Maybe you’re considering taking up cigar smoking, or maybe you just want a grip on the basics for that infrequent celebratory smoke. There’s certainly a good deal of technique to follow when smoking a cigar, it’s not quite as simple as the light, puff, stub cigarette routine. But it really isn’t so difficult, and once you have the basics down, you can start finding your rhythm and developing your own preferred methods.
If you want to learn how to smoke a cigar, what’s most important is setting yourself up for a proper smoke.
Sounds obvious, but what I mean is, you’re not going to start off a seasoned expert, orating on the eloquent notes and nuances of the blend. But you don’t have to be that developed to have an enjoyable, relaxing smoking experience, you just need to know enough to avoid the errors that undercut the real joys of the craft. Beginner mistakes can often lead to disinterest based on an inaccurate representation. It’s like messing up a recipe and saying, “this dish isn’t for me” without truly having experienced it.
So, let’s explore how to smoke a cigar and you’ll have no problem dodging the pitfalls to a good smoking experience.
|1. How to Choose a Cigar|
|2. How to Cut a Cigar|
|3. How to Light a Cigar|
|4. How to Smoke a Cigar|
|5. How to Put Out a Cigar|
How to Choose a Cigar
As was said above, someone curious about cigars can often be discouraged by a poor experience that could have been avoided. The culprit can often be a poor choice in cigar. You definitely want something quality (which doesn’t have to mean expensive), but even a quality cigar can deliver a regrettable experience if its strength is beyond what you can handle. Most often, cigars with high strength, or “full" cigars, must be worked up to.
Let’s make sense of what exactly I mean by “strength” so that you can find a suitable cigar for your level of experience.
Strength and Body
The strength of the cigar refers to the nicotine content, or “nic hit” as we often call it. This is what can cause the buzz or light-headedness to new smokers.
The body refers to the weight, or presence of flavor on one’s palate.
We often see “strength” used in a broader sense to describe a cigar’s boldness with all of these factors of flavor and nic-hit taken into consideration. This is what is meant when you hear cigars designated as mild, medium, or full.
It’s important to remember that being a fan of “full-bodied” flavor outside of cigars (merlots or dark lagers, for example) doesn’t necessarily mean you should jump right into a full-strength cigar. Taking a strong nic hit with little tolerance for nicotine can be an unpleasant experience to say the least, even with a taste for dark, robust flavor.
As a rule of thumb, it’s probably best that you start with a mild cigar, maybe mild to medium.
Tips for Dealing with Nic Hit
Plenty of factors go into how we experience nicotine, it doesn’t affect everyone the same. These factors aren’t dissimilar to how susceptible one may or may not be to intoxication—body type, tolerance, whether or not you’re consuming on an empty stomach—all of these can make a world of difference. Of course, as a new cigar smoker, you may still have a tolerance from other nicotine products, but it’s best to take these precautions either way (some of them are good form whether you’ve a tolerance for nicotine or not). Especially be mindful of them if you’re coming with no tolerance, even if you have the mildest cigar.
2. Drink water.
3. Keep a few sugar packets handy. Sugar can help neutralize the nicotine dizzies, just pour the packet on your tongue, and wash it down with that water.
4. Go slow. This is sound advice for simply enjoying your smoking experience and keeping a nice cool burn. But it’s all the more important for beginners to pace themselves so that they can ease in. Also, even if you don’t have the palate for picking out the nuance of flavors yet, a slow, smoldering smoke is most conducive to getting flavor, and the right time to start learning good habits is day one.
Check out our guide on how to deal with nic hit to know more about avoiding an unpleasant smoking experience.
Cigar Shapes and Sizes
Along with picking a cigar that’s the right strength, choosing a manageable size is also important.
Cigars come in an array of vitolas. The vitola is the size and shape of the cigar. The dimensions for each vitola aren’t standardized across the industry, so you may have a brand that defines the size a bit differently, or they may use their own names in lieu of the commonly accepted ones.
Cigars are an investment in time, and that—among other things—is the point. We get to relax, reflect, converse—whatever it may be. But for those learning how to smoke a cigar, a good average smoking time is best—around 45 minutes to an hour. For a good average size, Coronas are great, or maybe a Petite Corona if you’re looking for a little less.
The Café Duke of Devon and the Café Hampton Court are two great cigars from Macanudo that could be a solid place to start. I would also recommend the Reserva Real from Romeo y Julieta. Any of these mild, moderately sized cigars make for a fine smoke.
For a deeper dive into choosing a cigar complete with suggestions, check out our 8 best cigars for beginners list.
How to Cut a Cigar
What to Cut a Cigar With
The first step to cutting your cigar is getting the right equipment. To get the precise cut you need, it’s best to use a cigar cutter. There are a few different kinds of cigar cutters that make different cuts such as the guillotine, v-cut, and punch cutter. There are different reasons to use one cutter or another, be it the cigar's shape or one’s preference, but getting into all this is unnecessarily complicated for our purposes here. A guillotine cutter is the standard and most common and will do fine.
The guillotine cutter is a simple straight blade that gets a good clean sever. Guillotines that use two blades coming from each side are preferable, but a single blade will work too.
However, maybe you don’t want to make the investment in a tool quite yet. If you don’t have a cigar cutter, a knife will get the job done—but be careful of course. Cigar cutters offer more control.
Getting the Right Cut
First you want to find where you’re going to cut. The ideal cut will be severing the top part of the cap. The cap keeps the wrapper leaf secure; you can locate this by finding the longitudinal seam(s) rounding the dome. You may see one or more depending on the kind of cap.
What’s crucial is that you don’t cut too far down the shoulder, the point where the cap straightens out and the head begins. Since the cap holds the cigar together, severing it too close to the head can cause the cigar to unravel.
Much like your summer jorts, you can always take a little more length off, but if you cut too much, you’re going to have to live with the consequences.
Remember, as long as you’re not too far down the shoulder, there isn’t really a definitive place to cut. The picture on the left is my suggestion, but ultimately, as you get better acquainted with the way cut affects how a cigar draws, preference will guide you. The further from the top of the cap you cut, the more draw you’ll get.
Once you’ve located where to cut, slice away. If you’re using a cutter, cut the cigar in one swift move, no hesitation. Too slow and you can get drag and tear instead of a neat sever. For this same reason, be sure that your cutter is good and sharp.
If you’re using a knife, find the place where you’ll cut, then with the knife lightly pressed to the spot, rotate the cigar until the top of the cap comes off or it’s perforated enough to pull off. Remember to rotate so that the knife is going in the same direction as the wrapper so as not to pull it.
How to Light a Cigar
Flame Source - Lighters and Matches
As a flame source, the best option is either a torch cigar lighter or cigar matches. I would suggest the torch lighter for those new to cigar smoking. There’s a bit less sleight of hand involved, so the lighter may be more beginner friendly, but either one will work fine.
What’s most important is not to use a source that will impart taste to the cigar. That means for lighters, you want the fuel to be butane.
To be clear, butane quality can differ. Experts suggest using butane that has been refined at least 5 times, as unrefined butane can impart a taste too. As a beginner, will your unrefined palate notice unrefined butane? Probably not. You’re not setting yourself up for failure by not getting “the good stuff.” Although if you do invest in a nice lighter, more refined butane will likely be better for the lighter’s longevity. However, you may not be looking to add any expenses until you know cigars are for you. In which case, you can get the job done just fine with a cheaper butane lighter—a simple Bic will do.
As for matches, it’s easiest if they’re long. Wooden cigar matches are made with odorless wood and are very long and robust. Trying to light your cigar using something much smaller, you would likely have a pile of burnt matches by the time you got things going smooth, and it’s easier to get an even burn with a consistent flame.
Lighting Your Cigar
To light your cigar, you’ll start with what is called “toasting." Hold the cigar just above the flame at a downward angle. Let it heat up while rotating the barrel to make sure the whole end of the foot is getting equal heat.
(Note: if you are using matches, wait for the head of the match to burn before bringing the flame up to the cigar.)
Now you can start to light the cigar by taking puffs as you continue to hold the flame near the foot, though still shy of contact. And remember not to inhale as you begin puffing.
Once you think you have it lit well, hold the foot of the cigar toward you and gently blow on the ember to check that it’s even. The orange glow should give a good indication of where you might still need to apply heat.
This gentle approach to lighting will achieve an even burn. Incinerating the foot end directly can ruin the taste of an otherwise fine cigar. It’s easy to think “lit is lit, right?” but not quite. If you have experience with pipe smoking, you know that what you really want is the smoldering of the leaf— that’s what delivers the taste. In much the same way, you don’t want to scorch the cigar, this is what is meant by the seemingly oxymoronic “cool burn” of which you’ll often hear.
How to Smoke a Cigar
You’ll want to take a few consecutive drags of the cigar to start, being careful to just fill your mouth before exhaling. You don’t have to (and really shouldn’t) puff this consistently throughout, it just helps get your cigar well-lit so that you can slowly enjoy it without the cherry going out. When the smoke is consistent, then you’re good to ease up.
When still learning, a good rule of thumb is to draw the cigar for 4 to 5 seconds and every thirty seconds to a minute or so. This becomes a pretty natural rhythm you don’t have to think about, but it’s easy for beginners, especially if they’ve smoked cigarettes, to smoke too quickly. Drawing too hard and frequently can heat up the cherry too much and your otherwise perfectly good cigar starts tasting like char.
This gets back to what was said at the beginning of this piece about how some beginner mistakes can leave newcomers with inaccurate representations of cigar smoking. This is one of the instances where the unseasoned smoker may be alluded by the representation of smoking a cigar in movies and shows. You don’t want to be puffing out dense plumes. This is a sign of smoking too hot.
You might see some folks letting their ash get as long as possible, sometimes nearly the length of the cigar. This does indicate a well-constructed cigar, but it isn’t necessary. However, it is good to keep a decent half inch to one inch of ash built up as it can help keep the temperature of the ember down.
When you are going to remove the ash, don’t tap it off. It’s best to roll it out. Hold the cigar angled downward so that the rim is lightly against the side of a surface, ideally an ashtray, and roll it along the rim of the foot with ease, the excess should drop right off.
Touching up - Correcting an Uneven Burn
Sometimes your cigar will start to burn unevenly, this can be due to not having an even initial light, a section being packed too lightly, a dry cigar that hasn’t been fully re-humidified, among other causes. Depending on the cause, one effective way to prevent these problems is to rotate your cigar between draws. But it’s still something you’ll run into from time to time, so it’s good to know a few methods of “touching up”—that is, evening out the burn.
If your cigar is burning at a very slight slant, this probably won’t have much of an effect on how it smokes at first, but it may continue to burn faster on one side until it’s very uneven—what’s called “canoeing.” Luckily, if you catch it in this early stage, it’s usually easy to correct. Try setting the cigar down on the side of the ashtray. The ember should be over the bowl of the tray with the side with more wrapper still intact—the side burning less fast—facing downward. Leaving the cigar here briefly allows the slow burning area to get more oxygen, heating it up and evening it with the other side.
Touching Up Canoeing and Tunneling
Canoeing refers to when the aforementioned slant becomes a more dramatic slope.
Tunneling is when the filler tobacco is burning much quicker than the binder and wrapper. When this happens, you can usually look straight on at the foot and see a hole in the ash.
You can even out canoeing by lighting the area that is burning slower so that it catches up with the rest. It might take a few draws to notice it’s evened out, but this usually does the trick. You can try this with tunneling as well, with the flame underneath the hollowing area at the end, rotating so that the wrapper and binder are evenly heated and can catch up with the filler. However, tunneling can be a bit more daunting and if this doesn’t work you can try severing the cigar right above the uneven burn and relighting. Although, you may just want to call it quits or start from square one with another cigar. The culprits causing tunneling tend to be more finnicky, but there’s no harm in trying to salvage it.
In general, “touching up” is something you will develop a feel for, there are different little nit-picks that can get in the way of an absolute perfect smoke but that just makes cigar smoking join the ranks of all other things in life.
If you’re keeping a moderate pace to your smoking, it’s reasonable that your cigar may go out, especially as you’re still finding that happy medium in your pace. That’s perfectly fine, you would much rather have a cigar that needs a relight than one burning too hot.
To relight a cigar that was already being smoked, start by ashing it, rolling off the excess just as you would normally ash it. Then you want to find something (a key or the wooden end of a match work well) to gently remove whatever ash didn’t fall off. Push the ash away, mindful to not damage the wrapper, until you reach the tobacco.
Then you’ll light it all the same. Toast the end above your flame, rolling the cigar so that it’s getting a nice even ember, and then start puffing, being sure to check that you’re getting an even burn and adjusting if needed.
To be clear, this advice is geared toward relighting your cigar right when it goes out or soon after. Once a cigar that has been smoked goes out, it probably won’t take more than a few hours at best for it to go stale. So, while you can absolutely relight, putting it out to save for later is not likely to lead to a quality smoke. This is another reason for beginners to be strategic when considering what vitolas to try. By no means do you need to get cigarillos to start, but you do want something reasonable that you can get the most out of.
(Although I will say, cigarillos are a great way to try new blends without the commitment, or if you want a cigar experience for a brief smoke.)
But that’s really why we see such a variety in sizes and shapes. No doubt there are seasoned smokers out there who are married to their favorite vitola, but most adjust for situations, changing it up depending on what is right for the occasion, or even guided by inclinations that are pure whim.
How to Put Out a Cigar
Of course, first you'll have to know that you're done.
Again, this is something you’ll just feel out, the answer will be different from person to person and cigar to cigar. You’ll be able to tell when the cigar has “turned,” getting harsher somewhere into the last third. But the best way to know is very simple. If it’s not enjoyable anymore, you’re done. Sounds simple enough, but often times those learning to smoke a cigar worry that there may be some “code” they don’t want to break, taking the ember down to the nub. There’s no shame in stopping here opposed to there. Sometimes that last third has more of a spiciness or kick to it even before the turn. If it’s not your taste, maybe it will be as your palate develops—if not, that’s fine too.
If there is one piece of etiquette to keep in mind when finishing your cigar, do not stub it out like one might a cigarette. Smothering the end like this can create an acrid smell. Cigarettes contain certain chemicals that keep them burning even without regular draw. Cigars do not, once you stop smoking it won’t take long for it to go out on its own. Simply place your cigar in the ashtray and let it burn out.
Best Way to Enjoy
Ultimately the best way to enjoy cigar smoking is to treat it as an exploration. Then it can develop into the personalized respite it ought to be. But here are some ideas for spurring that exploration:
- Take your time. Find the right pace and take in the moment.
- Pair your cigar with a beverage. Experiment with different drinks and blends and try to take notice of how they complement each other.
- Smoke a cigar with company. If you have a friend that smokes cigars, that would be great. We certainly hope this guide helps you along, but having someone right there with you is a wonderful way to learn.
- Take notes as you go. Have a dedicated notebook for journaling the different cigars or pairings you try and the impressions they leave. This is a great way to navigate what you want to try next, and to see how your palate develops as you return to a blend you've tried before.