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Cutting and Lighting

The best way to cut and light your cigar.
The Editors
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

CUTTING YOUR CIGAR

New cigar smokers learn early on about the importance of a good cut. An improper cut will ruin the cigar, causing the end to split or the wrapper to unravel. So, especially if you're conscious of how much you're spending on your cigars, you'll want to pay careful attention to cutting them properly.

Regardless of the method, the goal in cutting a cigar is to create an ample opening through which to smoke, without damaging the cigar's construction. Too small a cut and the cigar won't draw; too wide a cut and the cigar will fall apart. On most cigars, a good rule of thumb is to make the cut about one-sixteenth of an inch from the cigar's head. But if you don't have a ruler handy, simply look for the cigar's shoulder -- the place where the cap of the cigar straightens out -- and cut the cigar there.

The other popular method of cutting is to make a wedge in the shape of a V in the end of a cigar. While this kind of cut makes it easy to draw on the cigar, it can have its drawbacks: sometimes the draw is too easy, making the smoke burn hot. Additionally, this kind of cut may not be for you if you tend to chomp on your cigars -- chewing on a cigar can make the wedge collapse, closing off the draw and making smoking impossible.

CUTTING TOOLS

There are several styles of cutters on the market today, each designed to provide the smoker with the smoothest cut possible, while minimizing the possibility of damaging the cigar. Most cigar smokers have several cutters, which often can fit easily in a pocket, while some aficionados own larger, sturdier machines that sit atop a desk.

Obviously, you already have a cutter on you right now: your teeth. But this method has its drawbacks. First, it's difficult to see exactly where you're biting into the cigar, making it more likely you'll damage it. Second, your teeth aren't nearly as sharp as the blade on a commercial cutter. And third, you're likely to wind up with a wad of wet tobacco in your mouth.

Knives, conversely, are very sharp, but cutting a cigar effectively with a knife requires a surgeon's cutting stroke: too slow or too unsteady a cut will certainly destroy your cigar. But if you do choose to cut your cigars this way, make sure not to use any oils when cleaning your knife -- the residues can wind up on the cigar, corrupting its flavor.

Piercers, sometimes called lances, also present challenges. Piercing the cigar too deeply can create a tunnel in the center of the cigar, causing it to burn hot. Additionally, the opening created by these cutters has two significant tradeoffs: 1) the cigar may not draw evenly, preventing the smoker from reaping the full flavor of the blend; 2) nicotine and tars build up around the opening of a cigar, so using a piercer will cause a concentration of these chemicals near the smoker's mouth.

Guillotine cutters, whether single- or double-bladed, are some of the best options for cutting a cigar. They make an even cut across the cigar's head, providing an ample opening without the drawbacks associated with other cutters.

When using a single-bladed guillotine, the cigar should be placed on the far side of the opening, as far from the blade as possible. The blade should then be brought through the cigar swiftly, removing the cap in one fluid stroke. (Picture a real guillotine: if you have to keep cutting over and over again, you'll be left with a hacked-up severed head and an aghast group of onlookers. You may even wind up on the block next, yourself.) Using the cutter in any other manner may cause the cigar to be pinched before it is cut, damaging and often ruining the wrapper.

It's also important to ensure that the compartment sheathing the blade is kept free of loose tobacco. These compartments can clog easily, jamming the cutter and compromising its effectiveness.

Double-bladed guillotines have an advantage over the single-bladed variety in that the cigar is cut simultaneously on both sides, giving a smooth, clean cut without the risk of pinching the cigar. Again, the best method is to position the cigar close to one of the two blades before cutting.

While cigar scissors can provide exceptionally clean cuts and are some of the most elegant cigar tools available, they must be used with caution. Just as each baseball player uses a bat that's weighted to his preference, a cigar scissor must conform to each individual smoker's hand. If the weight of the tool isn't right and the device doesn't feel natural in your hand, you will act like a brain surgeon wearing mittens -- clumsy. Therefore, it is important to test a pair of scissors before you buy them; if the handles and blades don't feel balanced or the scissors feel awkward in your hand, consider another pair. The most beautiful cutting tool in the world is useless if it renders your cigar a pile of shredded tobacco leaves.

It's a smart investment for any cigar smoker to own a quality cutter. A bad cut will destroy a cigar, and ruined cigars very quickly add up to the price of even the finest cutter.

LIGHTING YOUR CIGAR

Believe it or not, this is not as simple as it seems. Lighting cigars is not like lighting a cigarette or candle -- it takes patience to achieve the perfect light. Lighting a cigar can best be likened to roasting marshmallows over a campfire: keep the cigar just above the flame, being careful not to let the two touch. Lighting the cigar directly in the flame will carbonize the tobacco, harming the flavor. Also, as with a marshmallow, it's a good idea to rotate the cigar to ensure that all sides are heated evenly. Most importantly, take your time. Be patient and allow the flame to create a glowing ring around the circumference of the cigar. Once the cigar is lit, gently blow on the embers to create a smooth, rounded ash.

Now you're ready to take your first puff. But how do you do it? Many cigar smokers blow the first puff outward through the cigar, to rid the cigar of any sulfuric or gaseous flavors that may have been created by the match or lighter. But never, ever give a cigar more than one outward puff.

A WORD ON RELIGHTING

Many cigar purists consider it an abomination to ever have to relight a cigar. But when you pay more attention to your conversation than to the cigar you're smoking, the need will sometimes arise. Relighting a cigar is fine if done soon after it goes out, and a warm cigar should be easier to light than a fresh one. Do not, however, relight a cigar the next day, or even several hours after first smoking. This will result in some truly unsavory flavors that will, in all likelihood, make you regret relighting the cigar.

If your cigar keeps going out mid-smoke, however, or if you have to relight it repeatedly, you may have a badly rolled cigar. This is an occasional problem, since premium cigars are made entirely by hand, and even the most stringent quality-control efforts cannot prevent a cigar from going out occasionally. If you find yourself with a cigar that was poorly rolled, feel free to return it to the cigar shop where you purchased it. A good tobacconist should happily replace it.

CHOOSING YOUR WEAPON

Never light a cigar with a flame that's likely to alter its flavor. Using candles, for example, while theatrical, can impart odd flavors from the candle wax onto your cigar (and sometimes turn it into a torch). The fluid from oil-based lighters can also add unwanted tastes, as can the sulfuric heads used on many matches.

If it's available, light a strip of cedar, called a spill, and use that in turn to light your cigar. But if cedar spills aren't handy and you must use an oil-based lighter, let the flame burn for a moment before lighting your cigar. With matches, try to use wooden matches with sulfurless heads. But if your only option is a paper match, be prepared to use several of them, and always let the sulfur burn off the match before lighting your cigar. You might also consider using more than one match at a time, to achieve a wider flame.

The best way to get the perfect light is to use a lighter designed specifically for cigars, with butane for fuel and a flame (or dual flames) wide enough to easily light a cigar. There are dozens of different cigar lighters on the market, and which one is best for you is, as with cutters, a matter of personal preference. The most important requirement is performance -- a lighter should fit easily in your hand, ignite easily, and work without fail every time.

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