Learning Your ABCs: Cigars 101

| By George Brightman | From Cigar Case, Summer 93

If you're like most cigar smokers, you must have paced back and forth in front of the display at your local tobacconist, scratching your head, trying to make sense of the cigars there. The names and the numbers for many brands seem designed to confuse buyers, and one company's Churchill size is another company's double corona.

There is no real mystery, once you accept the reality that the cigar lexicon is confusing. There are, however, certain basic criteria that can be used as guidelines to decipher the origin of almost any hand-rolled cigar. The parameters are fairly simple: brand, color and size or shape.

Let's start with the brand name. The brand is the designation the manufacturer gives to a particular line of cigars. Punch, Partagas, Macanudo, Montecristo and Davidoff are just a few well-known names. You'll find these names on the cigar band, which is generally wrapped around the "head," or the closed end, of the cigar.

However, depending on which country you're in, even those well-known names can be a source of confusion. Some brands were first produced in Cuba. After Castro's Revolution in 1959, many cigar manufacturers fled and believed they could take their brands with them. The Cubans argued that the brands belonged to the country. So today, you have a Punch made in Cuba and one made in Honduras. The dual origin problem also affects Hoyo de Monterrey, Ramon Allones, Por Larrañaga, Romeo y Julieta, Partagas, La Gloria Cubana, Fonseca, H. Upmann and El Rey del Mundo and, this year, there also will be a non-Cuban Montecristo. You can usually determine which is which by a small Habano or Havana inscribed on the band.

Color refers to the shade of the outer wrapper leaf. In the past, manufacturers used dozens of terms for the wrapper leaves which were grown in Cuba, Sumatra, Brazil and the United States; U.S. cigar makers often described eight to ten different shades.

Today, there are six major color grades in use. And wrapper is grown today not only in the countries mentioned above, but Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Cameroon as well. Here are the six basic shades:

-- Claro claro: light green and often called candela. The leaves are cured with heat to fix the chlorophyll in the leaf. They often taste slightly sweet. Claro claro is not as popular today, although at one time a majority of American market cigars came with a light-green wrapper.

-- Claro: a light tan color, usually grown under shade tents. Prized for its neutral flavor qualities.

-- Colorado: brown to reddish-brown. It is also usually shade-grown and has rich flavor and a subtle aroma.

-- Natural: light brown to brown. It is most often sun-grown.

-- Maduro: From the Spanish word for "ripe," it refers to the extra length of time needed to produce a rich, dark-brown wrapper. A maduro should be silky and oily, with a rich, strong flavor and mild aroma.

-- Oscuro: Meaning dark, it is also called negro or black in tobacco producing countries. It usually is left on the plant the longest, and it is matured, or sweated the longest.

So, you've seen the brand you're looking for, you spotted the color wrapper you like to smoke, now it's time to get down to choosing a size and shape. In Spanish, the word vitola conveniently covers both words, but in English we're left describing both size (girth and length) and shape. Most cigars come in boxes with a front mark which tells you the shape of the cigar, such as Punch Double Corona, H. Upmann Lonsdales or Partagas 8-9-8. As you come to know shapes, you also can make some assumptions about size, such as knowing that a double corona is not a short cigar.

It's unfortunate that there is so much confusion about size and shape, when there needn't be. But after several generations of every manufacturer independently deciding which size name went with which length and girth, there is no simple logic to the definitions. In fact, the haphazard naming conventions have resulted in the same word, such as Churchill, being used by different manufacturers for cigars of different sizes. If any single statement can be made about the standards of different countries, it is that Cuban standards tend to be more uniform. But then, there is one body governing the state-owned tobacco company in Cuba, and it oversees the entire industry there.

The basic measurement standard, however, is the same; the only variations are whether it is expressed in metric or U.S. customary systems. Length, therefore, is listed in inches or centimeters; and girth or diameter, or ring gauge as it is commonly known, is in 64ths of an inch or millimeters. So, a classic corona size is 6 by 42, which means it is six inches long and 42/64ths of an inch thick, but many manufacturers today produce their coronas with a 44 ring gauge, as opposed to a 42.

If you're searching for common denominators to use as a starting point for shape, it helps to know that all cigars can be divided into two categories: parejos, or straight sides, and figurados, the irregular shapes.

Simply, parejos are straight-sided cigars, the kind with which most smokers are familiar. There are three basic groups in this category: coronas, panetelas and lonsdales.

A corona (the classic size is 6 inches by 42 ring gauge) has traditionally been the manufacturers' benchmark against which all other cigars are measured. Coronas have an open "foot" (the end you light) and a closed "head" (the end you smoke); the head is most often rounded. A Churchill measures 7 inches by 47 ring gauge. A robusto is 5 inches by 50 ring gauge. A double corona is 7 1/2 inches by 49 ring gauge. Panetelas (a standard size is usually 7 inches by 38 ring gauge) are usually longer than coronas, but they are dramatically thinner. They also have an open foot and closed head.

Lonsdales (6 3/4 inches by 42 ring gauge) are thicker than panetelas, but slimmer and longer than coronas. The irregular shapes, or figurados, encompass every out-of-the ordinary shaped cigar. The following list comprises the major types:

-- Pyramid: It has a pointed, closed head and widens to an open foot.

-- Belicoso: A small pyramid-shaped cigar with a rounded head rather than a point.

-- Torpedo: A shape with a pointed head, a closed foot and a bulge in the middle.

-- Perfecto: These look like the cigar in cartoons with two closed rounded ends and a bulge in the middle.

-- Culebras: Three panetelas braided together.

-- Diademas: A giant cigar 8 inches or longer. Most often it has an open foot, but occasionally it will come with a perfecto tip, or closed foot.

Remember, even with these "classic" irregular shapes, there are variations among manufacturers. Some cigars called belicosos look like pyramids, and some called torpedos look like pyramids because they do not have a perfecto tip. Confusing? Yes, it is.

Unfortunately, it really is self-defeating to try to talk about "classic" or "normal" ranges for any cigars on the market today. The basic shape designations can vary so greatly from company to company that they make little sense. Don't assume because you like a Churchill from one company that you're going to get the same-sized cigar with that name from another manufacturer.

There are some other designations that are worth knowing because they refer to the style of packing. An 8-9-8 designation, for instance, simply means that the cigars are stacked in three rows inside the box, eight on the bottom, nine in the middle and eight on top. It usually comes in a distinctive rounded side box. Amatista refers to a glass jar of 50 cigars, originally packaged by H. Upmann, that was developed for smokers who wanted a "factory fresh" smoke. Finally, there are tubos, cigars that are packed in aluminum, glass or even wooden tubes; a tightly sealed tube will keep cigars fresh for a long period of time.

This information will help you to navigate the aisles of your cigar shop. And it may make you more open to trying out different wrapper colors, different sizes and even different shapes.

George Brightman is the director of business development at Cigar Aficionado. He has been in the cigar trade for 20 years.