How to Smoke a Cigar

By Steve Watson
February 23, 2021

On the back of posting a blog, An Introduction to Cigars, back in June of this year, it seems only right to follow up with some info on actually smoking a cigar.

Whether you're cooking a steak or making a cup of tea, there are certain techniques that will yield better results, and smoking a cigar is no different. How you smoke a cigar is up to individual preferences but here are a few pointers to get the best out of it and avoid some of the pitfalls. Similarly, whether you eat a steak using your fingers or use a knife and fork, or drink tea from the cup or pour it into the saucer first, there's a certain etiquette associated with cigar smoking.

As I pointed out in the previous article, smoking a cigar isn’t so much about satisfying a nicotine craving as experiencing and appreciating the taste of carefully selected quality tobacco leaves. It’s a pursuit taken when time allows, when the chaos of the day or week has ended and you can relax, take your time and enjoy the ritual of cigar smoking.

Choosing a Cigar

Choose carefully. It might at first be a great idea to go big, but big cigars are a lot of tobacco and require some nicotine tolerance. You could find yourself green around the gills and still have most of it left. Not a great result. Likewise, avoid cheap cigars, you want to enjoy it. Refer to my earlier post, An Introduction to Cigars, for recommendations. Aim for a robusto sized cigar (5-5 1/2" x 50 ring gauge), which will give you a minimum which will give you a minimum 30-40 minutes of smoking time. 50 ring gauge is about 19-20mm diameter.

Before turning your cigar into clumps of ash it’s worth taking the time to recognise the craftsmanship applied to make it. Quality cigars are hand rolled and a high level of skill is required to make them. The Romeo Y Julieta Wide Churchill, for example, is a fabulously constructed, sleek and flawless cigar worthy of visual admiration.

Cutting a Cigar

Cigars worthy of being called such need cutting, and any quality cigar deserves to be cut properly. The idea of biting the end off in spaghetti western cowboy style is a sure way to be spitting out pieces of tobacco throughout the whole smoke, if it doesn’t unravel and fall to pieces first.

The head of the cigar is wrapped in small piece of tobacco leaf called the cap. Some cigars are finished with two or even three caps. The edge of the cap can be seen just below the shoulder. The idea is to cut an opening in the head large enough to allow air flow without cutting off the whole cap. If cut properly, the remaining edge of the cap will prevent the cigar unravelling.

Don’t rush this, it’s all part of the experience. Take your time, be precise and cut in one bold action.

The most common method of cutting a cigar is using a guillotine cutter. Quite often, cigar shops will give these away when you buy a cigar. If they don’t offer you one, ask for one. There is, however, a downside to these give-away cutters in that they only have a single blade, which can crush the head. I’d recommend buying a double blade guillotine cutter for less than £10.00 than run the risk of ruining the cigar.

Punches are also a common choice and, though quite costly, are a good alternative to guillotine cutters in that they leave most of the cap intact and retain the rounded shape of the head.

V-cutters and scissors add to the world of cutters but are basically a variation of the guillotine cutter.

The Pre-light

Check the draw before lighting. Air should pass through the cigar without having to suck. Sometimes you’ll come across a cigar that has been rolled too tight and all attempts to “unplug” it yield little reward. Personally, I don’t endeavour with plugged cigars too long, it’s too much heartache - and mouth ache. There a trade-off that must be made somewhere that means your determination to enjoy your cigar necessitates lighting another at the expense of throwing the first away. This is one of the soul crushing aspects of smoking cigars, particularly if you have no backup plan by way of another cigar to hand. Most reputable cigar suppliers will exchange imperfect cigars without quibble, but that’s no consolation in the moment of disaster. The only remedy to this disappointment is to always have a backup. Always.

Like a coffee connoisseur will smell the beans before and after grinding, take a moment to savour the pre-light draw before lighting and appreciate the flavour.

Lighting a Cigar

Keep things simple and stick with matches - long matches. It may seem somewhat antiquated to strike up a match but the crackling, twisting strand of burning wood is more than ideal. A cigar is a natural product, untainted by machine or man made materials. It seems only right to carry that through and use something similarly natural to light it. Additionally, a match flame is relatively cool so there’s less risk of burning the tobacco. Again, it’s all part of the experience.

Unlike a cigarette, which you light whilst in the mouth, a cigar is lit away from the face by holding the flame to the end of the cigar whilst rotating it. Aim at using 3 matches to light your cigar, particularly if the ring gauge is substantial. Take your time and make sure the end it evenly lit. Check the evenness of the light by blowing on the end and seeing which parts need more flame.

Smoking a Cigar

Having appreciated the appearance and construction of your cigar, the quality of the cut, the pre-light draw and have achieved and even light, it's time to smoke it. As mentioned above, cigars are less about the nicotine hit than the taste and experience, and given the amount of tobacco in a robusto sized cigar, inhaling may well result in feeling ill. Rather, let the smoke fill your mouth and naturally exhale through the mouth and nose. The key is to relax and enjoy the flavours and aromas.

How the cigar burns indicates how well you’re smoking it. Smoking too hard or drawing too frequently will cause the cigar to cone as it burns. Drawing too infrequently will cause it to hollow. Adjust your smoking to suit the burn. If your cigar goes out, simply remove the ash and relight.

Removing Ash

There’s an etiquette to smoking cigars and, in the same way you cut your cigar and light it, you don’t want to be advertising yourself as a newbie by flicking the ash off too frequently. Unlike cigarettes, cigars are made from full length leaves running the entire length of the cigar. The ash is much more stable than cigarettes and doesn’t need removing too often. Allow the ash to fall off naturally as opposed to knocking it off. A gentle tap will either cause the ash to fall off or not. If it doesn’t fall off, leave it. The ash is necessary in keeping the cigar cool and helps produce an even burn.

Finishing a Cigar

By the time you get into the final third of your cigar it will start to taste strong. It’s rare that cigars are smoked to the nub so don’t feel you need to get every last bit out of it. You want to be finishing your cigar having enjoyed it, not finding the last part a trial.

When you’re done with it, leave it to burn out naturally rather than crushing it into an ashtray to avoid releasing strong odours.

Pairing Cigars

Most of us have a reasonable idea of what drinks go with what food - lager with curry, port with cheese, red wine with steak etc. The same applies to cigars, and drinks that pair well include whisky, bourbon, rum, cognac, port, wine, coffee etc.

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Steve Watson
Author and founder of Watson's barber's
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