Cigar smokers are a disparate bunch. We come from all walks of life, all creeds and colors, all shapes and sizes. Yet despite our differences, we all have something in common: the love of cigars. Walk into any cigar lounge and you will find wealthy bankers, out of work actors, construction workers, even doctors; all enjoying cigars while in pleasant conversation. When it comes to cigar smoking, social status is irrelevant, and no one cares about how much money you make. It’s all about cigars, and enjoying our passion as a community. But that’s not what this article is about. (Sorry I got sidetracked).
Something else in common…
What this article IS about is something all cigar smokers have in common: the need to keep our cigars in perfect smoking condition. Once we make the commitment to buy a humidor and fill it with cigars, we take on the responsibility of cigar maintenance. This can be difficult and some of us choose to not bother keeping a humidor at all. Instead, we buy our cigars as needed from a local cigar store. There are advantages to this: in doing so we know our cigars will be well-conditioned and ready to smoke. Plus we get a great selection of brands to choose from, should we care to deviate from our usual preference.
Then there are those of us who like to keep a stash of cigars at home in a humidor. The advantages to this are many. We readily have cigars available to smoke, the humidor itself is a nice home/office accessory, and we love the smell of cigars when we open the humidor’s lid. Some of us who collect cigars will (to the chagrin of our spouses) ultimately end up with multiple humidors cluttering our home. But be it one humidor or many, if we keep cigars at home we MUST keep them properly humidified. But just how careful do we need to be? Does just a few percent differences really matter in how a cigar will taste? In a word (or two), absolutely and for sure!
I’ve been chasing the illusive “perfect cigar conditioning” for years and have made some interesting observations. Basically I follow the 70/70 rule, and it has served me well. It goes like this: for good cigar conditioning, we should strive for an environment that is 70 degrees temperature and 70% humidity. That 70% humidity is a good compromise between good smoking condition and proper storage condition. Indeed these are two separate environments. First, lets look at…
Proper storage condition…
At the extreme ends of cigar storage, cigars will eventually either dry out from too little moisture, or get moldy from too much moisture. It’s been my observation from keeping cigars over many years, that storage below 65% will, over time, cause them to lose flavor. Under that condition, in just a few weeks, a cigar can get so dry that it will snap like a twig if broken. Once that happens a cigar can NEVER get properly re-humidified. Some have claimed to successfully re-hydrate cigars, but I’ve had cigars get too dry to resurrect, even after months of rehabilitation. Once a cigar dries out, it loses its precious oils. And like a car, without its oil, it’s just no good.
On the other extreme, any cigar stored above 73% could get moldy; especially if the temperature is above 73 degrees. This temperature/humidity relationship is critical. The higher the temp, the more susceptible a cigar is to mold. (This was well documented in the article Cigar Storage…The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.) Through experimentation, I found that the best storage conditions are achieved when the RH (relative humidity) is as high as possible without growing mold. This varies depending on the temperature. In the cool months I am able to maintain 70-71%. But in the summer, I have to drop down to 68%. It’s a constant juggling act, but well worth the effort. I am forever removing my humidifier when I see the first signs of mold, only to be putting it back if the RH drops below 68%.
Proper smoking condition…
I estimate that the best cigar smoking humidity to be around 68%. Above that a cigar can taste bitter from too much moisture. Below that a cigar can taste like your’re smoking paper. Sometimes, and not always, cigars kept in storage condition need to be “dry boxed”. That is, temporarily relocated to a place with a lower RH. This allows the sticks to shed excess moisture. That can literally be a cedar box, travel cigar case, or a drier part of a cigar closet or walk-in humidor. It’s amazing to find that just a few percentage points difference can change how a cigar will taste. One reader recently complained that his cigars never tasted as good as the ones from the store. It didn’t take long to figure out that his humidor was at 61% RH. It’s no wonder his cigars had no flavor!
So, what’s this nose thing?
Okay, now we get down to what this article is REALLY about: how a cigar smells.
I’ve found that at around 71% or above, my cigars start to smell really fragrant. I can detect that great “barnyard” smell, with rich earthy odors just oozing from the moist tobacco. But although this makes for a great pre-lit experience, smoking a cigar that moist can be disappointing. The resultant bitter taste can lead to a misrepresentation of a cigar’s quality. I’ve found that dry-boxing such a cigar for just a day or two will get it in perfect smoking condition. Once that is achieved, a cigar will bloom with balanced flavor and complexity. At that point the cigar will have only a hint of barnyard aroma. And that seems to be exactly when a cigar will taste its best. It’s almost like inspecting fresh fruit. By feeling and smelling, our senses will tell us when the cigar is perfect for smoking. Yes, it is very important to keep accurate tabs on how our cigars are doing while in storage. Having a well-calibrated hygrometer is a must, and checking how our cigar stash is doing should be a daily chore. But ultimately it is our noses that will give us the most accurate accounting of the condition of our cigars. Super-rich barnyard smell means too much moisture, no barnyard smell means too little moisture. So, the goal is to get our sticks to have only that hint of rich tobacco aroma. That’s when our cigars will taste their best.
Yes, when it comes to cigars, the nose knows. It’s the best cigar tool we could ever have…and it’s free. And rich or poor, our nose is one cigar accessory we smokers can never go without.