In our Essentials series, we like to feature things that may seem difficult at first but are fun, rewarding, or both once you get into them. Today, we’re going to take a look at what you need to get started with cigar smoking.
Recently, I took a trip to Havana, Cuba and spent some time in one of the La Casa del Habano stores on the island. These are locations that are owned by the Cuban state tobacco company and the only place on the island that you can be assured that you’re buying a genuine Cuban cigar - there are a lot of fakes available, even in Havana.
Cuba is known for making some of the best cigars in the world, but there’s a slight problem; if you don’t store them properly you won’t be able to enjoy their flavor. So today, we’re going to take a look at the gear you need to properly store and enjoy cigars. And as always, the items we picked for this article are items that we personally use.
The most important thing in your humidor is your cigars - but we're not going to talk a lot about them here. Why? Because the taste of a good cigar is mostly objective, and there’s a wide variance in price points. If you’d like some help in choosing the right cigar for you check out Mike’s Cigars for a great overview. With that being said, here are the four key points you should look for when buying a cigar:
- Figure out your price range. A high priced cigar does not guarantee quality, and you can buy a great cigar for under $10. And if you’re a beginner, start out on the lower end of the price spectrum and work your way up – there’s no point in starting out with an expensive cigar if you can’t tell the difference between flavor profiles and tobacco quality. That will come in time as you start tasting the different types of cigars
- Choose a cigar wrapper. There are seven main colors of cigar wrappers and each of them are related to different flavors. A lot of the variations tend to be based on the drying process used with the tobacco leaves and how the leaves are grown. Buy a few different wrapper colors and see which is your favorite.
- Choose a country or brand. Tobacco leaves are like coffee beans; tastes can vary depending on where they are grown and drying techniques. You may want to start out with a well known brand and then dig more deeply into the smaller companies once your baseline is established.
- Choose your flavor. Do you like a full-bodied cigar or something more mild? You probably want to start with mild and move up from there
Some Great Cigar Review Sites
The best way to store cigars is with a humidor - a storage box that is meant to maintain the correct humidity level for your cigars. If cigars become too dry, they will shrivel and lose their flavor and if the humidity is too high, they can grow mold or even rot. A typical rule of thumb is to stay somewhere between the 67/67 to 70/70 rule. Most people say that 70% relative humidity and 70 degrees Fahrenheit is the perfect zone, but you can go lower (67/67) for a drier smoke if you prefer.
What is a Humidor?
It’s a container, typically made of cedar, that is designed to help you maintain the proper humidity level for your cigars. A great choice of wood is Spanish Cedar since they keep insects away and protects the cigars from decaying. Plus, you can often taste a little of the cedar imparted into the cigars, and the smell of tobacco and cedar is wonderful when you open your humidor.
The Basic Process
Before you start using your humidor you need to ‘season the wood’. Which means wiping the humidor with a damp sponge and then leaving the sponge in the humidor overnight. This allows the humidor to soak up enough water to make sure it’s stable when you add your cigars. You should also make sure to include a hygrometer inside (which we’ll cover in the next section). Once that's done, you're ready to safely store your cigars.
When choosing the humidor for this article we wanted to make sure we had two main requirements:
What To Look For
- A Good Seal. This is the most important part of a humidor and if it doesn’t properly seal all of that nicely humidified air will escape.
- It's made of Cedar (ideally Spanish Cedar). The outside doesn’t have to be made of cedar, but the inside should be completely lined with Spanish Cedar. This will help to regulate the humidity, repel bugs, and even impart a nice flavor over time.
Why We Recommend the Daniel Marshall Ambiente
Most humidors sold today are not very good. You could go cheap (under $100), but that's not a good idea. Cigars are an investment of time and money, and you want to make sure that investment is protected. Daniel Marshall makes a wide variety of humidors, but we weren't interested in the fancy external designs as much as we wanted a great humidor that would keep our investment safe - so we went with the Ambiente model.
The Ambiente we purchased holds 125 cigars, has a beautiful black finish, and a nice felt bottom and even a decent lock system. It also has a built-in hygrometer, but we'll recommend another option in the next section. The unit has two dividers that can be moved around to fit your preferences and it comes with a lifetime warranty.
Most importantly, this design works really well. With a pack of Boveda inside it's kept the internal humidity at a perfect level. Some of your humidor preference will come down to looks, and we chose this model because it was timeless and blended in well to the modern setup where it is stored. But ultimately, the craftsmanship of this model won us over versus similarly priced products. For around $350-$400 you can have a large, well made, high performing humidor that will last a lifetime. To us, this is the ideal humidor for when you're getting started in the art of cigars. You can check it out here.
If you don't keep a high enough humidity level the cigar will shrink, the wrapper will be loose, and the cigar will lose flavor. If it's too high, you could get mold or even beetles - so how do you keep the humidity inside your humidor at the perfect levels? You pick up some humidity control packs and a wireless or internal hygrometer (humidity sensor).
Ideally, your cigars will be stored between 67-70% humidity depending on your preferences, and ideally around 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit. If the air in your humidor is too warm, it can hold a lot of moisture and you’ll have to be extra diligent about adding water or hydration packs. If it’s too cold, you may not be able to keep enough water in the air. So ideally, you want to make sure you can manage this process easily and efficiently.
What you need is a humidifying device inside your humidor. This is any device that keeps your cigars fresh by regulating the humidity – and some are better than others. The product we use is a humidity pack that gives off moisture when the air is too dry and absorbs moisture when it’s too damp:
Our Recommended Humidity Control Items
- Boveda Humidity Control Packs: These Boveda packs (as seen in the picture above) have a two-way humidity control system that adds or removes moisture to keep the relative humidity level at the RH number printed on the pack. This makes it extremely simple to keep your cigars at a safe level, and they are truly set and forget. Well, they are for about two months - then you need to replace them. To get started you just stick the packet inside your humidor, and after two months you can throw it away and replace it with a new one. Single packs are around $4 each so you can keep your expensive cigar collection safe for around $24 a year. It's extremely simple and the best thing you can do to make the humidification process simple. Check them out here.
- SensorPush Wireless Humidity Sensor and Thermometer: Keeping your cigars at the correct humidity and temperature is key to protecting your collection. Even with the Boveda packs, you’ll want to make sure you’re able to verify that everything is good inside your humidor. There are a lot of sensors on the market, but they’re not always accurate and most are not wireless so you have to manually check them. We use a sensor from SensorPush inside our humidor – this allows us to wirelessly check the temperature and humidity and will give an alert if there’s a problem. Plus, it even tracks the data over time so you can review the data to make sure everything is working well. Each sensor runs about $50 and you only need one for a humidor. You simply pair it via Bluetooth and whenever your phone is within 300 feet of the sensors they’ll push the info to you. The setup is dead simple, and you can set alerts in case your humidity or temperature get to high or low. This is a great setup and so simple to use – one of these sensors should definitely be in your humidor, and you can check them out here.
Typically, we wouldn't give a cigar cutter it's own section and just include it with the accessories, but our choice deserves its own because of how much engineering has gone into it and how much we like it. Check out the GIF below to see it in action:
That's the Xikar XO and we love it. The XO is a 'Double Blade Guillotine' cutter; that means it applies a cut from blades on both sides at the same time which gives it an even edge and prevents the wrapper from getting torn. Typically these types of cutters are preferred by cigar aficionado but they can be somewhat difficult to use since you need to apply a lot of force quickly. The XO solves this problem by using a strong aluminum body with a system that uses five gears and steel blades to make an extremely clean cut. Plus, it’s the most interesting looking cutters I have ever seen and the blades open and close with such ease, that it makes cutting cigars a fun task.
The only drawback is that it’s a little larger than cutters without the gear system, so if you plan on carrying it in your pocket it could be a little bulky. But even with the price point at between $80-100 we can’t recommend this highly enough; it has a lifetime warranty, looks great, and most importantly does an amazing job. We love the XO and highly recommend that you check it out.
Why You Need A Good Cutter
- To keep the cigar intact
- To provide a clean Cut
- To look cool among your other cigar smoking friends
The Xikar XO covers all of these extremely well, but you can check out some other styles here.
Obviously, you don’t want to forget matches and an ashtray when you round out your accessories, but there’s one more thing you want to pickup; a travel humidor. It’s important to have one of these for two reasons:
- When you travel you can bring cigars with you for your trip
- Once you smoke those cigars, you can safely bring some new ones home
Travel humidors keep your cigars at the proper humidity while you travel, and a good case will give you protection from your cigars getting crushed by baggage handlers or tight overhead airplane bins. Our pick is the Xikar travel case; it’s airtight, crush-proof, watertight, and made of a strong ABS molded plastic. Inside the case is urethane foam to protect from crushing, and a foam humidifier to keep them at the proper levels.
One caveat is to remember that this isn’t a substitute for a home humidor – they are made for short-term transportation and not long-term storage. There are different sizes, but I typically carry the ten cigar version since it’s so easy to pack in my carry-on but they can range from five cigars to sixty - just pick the size you need and go explore.
Cigar smoking is a fun hobby and you get to explore products from around the world. While it may seem overwhelming at first, it’s actually pretty simple to get started. First, buy a few cigars from a local shop and see if you enjoy smoking them. From there, you can pick up the gear you see here and make sure you stay on top of your game. Enjoy!
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