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Beginner's Corner Beginner's Corner
We have put together this page with the beginning cigar smoker in mind. Cigar smoking's popularity is increasing rapidly and a lot of our customers are first or second timers that don't know a whole lot about cigars. Well, here's some info that will help you in your quest for a pleasurable cigar experience. We will add more info to this page on a periodic basis so please check back for more information.

Click to go to a particular topic that you're interested in, or start from the beginning.


THE TASTE OF A CIGAR Our first topic in Beginner's Corner is taste, since the taste of a cigar is probably the most important element of cigar smoking. After all, why would anyone smoke cigars if they didn't taste good?

First and foremost, what makes a cigar "good" or "bad" is whether or not you like it. Period. In our humble opinion, too much is written about the specifics of taste. Frequently, you hear the "experts" write of particular cigars having, for example, "baked bread flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg, with a slight leathery finish", or "some leather and floral notes, with a hint of chocolate."

Gimme a break!! I've NEVER smoked a cigar that hinted of Petunias or Lilacs! Does the cigar taste good or doesn't it? That's what I want to know. If I draw on it, let the smoke settle on my taste buds, and get a taste that is pleasurable and relaxing and like a morsel that I appreciate, the cigar is great. If it's harsh, bitter, or has a taste that is just not "me", it's a lousy cigar. It's that simple. And I don't want to taste my leather catcher's mitt, either. The bottom line is, don't get caught up in all the taste hype that you hear among those that think they are experts. This is not rocket science and we're not trying to be tasting judges for some fancy wine competition.

COMPLEXITY AND AGING "Complex" is a term often used to describe a cigar, but for the most part, it is not well understood. In simple terms, complexity is a descriptive word used to characterize a cigar that has unique flavors that have been developed as the result of the marrying of the tobacco in the cigar.

As a very simple analogy, consider a Reese's peanut butter cup. What makes this candy so delicious to many people is not the chocolate or the peanut butter by themselves, but rather, the combination of the flavors. We do not necessarily think of the chocolate-peanut butter combo as complex, and really, it isn't, but they sure taste great together (i.e. married).

Now consider something much more complex, say a salsa, that has been made with yellow-hot chiles, a few jalepenos, tomato, onion, garlic, salt, and perhaps some cilantro. Individually, these flavors are nothing to write home about (although I must admit, I do love garlic), but blended together and chilled, they can marry and make one fine tasting appetizer.

The same holds true for cigars (and pipe tobacco for that matter). Manufacturers go through painstaking efforts find the perfect blend to create a great cigar. As you might imagine, it is a tough process, made even more difficult by the fact that unlike a salsa, to marry properly, cigars must be aged. It is precisely this reason that you can open a box of cigars and be disappointed, but then let the cigars sit in your humidor for a few months and have the cigars come out tasting like the best you've ever had. This is especially true these days, where frequently, manufacturers rush their leaf to the factory and their cigars to distributors. Not coincidentally, the manufacturers that have a reputation for NOT rushing their cigars to market - for example, Padron - also have a reputation for making the *best* cigars.

Later on in Beginner's Corner we'll cover how you might go about finding the right cigar for you.

THE PRICE OF A CIGAR Next we'll talk about the prices of cigars. We have always believed the old adage, "you get what you pay for." After all, there's a reason a Mercedes Benz costs more than a Saturn. But, as you know, "name brands" can also cost more than an off brand and not necessarily be any better. Are Ralph Lauren Polo shirts really better than JC Penney shirts? (Recent experience tells me no!) Well, the same is true for cigars. Don't be convinced that if a cigar doesn't have a hefty price or a well known label that you won't like it.

Be willing to try moderately priced cigars in search of the one you'll really love, recognizing though, that you usually get what you pay for. The lesson? "MORE $$$ is not NECESSARILY better. Experiment to find your favorite." One thing you have to keep in mind - and this is very important - there are a lot of new cigar manufacturers out there trying to take advantage of the cigar "craze". These are people that sensed the craze and acquired land and tobacco seed, grew the tobacco, and then hired workers away from established factories. The problem is, many of these newer cigars are not aged properly, and the help they hire causes an inflated price relative to the rest of the industry. The result is an expensive cigar that doesn't burn or taste as good as it should.

For our part, we tend to shy away from these new brands - but, we are open-minded. We'll try any cigar a distributor recommends to us, but it must meet our standards not only for quality, but also for pricing.

STORING YOUR CIGARS Now that we've covered a bit about taste, quality, and pricing,let's talk about the storage of your cigars. After all, if you are going start smoking primo cigars, you will want to ensure that when you store them, they will stay in optimum condition. This is best accomplished by using a humidity controlling storage device called a humidor. (THIS IS NOT YOUR REFRIGERATOR - leave that for the cold cuts and beer.) The optimum humidity for cigars is from 72 to 75%. At this humidity, the tobacco continues to age properly and it stays moist enough to ensure a smooth burn with no flaking or unravelling of the wrapper. I cannot over emphasize: storing your cigars in proper humidification is as important as choosing a cigar. A dry cigar will be a bad smoking, bad tasting, lousy cigar and total waste of your money!

At this point, a brief note about humidors is obviously in order. To keep the humidity constant, it is imperative that your humidor seals the outside from the inside. No matter how good a humidor looks or how much it costs, if it doesn't seal the outside from the inside, it can't do its job. To beginners, we usually recommend a humidor called the Smoker's Depot Jar Humidor. This is an inexpensive (less than $30.00) that will keep your cigars fresh, virtually indefinitely.

Of course, there are many other more expensive humidors available ranging from about $100 to as high as $1200. They also do a great job, but the difference is, for example, that they may be hand crafted from the finest walnut or oak. We carry a few of 'em at Duke City Cigars if you are interested, but for the purposes of this page, we wanted to introduce you to the Duke City Cigars Jar Humidor because it's an outstanding deal and fits the new smoker perfectly.

One thing to keep in mind when you humidify your cigars is that the flavors of the varying cigars in your humidor will "marry". This is especially true if you have cigars that don't come with a cellophane wrapper. If your cigars have a cellophane wrapper, this marrying process is not nearly as fast, but nevertheless, marrying will occur if you have the same cigars in the humidor for more than a couple of months. This is not something to be overly concerned about, but you should definitely consider it if you have "non-celloed" cigars that are very different (i.e. a Mexican maduro (dark wrapper) and a Connecticut shade wrapped Jamaican.) A mixed marriage? Hmm.

RING SIZES The next topic of discussion that not many beginners know much about is ring sizes (a shame considering there's not a whole lot to know). What everyone does know is that a 42 is a skinny smoke and a 60 is fat one. But the simple fact of the matter is that one ring size equals 1/64th of an inch. So a cigar with a 48 ring size is 48/64ths, or 3/4ths of an inch thick. Easy enough, right? But what does this have to do with a cigar's taste? Well...everything! This is because a fat cigar's blend of tobacco will be different from a thin one's, often causing a distinctly different taste. The bottom line is: just because two cigars have the same brand name, you can't count on them having the same taste if they are different sizes. And in our opinion that's good, because we like to try different tasting cigars, and different cigar sizes give us just that much more variety. Very nice indeed.

LIGHTING YOUR CIGAR At this point it is appropriate to talk a bit about lighting and smoking your fine cigar. Not many people think about the effects that improperly lighting a cigar can have on the entire smoke. But many of you, I am sure, can think back to your younger years of being outside on a windy day, trying to light, shall we say, a "different type of stogie" or a pipe. Well, do you remember striking the match and rushing it to the tip of the "stogie" or pipe bowl to ensure a light before the wind blew the match out? And do you remember the taste? You might recall this occurrence being termed a "sulfur hit". Well, the exact same thing can happen with your cigars. Thing is, in your younger years, you were concerned with the effects of your "stogie", not the taste. But now, such a taste in your cigars would be totally and utterly unacceptable. If it happens, the taste will linger throughout the length of the smoke. The point of my little story is this: you must make sure that you light your cigar properly. Don't get me wrong, you can use matches if you have no other choice, but always, always, let the sulfur completely burn off before drawing on your cigar. The same thing can happen if you have a lighter that burns fluid. If you aren't careful, you'll draw in a lighter fluid taste. Let your Zippo or Bic burn a few seconds before you bring it up to your cigar. Also, don't use a huge, hot flame. If you overheat the cigar, you'll get a lousy taste that to me seems more like ammonia than tobacco. Draw in slowly and take your time.

One thing I've heard recently is that you should light a cedar strip and then use it to light your cigar. I'm not necessarily a big fan of that, though. Can you imagine what a hassle it would be to carry around cedar strips? And then to have to light them to light your cigar? Smoking a cigar is supposed to be a pleasure, not a pain in the butt.

Personally, I use a butane lighter. They burn at an optimum temperature, they won't soak your cigar with a fuel taste, and they're easy and inexpensive to maintain.

Two final notes about lighting cigars: Firstly, don't light the cigar with the base of the flame. It's much hotter at the base than at the tip. Place your cigar just above the tip of flame to get a light, rotating the cigar as you're puffing. Rotating the cigar will eliminate those pesky "runners" unless it's a badly rolled smoke.

Secondly, about cigar licking (slobbering all over the cigar). It's not very appealing, and it serves no real value in smoking a cigar (unless you just like the taste). If your cigar is dry and unraveling, licking your cigar is a futile attempt to humidify your cigar, because as you smoke the cigar, the heat from the lit head is going to dry it out again. Back in the old days, this practice was more acceptable; today we know that it serves no valid purpose.

CIGAR COMPOSITION Our next topic, the composition of cigars, is not one that will ever make a big difference to you, because you receive the final product, and there's simply not much you can do about the cigar at that point. You smoke the cigar, and if you don't like it, you go get one you do like. Nevertheless, we thought you might enjoy knowing a bit about the content of your cigars. The first thing you need to know is that a cigar is composed of three types of tobacco leaves: the wrapper, the binder, and the filler. Neither are necessarily more important than the other, but you can't have a good cigar without all three.

The wrapper is obviously the outer sleeve, and is of high quality with regards to looks. Wrappers come in many different shades and generally contribute both to the cigar's taste as well as burn. Without going into too much detail, a very light colored wrapper is usually a "natural" and a dark one is usually a "maduro". Maduro wrappers are considered to be stronger, but this is not always true. A darker wrapper doesn't necessary translate to strength. A maduro wrapper is darker simply because it has been allowed to darken through the aging process.

There are several other wrapper shades, but for the beginner's purposes, natural and maduro will suffice.

If you get a cigar that "runs", it's generally a result of a poor job of wrapping (assuming the cigar has been kept at the proper humidity).

The next important part of a cigar is the "filler". This is the tobacco that is the "guts", if you will, of the cigar and has the most effect on the strength of the cigar. Cigars that are made with "long-filler" are made with whole, long tobacco leaves. Long filler cigars are generally of higher quality than short filler, as short filler tends to be leftover scraps that the roller uses in a cigar. It's sort of like the difference between a steak and a beef hot-dog, although perhaps not as drastic.

The third and last component of a cigar is the "binder". This is simply the part of the cigar that hold the filler together. Obviously, higher quality, properly aged binder, as with wrapper and filler, makes an overall higher quality cigar.

So what does all this wrapper, binder and filler stuff mean to you and I? Well, I'm not sure what it means to you, but to me it means very little. After all, I'm not going to unravel a cigar and inspect the binder and filler and try to determine it's quality. And I'm not going to say to myself, "Gee, the binder tastes good, but the wrapper and filler could use some work." What matters is if the cigar tastes good and burns evenly. It's impossible to discern what the wrapper, binder, or filler are like as individuals, unless you have cigars that are made with the same binder and filler but with different wrappers (of which there are quite a few). Again, don't think that because the cigar has a darker wrapper, it's necessarily stronger.

Well, that's about all I have to say for the components of a cigar. It's tough stuff, huh? So tough that no university is willing to offer a degree in cigar construction and tasting. Makes you wonder where the "experts" went to school. By the way, it's been several months since we introduced the Beginner's Corner to this site, and I must admit, I still haven't discovered hints of nutmeg, herbs, wood, or "vegetal notes" in anyof the hundreds of cigars I've smoked. But, listen: I love radishes. If anybody out there can point me to a cigar that tastes like radishes, please, please let me know and I'll send you a free sampler pack right away!

CHOOSING THE RIGHT CIGAR FOR YOU. This leaves us with the final, and perhaps most important section of Beginner's Corner: How to pick a cigar for you! As a beginner, we recommend you stick with milder cigars, as some of the stronger cigars may have a pretty strong effect on you (maybe even make you dizzy). You probably should start off trying some of the more established brands known for making mild cigars: Macanudo, Don Lino, and Don Diego are excellent places to start. Also, try to begin with a cigar that's not particularly thin. The reason is that thin cigars have less binder and filler, so the blends of these cigars may not be as flavorful as some of the thicker cigars.

As a beginner, you definitely want to taste the full flavor of a good cigar, so you can get to recognize some of the flavors. Amazingly, early in your tasting, you will find cigars that you absolutely love and you will swear that you're gonna smoke 'em forever. But, I'm telling you, at least for your first year of smoking, maybe even your first two years, it's better to try a variety of cigars. There are SO many great cigars out there that two weeks after you found your "favorite" you'll find another one. Eventually, migrate to stronger cigars, perhaps Hondurans and Nicaraguans like Bahias and Padrons, and then you'll really begin to taste robust flavors.

After years and years of smoking cigars, I think I've finally latched onto a favorite - Padrons (and I especially like the Anniversary Series Exlusivo and the Padron 3000s). But, I STILL enjoy picking out different shapes and sizes. After you get some experience under your belt, I'm sure you'll find that you like different cigars at different times. In other words, you may prefer a mild cigar for after dinner, but a stronger cigar when you go out with your friends. It all depends. The bottom line is that while you may find an overall favorite, you just may find cigars that are right for a particular time, much like with wines, I suppose. Have an open mind, try different cigars, and I promise you will have a lot of fun with this hobby. I love cigars. I look forward to smoking them. They make me happy. I hope they do the same for you!


Al Baca, DukeCityCigars.com

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