrapper leaf are produced, and the quality of the workmanship is very good. The cigars have much in common - distinctive full bodied, flavourful leaf with good burning qualities, and are highly rated in Cigar Aficionado's blind tastings. But Honduras faces north and Nicaragua southeast, so there are subtle differences, notably in flavour.

Spanish hand-rolled: The “Caliqueños” style of cigars has a long tradition in the south of Spain. The cigars are completely handmade from natural Burley tobacco cultivated in the area of Valenci

Classic Dutch: The short cut filler allows the natural aromatic oils to spread and blend, creating a light easy-burning cigar with complex flavours; to stimulate but not overwhelm the palate.

Maduro Brazil: This dark, smooth leaf offers another beautiful rich cigar at the opposite end of the price scale. It has a naturally slightly sweet flavour - ideal for ladies in the elegant panatella, while the thicker cigars offer an excellent value after-dinner smoke.

Find a tobacconist with a good range of open boxes of cigars and select a variety of different flavours to try.

Flavoured Cigars

Most of these are machine-made in sizes from small cigarillos to coronas. Being machine-made by high speed rolling machines the binder and often the wrapper will be made from homogenised tobacco (tobacco powder mixed with cellulose, fibres and water) onto which flavours can be added - Cherry, Vanilla, Rum, etc. Pipe tobacco may be used for these cigars/cigarillos, as it absorbs the flavouring more effectively.
The all-round quality of these cigars has improved and they often provide a bridge or steppingstone into the true world of cigars.

After curing, suspended in barns for about 7 weeks, cigar leaf is placed in piles to undergo a fermentation process during which the temperature rises, the leaf becomes more mellow, the colour deepens, and nicotine, tar, ammonia and other impurities are reduced. The temperature is carefully monitored, and the process is halted before 160°F for normal leaf; possibly only 90°F for delicate wrapper leaf. The pile is cooled and turned for a second fermentation, and then the leaf may be aged for 6-36 months.
To achieve a Maduro requires a fermentation temperature in excess of 165°F, and the result is a rich deep brown wrapper with intensified flavour, and a cigar that is often incredibly slow burning, mellow and mild.

Depending on the quality of the leaf and the care taken in blending and rolling, cigars may be harsh, or smooth and "creamy". Generally the hand-rolled cigars are the smoothest. But a good machine-made cigar in which the blend has been carefully selected from a variety of different countries, taking the best taste and burning characteristics from each, can be superior to a poor hand-rolled cigar. They should burn smoothly and evenly and be remarkably consistent in taste and quality.
The inside binder of some machined cigars is of "homogenised" cigar leaf, reconstituted to make it even-textured and suitable for high speed machines. Cigars and cheroots marked 100% tobacco (ie. all natural leaf), may be rolled on slower machines and may be finished by hand.
Usually, if a cigar (whether hand or machine-rolled) has a smooth glossy outside wrapper, without too many spots, it will give a smooth smoke. The wrapper contributes substantially to the smoking qualities of the cigar, so a reputable manufacturer will not waste an expensive wrapper on inferior contents.
Many smokers however prefer a cigar with a bit of "bite", just as many diners like a curry.
Try them out; see which suits you best.

The strength of a cigar leaf can be altered during curing from a pale-green very light leaf (colour and taste) to an almost black "Maduro" leaf which is much stronger. However we don't often get the extremes of strength in South Africa as most of our cigars are rolled of leaf in the mild-to-medium strength range. For practical purposes, if you find that a particular cigar is too "strong", it is possibly too "long" (or too large), and you are "finished" before the cigar is. Or maybe the leaf is too rich for the occasion, and you'd like a less heavy cigar.
Try out the different blends to see which is suitable. After all, rich chocolate cake or neat cognac does not suit everybody all the time. Even if they do suit you, the whole cake or whole bottle may be too much at one go.
A good tobacconist should have a selection of open boxes of cigars to be sold singly, and you may like to keep a variety of brands or sizes to suit your needs at any given time.

There are two main shapes of cigars: Parallel-sided, eg "Coronas", and flared cigars such as the "Pyramid" (or shorter Belicoso). The pyramid has the advantage of a broad burning area with a smaller end for the mouth. However a hand-rolled pyramid cigar is more difficult and expensive to make.
A "Perfecto" is tapered at both ends, and can be almost any length and thickness.
A "Figurado" is any odd-shaped cigar, including the torpedo, pyramid, belicoso, culebra and perfecto. (A torpedo has a bulge in the middle - we hardly ever see this shape.)
"Parejo" includes all straight sided cigars (corona, etc.).
Try different shapes to see which is the most comfortable for you.

The thickness of the cigar (measured in "ring size") contributes to a large degree to the richness and coolness of the smoke. In general a well-rolled thicker cigar gives a much easier draw, which will give a satisfying amount of smoke with less effort, so that the cigar can be smoked slower (and cooler). However you may not like the feel of a thick cigar in your mouth, try a thinner one. (Read more about Ringsize)

A thin cigar may be difficult to draw on. In order to get a satisfying quantity of smoke you may need to draw too hard, possibly resulting in a hot smoke. In this case, try drawing in a little air with the smoke.
If you prefer a smaller volume of "smoke per draw" a thinner cigar should be more suitable. Smoke a few cigars of different ring size; see which is most satisfying.
A cigar should be the correct size for the length of time available to smoke it, bearing in mind that a short thick cigar may smoke for the same length of time as a longer thinner cigar, and also that only about three-quarters of the cigar is smoked. (The remaining quarter is sometimes rather bitter, as it has filtered out tars and juices.)
Some approximate sizes of cigars (thickness in ring size x length in mm) are:

Double Corona 47 x 235 Corona Extra 46 x 143 Slim Corona 36 to 40 x 120
Churchill 47 x 178 Royal Corona 42 x 165 Demitasse 30 x 100 to 110
Pyramid 52 x 156 Corona 42 x 142 Panatella 38 x 155 to 192
Robusto 50 x 124 Petit Corona 42 x 129 Cigarillo 20 x 85
Corona Grande 43 x 170 Half Corona 40 x 102 Nub 60 to 66 x 90 to 102

New formats have been added with ringsizes up to 66, and different lengths.

(The "ring-size" is the diameter of the cigar, expressed in 64ths of an inch.)
After lunch a 15-30 minute "Cigarillo" or "Demitasse" may suffice; after dinner a 45-60 minute "Corona" or "Robusto" size cigar; or for a longer afternoon or evening possibly a 2 hour "Churchill" or larger cigar may be best. The time required also depends on how you smoke: rapidly, continuously, or maybe just an occasional puff sufficient to keep the cigar going.

A fine cigar should look smooth and even, with the gloss of maturity. Trust your eye.
Run your fingers gently down the length to ensure that there are no uneven bumps which may indicate poor filling. Press the cigar gently; it should be firm but springy. A hard cigar is often too dry, a spongy soft cigar too moist or loosely packed.
Tubed or foil-wrapped cigars are usually more expensive but do have the advantage of keeping in perfect condition for longer periods. It may be wise to buy a single tubed or foil-wrapped cigar to test it, before buying a whole box.

"Listening to the band" - ie. rolling the cigar between your fingers next to your ear to hear the crackle.
Most cigars, unless they are very green or damp, will produce a fine crackle, and if you roll too hard you may damage the leaf.
"Sniffing" - This does no harm, but all you will smell is tobacco unless the cigar has been left open in the presence of other strong odours, e.g. fish or cheese, as the leaf absorbs odours fairly readily. It is of use to compare the aromas of different cigars to see which appeals to you.
"Removing the band" - The band was probably originally put on to prevent tobacco staining fingers or gloves. In Britain it is traditional to remove the band before smoking the cigar, but you may damage the wrapper. It is usually better to wait until the cigar has been smoked for a short while, when it shrinks slightly and the band will come off easily. Or simply leave it on. It is unlikely to interfere with the smoking, as the last few centimetres of the cigar are rarely smoked due to the accumulation of tars, moisture and burnt oils which would ruin the fine and delicate flavour. Most bands are situated at this "throw-away" length.
"Warming" - Wrappers of certain cigars used to be stuck down with a disagreeable gum, and warming took the taste away. Today a tasteless vegetable gum is used.

Long filler Cigars: These are rolled damp and should be kept slightly moist, or the leaf will unravel.
(65-70% relative humidity at 70°F, 21.1°C)
Short filler Cigars: These should be kept a little on the dry side, or else the cigar may absorb too much moisture and may swell and burst (50% relative humidity). The Cape in summer, the Highveld in winter, or air-conditioned offices are often too dry.
In either case it is most important to keep the cigars under cool conditions (19-21.5°C) avoiding too many changes in temperature. This will prevent the evaporation of too much moisture, and of the natural oils which give the cigars their flavour. In older cigars, it will also prevent the possible hatching of the tobacco beetle.


The head of a hand-rolled cigar is sealed and must be opened before it can be smoked. The most commonly accepted way of doing this today is to use a guillotine or a double bladed cutter. Better still cigar scissors, which allow you to decide exactly how much, or how little, of the cap you wish to remove.
Whichever you use care must be taken to ensure that you don't remove the whole cap as this may allow the wrapper to unravel.
A recent innovation is the cigar punch which, by only cutting out a prescribed size hole from the head, makes sure that a band of the cap is left intact.
Note: Turn the punch, not the cigar
Your grandfather may have used a cigar drill or piercer but this creates only a very narrow opening, which may cause a hot concentration of smoke and oils on the tongue.
It is not necessary to moisten the end before cutting, but this does no harm. You may get a smoother cut – try it
Machine-rolled cigars often have the head cut open, ready for smoking.

To light the cigar, hold it a little distance above the flame (of a gas lighter or of a wooden spill eg. a piece of cedarwood or a good wooden match) and slowly rotate it until the foot is hot enough to ignite evenly. This dissolves the natural juices without charring. Then draw gently. You can see if the whole surface is lit by blowing softly on the glowing end.

Draw gently and regularly. "Sip" your cigar - to achieve a cool, mellow smoke. It is not necessary to tap off the ash, just let it fall off naturally when it is ready. The cigar will go out if laid down, or neglected, for more than a minute or two. If it does go out remove the ash, blow through the cigar to expel stale air and re-light. If there is a concavity in the foot, light the edges first to ensure that it will burn evenly.
If you wish to smoke it later, trim off the ash with your cutter/scissors and save it in an airtight container such as a glass tube. To smoke it again, blow through to expel stale air, and light as usual.
The last centimetres of the cigar are rarely smoked due to the accumulation of tars, moisture and burnt oils. When you are no longer enjoying the flavour, it is time to retire the cigar.
Simply put it down in the ashtray. It will go out by itself without any unpleasant smell.

Don't hesitate to contact us if you have any questions - your smoking pleasure is our business.
Enjoy the world's most affordable luxury!

Colin Wesley
(Originally written Sept.1969; this update February 2022)

To learn about the growing of cigar leaf and manufacture of cigars read Rick Hacker’s chapter “From Seedling to Cedar” or Theo Rudman on “Growing Cigar Tobacco”.

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CIGARS - smoking for pleasure / The Complete Pipe Smoker / The Perfect Tobacco Blend!