Updated 6 May 2019
How to Smoke a Cigar - Table of Contents
#1 - Select Your First Cigar (or skip to Step 2)
When selecting the cigar that you’d like to enjoy, it always helps to ask yourself these questions if you’re new to the cigar hobby:
- What is your tolerance level?
- What type of experience do you want?
- How much time do you have?
- Celebrating? See: How to Choose Celebratory Cigars for Special Occassions
If you’re selecting your first cigar, it’s important to understand that we usually describe the body and strength of cigars as mild, medium, or full. Body pertains to the depth (or fullness) of flavor in a certain cigar, much like a glass of wine. If you’ve ever experienced a strong Merlot versus a mild Reisling, you’ll appreciate the difference between the two. Conversely, coffee could also be used to describe the differences of body, whereas a weak cup of coffee would be considered mild and espresso would be considered full-bodied. Strength refers to the nicotine content of the cigar.
The above cigars represent different sizes, brands, countries, and flavor profiles. If this will be your first time to smoke a cigar, we suggest that you consider selecting a milder cigar. Traditionally, that would mean selecting a Connecticut shade wrapper as pictured above on the far right, but that may not always be the case. Always ask your Tobacconist to make sure that the cigar you’ve selected is indeed mild, if that is your goal.
If this will be your first time smoking a cigar, we also suggest that you consider a robusto or toro size (also known as vitola). These sizes feature a larger ring gauge, meaning that the cigar will be thicker in your hand. This also means that your cigar will generally burn cooler and the smoke will be less concentrated, making a larger ring gauge ideal for your first cigar.
Evaluating your time is always crucial when selecting which cigar to smoke. As a baseline, robusto sizes (roughly 5 inches x 50 ring gauge) should last for approximately one hour. Adjust your selection accordingly, making sure that you don’t grab a Churchill size (roughly 7 inches in length) with less than an hour to enjoy your cigar. Best practice is to enjoy your cigar slowly so that your cigar tastes better and will be less likely to make you sick.
If the cigar that you choose causes you to feel weak in the knees, nauseous, or you get the cold sweats, it’s quite possible that you chose a cigar above your tolerance level. See Step #5 for tips to combat nicotine sickness while smoking your cigar. If you’re concerned about becoming sick, one of the best things to do before you smoke a cigar is to eat a full meal and stay hydrated.
General Rule of Thumb: Smoke what you like and like what you smoke!
#2 - Cut Your Cigar
Now that you’ve selected the perfect cigar, it’s time to cut it so that you can smoke it. Luckily, there are a variety of cutting tools on the market today, and just as many unconventional tricks if you don’t have access to official cigar accessories. Here are a few ways that you can cut your cigar:
- Guillotine Cutter: also known as a straight cutter
- V Cutter: slices a V from the cap
- Punch Cutter: twists out a circular shape from the cap
- Cigar Scissors: sharp scissors designed specifically for cigars
- Sharp Knife: used to slice a small portion from the cap
- Fingernails: used in extreme situations
- Read our guide on how to cut a cigar with different shapes and caps
A cigar is comprised of a head and a foot, with the foot being the end that you will light and the head being the end that you will cut and place in your mouth. Most cigars also feature an identifying band towards the head to help you identify which side to cut. On top of the head, your cigar will most likely be capped, meaning that the roller placed tobacco from the wrapper leaf there specifically to hold the wrapper together after you cut it. Most likely, your cigar will feature a triple cap following Cuban tradition and as pictured above.
The goal of cutting the cigar is not to cut the entire cap off, but just to remove the bare minimum necessary to smoke your cigar. Cutting too low may result in your cigar unraveling as you’ve removed the natural adhesive that keeps it together.
Beginners are encouraged to start with a V cutter as it contains a frame that will not let you cut too far. Likewise, a perfect cutter is a variation on the guillotine cutter that also features a backing and will not let you cut too far. There are both shallow and deep V cuts, each affording the cigar enthusiast different experiences. If you’re using a shallow V cutter and desire a looser draw, just make another cut to form an X or plus sign in the cap.
If you have a guillotine or straight cutter without this feature and want to remove the possibility of cutting too deep, you can also place the guillotine cutter flat on a table. Simply place the head of your cigar vertically into the cutter while it’s lying on the table and close the guillotine to perform a perfect cut!
Punching a cigar involves vertically rotating a hollow, cylindrical punch into the cap. Minimum pressure is required and before you know it you’ll have a circular hole in the cap from which you can smoke your cigar. This method is not recommended for cigars with just a single cap such as the higher end Padron series.
If you’re using a knife, it’s imperative that the knife is very sharp. This method requires a slicing action instead of a chopping action, where you will carefully rotate the knife inward to remove a small portion of the cap. Scissors are usually only a valid option if you have cigar scissors as pictured above - normal scissors just don't cut it.
Lastly, if you’re all out of options, a fingernail works great in a pinch! This method relies on the concept of removing the smallest amount of the cap possible, and is used to simply scrape some of the tobacco away so that you can smoke your cigar.
After you’ve made your cut, it’s time to test the airflow. Raise the head of your cigar to your lips and take a cold draw, or a draw without the cigar being lit. If your cigar provides adequate airflow, it’s time to move onto Step #3.
General Rule of Thumb: Cut the smallest amount possible to smoke your cigar.
#3 - Toast the Foot of Your Cigar
Taking the time to toast a cigar is completely optional, but not without benefits. Here are the most common reasons to toast your cigar:
- Promotes an even burn
- Reduces tunneling
- Makes the cigar easier to light
- Some use it to skip Step #4
A consistently even burn is the hallmark of a well-made cigar, showcasing the skill of the Master Blender and rolling pair. But no matter how well constructed your cigar is, there are no substitutions for getting off to a good start.
To toast your cigar, hold the foot of your cigar at a 45-degree angle above a flame source (see Step #4 for acceptable sources) without letting the flames touch the tobacco directly. The goal is to slowly warm up the foot of your cigar until the outside edges are white and the center of your cigar has been exposed to heat.
This process ignites the wrapper tobacco on the outside of your cigar and makes it less likely that a tunnel will form while you’re smoking it. A tunnel occurs when filler tobacco (the center) burns much faster than the binder or wrapper, creating undesirable airways that may cause the draw of your cigar to become too loose, the flavors to become too hot and acrid, or force your cigar to go out.
Some even prefer to continue the toasting process, effectively skipping Step #4. This method involves slowly rotating the flames to the center of the cigar, igniting the outside wrapper and binder first and then working your way to the filler tobacco.
Using this method, cigar smokers slowly light the entire cigar without ever placing it to their lips. It’s common to blow on the cherry of your cigar at this point, verifying that the entire foot has been lit and is ready to smoke. Proponents of this method say that they experience better flavors from the beginning because they were much less likely scorch the tobacco or draw hotter air through the cigar.
General Rule of Thumb: Start strong to finish strong!
#4 - Light Your Cigar
Before we explain how to light a cigar, let's review the approved fuel sources:
- Butane Torch Lighter (most common)
- Butane Soft Flame Lighters (Bics)
- Wooden Matches and Cedar Spills
Torch lighters are the most commonly used lighters for cigars because they provide a concentrated flame that is very controllable. Torch lighters are particularly useful when smoking in the wind or at higher altitudes, as soft flame lighters are either impracticable or may scorch the wrapper. When using a torch lighter, take care to remove the cigar from direct flames. Depending on the intensity of your torch, one or more inches should be between the visible flame and the foot of your cigar.
Soft flame lighters are excellent choices when indoors, although most disposable lighters become uncomfortable for your thumb after long periods of time. As a benefit, however, soft flame enthusiasts are rewarded for their patience with less risk of overheating their cigar. It is not recommended to use a Zippo lighter as the smell of the fuel will impact the flavor of your cigar. If you must use a Zippo lighter, let the flame burn for several seconds first in an attempt to burn off any residual smell.
If you decide to use matches as your flame source, it’s crucial that your match is wooden (and preferably long) instead of the matchbook from your hotel room. Wooden matches expunge the chemical odor within seconds of lighting the head, making them ideal for lighting a cigar with. A cedar spill is akin to a wooden match that’s made from cedar and must be ignited manually since it doesn’t contain chemical elements.
To light your cigar, place the head (the side that you cut) in your mouth and apply flame underneath the foot at an angle. Simultaneously draw air into your mouth and rotate your cigar, pulling flames into the tobacco and creating an even, uniform burn. Once again, take care not to let your cigar touch the torch flames directly, as it may directly affect the flavor profile.
As promised, if you took the time to toast your cigar, it will be much easier to light.
General Rule of Thumb: Less is More!
#5 - Smoke Your Cigar
There are few things in this world more satisfying than smoking a premium cigar, so congratulations on making it this far! To enjoy your cigar fully, here are a few tips to remember:
- Don’t Inhale
- Slow and Steady
- Turn and Burn
- Sweet Relief
- Read: 7 Pitfalls to Avoid for the New Cigar Smoker
First things first, cigars aren’t cigarettes and a cigar is enjoyed for different reasons. Cigars are smoked for their rich flavor and relaxation rather than the nicotine content that’s derived from inhaling a cigarette. But don’t worry, if it’s nicotine you’re after, you’ll get your fair share without having to inhale. Cigar smoke should be drawn into the mouth and expelled the same way, without ever entering the lungs. See our FAQ at the bottom for retro haling, a method in which smoke is expelled through the nose (but still not inhaled into the lungs).
The best practice to maximize flavor and improve your experience is to enjoy your cigar slowly. A cigar consists of burning tobacco that will become bitter, acrid, and unfavorable at higher temperatures. We suggest puffing on the average cigar twice a minute to ensure that you’re not overheating it. Of course, every cigar is different and may require a different cadence. Slow down if your cigar is becoming hotter and speed up if you feel that you cigar may go out on you because of your pace.
To promote an even burn throughout the length of your cigar, rotate it while you’re smoking. This method works particularly well if you’re holding the cigar, as a slow rotation will allow for heat and airflow to impact all sides evenly. This is the number one way to consistently have an even, uniform burn line.
If you notice that one side is burning slower than the other, you may decide to rotate that side down to the floor, allowing for more airflow to naturally correct the burn depending on how your cigar is resting. If rotating the cigar doesn’t work, it’s always best to correct the burn with lighter earlier rather than later.
Lastly, if you notice that you're becoming nauseous, dizzy, or weak in the knees, you're likely experiencing nicotine sickness. Nicotine affects all of us in different ways according to our age, gender, weight, and nicotine tolerance. The best thing that you can do to feel better is to consume sugar, as nicotine sickness mimics low blood sugar levels. After a quick, sugary drink and possibly a bite to eat, you'll be right as rain in a matter of minutes. It's always recommended to have a sugary beverage on-hand if you are about to enjoy your first cigar, or are introducing someone else to the hobby for the first time.
General Rule of Thumb: Enjoy your cigar!
#6 - Decide When You’re Finished with Your Cigar
Determining when a cigar experience begins and ends is a choice that only you can make. There are no formalities to be observed before you’re allowed to be finished - but we do encourage you to save the cigar bands to remember your experience afterward.
To part ways with a cigar and call it quits, simply lay your cigar to rest in the ashtray. The cigar will slowly cool down and extinguish itself over time. It’s considered bad form to stub out a cigar as doing so releases an unpleasant aroma and affects the smoking experience of those around you.
General Rule of Thumb: The cigar is finished when you’re no longer enjoying it.
Frequently Asked Questions about Smoking a Cigar:
If you have a question about smoking a cigar that isn't answered in this FAQ, please ask in a comment and we will update accordingly.
How long does it take you to smoke a cigar?
How long it takes to smoke a cigar will vary with the cigar you choose and your smoking habits. Generally speaking, a larger ring gauge cigar will burn cooler and therefore slower than a smaller ring guage cigar. Here are a few general guidelines using common sizes:
- Robusto (5 x 50): 60 minutes on average
- Toro (6 x 50): 90 minutes on average
- Churchill (7 x 48): 120 minutes on average
These sizes aren't strict, however, and manufacturers can vary the length and ring gauge to fit their needs. The length of time that it takes to enjoy a cigar will also depend on how fast you like to smoke. While it's always suggested to enjoy your cigar slowly, some prefer to smoke faster than others.
When should I remove the band from my cigar?
Cigar bands are often glued onto your cigar with the same plant-based glue that binds the wrapper (outter leaf) to the binder and the cap to the wrapper. Occasionally some of the excess glue will adhere to the wrapper of your cigar, causing damage to the cigar if you try and remove it too soon. Best practice is to enjoy your cigar until the ash approaches the band so that you can safely remove it. The heat from the ash will weaken any accidental bond between the band and your cigar.
When should I ash my cigar?
Whenever you’re ready! There is no right or wrong answer, but you should know that the ash provides certain benefits. Ash protects the cherry of your cigar from wind and assists in keeping your cigar cooler. And as we’ve learned, a cooler cigar provides a better flavor profile. Best practice is let the ash build for at least an inch, or as long as you feel comfortable that you won’t end up wearing it.
What can I do if the draw of my cigar is too tight?
Storage plays a large role in the draw of a cigar. Most cigars are stored between 65-69% for the best experience, but the exact humidity will change based on your environment. Cigars that are too humid will have a tighter draw because the leaves will expand with moisture.
If your cigar is too tight, you may try feeling the cigar for hard spots. It’s possible that a hard spot has formed (usually beneath the band) and can be carefully massaged out. To massage your cigar, gently squeeze it back and forth where you believe it may be effective, taking care not to crack the wrapper with too much force.
If no hard spots are present, the next step is to cut the cap. Ash your cigar first so that you don't accidentally ash in your lap, and then carefully cut your cigar again.
Why does my cigar not burn evenly?
Humidity also plays a large role in how a cigar burns. If your cigars are stored in areas that are too humid, you may find yourself constantly having to touch up your cigar with a lighter or even relighting it. Conversely, if your cigars are stored in a dry environment they will burn faster, hotter, and taste worse.
Most cigars will burn evenly with the tips in Step #5. If you are consistently having problems with your cigars, however, it’s time to look at how you store your cigars.
What is Retrohaling?
Retrohaling is a method of smoking your cigar that involves pushing some of the smoke through your nasal passages. Since taste is derived through a combination of your sense of taste and sense of smell, this method allows you to taste more of your cigar.
We recommend that, if you decide to pursue this method, you expel most of the smoke from your mouth first and then try and release a small portion from your nose. Retrohaling a cigar significantly intensifies the experience, and only the most experienced smokers will attempt to retrohale all of the smoke. Until you’ve got a few cigars under your belt, best practice is to leave this method for future exploration.
I heard that I could bite my cigar instead of cutting it?
Yes, you certainly cut bite your cigar if you so choose! This is one of those things that we defer to as personal preference and is completely subjective.
If you do decide to bite your cigar, remember that less is more. You aren’t trying to bite down and split the cigar or trying to rip the cap off. You’re just trying to remove a small portion of the cap so that you can smoke it. Think of your incisors as performing a V cut. If you’re in need of cutting a cigar and don’t like spitting out loose tobacco, you can use just about any other sharp object.
My cigar looks different from all the others, how do I cut it?
See this article on How to Cut a Cigar: A Definitive Guide for Every Type of Cigar
What are the best cigars for beginners?
As mentioned above, the best cigar is the one that you enjoy. Traditionally we recommend starting with milder cigars first and then work up in terms of body and strength. If you’d like for us to put together a package just for you, we’ve created the Small Batch surprise packs.
At checkout, drop us a note on cigars that you’ve previously enjoyed or let us know that these will be your first. We’re always happy to put together something special and introduce you to our world-class service (including free shipping). As an added bonus, we ship our cigars in a thick plastic bag and always a Boveda pack. Boveda is a product that keeps your cigars at the right humidity level, meaning that you could comfortably keep your cigars in our bag for 4-6 weeks without having to purchase a humidor to store them in.
How long should I wait before smoking cigars from the mail?
Shipping affects both the temperature and humidity of cigars – both of which can negatively affect your experience. Best practice is to let your cigars acclimate to your humidor for 10-14 days before smoking them.
For more information, see How Does Shipping Affect Cigars? Temperature, Humidity, and You
I didn't like my first cigar, what gives?
Cigars come in many shapes and sizes, with almost all of them creating a different experience. It's quite possible that you you may enjoy another cigar even if your first wasn't satisfying.
Cigar reviews mention all kinds of flavors that I don't taste. How do I learn to taste more from a cigar?
Fully tasting and understanding a cigar begins with proper storage and ends with how you've prepared for the experience. If you've already learned how to store your cigars properly, the second step is to isolate yourself with a cigar and a notebook or word processor. Enjoy your cigar slowly while taking notes on the flavors that you're experiencing.
You will probably find that your ability to identify flavors significantly increases just by isolation and focus. The next step is to establish a base line of flavors so that you know what reviewers mean when they mention cedar, leather, honey, etc. To do this, we've created a Develop Your Palate series designed to talk about specific cigars with iconic tasting notes:
Volume 1: Cream, Earth, Cedar, Dark Chocolate, Pepper
Volume 2: Leather, Citrus, Milk Chocolate, Cinnamon, Cherry
Volume 3: Peanuts, Floral, Hickory, Grass, Honey
Volume 4: Vanilla Malt, Barnyard, Maple Syrup, Caramel, Graham Cracker
Why does my cigar sometimes taste different?
See this article on What Affects How a Cigar Tastes?
Why am I having trouble refilling my torch lighter?
Check out this article on How to Refill Your Lighter. While there may be something seriously wrong with your lighter, chances are that you can solve this problem simply by changing the pressure inside your lighter.
What does it mean to retro hale?
Retro haling is an advanced technique used to taste more from a cigar. This technique involves expelling some of the smoke from your nostrils instead of your mouth. It's recommended to only do this with a small portion of the smoke after expelling most of it through your mouth like usual.