Imbibing cognac or bourbon while enjoying a cigar is a common way for the well-heeled to express their devotion to these tightly rolled bundles of dried and fermented tobacco. Cuba remains one of the top growing regions for tobacco, but a 50-year U.S. embargo against this Caribbean island nation means that those cigars can only be enjoyed abroad. Many Cuban cigar manufacturers have since relocated abroad after its chief market was locked out, with the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua serving up the most cigars. Those cigars are among the ones Americans enjoy plus cigars imported from Italy, India and South America.
As a cigar aficionado or connoisseur, there are a number of things that you look for when choosing a cigar. Imbibers often pick up the art from a friend who teaches them the rudimentary skills of selecting a good cigar. That selection is based on three essentials: the body, the size and the rating.
The body describes its taste, what you would consider to be mild or medium to full flavor. A tasty cigar is one that allows you to savor it without overwhelming your senses.
Size does matter at least when it comes to cigars. Cigars are measured by its overall length as well as its diameter or ring. Both measurements are in inches, though the circumference is less than one full inch.
Like wine, a rating system can certainly help you choose a quality cigar. A rating system developed by Cigar Aficionado magazine contains more than 13,000 reviews. From those reviews the system ranks cigars from Classic to Poor. Average, very good and outstanding ratings are acceptable -- like wine, you may find a cheaper stogie more enjoyable than the gold blend from Central America. It is a matter of taste, cigar enjoyment, and there is a style for every taste.
The culture of cigar aficionados is a bit harder to trace, but we have a pair of people in history that greatly impacted America's desire for fine tobacco. The writer Mark Twain was smitten with cigars and once said, "If there are no cigars in Heaven, I shall not go." He also said, "I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time," hinting at just how much he loved cigars. Indeed, historians peg his allotment at about 22 cigars per day with some saying he averaged as many as 40, perhaps when deeply engrossed with his writings.
Winston Churchill paid a visit to Cuba when he was 21 and immediately fell in love with cigars. His love for Cuban cigars was especially noted as he stored between 3,000 and 4,000 mostly Havanan cigars at his estate in Kent. Leading up to and through the second world war, Churchill and his American companion, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, were often photographed smoking cigars.
From the end of war to the early 1990s, cigar enjoyment continued, but only surged again when it became fashionable to imbibe. So-called "cigar bars" sprung up, providing a place for connoisseurs to enjoy a puff of a cigar and a quaff of liquor. As cigarette smoking bans spread across the country, exceptions were made for cigar bars as these places catered exclusively to cigar fans. The more popular ones were decorated in a Spanish motif and often included fully stocked humidors, signature cocktails, live Latin Jazz or Samba, and light dining.
But above all else, cigar enjoyment is a very personal thing. Some like to puff in public, others prefer a solitary, contemplative environment where they can unwind. Alone.
No matter, the culture of cigar aficionados is one based on refinement, both of the individual and the tobacco product they savor.
Elliot Boudin likes to write about pipe tobacco and cigars from BNB Tobacco. He carries forward the fourth generation of cigar enthusiasts in the Boudin family.