There is an alchemy to cigars that, sadly, has been overshadowed by pervading stereotypes that have been brought into the present. In a way, these stereotypes are caricatures. The idea of the “big men” sitting around a table, in a gentlemen’s club deciding the fates of many, a glass of cognac or whisky in the one hand and a thick, long cigar in the other. Or the image of the rich and famous frolicking on yachts in the south of somewhere warm, luxurious and lavish, cigars in hand.
Yet, there is so much more to a cigar and the journey that it takes from seed to the shelf. So much more. And the more I have learnt over the years, the more there is for me to learn, particularly about where cigar tobacco is grown and how it is made: how the tobacco seed is planted in seedling trays and only planted in the ground after it has reached a particular height; how the soil, the sun and the elements influence flavour and taste; how where on the plant the leaf comes from also affects flavour and which part of the cigar it is used for; how the leaves go through a drying/curing, fermentation and ageing process that is part science and part art, all organic with no additives added.
And we haven’t even got to the actual rolling of the cigar, the sorting according to colour, the band and the rest of the packaging.
Main growing countries include Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Indonesia, the US and even Cameroon (for wrappers). Each region and each brand seems to have an intriguing, tumultuous and/or warm story around how it came about, often going back over multiple generations.
There are the three main parts of a cigar. The wrapper, which is what you see on the outside, and needs to be smooth, without the roughness or prominent veins that one often sees in a leaf. The binder is next, underneath the wrapper, which holds together the final element, the filler. When it comes to fillers, this is where there is the greatest creativity, often with leaves from different plantations, of different strengths and flavour profiles, influenced by the climate and soil and the like. The last thing that goes on a cigar is a cap at the end, which is what is cut to ensure that you can draw.
Cigars come in three primary strengths: mild, medium or full/bold. When smoking, the experience can be divided into thirds, with the flavour profile evolving as one goes through each third. But these are technicalities. To smoke a cigar is to take time for oneself, whether alone or in the company of others because you can’t rush a smoke. A cigar with a 45-minute smoking time means you have to set aside that time. It forces you to sit back, relax and explore the flavours. Is that a hint of pepper? But there’s also a sweetness, like cinnamon. And there seems to a nuttiness to it. And if I pair it with an espresso or a peaty whisky, it seems to do something else to the flavours as they collide in a beautifully balanced way.
Furthermore, to smoke cigars is to discover oneself as you discover what you enjoy and what you don’t. And to do this is to try different brands, different sizes, different strengths, etc. I am often asked what’s my favourite cigar, which is impossible to answer because it depends on time of the day, where I am, what I am doing, what I smoked last, etc. I have a couple of go-to ones, but I will try something new at least once.
And, finally, I have also found a community of sorts, bonded by a love of a good cigar. Men, women, all ages and races, all brought together by the alchemy of a beautiful stick. In those moments, it isn’t about what you do for a living, or how much money you have, or any of the other external labels we often place on ourselves to show our value to the world.