Saturday, 19 March 2011

Lessons for the beginner cigar smoker (Vol. 1)

When I was a young rascal studying for my degree in Politics at the University of Leeds I often employed the cheap trick of opening an essay with a quotation in order to use up some of the word count on drier essays. Although this does not apply to what I promise will be a thoroughly interesting post, I feel that it will add some legitimacy to me forthcoming post on the pleasures of leisurely and infrequent smoking:

I have every sympathy with the American who was so horrified by what he had read of the effects of smoking that he gave up reading.’ – Henry Strauss, Lord Conesford

Finding this quote nestling in the nether regions of  Advanced Banter: The QI book of quotations, I have a lot of sympathy with that American! Of course as someone who enjoys cigars and cigarillos not too infrequently I get fed up with the constant nanny-statism of supposedly liberal governments, thinkers and public who think it quite acceptable to create social lepers from smokers but let thuggery and hooliganism develop from irresponsible drinking. Now, before I go any further I do not want this piece to become a preachy plea for smokers across the land. We all know now that it’s detrimental to public health (although I am still to be convinced by the ‘passive’ smoking argument!) and gone are the days when sports stars like Stanley Matthews advocated cigarettes as part of a balanced diet! I am not even going to talk about the crazy legislation that has been proposed to deter people from tobacco. This piece is all about the enjoyment of a good smoke every now and again as one would write about a great brandy or a Foie Gras!

Let me set the scene for you: a rare quiet Friday evening, a spacious drawing room in a late Victorian house in SW19 where sits a chap who has just come back from a range of interviews and meetings. He’s still in his suit (double-breasted of course) but with the top button undone and the Hermes tie at a slight tilt. The ipod is playing a mix of jazz standards, all the greats like early Ponty, Hancock, Humaire, Peterson, Grapelli, Dankworth, Barker, Mingus and Davis to name a few. On the coffee table, amongst the copies of World of Interiors, Country Life and House & Gardens sits a bowl of salted pistachio nuts in their shells with a few empties scattered on the table. Further towards the chap there’s a makeshift ice bucket (fashioned from a china pudding basin), a bottle of Campari and one of Soda. Next we see a glass full of a vulgar, candy apple red liquid brimming with ice and a slice of orange which one could only surmise as being a classic preparation of the aforementioned Italian aperitif. Suddenly the sound of a match and the shallow plume of smoke as a Churchill format Bolivar is lit and the chap settles in for an evening of pompous decadence while the improvised musings of George Benson wash over the rooms and the smoke wafts gently to the ceiling.

Of course, you can probably guess that the chap in that rather verbose passage was yours truly! Essentially what I am trying to convey is that leisurely smoking is an extremely civilised pastime and taken in moderation is one of the great simple pleasures in life – be the master of your cigar and don’t let the cigar become master of you! For anyone interested I will now give a few of my golden rules to get the ultimate enjoyment out of your intended smoke.

  1. Choose your brand carefully and seek advice from someone with good cigar knowledge if unsure. I have lived long enough to have had plenty of bad cigars in my time. Recently on a trip to Brussels I purchased a tin of mid-range De Wilde which were so dry they unravelled as soon as I put one to my lips. Quality with cigars is so very important and I think that a lot of people are put off by substandard products. Of course, like any luxury goods industry there is a thriving black market and I have had certain big brand cigars in the past which I am very sure were not the real thing. Whether it be cutting the native tobacco with cheap imported varieties to poor storage and shipping make sure when you spend your money you are spending it wisely. Generally you can be pretty safe with big Cuban brands so make sure you start out on makes like Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo e Julieta or Bolivar and commence what might become a long and fascinating adventure into good smokes from there!

  1. I recommend never buying a lone cigar unless you intend to smoke it within a day or two. Good tobacco depreciates very quickly after processing so the quicker you smoke it the better. Of course this factor is non-essential if you have a humidor in which you can keep your cigar indefinitely, unfortunately I am too impatient!

  1. After a while everyone has their favourite format of which they like to languidly smoke and pompously inform other is the best, and only way a good cigar should be enjoyed. Nomenclatures for differing sizes are numerous and it is more often than not that a particular cigar house will choose their own system of measurement. This is often shrewd branding practice but it also helps distinguish non-marked cigars from others. The best example of this is Cohiba, which is a relatively new if renowned manufacturer who have a wholly unique system of classification. One the whole, I myself prefer the short, fat, Robusto cigars which have a lengthy smoke and quite a strong flavour (it is important to note that it is usually the width and not the length that determines the duration of a cigar). But make sure you experiment with different lengths and widths until you find a format which best suits you!

  1. In terms of Atmosphere: For me a stogie is something to be savoured either in good, select company or solo. There is no point in smoking anything of any good quality when you are planning to get shitfaced and go to a club, play a drinking game or the like. The sensation will be lost amid the alcohol and it will be more than likely that you will smoke the thing far too quickly. This in turn will make the novice decidedly ill or, even for the experienced cigar smoker, provide a not entirely unpleasant rush of nicotine to the head! So first thing first, make sure you enjoy your intended smoke in a relaxed setting where the only distractions are either: your chosen companions banter, the erudite comedy of Woody Allen or the gentle musings of classic and fusion jazz or soul!

  1. Good drink and good cigars go together like Daryl Hall & John Oates, Phil Collins & drum machines or James Caan and roles portraying violent antagonists! Either way, make sure that the booze that you are consuming matches the cigar you are smoking! It doesn’t have to be vintage port, nor does it have to be 100 year old brandy, a good scotch like black label or even high quality blended varieties are acceptable. I personally like aperitifs like Campari or a digestif such as Cointreau when I am chomping my way through a good smoke. Again likes so many of the recommendations that I am giving, it is all a matter of personal choice but ensure you choose something which compliments the cigar so as not to loose the drink’s integrity of flavour.

  1. Finally, and very importantly, NEVER light your cigar with a Zippo or any other petrol based lighter as it will compromise the flavour. This is not a recommendation but an order!

Like so much in this blog I have only scratched the surface of the wonderful world of smoking. Don’t let the thought police put you off, done once in a while and with good quality products it is no crime and nor should you feel guilty…I know I don’t. You only live once and I feel you might as well enjoy all sides of life while you can. Certainly, no one can call themselves a ‘Bon Viveur’ if they’ve never really enjoyed the taste of a fine cigar!

Next weeks post will be decidedly food based, about the three visits I have made to Wimbledon’s latest gastronomic hotspot, ‘The Fox and Grapes’. Hopefully this will appease my foody followers who might feel my blog has neglected this topic of late! But fear not cigar smokers I will be back next week with my top ten smokes for the first half of 2011, so keep your eyes peeled! 

1 comment:

  1. I have lived long enough to have a lot of bad cigars in my time. Recently on a trip to Brussels, I bought a box of mid-range and de Wilde, which was dry until it was exposed as soon as I put one to my lips.