spirits that speak


Why I (still) smoke cigars

When I was 17 (cue Frank Sinatra) I started thinking about turning 18. Where I lived that was the age of legality. I wanted to take advantage of my soon-to-be-found freedom in a way that wasn't like everyone else. So...drinking was pretty much out (not to mention I've never liked the taste of beer or nearly anything else with alcohol in it). Gambling? I had my mind around trying to begin saving money for college. I wanted to avoid student loans as much as I could, and I couldn't put it upon my parents to give me money since they had already been spending their hard earned dollars on my desire to go to a private school. So what's left? Smoking? No..."I can't stand cigarettes", I thought back then. Then one day I was at 7-11 getting my daily slurpee (ok, almost daily) and I noticed cigars. What did I know back then? A cigar is a cigar. So I decided to try it.

The cigars I smoked back then would be a joke if a real cigar smoker saw what I was up to, but it had me interested. I started out with stuff like Century Sams and Captain Blacks. I liked that it very quickly became evident that it didn't have to be about becoming addicted or getting any kind of fix. A Century Sam would take me 20-30 minutes to smoke and wasn't nearly as plesant if i was in a hurry, so I allowed it to force me to slow down a bit at times. Soon enough, I started becoming curious about what else was out there for cigars. A few people I knew did indeed laugh at me when I told them I smoked Century Sams and didn't hesitate to tell me that I should try a real cigar some time. So I started looking for places to buy and soon found a great cigar shop in my home town (the only one, to this day that I'm aware of, that still knows what they're talking about). My first real cigar was called a Habana Gold. It took me in the neighborhood of an hour (maybe more) to smoke it and I realized I found something to take an interest in. Soon enough I established a once-a-week time to sit, think, and enjoy a cigar. It was relaxing and it helped me unwind and think about everything that was going on.

Then I took an interest in how cigars were made and decided to start reading up. There are whole books about the process. It turns out it's quite the process that requires patience and attention to detail. For real cigars there's never anything added. The process involves different ways to grow the plants and a very specific environment. Once the leaves are carefully and expertly harvested they go into curing barns for curing, fermenting, and aging. Sometimes the aging takes years, and between curing/fermenting then aging the leaves they are handled very little. During curing and fermenting the leaves are hanged in bunches and there's a controlled environment of evenly distributed heat and humidity so the leaves "sweat out" as many naturally occuring toxins as possible. Then, once the leaves are ready to move on from there, they're sorted. There are different qualities the sorters look for that will determine what the leaf is used for. The leaves are also then "de-stemmed" and then aged again for possibly another couple of years, to release more of the naturally occuring toxins that make them taste bitter when smoked.

Once all the curing, fermenting, and aging is done, the leaves are ready to be rolled. This process involves choosing leaves that complement each other well and create a blend that's created for flavor and a level of complexity. There are leaves that are chosen as filler (in which several leaves are bunched together), binder (to keep the bunch together well), and wrapper to further keep cigars in a shape that won't unravel as you smoke them. filler and binder are usually chosen more for flavor than for appearance, whereas the flavor is rounded out by wrapper that is also chosen because it looks better. Sometimes leaves initially determined fit as wrapper gets damaged and can then be used as binder or filler in another cigar. Often, when new blends are created, multiple configurations are blended together and then the cigar maker can choose which one is best.

That is a very briefly summarized story about the process of making cigars. I definitely left some things out in my description but it's a sense of what I learned when I studied all that. It made me realize that making cigars is painstaking and is an art. Good cigars are only made by those who have a passion for it, many of whom have cigar making in their families and have for over a century. Realizing all this, I basically fell in love with the art form. Since making them is such a long process in most cases, I felt even more interest in picking cigars carefully and not rushing the whole thing. Smoking them had to involve sitting down and letting it be an experience. I prefer sitting with at least one or two other people and having good conversation and relaxing together, but I smoke by myself a lot and try to take time to not only enjoy the cigar and the complex flavors involved but to reflect.

And there are flavors I would have never expected from unflavored tobacco leaves. At times I've tasted things such as toasted marshmallow, coffee, chocolate, coconut, peanuts, and even crazy things like fried rice. There's no doubt that the flavors I've gotten from well made cigars at times makes me sit up and take notice.

All this is to describe my love for cigars. It's not all encompassing, but mostly I still smoke cigars for the relaxation and reduction of stress that I still get from those experiences. My once-a-week custom still exists. Occasionally it's twice, but it's not something I'm addicted to in any way. There have been times I've gone weeks without smoking a cigar and felt no cravings. The only craving I've ever felt in relation to cigars is the craving for yet another time to sit and unwind and that craving usually only occurs immediately or very soon after my most recent one.

I wanted to add, finally, that, yes...I'm aware there are health risks in relation to smoking. However, I feel very strongly that those risks are nowhere near as high as some people want me to think. History shows that many of those who smoke only cigars and do so in moderation never experience health effects. There are many cases, including one I know of where a friend's grandfather has been smoking cigars since he was 8 years old. That man is now 93 and is in health as good as or better than many who are 50 years younger than him. What does he feel his secret is? Never inhaling and enjoying in moderation. I added this paragraph only because it's inevitable that someone will bring it up. I respect those people but I feel there's enough grounds to think that there are other factors involved in these risks. Mind you I won't try to convince anyone otherwise if they disagree with me. I'm fine agreeing to disagree. I added this also last because I want it to be clear that this is not why I smoke cigars. It's only one response to critics.