VI – Enjoying
1 - Choosing, cutting, lighting and smoking
The Habano you pick, the way you cut it, light it, smoke it and above all the tastes that you enjoy are your choices and yours alone. However, there are some practical points to bear in mind.
Four of your five senses are required when choosing a Habano – or all five if you believe, as some do, that there is something to be learnt from rolling it next to your ear.
The wrapper must please the eye. Maybe you prefer a light Claro colour, or maybe a dark Maduro. Either way, the colour should be even and there should be a sheen on the leaf. Don’t worry if you see a white spot or a green patch. These are natural blemishes, beauty spots if you will, that occurred long ago during the growing or curing processes. Neither affects the quality of the smoke.
Press the cigar gently between your thumb and index finger to test its condition. It should feel firm but springy to the touch (Photo 1).
Enjoy the aromas of mature leaf as they waft up from the box – a promise of the flavours to come.
Taste can only be judged by smoking – quite a challenge when you have over 250 different cigars and 27 different Habano brands each with its own style to choose from.
Novices are advised to experiment with a vitola that is common to many brands such as a Mareva (see Principal shapes and sizes). Start with one of the lighter flavoured marques – see Flavours.
Newcomers should start with smaller formats. For more experienced smokers, the best guide is the amount of time at their disposal. Remember that a long filler Habano is constructed so that its flavour will intensify by stages as it is smoked (as explained on The craft of the torcedor).
It is a great shame to abandon a Habano before it has had the chance to display its true colours. So pick a vitola you have the time to enjoy in its entirety. (See Guide to Habanos sizes)
The cut should be made just above the line where the cap meets the wrapper (on figurados about 3mm from the point).
The objective is simple. You must create an aperture broad enough to ensure an unobstructed draw whilst retaining enough of the cap to stop the wrapper from unravelling. (Photo 2)
A number of devices compete for the role. The most popular is the single or double bladed guillotine. Alternatively there are pairs of special cigar scissors. Another is the punch cutter with a circular blade. It removes a section from the cap, which preserves the shape of the cigars head, although it cannot cut pointed ends.
Not to be recommended are V-cutters, which tend to tear the cap. Nor should you pierce the cap with a match or cocktail stick, which will compress the filler into a lump and impede the draw.
Do not remove the band for fear of damaging the wrapper.
Two principles apply.
The first is to light your cigar with an odourless flame. Always use a butane gas lighter, a wooden match or a spill. Never use a petrol lighter, a wax match or a candle because their aroma will permeate the cigar.
The second is to take your time and do a thorough job. Nothing ruins the enjoyment of a Habano faster than the thin smoke you draw when it is badly lit. Here is a small ritual to help you get it right every time.
Hold the foot of the cigar at 90 degrees to the flame and rotate it until the surface is evenly charred. (Photo 3)
Place the Habano between your lips and, holding the flame a centimetre away, draw on it until the flame jumps onto the foot (Photo 4). Continue to rotate the cigar.
Blow gently on the foot to check that it is evenly lit. (Photo 5)
A Habano should be smoked slowly. It should be sipped rather than gulped or it may overheat, which can harm the flavour.
Don’t inhale - this is not a cigarette. Gently draw the smoke into your mouth and allow it to play gloriously on your taste buds.
Relax and savour the subtle flavours and aromas of the tobaccos in the blend.
It is fine to relight your Habano if it goes out. But first clean off any loose ash or you will find it hard to re-ignite.
A Habano may be smoked with enjoyment for at least three quarters of its length. Don’t concern yourself with the length or fate of the ash. It is not done to tap your Habano nervously, like a cigarette. Let the ash fall in its own time, preferably into an ashtray.
When the sad moment comes to part with your Habano, don’t crush it to a pulp. Lay it to rest in the ashtray and it will go out by itself. Allow it to die with dignity.
2 - Keeping Habanos
Habanos can be kept for a good 15 years, sometimes longer, and will, like exceptional wines, improve with age.
Habanos should be stored at between 16°C and 18°C and in a relative humidity of 65 to 70 percent.
The humidity is most crucial. If a Habano becomes too wet it will not smoke. If it dries out, it will taste harsh.
As humidity varies with temperature changes, it is also important to keep the temperature constant.
Perhaps the ideal humidor is the “walk-in” variety illustrated here (photo 1) in which the temperature and humidity are controlled electronically. You will find them in specialist cigars shops like those belonging to the worldwide network of La Casa del Habano shops (photo 2) where all the cigars are kept ready for sale in perfect condition. Often they provide lockers in which you can store your cigars.
However, if you do not have access to such facilities, happily a whole industry exists making humidors to help you keep your Habanos.
These can be boxes (photo 3), cupboards or even full-sized rooms that are specially designed for cigars and contain moisture sources.
You are well advised to invest in your own in which to keep a selection of Habanos ready to smoke.
Your cigars will take a few days to acclimatise to the conditions inside so it is a good idea to buy a humidor with a tray that allows new arrivals to be separated from the old.
Putting Habanos in the fridge is no alternative. Fridges are drier than you might think and fine cigars readily absorb smells.
A number of problems may arise when storing fine cigars. For example, they may become too wet or too dry.
Dryness is worst because after two or three months they will start to lose their flavour - never to be regained. When re-humidifying dry cigars do it gently in stages or you will risk the wrappers bursting as the leaves absorb moisture.
Prolonged wetness rots tobacco, but you are much more likely to encounter ‘bloom’. This is a white, powdery mould that occurs naturally on a Habano when it is subjected to a sudden increase in humidity. It is a sign that the cigar is alive and well and should simply be removed with a brush.
Worst of all is tobacco weevil or lasioderma serricorne. It feasts on tobacco, perforates wrappers and renders cigars unsmokeable.
Thankfully infestations are rare but the best prevention is never to let the temperature in your humidor exceed 18°C.
The only solution is to put an infected box into a deep freeze and leave it there for a few days. This will kill the weevils and save the cigars that have not attracted their attention.
Since 2005 all Habanos have been frozen at the warehouse in Havana before they are release to the market, so this problem is rarer than it once was.
A marriage begins between the leaves used to make your Habano from the moment it leaves the torcedor’s bench.
It takes time for the blend of filler leaves to harmonise and deliver the taste intended by the Ligador.
Ageing is best conducted in a large humidor where moist air can circulate around the boxes and in which the conditions are monitored year in year out. It is a task best left to specialist cigar shops.
The result is worth waiting for because the taste will have developed and your Habano will share its essence with greater ease.
3 - Matching the taste
Whether in the morning, at noon, or at night, the time spent enjoying a Habano is an important moment for each individual.
At times you may prefer to concentrate on the essential flavours and aromas of the cigar alone. At other times you may choose to match its fragrance with something else that will enhance the flavour in your mouth.
Liquors or spirits like Malt Whiskies, fine Cognacs or Vintage Ports are perhaps the traditional partners for cigars. In recent years, however, there has been a surge of interest in extending the range of possibilities to tempt the Habanos smoker’s palate. The finest food, drinks with tastes as diverse as wines and Champagnes have entered the stage along with cocktails, the finest grades of coffee and tea, and even tasty morsels such as chocolates and certain types of canapés.
At the forefront of this movement have been the Habanosommeliers. Almost unheard of in the last century, today most of the finest restaurants in the world where smokers are accommodated include a thorough knowledge of Habanos within the skills demanded of their sommeliers, or wine waiters.
Every year since 2002, Habanos s.a. has staged a global contest for Habanosommeliers at which the winners of countless regional contests all over the world meet in Havana during the Festival del Habano (see El Festival del Habano) to decide who will be the world champion for the year. Contestants must study the way in which tobacco is grown and cigars are made in Cuba. They must be familiar with every size in the leading Habanos brands and be aware of all their different flavours. Each is required to present a personal recommendation for an ideal combination of a particular Habanos with a specific drink and is assessed on the preparation and service of both products.
Armed with a storehouse of knowledge, Habanosommeliers are broadening the horizons of ways in which to enhance the enjoyment of Habanos in conjunction with other products of similar quality, heritage and tradition.
The list of drinks with which Habanos have been associated since 2000 is bewildering. To spirits like cognac can be added, Armagnac, Jerez brandy, both single Malt and blended Whiskies, Tequila and, of course, Rum from Cuba. And the wine category now embraces Ports, Champagnes, Sherries, as well as red and white wines from many prestigious denominations of origin of the world. The delicate, taste of Iberico ham in a canapé has been identified as a suitable cigar partner as has high grade chocolate sometimes with tobacco leaf included in its recipe.
When you consider that there are over 250 different standard Habanos in 27 different brands to choose from, not to mention the specialities that are produced each year and aged Habanos bought many years ago and kept at home by Habanos enthusiasts, the number of possible combinations is enormous.
Perhaps the most traditional approach to selecting a match is to pick examples of both products with similar strengths to ensure that in the combination one does not overcome the other. Consequently it would be appropriate to try one of the full flavoured Habano brands with a powerful rum aged for many years in oak barrels. However opposites can attract too, so you should not avoid putting a full flavoured cigar up against, for example, a lighter tasting Armagnac.